Mandopop Idol Wang Leehom’s DRM-Free Experiment Seeks To Foster Innovation In The Asian Music Industry

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When Asia’s music industry is covered in the Western media, it is often within the framework of content piracy. Another thing that gets attention is the perception that Asian pop stars are pre-fabricated like Barbie dolls on an assembly line. But now someone who has the influence to tackle these issues is doing so. Mandopop idol Wang Leehom released his latest single “12 Zodiacs” last month through a DRM-free paid download on his Web site for $1 US, a price that includes the audio track, digital booklet and cover art. The single’s MV, which co-stars Jackie Chan, was released on Youtube and Youku.

The release of “12 Zodiacs” is similar to DRM-free download experiments by Radiohead and Louis CK, but with a difference: Wang is much more influential. He may not be a celebrity in the West, but to get an idea of the Taiwanese-American Wang’s reach, take a look at his Sina Weibo account, the third most popular one on the Chinese microblogging platform, with more than 28.9 million fans. Only three people–Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry–have more followers on Twitter.

Wang’s team rebuilt his official Web site so they can sell music directly from it. This year, Wang plans to team up with other musicians to create a new site that will allow them to “share their creative works in an economically viable way.”

“The Asian music industry is sustainable in many ways, and I am tremendously fortunate to continue to benefit from that and be able to do what I love for a living. But I think, like any industry, we need to continue to look forward and evolve, and a significant aspect of that is finding new, mutually beneficial ways for artists to share content with fans. What we’ve done with the release of ’12 Zodiacs’ is just one experiment in that vein,” Wang said in an email.

It is important to note that piracy has not been as disruptive to the music industry in China as it has been in the West. Harold Li, who directs the digital sales initiative on wangleehom.com, says that album sales have never been a significant source of revenue for Wang, who, like other major artists in Asia, earns most of his revenue from concert ticket sales and brand endorsements. Confronting music piracy is a secondary issue. Instead, the DRM-free online release of “12 Zodiacs” explores what different directions the Asian music industry can take in order to cultivate new talent.

Wang’s success and celebrity has given him the freedom to tackle social issues that are usually missing from Mandopop, which has a reputation for catchy tunes but fluffy lyrics. For example, with past releases Wang has looked at environmental issues and Asian American culture and identity. But younger artists who don’t have the leverage to draw crowds or ink advertising deals often struggle to break into the music industry, let alone find a wide audience for anything truly original.

For example, South Korea and Japan‘s popular music industries are (in)famous for training, grooming and assembling groups with clinical precision. Even in Taiwan, known for being the center of the vast Mandopop industry as well as a host of renowned indie bands, emerging artists often feel enormous pressure to fit into a very specific mold. Last year, Taiwanese-American singer Joanna Wang went on Reddit to repudiate her hit debut album, which she referred to as a “a shitastic record with the cheesiest and cliche 80’s-esque music videos to very lame music that my label [Sony Music Taiwan] coerced me into singing.”

The release of “12 Zodiacs” looks how whether or not it will be possible for an artist to operate independently from record labels by launching and promoting tracks on their own Web platforms–in effect, making each artist the founder of his or her own startup. If the idea takes off, it can mean more diversity in this region’s music industry.

“The Chinese music industry is very innovative, and it’s a personal mission of mine to make sure we do a better job showing that to the world,” said Wang. “I think artists old and new will find, as I have, that the best way of building an audience is to directly engage fans, particularly through digital platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, Youku, or YouTube.”

Though Wang’s company doesn’t release sales figures, Li says “12 Zodiacs” got 2 million views in the first week and a half after it went live on last month. Many of Wang’s fans throughout China don’t use credit cards, so his company made a deal with Alibaba’s Alipay to support online payments.

One goal of Wang’s experiment is to find artists capable of creating content with international appeal and then spread their work. Wang also hopes to expose more listeners to Chinese-language pop music across the world, even those who aren’t native speakers. One of his goals to break into the U.S., where there are significant barriers for Asian artists in the U.S. music industry despite the growing global appetite for Asian pop music around the world.

“There’s a lot of difference, but the obvious comparison is ‘Gangnam Style,’ and how that changed the conversation very quickly,” says Li. “In terms of accessibility, there are a lot of the same factors involved in how that became very widely known. We are creating an industry where everyone feels like they can enter it and build a career out of it.”