China’s latest investor-funded startup is actually a 200-member girl band

A chorus line.
A chorus line.
Image: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
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In much of Asia, K-pop is king.

But the infectious music trend is losing its grip on China, which placed a ban on all Korean entertainment last year, after South Korea’s government launched a missile defense system without China’s approval. As punishment for what it perceives as a threat to its national security, China has blocked all Korean albums and television dramas from entering the country.

What’s bad for K-pop is excellent for Chinese musicians, who are seizing on the opportunity. One group skyrocketing in popularity in the absence of K-pop “idols” is SNH48, a Shanghai-based girl band that has a rotating cast of members—somewhere around 220, depending how you count the generations—and just raised more than $150 million from investors last month. If the idea of girl-band investors seems odd, you should know that SNH48, whose performers are voted in and out by fans, is far more of a corporate business than a music group. Per the Financial Times (paywall):

Unlike western pop, which trades on authenticity and the idea of performers singing from the heart, SNH48 is run more like a tech start-up than a musical group. Taking its inspiration from Japanese group AKB48, instead of a core group it runs on teams of interchangeable singers—a strategy managers hope will allow it to build generations of young female stars and longer-lasting revenue streams.

Fans use a mobile app to track their favorite singers, send notes to them, and watch their livestreams. The band’s managers carefully curate new teams of performers every year, which is similar to how South Korea’s massive K-pop factory is run.

However, merely copying K-pop’s mechanisms may not lead China’s music scene to the same level of success. Thanks to the prevalence of online piracy—which deters people from paying for music, and is possibly allowing many to still access their favorite K-pop albums as well—China’s music market is still tiny, relative to the country’s size.