Don’t Mention 1989: Taylor Swift Bans Herself in China
Here behind ‘The Great Firewall’, in a completely enclosed internet, the Chinese digital music industry can often feel somewhat cut off from its Western counterparts – unrelated industry narratives running in parallel, ne’er to overlap. It is a rare and curious thing, therefore, for the PRC to be part of a global story, as it is, somewhat surprisingly, in the current ‘Taylor Swift vs Free Music’ intrigue.
The story of Taylor Swift withdrawing her catalogue from Spotify – due to the conflict between her belief that “music should not be free” and the freemium streaming service’s insistence her new album 1989 be made available on their free tier – is now dominating Western industry news, immediately becoming a defining debate for the still fledgling music streaming economy. This seems far removed from the Chinese market, where free, frictionless consumption of digital music is almost a basic consumer right.
With this as an unlikely backdrop, it appears Team Swift have decided to extend their crusade to the China market as well. On October 29th, the country’s main streaming platforms received notice from Universal Music China, requesting them to remove Taylor Swift’s entire back catalogue from any free components of their services, in compliance with a global directive from her management.
“When I found that her music had been taken down, I was heartbroken, and I didn’t understand what was going on,” said Beijing high school student Li Zhiyi, 17, a self-professed Taylor Swift superfan since a trip to the US in 2010.
At the time of writing, scant trace of 1989 remains on any of the major services’ free tiers, but the back catalogue seems to be slower to follow suit, smattered as it is across a number of platforms as single tracks and compilation cuts, with the exception of QQ Music – owned by tech giant, Tencent – who appear to have complied fully.
On social media and in streaming platform comments sections, confusion reigns. In the absence of any official statement explaining the sudden lack of Swift, and with the platforms themselves offering no explanation beyond an error message blaming “copyright reasons”, reactions ranged from bewilderment to outright indignance. Many users have taken to posting their email addresses along with a request for a free download link, and seemingly being obliged.
“It took me ages, but eventually I managed to find [an illegal] download,” said Li Zhiyi, who goes by the name ‘Swift’ in English.
A widely circulated post on the topic (in Chinese) from November 5th presents the slow takedown process of the back catalogue as evidence that China’s legal and regulatory environment is not yet ready for such a sweeping gesture. The scene today, however, is one of a relatively comprehensive clear-up with a few hold-outs and residual quirks. For instance, on Kuwo, another popular streaming platform, most of Taylor’s big pre-1989 hits are still available, mislabelled as the work of someone called DJ Brother Little Tiger, as part of his album Foreign Language Songs. On Baidu Music, a user-uploaded copy of Taylor Swift’s “The Love Story” with the artist name written where the song title should be (and vice-versa) also escaped the takedown.
Taylor Swift songs disguised as the work of DJ Brother Little Tiger on Kuwo app
Alibaba’s Xiami, occasionally referred to as “the Spotify of China”, has had to remove Taylor Swift’s music in its entirety, including from its paid tier. As a freemium service in which free and premium users see the same content, but listen in different qualities, technical issues prevent offering Taylor Swift’s music to one tier but not the other – something Xiami told us they are working to resolve.
Meanwhile, in videoland, free users still have access to the full complement of Taylor Swift music videos across all of China’s major platforms like Youku, Tudou and LeTV. This would suggest that, similar to in the West, the takedown is limited to audio products.
Indeed, on QQ Music, free users who click on back catalogue that is still visible (if not playable) are presented with a message: “Apologies, due to copyright reasons, we cannot currently provide this song. Would you like to watch the MV [music video]?” Clicking “Yes” launches a full-length high-definition stream on Tencent’s integrated video platform.
Re-direction to a music video on the QQ Music phone app
In the absence of Soundscan, an independent chart system, or, indeed, any impartial data, Taylor Swift’s popularity in China can only be judged using public-facing statistics on China’s various platforms. Her songs have been streamed over 43 million times on Xiami – almost 20 million more than Taiwanese-American popstar Wang Leehom, one of the most popular ethnically Chinese singers of modern times. Her 3 million followers on China’s Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo put her in the same league as Chinese megastars like Chris Lee, and ahead of other Western artists like Beyoncé, who has 2.4 million. The Shanghai leg of her“Red” arena tour in May reportedly sold out its 18,000 tickets in under sixty seconds, a China record.