PennYo review

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PennYo review

Postby tat-tong » Sat Jul 08, 2006 9:45 am

All 3 reviewers mentioned to some degree their dislike of the formulaic, vapid music on PennYo's latest CD. As a guy who's seen both sides of the musical fence (grew up in Asia, spent 4 years in the US), here's my take on why Asian pop music seems so utterly bland -

2 words. Piracy, and Karaoke.

Piracy is destroying music sales all over the world, but particularly in Asia. While artists could once sell perhaps tens of thousands of copies of albums in their native markets of say Taiwan and Hong Kong (China is far larger), nowadays they're lucky to scrape by with a few thousand. Bootleg copies of albums flood the streets barely days after their release, due to weak Intellectual Property laws and enforcement.

Record companies have responded to this trend by a) creating more volume and b) playing it safe, musically. By releasing a huge number of albums a year, and trotting out fresh new faces on a regular basis, they can create much more revenue, because they cannot count on having a few albums sell extremely well. With this much material being released, it's no wonder that a lot of it falls squarely in the "disposable" category. To make things worse, record companies cannot afford to tinker with a winning formula, because they aren't making enough money off of the successful albums to allow anything even remotely experimental (and hence not assured of some commercial success) to hit the shelves. Hence, only safe, conventional stuff is released.

Because of piracy, artists and agencies cannot count on album sales to rake in the dough. One alternative avenue is of course live concerts, but a huge percentage of the money now comes from karaoke video royalties. Karaoke is huge in Asia. Hence, songwriters and artists are forced to skew their musical choices towards those of the Karaoke crowd. For a song to make it in the Karaoke circuit, it's gotta be pretty easy to sing; unfortunately, this also translates to pretty bland and disposable!

Hope this sheds some light on the nature of the music on PennYo's album, and on the predicament befalling the entire Asian pop scene.
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Postby dekesharon » Sat Jul 08, 2006 2:10 pm

Fascinating, Tat. You're probably right.

That creates an opportunity for the rest of us to share our music with Asian audiences; show them that a cappella isn't just pop ballads, built on triads and laced with light R&B stylings.

In fact, the House Jacks are in Japan for the next 2 weeks, perhaps thanks to this trend? The music companies may be playing it safe, but the audiences here do seem to enjoy full-tilt contemporary a cappella.

So, get your butts over here people! All the sushi you can eat!

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Postby lanian » Sun Jul 09, 2006 2:55 am

i agree with Tat on piracy ruining Asian music...

but I also wanted to say that Asian pop culture does not produce artists but just singers and posers...

Most of the singers are literally made by recording companies to generate money. And recording companies are like book publishers... they just want to copy successful formulas to make money.

In Asia, most of the singers don't write their own songs. They just practice singing and posing, and they expect the agencies to give songs to them... So every song sounds the same...
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Postby jrhailey » Sun Jul 09, 2006 8:19 pm

lanian wrote:i agree with Tat on piracy ruining Asian music...

but I also wanted to say that Asian pop culture does not produce artists but just singers and posers...

Most of the singers are literally made by recording companies to generate money. And recording companies are like book publishers... they just want to copy successful formulas to make money.

In Asia, most of the singers don't write their own songs. They just practice singing and posing, and they expect the agencies to give songs to them... So every song sounds the same...


By "pop music in Asia", did you also mean "pop music in the United States"? Remember when talent was discovered and not manufactured? :(
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Postby lanian » Mon Jul 10, 2006 3:33 am

ahhhh I see your point haha
I guess in my comment, Asian Pop Music literally meant mainstream "popular" music in Asia. What we normally call "pop" isn't really mainstream genre in the United States, and most of the famous groups write their own music. Not true in Asia.
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Postby jamesq84 » Mon Jul 10, 2006 8:30 am

Just to throw my 2 cents in on something that has bothered me for a while . . . jrhailey makes a point about how remembering when talent was dicovered and not manufactured. I think we may have misconceptions today about groups of the past. What I mean essentially is in the past, there was quite a bit of "manufactured" talent as well. I don't want anyone to get me wrong, because I certainly do see a distinction between now and the past several decades, but I think we all need a little perspective. Although I hesitate to use this example for fear of really offending someone, think about the Temptations. How much of the music they sang was written by actual members of the group, as opposed to Smokey Robinson or other hitmakers at Motown. Now, I know they formed themselves and then got picked up by Motown, but is it really THAT far removed from the way a group like N'SYNC or the Backstreet Boys comes about? I would simply submit that it's not as far removed as we all often assume. If anything, I would be more inclined to say "popular" songwriting has become formulaic than putting together a group. Hope I didn't make anyone too mad.
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Postby gnotos » Tue Jul 11, 2006 11:37 am

I was pleased to discover both the PennYo RARB review, as well as an (active!) thread on it, so as a member of PennYo I guess I ought to chip in my few pence for clarification. (not so much on the thread, but on the review :}) Before I start whining about technicalities, I must admit that I agree virtually entirely with all the musical points made :}

The one thing that surprised me most was that all three reviewers interpreted "Chinese a cappella" as traditional/folk Chinese music - if I picked up a CD in Beijing that read "English a cappella", I wouldn't exactly be expecting Renaissance choral music..? For better or for worse, there exists (and has existed) a whole generation of Chinese people growing up not with particularly "foreign modalities and alien instrumentation", but with boybands, rockers, and rappers (just using a different language), and you'd be hard-pressed to find a decent "traditional music" enthusiast among today's youth.

