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August 11, 2009

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One-hit wonders: the spectacular rise and fall of the network singer

SHAO Yibei still feels awkward with interviews and public exposure, although she got famous as early as in February through her first online offering. For her, fame came too fast.

The folk-style music piece, "Song for the Elder Artistic Women," is about shengnu, or "leftover women," single women older than the normal age for marriage.

The moment it was posted on Internet, the song was clicked and downloaded by millions. Shao, 26, who just finished her postgraduate studies at Peking University, suddenly became one of the most popular Internet singer-songwriters in the country.

The storm of amateur singers on the Internet swept China in 2004. Many shot to fame overnight when some of their songs became popular online and were later regarded as pioneers of original Chinese pop music.

They include Yang Chengang, Xiang Xiang and Pang Long.

Their songs, featuring simple melodies and lyrics usually in a pop or folk style, spread rapidly on the Internet.

Some amateur singers, because of their instant fame and popularity, won music contracts and became successful outside the digital world.

This year's Jinzhong (Golden Bell) Music Awards, China's only national music awards, has especially set up a category for Internet singers, meaning for the first time network music is acknowledged by the mainstream music scene.

Not everyone is that lucky, however.

Fame comes and goes and many were one-hit wonders.

But just as many people thought the day of the Internet singer has gone, the success of Shao has sparked interest.

"The idea (for 'Song for the Elder Artistic Women') actually came from the news. I just wanted to express my attitude about relations between men and women. I had never thought the song would be so popular," says Shao, a Qinghai Province native, who started to compose songs when she formed her own rock band at university.

Soon Shao's talent was spotted and was lucky enough to write the theme song for the current smash-hit animated film "McDull Kung Fu," which has helped her reach another peak in her music career.

"I really want to look at your face. The donut is so sweet like chocolate ?" the song features a cute melody and the rhythm and the lyrics are easy for a young audience to follow.

"I spent just three minutes writing the song. McDull is my favorite cartoon figure and the movie gave me a lot of ideas about the music," she says.

Shao felt a great sense of achievement when her work was immediately accepted by the movie's producer.

Some recording companies have shown interest in her, just as they did with earlier Internet singers.

"For the recording company, to sign the Interet singers has commercial advantages," says Lin Ying, director of the Performing Arts Department and assistant to general manager at Shanghai ToWing Culture Development Co Ltd.

"Nowadays the young generation gets information mainly from the Internet. If the singer is popular on the Internet, that means he/she reaches a wider range of audiences," Lin says.

However, Shao hasn't yet decided if she should become a professional singer. She has a full-time job at an IT company.

"I write songs after work and take it as my hobby. I don't think I can survive by relying on songwriting," she says.

Shao might change her mind soon when seeing the career blueprint offered by the recording companies. But for now the future still seems blurry.

Many Internet singers regard getting contracted with a recording company the best way to become a full-time professional pop singer.

"The Internet is a very good platform to become famous, but the music life of an Internet singer can be very short with fewer and fewer works created and low-quality producing," says Yang Chengang, 30, one of the earliest Internet singers in China, who became famous for "Mouse Loves Rice" released in 2004.

The song was extremely popular for a time with both young and old. Even pop stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan performed it in their concerts on the Chinese mainland. The Hong Kong girl band Twins even sang a Cantonese version of the song.

Yang, a Wuhan native, had written more than 300 songs before "Mouse Loves Rice" made him famous.

Yang started learning guitar in 1996 and began his music career as a part-time singer. During the following five years he performed at nightclubs.

He studied music composition with a professor in the Wuhan Conservatory of Music from 1998 to 2000.

He has released several albums including "Mouse Loves Rice" (2004), "Husband PK Wife" (2006) and "Can't I Miss You" (2009).

However, it's hard to name any other song of his besides "Mouse."

Many Internet singers are facing the same dilemma.

Veteran singer

Wang Jinmei, well known by her online name Xiang Xiang, became known for the same song, "Mouse Loves Rice," in 2004 when she sang a female version of it.

She signed to the same company with Yang, Feile, and released her first album "The Song of Pig" in 2005.

But ever since then the 25-year-old Hunan Province native hasn't come up with any new work although she participated in various "well-paid gala shows." Xiang Xiang announced she is about to release a new album called "Wan Ren Mi" ("Heartthrob"). But so far, it hasn't appeared.

Pang Long, 40, is another "veteran" Internet singer, who became famous for the songs "Two Butterflies" and "You Are My Rose."

Pang started his music career at the age of 20 with several talent shows. Before "Two Butterflies" swept the whole country, he had already released singles for TV series.

Now as an independent music producer, Pang released his second album "You Are My Rose" in 2005, "Because It's You" in 2007 and some EPs. His latest album "Love Love Love" was released last month.

"Any successful singer needs a mature commercial package, the same for Internet singers. We regard them as grassroots singers," says Lin from Shanghai ToWing Culture Development Co Ltd. "Some of them got famous only because of luck.

"Only relying on one or two songs is not enough. Many of them started to perform around the country to make money, but ignored the further development of their music," Lin adds.

"The production of Internet music is too rough, including my 'Mouse Loves Rice.' The Internet songs are so popular only because the original song industry on the Chinese mainland is too weak," says singer Yang.

The music road is not as smooth as many singers expected. Besides occasional opportunities to sing at some big gala events, there are hardly any other chance for them to show their musical talent.

Many are fading from the public attention with only a few songs remembered.

Yang is now looking forward to changing his music career from singing to producing.

"What we should do is catching this chance to realize our music dream - to be a real music producer, like Jonathan Lee and Xiao Ke," he says.

While Yang is still pursuing his music ideal, many Internet singers have totally changed their career direction.

In pubs and nightclubs around the country, mostly in Beijing and coastal areas in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, many Internet singers live a different music life. Among them are Yu Tongfei and Dong Dong, known for his stage name Dong Lai Dong Wang.

Both have released albums but see a brighter career in pub performances, relying on the Internet popularity to draw the crowds.

"Compared with some outdated stars, these Internet singers prove a greater attraction in nightclubs. Clients are familiar with their songs and they are also good at live shows," says Ding Chenhui, general manager of a popular pub in Shanghai.

Ding estimates that some performers can earn 50,000 (US$7,142) yuan a night.


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