Rich painters and poor rock stars

Zuoxiao Zuzhou's 500-yuan double album

What's the secret to getting rich in the arts?

The culture section of this week's issue of New Weekly addresses that question in a number of different ways, looking at marketing strategies for online fiction, classical music, and modern art.

The piece translated below examines the intersection between China's rock scene and its modern art world, and runs the numbers to figure out which is a more lucrative career path:

What makes more money: rock music or painting?

A career guide for rock stars
by Mu Ma 沐马 / NW

This is not a mathematics question. True rockers don't see rock in economic terms, but ultimately there's still an account.

Most young rockers follow their passion, but how many people you can get to pogo in front of the stage or how many tickets the box office can sell relies more on luck. Bob Dylan, for example, had a good sense of direction. He was interested in art in his youth but later got into folk music. On 14 June of this year, many years after he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he held a gallery exhibition at a British museum. Who's going to tell him, seriously, whether or not his work is any good?

Similarly unconventionally, Paul McCartney did the same thing. He held an exhibition in New York — art is freer there than in London, so he was able to hang his comic books up on the wall. Don't take this the wrong way — it's just the rock star effect. Our own Dou Wei, for example, says he paints, so his fans think he's an artist. Pop singers, don't imitate him, or you'll get slammed.

In reality, many young rockers lingered between rock music and art. For example, Tang Dynasty's Ding Wu came out of the Beijing Industrial Arts College, and Sound Toy's Qu Bo formally studied art and taught a few years of it, not to mention Zuoxiao Zuzhou, who came out of the Central Academy of Art. China's rockers have a certain collective tendency: they paint and paint, but then they feel like the canvas is too small — a stage is bigger, so they go into rock. But if they stayed with painting from the beginning, would they be living more comfortable lives these days?

Quantitatively, we should pit Cui Jian against Zhang Xiaogang. But that's not really a comparison at all: a single painting in the revolutionary romanticism style can fetch 20 million yuan, but no way could one of Old Cui's 20-yuan CDs sell a million copies. In rock circles, Cui is an outlier rather than a model to be imitated. At roughly the same level are the Three Heroes of Magic Stone, but they never got rich even after years of fame, and now they're all pushing 40. The most famous artist in Chinese rock circles is that old rascal Ding Wu. After graduating industrial arts, he formed Black Panther and Tang Dynasty but never abandoned painting. He even teaches art today. His only two albums in 20 years are still selling, but they sold off the rights long ago, leaving them with nothing no matter how many get sold. If Old Ding had devoted himself to painting from the first, he may very well have gotten rich rather than having to hit the clubs his advanced age.

Disc 2 of Zuoxiao Zuzhou's 500-yuan double album

So let's compare the middle generation. Representing artists born in the 70s is Chen Ke, whose works sell for more than 300,000 yuan these days. Anything Chen paints is far more expensive than the price Xie Tianxiao, the new godfather of rock, commands for a concert, but in their respective domains, Xie ranks much higher than Chen. Since his last appearance on CCTV, Xie reportedly gets 50,000 yuan per concert, but that's just for commercial appearances, and he still has to split it with his band. One tour on the bar circuit brings in less than 100,000, and that's tiring and physically draining. Old Xie has been painting since he was young and still enjoys it. During one interview, he earnestly described his shortcomings: "Every time I finish a painting that I think is good, I always want to add a little bit more to make it even better. As a result, if I'm not careful I make it worse than it was before and begin to regret it." Indeed, he's an amateur. Xie has a brother, a real artist, who's less well-known than he is but who makes more money.

Art backgrounds are particularly prevalent among mid-generation rockers. Before he got into rock, Sound Toy's Qu Bo taught art for six years at a school in Neijiang, Sichuan, yet he left it to rock out. Everyone said that the cover to "The Most Beautiful Journey" was excellent: Qu infused all of his artistry into what is to date his only EP. But he refused to join the scene in Beijing: "Money and fame aren't important. What's important is enjoying the music." Muma is another example: he also designed the packaging of his first album "muma," ample proof of his talent at sketching. This son of a rail engineer joined the rock world after hanging around the art institute for years. If Muma's latest album sold 20,000 copies at a sticker price of 35 yuan, it would be valued at 700,000 yuan, no match for the price of a post-70s artist. Zuoxiao Zuzhou's latest album, "You Know Where the East Is?" has a sticker price of 500 yuan, but it's a limited edition; naturally he's not greedy for money.

The question of rock versus art really ought to be taken down to the kids. This past May, the students of the Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts held an auction at which the highest price was given to a water-color painting that sold for 2,100 yuan. At the same time, down in Guangzhou a college rock band was an opening act at a bar, and each band member received 300 yuan. Frequency-wise, painting can't compare to playing a club, so if you want to make money at the novice level, it looks like rock is more reliable than art. But that's where the problem lies: at the start, how are those rock guys supposed to know that the gap widens as they go forward? Eventually, when they get to middle age, the painters are enjoying life in their mansions while the rockers are still stubbornly poor and idealistic.


Zuoxiao Zuzhou (左小祖咒) founded the rock band No, and was part of the art collective Beijing East Village. The pyramid of pigs on the cover of his latest album echoes the collective's famous 1995 photo, To Add One Metre to an Unknown Mountain.

The Three Heroes of Magic Stone (魔岩三杰) were Dou Wei (窦唯), Zhang Chu (张楚), and He Yong (何勇), who signed to the Magic Stone label and came out with albums in 1994.

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