——《1Q84 Book 1》，村上春树（2005）
BEIJING — Song is the name, and song is his game. While some musicians take months to compose, record, release, and promote a track, Song Mengjun and his team can get it all done in a matter of hours.
The 29-year-old hit-maker has plenty of tricks to keep the ideas flowing. His team monitors China’s most popular streaming apps for trending search terms, and then brainstorms ideas based on these keywords. In April, when a group of astronomers announced they had captured the first image of a black hole, Song put out his track “Monster From the Black Hole” within 24 hours, ensuring that it would ride the crest of internet searches to the top of the charts.
这名 29 岁的神曲缔造者有种种技巧来挖掘创作灵感。他的团队会监控中国最流行的几家流媒体软件平台的热搜，并基于这些热搜词展开头脑风暴。在四月，一群天文学家宣布拍摄到了史上首张黑洞的照片，宋孟君在 24 小时内就创作出了他的新单曲“黑洞怪兽”，确保其能登顶热搜榜。
Song’s company, Beijing Yunmao Culture Ltd., releases roughly two songs each day. Despite their heavy workload, the staff does not appear stressed when Sixth Tone visits the studio. Most of the dozen employees wear bulky headphones, so the studio is quiet as their fingers flick between piano and computer keyboards. Every now and then, a few will drift into the stairwell for a smoke, but they always return to their desks before the cigarette burns down to the butt.
The music that Yunmao makes doesn’t fit into any one genre in particular: The company cheerfully pivots to whatever the market desires on any given day. But Chinese listeners refer to these viral, flash-in-the-pan hits as shenqu — “god songs”.
There’s nothing divine about the production process. Yunmao operates like a mass manufacturer, building god songs on an assembly line. Song demonstrates the process for Sixth Tone in his studio: First, he borrows the backing track from a well-known song by Taiwanese singer Jay Chou, mumbling the rhythm into a mic. Then, his co-worker puts it together with a melody on the keyboard, adding in other audio samples from their vast database of demos, while another two compose lyrics on their laptops. In less than half a day, there’s already a rough cut.
制作音乐的整个过程并没有什么神奇。云猫的运作模式像是在流水线上一般批量地生产神曲。宋孟君向记者展示整个过程——首先，他先借用周杰伦的一首流行歌的伴奏，把节奏哼进一只麦里。接下来，他的同事就在键盘上把它和旋律连在一块，从一个大的 demo 数据库里加进音频采样。与此同时，另两个人在笔记本电脑上写好歌词。半天时间之内，一首歌已经将将要做成了。
Every track is quick to make and quick to get stuck in your head. “No one will give you a minute,” Song says, explaining that songs only have seconds to capture an audience’s attention. His infectious tunes cut right to the chorus, because he believes his target youth demographic likes to rush to the climax.
This is music for the age of short attention spans, instant gratification, and search engine optimization. And it’s lucrative: “9277” — one of Yunmao’s top hits — raked in almost 10 million yuan ($1.55 million) in 2018. On major music streaming platforms like Kugou, god songs often outperform releases from big-name pop stars when it comes to listens and downloads in the long run. More clicks mean more cash.
这就是短时注意力时代的音乐，（追求）即时满足的音乐，搜索引擎优化的音乐。这种音乐十分赚钱。云猫的主打歌曲之一，叫做《9277》的，仅 2018 年一年就创收 1000 万元人民币（合 155 万美元）。在国内主要的音乐流媒体平台（比如酷狗）上，各种神曲通常无论是播放量还是下载量上都超过了一般明星大腕发布的音乐。点击量越大，来钱越多。
Album covers from Yunmao’s creations in Beijing, May 2019. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone
云猫工作室所作歌曲的专辑封面。2019 年 5 月摄于北京 唐晓兰（音）/第六声音 摄
China’s music market is growing fast. There are approximately 33 million paid music subscribers in China, according to the managing director of Sony Music in China, Andrew Chan, in a 2019 report released by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) which also stated that in 2018, China became the seventh-largest music market in the world. The streaming market in particular is skyrocketing, with a year-over-year growth of 35% in 2018, according to the IFPI.
中国的音乐市场正经历快速发展。据索尼音乐（中国）的经理总监 Andrew Chan 在 2019 年所作的一份报告中所言，在中国，大约有 330 万付费音乐订阅用户。这份报告发布在国际音像工业联合会上。该报告还指出，2018 年中国成为了全球第七大音乐市场，尤其是流媒体市场更是突飞猛进，与上年同期相比增长了 35%。
For Song’s team, licensing what they consider high-quality music, such as for TV shows, only makes up 30% of Yunmao’s income. The company’s biggest revenue stream comes from licensing their god songs. But while god songs are amassing plays and profits, they’re also attracting critics who claim they’re dumbing down music with their brainless lyrics and borrowed beats.
