Home > iDEAL Focus > Features > Pitch perfect digital music services
Pitch perfect digital music services
2013-05-06
By Zhu Shenshen

CHINESE music fans have no shortage of choices these days, with everyone from Adele and Justin Bieber to Louis Armstrong and Bach available on favorite artist playlists for portable and other devices.

On everything from a 1,000-yuan (US$158) Android phone, through to an iPhone and professional audio player, there is the capability for virtually unlimited mobile music anywhere.

In the past, the problem was how to get much of this music on the Chinese mainland, where popular music services iTunes and Spotify are not available.

But nowadays, Chinese music lovers no longer need to download low-quality and unauthorized MP3 files, as was the situation several years ago.

Instead, many online music service companies - including Baidu, Tencent (QQ), Xiami, Douban, NetEase, Kuwo and 360Buy - offer mobile applications and provide licensed music download and streaming services, free or at very low cost.

Music fans now have access to high-quality tracks - some better than CD quality - huge online libraries and custom playlists, opening their ears to worlds of music they might not have checked out before.

Meanwhile, hardware such as the Colorfly Hi-Fi C4 player, Sennheiser Momentum earphones and Sonos Speakers impress even the most demanding audiophiles.

Among the long list of Internet music service providers, three top players - QQ Music, Xiami Music and Douban FM - merit particular mention. All feature English song libraries and playlists.

QQ Music, developed by China's No. 1 dot-com firm Tencent, offers free streaming and paid-for high-quality download services at up to 320 kilobits per second. Its music services are integrated with its instant messaging services QQ and Weixin (WeChat), China's top social platforms, for extra convenient listening.

Xiami, backed by Alibaba.com, has better recommendations and user-generated playlists, thanks to an advanced database and a team of music editors. And its 2.0 version comes complete with a new interface, more elegant and simple than its predecessor.

Completing the trio, Douban FM focuses on providing users with "background" music in the office or in bus stops. With recommendations based on user preferences - not only for music, Douban has an online community for reviews of book, film and music - this may be the best mobile music application to "discover" music.

All these providers have paid-for options.

Douban launched a premium service in January, with ad-free and high-quality music streaming service, charging users 10 yuan a month.

And Xiami now charges users around 0.8 yuan for each download of a song.

QQ Music is free to users of mobile devices but charges 10 yuan a month for downloading music in the lossless FLAC format to computers.

Nevertheless, prices charged by Chinese digital music providers are much lower than those charged in the West. Spotify, for example, charges American users US$10 a month for unlimited music streaming services, while its British users must pay 10 pounds a month for the same service.

Apple, meanwhile, charges US$0.99 for each song downloaded in its iTunes Store.

Locals involved in the music industry say they're happy with these emerging Chinese pricing models - provided some cash makes its way back to the musicians.

"I'm willing to pay up to 20 yuan a month for mobile music services, showing my support to local musicians," said Li Caomu, who works for Mao Livehouse in Shanghai. "It's not easy for musicians in China."

Globally, consumer spending on music reached US$6.8 billion in 2012 and the figure will hit US$7.7 billion by 2015, according to US-based research firm Gartner.

In China, music is a must-have feature for smartphone users, who spend 30 to 50 minutes each day on music services, according to Li Yanyan, analyst of Analysys International, a Beijing-based research firm.

But while main players are trying to develop paid-for services, less than 5 percent of Chinese mobile music users current pay for their digital music.

At present, most websites have to bear online music copyright costs themselves.

"If 5 percent of users are willing to pay, it will be a prosperous industry," Wang Hao, chief executive of Xiami, said in its Hangzhou office. "And if 10 percent pay, then everyone will want to join the online music industry!"

However, musicians in China find it difficult to cash in on online distribution of their work. Many artists get less than 10 percent of revenue from online distribution. In contrast, on some overseas download platforms, artists may receive between 50 to 70 percent of the price paid for a song.

With the tentative moves toward payment, things may be changing in China. Well-known musician Gao Xiaosong, who has been involved in high-level industry discussions, said last month that the Chinese online music industry would "greatly change."

Gao suggested that from as soon as July 1, many music websites would start charging users.

However, other figures have dismissed this prediction. Analyst Li said it was unlikely that a paid-for online music business model will become popular in China within the next year or so.

Whatever the future may hold, online music service providers are constantly upgrading services and adding to their databases to keep ahead of rivals in the fiercely competitive market.

They hope to establish healthy market shares for the day when larger numbers of consumers will be ready to pay for online music.

Trends include: high-quality music streaming at 320kbps - CD quality - or above; social integration, such as following friends or favorite artists and knowing what they are listening to; customized playlists; and all backed by ever-more powerful technology.

So - at least for now - users can enjoy constantly improving Chinese digital music services free. Here's a run down of the main players.

QQ Music (http://music.qq.com/)

QQ Music now has a song library of 5 million tracks, including 1 million lossless tracks (FLAC format) and lyrics, with many different music recommendations: themes, charts, new releases and so on.

Top selling points include high sound quality and a recently added song identification feature.

Using "Song Identifier," if you hear a track on the radio, TV or elsewhere and want to know what it is, place your phone near the source to get details and save a high-quality version to your playlist.

QQ's "Green Diamond" paid service for 10 yuan a month allows users to listen and download high quality song files up from MP3 to lossless FLAC format.

