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Mother of all shows

By Chen Jie (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-04-13 18:06
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After their sold-out celebration gigs in Taipei, Taiwan-based Rock Records is coming to Beijing with an even bigger feast, and fans can hardly wait. Chen Jie reports.

Mother of all shows
 Two Rock Records singers Huang Pin-yuan (left) and Richie Ren perform at a Taipei gig. [Photo/ China Daily]

Taiwan-based Rock Records was already well known in the mainland and Hong Kong at a time when Chinese music fans first started hearing about Sony, BMG and EMI. The largest independent record label in the Chinese-language music market has produced some 1,800 albums and more than 20,000 songs in 30 years.

Chinese in every corner of the world have at least a nodding familiarity with its artists such as Lo Ta-yu, Jonathan Lee, Bobby Chen, Chyi Yu and Sarah Chen.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the company held two sold-out gigs in Taipei in November, 2010, featuring some 70 singers including Emil Chau, Bobby Chen, Chang Chen-yue, Richie Ren, Wu Bai, Rene Liu, Karen Mok and the band May Day.

"I'm a regular concert-goer and attend 50 concerts a year, but sitting at the Taipei Arena and hearing those stars singing all those songs that I had grown up with, felt like a pilgrimage," says Kang Pei, a reporter with The Beijing News, and one of the invitees to the Taipei concerts.

"My seat was far away and I could barely catch a glimpse of my idols but their songs brought tears to my eyes. They are the songs of my youth, our youth, the youth of all Chinese people born after 1960," she says.

Kang was one of the few lucky ones from the mainland to join the audience of some 40,000 in Taipei. But for those who missed out, Rock Records will present a bigger show at Bird's Nest on May 1.

Johnny Duann, founder and chairman of the company tells China Daily the concert will start at 4:30 pm and feature more than 60 singers over six hours.

He says, so far, 32 singers have confirmed their participation, while talks with the others are ongoing. They include Chinese mainland singers once signed with the label such as Li Quan, the duo Yu Quan, and the "Three Stars of Magic Stone" - Dou Wei, Zhang Chu and He Yong.

The Duann brothers Johnny and Sam were big teenage fans of rock, with Sam the bassist of a band popular at Taiwan's National Chiao Tung University.

In 1976, they established Rock Music Group to operate a string of businesses that included magazines, film and TV. But a year later, the brothers had chalked up huge debts through the failure of their music magazine.

At that time, Wu Tsu-tsu, a folk musician who was popular with Taiwan's youth for a new style of melancholic music, known as "campus folk songs", approached the Duann brothers and asked if they would release an album of his songs.

Wu's offer encouraged the Duanns to go ahead with the venture.

"I decided it was time to pay off the huge debts. I still had a lot of contacts in the industry and managed to get financial support," Johnny says.

In 1980, Rock Records was established and within a year all debts had been paid. Business expanded rapidly, moving from music production to its distribution and retailing.

In 1985, Rock Records became the exclusive licensee of EMI and BMG in Taiwan. In August 1991, Rock Music Publishing was established, providing lyricists, composers and independent musicians professional services, diversifying Rock's musical base.

It opened subsidiaries in Singapore and Malaysia in 1992, in Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland and South Korea in 1993, in Japan and Thailand in 1996 and in the Philippines in 1997. In 1994, its artist Jutoupi appeared on the cover of Billboard, the first Chinese artist to be so featured.

But the steady decline in the world's recording industry over the next decade, with the older artists exiting the stage and a variety of new musical styles and young talents emerging, Rock Records was faced with one crisis after another.

Even though the label's influence in the Chinese language music scene attracted many buyers, the Duanns resisted all offers as they did not want to compromise their independence.

In 2008, Lo Ta-yu, Jonathan Lee, Emil Chou and Chang Chen-yue formed Super Band and toured across China to revive the label.

Although fans continued to cheer their idols, a return to the good old days looked impossible. Until the label's 30th anniversary in 2010, that is.

"Thirty years sounds long, but for a man, 30 years is still young and considered a golden age. An old Chinese saying goes a man stands up at 30," Johnny says. "We needed to do something to revive our courage and hope."

So he invited all the label's featured artists - former and current - to get together for a celebration concert.

"The two celebration gigs at Taipei Arena proved to be a huge success. It greatly encouraged every one of us that we still have fans, the market and hope," Johnny says.

Although 57 now, he retains the same enthusiasm for music that he had when he first stepped into the industry.

When told fans in the mainland too were hoping to see a celebration concert, he approached the China Arts and Entertainment Group, with whom he had collaborated on the Super Band national tour in 2009, for a bigger show in Beijing.

"It is the power of music that has kept me going all these 30 years," Johnny says.

"Business is like life; it is full of ups and downs. When the recording industry was thriving in the 1980s, no one thought it would decline in 20 years. People say the recording industry is dying, but I don't think so. Yes, technology has changed the music industry.

"When Rock Records was founded, people listened to cassettes, then came CDs, followed by MP3 players and now you can download free music from the Internet. What technology has changed is not music but the ways it spreads.

"Some three decades ago, listening to music was a major (source of) entertainment but now people have a variety of choices.

"I still have dreams and I'm always waiting for something magical to happen, because you never know what tomorrow will bring. What we should do is keep innovating. We should know how people feel in general, not only in relation to music. We should look at their lifestyles, how they spend money, how they have fun."

Johnny says he has always maintained an optimistic outlook on life, claiming the only depressing moment came when his youngest daughter got married.

"I told my wife that I felt empty and that life had returned to the time when we had nothing."

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