It’s dirt off his shoulder for Song. “The era of doing offline music has passed,” he says. “The future is about cashing out online.”
♫ But you don’t really care for music, do you? ♪
♫ 但你们根本就不关心音乐不是吗？ ♪
Song used to sing a different tune when he was a student at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in southern China’s Guangdong province. “I used to detest god songs,” he recalls.
He performed more than 400 gigs as an undergrad, while also moonlighting at a local radio station to boost his marketing and promotion skills and undertaking a second major in art management. When he dropped his first album, he was proud of his work — but sales were meager.
在本科学习期间，他做了 400 多份零工，还曾到当地一家广播电台实习过，增进他的市场营销和推广技能，还修了艺术管理的双学位。当他发布自己第一张专辑的时候，他对自己的劳动成果很是自豪，不过销售情况则不尽人意。
One of Yunmao’s staff members adds audio samples to a melody in Beijing, May 2019. TangXiaolan/Sixth Tone
云猫工作室的成员向旋律中添加音频采样。2019 年 5 月摄于北京 唐晓兰/第六声音 摄
Disillusioned, he moved to Beijing and started working at a record company, where he noticed that the most popular songs weren’t what he would have considered good music. “The market doesn’t care about your academic standards,” he says. He learned how to apply digital-first, market-driven pragmatism to music production, and the rest is history.
Independent musicians like Beijing’s Ma Yuyang complain that this mentality is squeezing them out of an already difficult market. “When more people give their attention to god songs, it seriously impacts us indie musicians who use real soul to make music,” the 30-year-old says.
北京的马育阳（音译。这个 Apple Music 链接打不开了）等一干独立音乐制作人抱怨道，这种心态正把他们从本来就很困难的市场中向外排挤。“越来越多的人关注各种神曲，这种状态给我们这种用真正的灵魂创作音乐的独立音乐人打击很大。”这个 30 岁的年轻人说。
Why would you force dishwashers or doormen to like your choice of music?
- Yang Junlong, music promoter
Ma has put out two albums in the eight years he’s been in the indie music scene. He’s sold around 3,000 copies in total — not bad for indie releases, he says. But when he later collaborated with a god song writer on one single, to his surprise it became a big hit that quickly boosted his fame and fortune. Nonetheless, Ma still looks down on musicians who churn out formulaic hits in the pursuit of profit. He attributes the success of god songs to Chinese audiences’ static tastes which lead songwriters to play it safe instead of following their creative instincts.
马育阳在独立音乐界做了八年，总共出了两张专辑，加起来卖了 3000 份。他说，这个成绩对独立音乐人而言并不算差。但是当他后来和一个“神曲”作者合出了一首单曲后，他很惊讶地发现这神曲倒是大行其道，他也迅速名利双收。尽管如此，马育阳仍然看不起不停发布千篇一律的“神曲”的逐臭之夫。他把“神曲”的成功归因于中国观众万年不变的品味，这使得歌曲创作者明哲保身，而不是追随他们的创作直觉。
Song disagrees: He argues that too many artists are self-absorbed, obsessed with expressing their own feelings instead of adapting to the new opportunities created by speed, connectivity, and changing music consumption patterns. Where once people settled for listening to whatever was played on the TV and radio, now there are more people actively accessing music through all kinds of platforms. “You cannot control what listeners are exposed to,” he says, and more than ever, it’s consumers driving the trends rather than music professionals.
Music promoter Yang Junlong goes further. “China has a population of 1.4 billion. Why would you force dishwashers or doormen to like your choice of music?” he says.
♬ Rake it up, break it down, bag it up ♪
♬ 挖掘、肢解和包装 ♪
Making the music is one thing. Marketing it is another. And that’s where hype man Yang excels: “Learn to Meow,” the first release from his studio, dominated the Chinese music market in 2018. Despite having a simple refrain — “Let’s all learn to meow, all together meow, meow, meow, meow, meow” — sung by relatively unknown performers Xiao Feng Feng and Xiao Pan Pan, it quickly won the hearts of millions of Chinese netizens, making it to Billboard Radio China’s top 10 list of the year’s most popular music, as well as finding many fans overseas.
