It would be unfair to say that Taiwanese music has an image problem. Contemporary music from the island has a strong history and is well-regarded by those who know it.
Rather, it has been outshone by bigger forces such as K-pop and the gravitational pull of the massive mainland Chinese music market.
The Taiwan government is trying to set that right with a series of initiatives at this week’s wholly-digital edition of Midem, the long-running music industry convention that normally operates in physical form from Cannes, France.
Robin Lee, previous head of Taiwan’s IFPI, a decade ago claimed that 80% of Chinese-language pop songs were originally created in Taiwan. Idols who emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai, or rock group Mayday, are still performing today. And they remain active and relevant.
But their heydays may have been pre-digital, before China achieved superpower status and, certainly, pre-COVID.
Physical music sales in Taiwan peaked before the turn of the century and were valued at NT$12.3 billion ($440 million) in 1997. Twenty years later, that figure had tumbled to just NT$815 million ($30 million), according to data from Taiwan’s Bureau of Audiovisual and Music Industry Development (BAMID).
The rise of digital platforms and live performances has, as elsewhere, partially compensated for the shrinking physical music market, which may now be worth $200 million according to consultancy PwC. Taiwan has had a leading streamer KKBox since 2005.
But, with the changes, Taiwan’s music scene has become more indie, more fragmented, more live, and more specialized.
Meanwhile, Mandarin-language music has not yet seeped into global listening habits in the way that K-pop has in recent years. But Mandopop has become broader, including more acts from mainland China, Malaysia and even Australia.
Mainland China’s strict regulation of its internal industry and the role of tech companies as the PRC government’s de facto gatekeepers and censors, may have given an advantage to mainland acts or those that are willing to play along. (How many remember that American-born, Chinese-language star, actually started his singing career in Taiwan?)
Not every Taiwanese act is willing to embrace mainland Chinese strictures and bury their Taiwanese identity. Cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity are instead hallmarks of current Taiwan music.
Still others are wary of the mainland’s keyboard army, often known as little pinks, which is ever ready to pounce on talent seen to associate themselves with the cause of Taiwan independence.
(Taiwan has been self-governed for over 70 years and is currently democratically-run. But the vastly larger People’s Republic of China claims that the island is a wayward province with which it will be reunited – by force if necessary. And political tensions between Taiwan and the PRC are currently at or near an all-time high.)
Those which identify as Taiwanese, such as Sunset Rollercoaster or Elephant Gym, have enjoyed hit success in Mandarin, English, Taiwanese and Hakka languages. Historical and social realities, that would not meet with PRC approval, are common themes. Experimental musician Lu Luming delivered a soundtrack for hit film “Detention” that delved into the island’s authoritarian times. LGBT issues are more out that they are in the PRC, not surprising given Taiwan’s greenlight for same sex marriage in 2019.
Within Taiwan, the government has backed the Golden Melody Awards, the local equivalent of the Grammys. Around this has grown the Golden Melody Festival, which since 2014, has included conferences, masterclasses, workshops and business matching components. International music professionals have attended as speakers and dropped in on the showcases held by Taiwan artistes.
Now, with the support of two-year old cultural support body TAICCA, the Taiwan music industry is no longer simply waiting to be re-discovered, it is reaching out.
Making sure that Taiwanese music can be heard overseas, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture has subsidized local artists and groups to perform in leading overseas festivals including Glastonbury, SXSW and Summer Sonic.
The partnership with Midem is the next step. It sees Taiwan professionals and acts involved in two segments: Midem Talent Exporter, and Midem Songwriting Camp.