Another thing that surprises me is that we've been labelled as "Asian-americans" - just to pipe up, less than half of the group fits that definition, and we like it that way: you get to experience a very interesting brand of diversity shaped along a common sliding scale of culture/ethnicity (read: FOB vs ABC).

Finally, I couldn't help be mildly offended (but more amused :}) at this statement:

"If one looks at the perspective of increased publicity, when making an album completely of Chinese a cappella I don't think there can be any delusions about the lack of wide appeal for your product."

There must be some element of irony in an a cappella reviewer complaining about anyone else being "niche" :} Snideness aside, UPenn's performing arts council (already drowning in God knows how many a cappella groups) has put into place a rather strict "uniqueness clause" - basically they say nasty things to us if we sing one English song too many.
This somewhat restricts our song choices.

Next, we have to compete with the other 10+ groups on campus, especially the powerhouses like OTB and Counterparts, for the few Asians that can sing and can spare the time from mugging for pre-med. This somewhat restricts our talent pool, which affects the diversity of songs we can arrange.

Finally, (and completely unrelated to the previous two points :}), I'd say the potential market for Chinese a cappella is probably larger than the entire a cappella scene in the US... how's that niche? Fine, I am pointing at the 1 billion kids over there and making a sweeping statement, but having been there on exchange, it's definitely a huge market very receptive to a cappella.

I started Beijing University's first a cappella group while there, and people loved us (even though we were horrible) simply for the gimmick factor - they had never seen a bunch of kids standing in an arc making noises together before. The first time I beatboxed on stage, the organisers ran out and told me to stop "blowing into the microphone". It was kind of fun.

Just to keep you guys posted, PennYo is going on our first overseas tour to Shanghai this winter - any support/advice would be really welcome! It's a really big scary niche :}
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Postby rebecca » Tue Jul 11, 2006 11:43 am

gnotos wrote:The one thing that surprised me most was that all three reviewers interpreted "Chinese a cappella" as traditional/folk Chinese music


ahem. i didn't. : ) in fact, I went on at length to demostrate a passing familiarity with Chinese pop music. Only mention of trad music was to say that I like it, but wasn't surprised it doesn't get much play since traditional music never does.

but anyway ... sorry about the performing arts council. I wasn't aware they had so much control over repertoire! Is there a lot of funding at stake?

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Postby gnotos » Sun Jul 16, 2006 7:01 am

heh ok, i generalised, i'm sorry :} at any rate, we do attempt to incorporate as many traditional elements as do filter down into the general pop scene (which has increased in the past two years!) eg erhu, yangqin, which will *bar financial disaster* make their appearances on the next cd in 2007.

PAC basically doles out venue rental and sound equipment rental, which can be a lot of money. also they control venue bookings, meaning that non-PAC groups have difficulty getting the "good" venues that PAC holds on to for its groups. recently PennSix was suspended (for being naughty?) and spent a year wandering in the wilderness.. being a popular group, they managed to survive running their own shows at alternative venues, but i imagine their finances took a big hit. basically if you're not in PAC, it's pretty tough to get the funding for a CD.

anyway, even if that weren't the issue: what's the point of a bunch of chinese people forming an a cappella group... and then singing english songs? (granted, chinese pop is trashy english pop in chinese, but at least it's in chinese!) to me that just sounds like we're doing it because we're not good enough to get into non-affirmative-action-based a capella groups :}

yes, there is a reasonable middleground, and yes, we've asked ourselves, do we want to be penn masala general tso style... and yes, the answer mighhtttt just be yes... or not :}
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Postby lanian » Wed Jul 19, 2006 4:22 am

Hey do you know anything about PennSori, a Korean a cappella group at Penn? Are they in PAC too?
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Postby gnotos » Thu Jul 20, 2006 7:57 am

PennSori's not in PAC but I think they're trying to get in this year. They're brand new I think - just formed last year.

However I think there's a moratorium on new groups entering PAC for a year or so - basically there are five million groups in PAC fighting for less than five million possible venue/dates and sources of $, so I guess they want to keep people out or slow the entrance of new groups?
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Postby lanian » Fri Jul 21, 2006 7:48 am

ahh that sucks...
Danny Yoo (the director of PennSori) wanted to make a Korean A cappella cd next year but was short on budget... He thinks they'll end up mixing it themselves :(
I guess I'll have to wait in order to get a well produced Korean A cappella CD.. :X
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Postby gnotos » Tue Jul 25, 2006 8:20 am

ehm? if you're in contact with him tell him we can provide limited help/consultation if they're going the self-mix route. (limited not by our generosity but by our skill :} )

ask him to facebook msg or something :}
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Postby jthelegend » Tue Jul 25, 2006 1:26 pm

or tell them to get in touch with Tat Tong. Helping out with this sort of project might be something right up his alley. Either shoot him an email, httong AT gmail DOT com, or aim him at : ratizzat

...i love how i just whore out tat's services for him
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Postby tat-tong » Tue Oct 03, 2006 1:47 am

ratTizzat with 2 t's... but thanks james iruvutodeathbrotha...
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