做音乐是一回事，运作音乐则又是另一回事了。后者则正是音乐运作人杨俊龙擅长的东西。《学猫叫》是他所在工作室的首张单曲，风靡 2018 年的中国音乐市场。尽管副歌很简单——“我们一起学猫叫，一起喵喵喵喵喵”——演唱者小峰峰和小潘潘也不那么出名，但它迅速抓住了数以百万计中国网民的心，成为了中国 BillBoard 年度流行排行榜前十的歌曲，还在海外收获了大批粉丝。
The song’s success was in large part thanks to Yang’s viral marketing campaign. He commissioned half a dozen social media influencers to come up with a simple dance routine to accompany the song. Then his team tweaked their choreography and hired even more popular influencers to perform the final version and upload their clips to short video platform Douyin — which operates overseas as TikTok. In two days, “Learn to Meow” surged from 2,000 to 80,000 views on Douyin.
这首歌的成功很大程度上要归功于杨俊龙火爆的营销推广活动。他委托了七八个社交媒体大佬，拟出了一个简单的舞蹈动作来配这个音乐，然后又改动了他们编排的动作，请来了更出名的意见领袖，让他们表演最终的版本。最后把他们跳舞的视频上传到斗音（海外叫做 TikTok）上。两日之内，《学猫叫》播放量从 2000 多冲到了 80000。
A GIF shows various versions of “Learn to Meow” on the app Douyin. From Douyin
Soon, it seemed everyone on Douyin was meowing, pawing the air, and tweaking their whiskers. The trend quickly caught on with TikTok users in South Korea and Japan, and YouTubers even created cover versions of “Learn to Meow” in Indonesian, Ukrainian, Tagalog, and several other languages.
Yang utilizes various tactics for promoting music, but his core strategy always involves audience participation — or rather, meme-ability. He believes a good god song should always have an irresistibly catchy 15-second refrain that can be sampled for background music. That helps it spread on China’s largest short video platforms, Douyin and Kuaishou.
杨俊龙推广音乐的技巧有很多种，而他最核心的策略总是和观众参与有关，换句话讲就是要有“模仿因子”。他认为一首好的“神曲”应该要有 15 秒十分抓耳不可抗拒的副歌部分能取出来做背景音乐，这有助于其在斗音和慢手，中国最大的两家短视频平台上传播。
Though the two sites share 60% of their user base, they require slightly different strategies, according to Yang. Strong rhythms are more important for Douyin — a 15-second video platform that is more popular with worldly, well-off millennials and is known for memes such as beauty transformations and pranks — while Kuaishou, with more rural working-class users, favors songs that tell a story.
杨俊龙说，两家平台虽然有 60% 用户群相互重叠，但是需要稍微不同的策略。在斗音，强烈的节奏更为重要，这样的视频在更为国际化、经济状况也更好的斗音新千年用户群中更受欢迎；而慢手上的农村和工薪阶层用户更多，他们则偏爱会讲故事的歌曲。
Even so, penning god song lyrics isn’t too strenuous, according to Ding Zhaoyu. The 24-year-old college student is both an indie musician and a part-time god song lyricist for a music agency. “What they require is pretty routine,” she says. “I think even people who barely know music could do it.” While she believes that a “real musician” should try to make a statement or extend their practice beyond replicating a formula, she also recognizes that a job’s a job. Indie music alone isn’t enough to pay the bills.
To some critics, however, the problem with god songs isn’t just a matter of taste. While Song was a god in the god song scene, it was his songs that were famous, not him — until a plagiarism accusation made him notorious.
A pianist rearranges the melody according to Song Mengjun’s instructions in Beijing, May 2019. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone
一名钢琴手按照宋孟君的指示调整歌曲的旋律。2019 年 5 月摄于北京 唐晓兰/第六声音 摄
♫ I walk the line ♪
♫ 我在钢丝上行走 ♪
In 2016, music critic Deng Ke accused Song of copying Jay Chou’s song “Nocturne” with a nearly identical rhythm in “The Distance of a Centimeter”. Millions of loyal Jay Chou fans then waged an internet war that pushed Song’s name into the headlines.
Song explains that while he used a similar backing track — which Song calls a “beat” — the resemblance did not exceed eight bars, which is commonly considered fair use.
Guo Chunfei, a senior partner specializing in copyright law at Tiantai Law Firm, tells Sixth Tone that there’s no law specifying the eight-bar rule in China, although it’s often discussed at law conventions. “Rulings on music plagiarism are always subjective, based on the judge’s decision,” Guo says. Judges make rulings with the help of music specialists like critics, professors, or a third-party assessor, Guo explains, but the criteria vary from case to case.
