A Brief History of China’s Music Industry – Part 1: Introduction

The music industry of China is an unknown continent from a Western music business research perspective. Therefore it is very meritorious that John Fangjun Li, a lecturer and PhD candidate (2008-2012) at Macquarie University, provides one of the first overviews of the history of China’s music industry for an international readership. In a series of four blog contributions he highlights the development of the recorded music industry in more than 100 years from the final period of Imperial China  to the current Peoples Republic of China. He gives an overview of the impact of Western major recorded music companies in the first half of the 20th century and of the emergence of serveral state operated but also privately owned Chinese companies after the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing and other large cities. He also highlights the current digital music business in China that has been dominating the recorded music industry since the the mid 2000s.

In the introductory chapter, John Fangjun Li defines the research field and outlines his concept of “music industry” in China, in which covergence of technology, politics and cultural expression plays a crucial role.


Guest post by John Fangjun Li

Due to rapid economic growth in China in recent decades (Xu, 2006:103; Morrison, 2006; Lardy, 2007), China’s music industry has also become more and more important. Although some issues such as copyright infringement, excessive political influence and governmental control (Montgomery, 2007; Chandler, 2006; Chen, 2003) negatively affected China’s music industry, the sector in general has made enormous progress due to industrial convergence particularly the convergence between information technology sectors such as telecommunication and the computing business. Moreover, the overall environment of the music industry in China has dramatically changed than ever before. As a result more international music companies have entered China’s music market since 2000.


This series of blog contributions is based on my PhD thesis “China’s Music Industry: Evolution, Development and Convergence” (2008-2012) at Macquarie University, Sydney. The main purpose of this series is to reveal the changing characteristics and status of China’s music industry during different periods. This series specifically focuses on the evolution the recorded music industry (physical and digital).


The series consists of 4 parts. In the first part, the scope, major characteristics and the significance of the industry is highlighted as well as a brief introduction of the history of China’s music industry is given. The second part discusses the origin and development of China’s recorded music industry from the early 20th century to the late 1940s. Part three examines the development of the recorded music industry from the 1950s to the early 21st century and in the final part the current development of the digitalized music industry in China is highlighted.


China’s music economy has a long tradition. It can be traced back 4,800 years ago, when Ancient Music Dance was an integral part of the culture of the Zhuxiang Clan period according to Qin (2002). The period from ca. 4,800 years ago to the Xia Dynasty (2,183-1,752, B.C.) is called ‘the early ancient period’ in the history of China’s music culture (ibid). During this period, music was integral part of dance and poetry. Ancient music and dance was regarded as major music activities, in which bone flutes and panpipes were used as main musical instruments (Jin, 1994).


A main characteristic of China’s music industry is the convergence of politics, media and information technologies. In this respect the development of China’s music industry is different from the Western music industry, especially in the U.S. and in Europe. The convergence of the music sector with cultural politics played an essential role in the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when music was politically and ideologically instrumentalised but also after 1989, when e.g. Cuijian’s Rock music was banned from Chinese radio and television.


To further understand the history of China’s music industry, it is essential to define the key term ‘music industry’. It is worthwhile to address two representative definitions by Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) (1998) and Wikström (2009) for a better understanding of the music industry. The creative industries are defined by a set of related subsectors which “have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property” (DCMS, 2002: 12). Wikström (2009: 49) defines the music industry as those companies developing musical content and personalities which can be communicated across multiple media.


In this blog contribution, the definition of the music industry involves a broad range of activities such as music performances, recorded music (physical and digital), music publishing, musical instrument making and sales, music media (such as radio, television, film, online, mobile); and it involves both for-profit and the not-for profit music organizations. This definition will be used throughout all parts of the blog contributions.


It is also essential to define the geographical limits of China’s music industry: My blog contributions only consider mainland China rather than Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. In addition, China’s music economy does not only include commercial (for-profit) music sectors such as recorded music but also non-commercial (not-for-profit) music activities by governmental and state bodies, for instance during the Great Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976), when music served Chairman Mao’s cultural policy. Therefore, the history of China’s (recorded) music industry can be split into three major periods: (1) early 1900s to late 1940s, (2) early 1950s to the early 2000s and (3) the current digitalized music industry.



Chandler, C. (2006). International Intellectual Property Violations in the Music Industry (Concentration on China). Retrieved July 20, 2010 from http://www.musiclawinfo.com/images/China_copyright.pdf.


Chen, C. (2003). The Impact of Law Disputes of MP3 to the Copyright of Digital Music: A Perspective of Economics Analysis of Law. The Journal of Jiangnan University-Humanities (Society Science Version), (4).


Department of Culture, Media and Sport. (1998). Mapping the Creative Industries. Retrieved June 10, 2012 from: http://www.culture.gov.uk/creative/creative_industries.html.


Jin, W. (1997). The Introduction of the History of China‘s Music. Beijing: The People’s Music Publishing House.


Lardy, N. R. (2007). China: Rebalancing Economic Growth. From The China Balance Sheet in 2007 and Beyond. Published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, May 2007. Retrieved on May 11, 2012 from: http://www.chinabalancesheet.org/Events.html.


Montgomery, L. (2010). China‘s Creative Industries: Copyright, Social Network Market and the Business of Culture in a Digital Age. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.


Morrison, W. M. (2006). China’s Economic Conditions. Retrieved on October 10, 2011 from: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/IB98014.pdf.


Qin, X. (2002). The History of Chinese Music. Beijing, China: The Literature and Art Publishing House.

Wikström, P. (2009). The Music Industry: Digital Media and Society Series. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press


Part 2: The Recorded Music Industry in China from the Early 1900s to the Late 1940s


John Fangjun Li is adjunct lecturer and PhD candidate (2008-2012) at Macquarie University, Sydney, Coordinator of the Australian-Chinese Music Industry Research Network, a member of IASPM (Aus-NZ). Previously he worked in Southern Cross University Australia (assistant researcher), Beijing Institute of Contemporary Music (head of the college of arts management), China Conservatory Music (associate professor), and Shanghai Synergy Cultural & Entertainment Group (music producer and marketing manager). He also obtained masters in arts management in Australia, masters in ethnomusicology, and a bachelor in music education in China. His main research interest areas are music industry, arts management, and creative industries. He published more than ten papers in international core journals and participated in some main international conferences in these areas. John Fangjun Li’s email: lifangjun17@gmail.com


2 Responses to “A Brief History of China’s Music Industry – Part 1: Introduction”

  1. December 28, 2012 at 11:52 am

    This is a very welcome additional resource for those researching and teaching on the international music industry. The point about the main feature of the Chinese Music industry being the ” convergence of politics, media and information technologies” is pivotal.

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December 2012



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