Users can choose different download options for sound quality and file size.

With QPlay streaming connection, Tencent has collaborated with firms such as B&O, DENON, Logitech and Sonos to allow users to easily stream music to different types of terminals.

And like Douban, QQ offers recommendations based on user listening habits. QQ Music also plans to better interact with users through celebrities, concerts and inviting users to conferences.

Active user base: 200 million

Concurrent daily users: 11 million

Payment plan: free for music streaming and 10 yuan per month for high-quality downloads.

Xiami Music (http://xiami.com)

Xiami, which means small shrimp in Chinese, is aiming to encourage more and more users to pay for better services, says its CEO Wang, who in the past played in bands. This will improve the whole Chinese digital music industry, he insists.

Xiami offers a huge database of music and detailed music category introductions. Other highlights of the service include its user interface for the latest iPhone app that was upgraded last month. It features a clean design, natural support of finger swipe control, plus pictures of albums showing automatically. Displays of lyrics are also supported.

Xiami also has a long list of selected playlists generated by users, complete with detailed playlist introductions, song commentary, themes and cover art. Looking ahead, Xiami plans to invite artists to distribute and share music on the platform, with revenue sharing based on their fame and download or listening volume. The split between artist and platform will be around 50-50 percent, says Xiami - much higher than current levels.

Concurrent daily users: 10 million

Payment plan: 0.8 yuan for each download, and a monthly plan to be released later this year.

Douban FM (http://douban.fm)

Douban FM now offers more than 4,000 channels for users on their smartphones.

As its name suggests, Douban FM works like a radio on mobile device. Unlike other top Chinese digital music providers, it only offers streaming services. While Douban as a wider brand may offer download options, Douban FM will continue as streaming service, says the company.

The Douban FM interface itself is relatively simple, without downloading and lyric display functions. It's easy to browse and discover music in channels including everything from jazz and folk to "people born in the 1980s."

Other highlights of Douban FM include recommendations based on user preferences. Douban has a team of more than a dozen engineers to support and improve the calculation system, also used in book, music and film recommending services on Douban's parent website.

In addition to its free service, in January, Douban launched Douban FM Pro, which provides higher 192kbps streaming service for 10 yuan a month.

Concurrent daily users: 10 million

Payment plan: 10 yuan for Douban FM Pro. Free for Douban FM.

Other Music Apps

Spotify

Spotify provides its millions of users with unlimited skips and a huge music selection, all at instant access from a laptop, smartphone to other device.

In addition to on-demand streaming access to music through an application, one of Spotify's main features is the ability to share music and playlists with others. Users can send music via social media platforms or email.

Spotify also has an offline mode. Depending on an account type, it can wirelessly sync playlist content to a number of devices, even when the user is offline.

Spotify runs on Windows, Apple iOS and Android platforms.

FilteredSpace

As the name implies, FilteredSpace provides users only with the type of music they request.

It enables fans to find and follow their favorite bands, while at the same time collecting and calculating valuable statistics for bands about who is following them. These includes the age range, gender, names of downloaded songs and the geographic location of followers.

FilteredSpace also makes things fun for bands and fans, bridging the distance between them through resources such as videos and biographies.

When a band has a live show, fans can check in via their FilteredSpace mobile application and even get some extra discounts.

FilteredSpace is available for both Apple iOS and Android.

Changba

Changba is a free social application for mobile karaoke. This app has built-in reverb and echo effects which can modify and improve your voice. In addition to providing accompaniment, Changba also provides the corresponding lyrics. As in a KTV booth, the lyrics can be simultaneously displayed on the screen while singing. After the user finishes a song, they can save the recording. Changba also creates an interesting smart scoring system where tallies can be shared with friends through several social networks, such as Weibo and QQ zone.

Changba is available for both Apple iOS and Android.

SongTaste

SongTaste focuses on creating a public platform for users to share their favorite music. Based on user playlists from digital music services, the app will recommend songs that the user might like, and match them with other users with similar tastes. So users may make new friends who are listening to the same music and have the same music tastes, or even the same lifestyles, through SongTaste.

Users can also make their own digital albums with creative names and tags to show their unique taste of songs. Through these functions, people who have common musical interests are able to gather and share songs and socialize online.

SongTaste is available for both Apple iOS and Android.

(Cindy Wang)

Three users

Li Caomu

PR for Mao Livehouse, Shanghai; agent for bands Mercy and Sorrow and Crystal Butterfly

Device: Samsung Galaxy SIII

Recommended apps: Douban FM, Xiami Music

Comments:

"If I pay, I hope to listen to music both on web and on my handset. I also hope artists can get the copyright income."

Rob Wallace

Guitarist with Shanghai-based band Scary Magic

Device: iPhone, Macbook Pro

Recommended apps: Music Studio (music production app), Karajan (app for training your musical ear), Spotify, FilteredSpace

Comments:

"I use apps to practice everywhere I go, even on subway. It's an amazing way to improve your music ability all the time."

Dennis Liu

Founder of tech website Evolife; Classical music lover; "geeker"

Device: iPhone, Roland R26 recorder, Sonos speakers

Recommended apps: Tunein (worldwide radio app)

QQ Music's Green Diamond service

Comments:

"PCs and handsets as everyday digital music devices will soon be joined by speakers, TV and cars."

Leave a comment
Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164