Music copyright disputes overseas are equally contested. In 2018, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ “Blurred Lines” was judged to have infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up”. The pair was ordered to pay Gaye’s estate nearly $5 million and ongoing royalties, following a five-year legal battle that saw more than 200 musicians file an amicus brief in support of Thicke and Williams because they felt the judgment would adversely affect the industry.
在海外，音乐版权的争端也一样是公说公，婆说婆。在 2018 年，Robin Thicke 和 Pharrell Williams 合唱的歌曲《模糊界限》被法院判决侵犯了 Marvin Gaye 1977 年的一首歌曲《Got to Give It Up》。两人被判决赔付给 Gaye 的实体接近 500 万美元，并支付版税。官司打了五年多，在这期间，200 多名音乐家发表了陪审团简报，支持 Thicke 和 Williams，因为他们认为这一判决会对整个音乐产业造成有害的影响。
Recording and production equipment in Yunmao’s studio in Beijing, May 2019. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone
云猫工作室里的音乐录制和生产设备。2019 年 5 月摄于北京 唐晓兰/第六声音 摄
“All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre,” said the document, signed by artists such as Linkin Park, Weezer, and Jennifer Hudson. “By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process.”
简报说：“所有的音乐都借鉴了之前的音乐成果，尤其是各个音乐流派内部更是如此。”诸如林肯公园、Weezer 和 Jennifer Hudson 等艺术家也在简报上签了名。该简报还声称：“这项判决试图消除所有有意义的，能区分被允许的灵感和非法的抄袭的标准。它将会抑制创造力，妨害创作过程。”
The debate over fair use and inspiration rose again this summer, when Katy Perry, her collaborators, and her record label were asked to pay nearly $2.8 million because of similar instrumental elements between her 2013 hit “Dark Horse” and 2008’s Christian rap song “Joyful Noise.” For Chinese god song makers, however, the issue has been ongoing since the first wave of the viral hits. In 2006, singing group Phoenix Legend was accused of plagiarizing six bars from a folk song in their tune “Above the Moon.” After two years, the court ruled that it counted as plagiarism, though the plaintiff only won 20,000 yuan in compensation — 10% of what they had asked for.
今年夏天，又出现了一场有关“合理使用”和“创作灵感”的争辩。Ketty Perry 和她的制作团队在其 2013 年的歌曲《黑马》中使用和 2008 年基督教说唱歌曲《Joyful Noise》相近的配乐元素，被要求赔付约 280 万美元。而对于中国“神曲”作者们而言，类似的事情从第一批歌曲爆火时就开始了。2006 年，歌唱组合“凤凰传奇”被指控在创作《月亮之上》时从一首民歌中抄袭了六个小节。两年后，法院判决该案抄袭成立，但该案原告方只获得了 20000 元人民币赔偿，只占其索赔金额的十分之一。
“The cost of plagiarism is still quite low,” Guo says, adding that, while China’s copyright law has expanded to match international standards, the penalties are much less severe. When plaintiffs win, the payouts are often only a couple hundred yuan — not even enough to cover the attorney fee.
Song Mengjun’s colleague raps into a mic for a new song in Beijing, May 2019. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone
宋孟君的一名同事在麦前唱一首新歌。2019 年 5 月摄于北京 唐晓兰/第六声音 摄
Wang Shu, a composition lecturer at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, says that there’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from existing works but that artists must acknowledge their sources and aim for originality. Wang says that Song’s music is like fast food, which might hit the spot for contemporary audiences, but is likely to change as musical appreciation grows alongside with living standards in China.
“Art should guide people instead of just catering to the market’s appetite,” Wang says.
Song believes he can do both. He’s been investing 30% of his company’s profits into training promising singers who he believes have star potential beyond the god song formula. But he also takes pride in his ability to wrangle the holy trinity of music, math, and marketing.
宋孟君相信，他鱼与熊掌可以得兼。他将公司利润的 30% 投入到培训他认为有前途、有明星潜力、能跳出“神曲”套路的歌手上。而同时，他对于他玩转音乐、数学和市场营销的“神圣三角”的能力也感到自豪。
“Nowadays, making music is just like trading stocks, looking at the data all day,” he says.
Editors: Qian Jinghua and Hannah Lund.
(Header image: Screenshots of “god songs” on the app Douyin. Re-edited by Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)