Waiting for the spring of production music—Interview with Ludan Bone, General Manager of Songba Culture Development Co., Ltd

2013/04/15,By Doris Li, China IP,[Copyright]

China IP first came in contact with Songba Music on January 10th, 2013, when the company provided all the production music for the China IP Annual Forum. Songba’s meticulously classified and professional background music deeply impressed the forum attendants. It was from this forum that we happened to know the existence of such a production music company with such a wide range of legitimate material in China. The encounter made us curious to know more about how such music was made and used.
Songba’s prestige in and outside the industry
Songba Culture Development Co., Ltd, also known as Songba Music, is very well known within the industry but not to the public. It is the exclusively authorized entity and the sole owner of the copyright of all production music libraries produced and composed by Universal Publishing Production Music (UPPM) on the Chinese mainland.
Songba has cooperated with many international music production companies and teams to develop its range professional production music libraries, including more than 60 libraries from the US, UK, France, Italy, Canada, and other countries. At present, Songba has access to more than 500,000 tracks of music, many of which have been widely used by production companies for films, TV dramas, and documentaries, as well as radio & TV stations for their programs, including news shows, trailers and commercials.
The founding of Songba
Most Chinese would not be familiar with production music so China IP spoke to Ms. Ludan Bone Songba’s general manager. According to Ludan, production music is widely used in underscores of film works, all kinds of TV & radio programs, commercials and trailers, commercials, and music played at hotels. Songba Music gives professionals in the industry a platform to access that music, which comes in a wide range of categories and is legal and of high quality.
Ludan went abroad to study in the early 1990s and began to know background music when she worked at an English background music production company after graduation. At that time, the industry was based on a mature and successful model that demanded users have copyrighted authorization for every program using production music and that they document when and how that music apply it to their programs.
After some years of experience in the industry, Ludan decided to see if the same principles could work in China, which had no experience of the model and music at that time. She began to develop China’s market for such music as of 1993 but it was very difficult to make big gains at first because there was no general understanding or appreciation of the approach. However, things gradually changed to some extent due to her unremitting efforts. Positive feedback came in 1994 from staff at two TV stations using the music. The model for production music in those days involved TV stations exchanging commissioned works among themselves but this did not generate much content and was not able to meet the demands of a broadcasting industry undergoing rapid expansion at that time. Therefore, Ludan found a receptive audience in some sectors for her background music.
Songba Music was incorporated in Beijing in 2000 and affiliated to a US based German record company under the banner of BMG’s (Bertelsmann Music Group). In 2006, BMG was acquired by UPPM and Songba Music became the exclusively authorized entity of UPPM on the China mainland.
Pay to play music?
The incorporation of Songba Music was the first step for Ludan in background music development. When she embarked on the undertaking, she was highly optimistic about its prospects because of China’s huge market and the company’s extensive music libraries. However, she there were many challenges to tackle with from the very beginning.
After the founding of Songba Music, Ludan did some activities to promote the music, including participating in industry trade fairs and visiting TV stations in person to spread the word about production music. However, some sections of the broadcasting industry suggested she pay them to air her music. She put her focus on TV stations, even though at that time, there had been no precedent for stations to pay for use of production music. Until then, they had only paid to buy equipment or CDs.
“Few people knew the significance of intellectual property at that time and have been reluctant to pay for such invisible thing. The major task for us was to explain it, to tell them what we were doing and the meaning and significance of IP, in order to seek cooperation on the basis of their understanding,” Ludan said. By doing so step by step, Songba Music gradually established a business relationship with about 90% of all state TV stations.
Since China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, there has been significant progress in China’s IP laws, rules and regulations, giving hope to Songba Music. In 2001, when a new batch of rules was announced, Ludan’s hope was renewed. “Now, the sun is rising, I said to myself. I have pioneered production music since 1996. I went back to China in 1996 in preparation of setting up an office in Shenzhen. I have promoted the idea in China for seven or eight years. On hearing this news, I thought the time is ripe for my business.”
Challenges for the production music business
Respect for intellectual property and understanding of copyrighted music are not things that can be established overnight. Ludan had to explain the meaning of copyright and the reasons for paying royalties to play music. Fortunately, many TV stations have already experienced the scope and convenience of production music.
One new challenge that emerged was pirated background music sold online. Some websites sold production music at a low price, appearing to be linked to Songba Music. “One child of my clients asked me: Why are there some sites online posting Songba’s music for sale? I have some of them and they are cheaper than Songba’s.” It was an unprecedented situation for the business. “My friends advised me to sue the pirates. I thought about it, but piracy is rampant. The pirate thinks the only thing he is risking is a fine. What’s more, it is possible that he would not be caught, if so, he will make a profit.” Some friends advised Ludan to quit, telling her that she would be better off putting her time and effort into a business that was not based on intellectual property.
At the same time, more and more TV stations were beginning to appreciate the quality of Songba’s music, although they were reluctant to keep paying for it year after year. Many of them paid the first year and stopped paying for the next year. They thought that paying once was enough, even though they continued to want access to the material. So Ludan had to keep explaining the concept of copyright. “These pieces of background music were sold to you as IP instead of products. You should pay the royalty if you continue to use, or pay for those pieces you used in practice.” Ludan said: “We are still negotiating such issues with some TV stations. Some of them have agreed with us, whereas others have not accepted the idea and failed to reach agreements with us up to present.”
The extent of these challenges was beyond Ludan’s expectations. She had thought a good product would naturally do well in a market with an urgent need for such music. The fact that this was not automatically the case did make her question the virtues of pursuing the business. But her faith in the product and market has propelled her on.
Ludan and her team have survived. After years of continuous efforts, Songba Music has established a longterm and friendly cooperation with 90% of state TV stations across the country. Some pieces of its production music have been used by several major film and television production companies for their programs.
Springtime is coming
In the building across the street from Songba Music’s offices, a company called Enlight Media has grown over the years to become a listed company in 2011. Songba Music has survived and grown too but not anywhere to the same extent.
What gives Ludan hope is her confidence in China’s improvements in the IP legal system and market. Her enthusiasm in starting the business has been renewed by many positive initiatives, including the schedule to amendments to the Copyright Law, the enhancement of the royalty system and other good news.
She decided to persist with her initial idea: “I will undoubtedly do a good business with such good products in such a huge market.”
“In fact, there has been great improvement, especially since the Olympic Games in 2008. A number of large TV stations and international institutions have attached greater importance to IP after cooperation with Songba Music. Some local TV stations were required by their clients to have production music, which in turn enhanced TV stations’ understanding of IP. More and more film, TV and advertising companies have gone abroad and cultivated a better understanding of IP, which have in turn propelled these companies to use copyrighted production music. All these facts are positive for the development of the industry.”
Ludan is resolute about pursing the business in the future. “Of course, I will do this because there is a daily good market. I have done so for 20 years and survived those hard times. I stand here now and everything is improving. It would be a big regret to give up now. Furthermore, I have a dream in this regard. I believe that god will help those who help themselves.”
Many composers and users have been impressed by Ludan because of her personal professionalism and her pursuit of her dream.
Ludan has big plans to promote production music with Chinese characteristics in years ahead. “I am familiar with many composers, who have many pieces of music with Chinese characteristics.” Songba Music has already signed agreements with some Chinese composers to act as an agent for their music. The agreements are along international lines and involve payment of royalties. Ludan feels a responsibility to publicize Chinese production music to the world. Songba Music has imported so many pieces of music from abroad, and Ludan believes that Chinese music should go abroad in the future.
Ludan is still optimistic and enthusiastic about the business after all these years, despite the many challenges. She believes that China is embracing a better IP environment. If she continues with her dream there is no doubt that it will be realized.
(Translated by Yuan Renhui)

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