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Stones Set to Invade China

Censorship, bootlegging still an issue

March 25, 2003 12:00 AM ET

More than thirty-five years after the Rolling Stones tweaked the lyrics of "Let's Spend the Night Together" for the Ed Sullivan Show, the band will take the stage for a pair of shows in China, April 1st in Shanghai and April 4th in Beijing, and censorship of sexually tinged material is again at issue.

In March, a promoter for the event said that the band was forced to cut four songs -- "Brown Sugar," "Honky Tonk Women," "Beast of Burden" and "Let's Spend the Night Together" -- from a potential set list, by order of the Chinese Ministry of Culture. However, the Stones claim that no such demands were made. "Two of the songs erroneously reported to have been banned were not even on the list of songs submitted for possible inclusion in the band's performance," a spokesperson for the band said.

The concerts follow the release of 40 Licks in China, the first legitimate Stones release in the country's history. Which isn't to say that albums by the Rolling Stones can't be found in China. While most Western albums wouldn't pass muster with the Culture Ministry, the country's bootleg industry deals with volume in the millions. Because so many albums are pressed in Asia, export-quality albums find their way to the black market through deliberate factory overruns. And a thriving replication industry has helped lead to a bootleg industry in China estimated at more than ninety percent of the country's album sales, the largest piracy figure in the world, according to the International Recording Media Association, a global watchdog organization akin to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Some artists like Eminem (whose albums likely will never have a legitimate distribution channel in Asia) and Radiohead (banned after appearing at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert) are a non-presence outside the bootleg market. But the inroads attempted with authorized releases -- like EMI's 40 Licks and the 1999 release of Yellow Submarine, the first Beatles album authorized in China -- have been undermined by an illegal industry that offers albums for the equivalent of fifty cents.

"Anything over here, you hear over there," says David O'Dell, an Austin, Texas, native, who worked as an A&R rep for Rock Records and Magic Stone, two upstarts in China. "But it's not played on the radio, because that's illegal. So the demand for CDs is enormous."

O'Dell says that the profitability of bootlegs makes legitimate releases a losing proposition for those trying to legitimately export music. "It's easy for the record store to buy the pirated ones for pennies with a profit margin that's huge," he says. "The legal pressings are an extremely low quantity, and you'd have to pay U.S. prices. Nobody can afford that. For pirates, it's too cheap; we get everything made in China. It's just our way of life, and it's biting back. But I don't think Mick Jagger is hurting."

Keith Richards, for his part, doesn't seem to be either. "It's about time they let us in," he told the press at the time the shows were announced. The two concerts -- set for April 1st in Shanghai and April 4th in Beijing -- are the band's first performances in China; a request to play a concert in 1970 was rejected.

And as for the bootleggers, the game has grown a bit more complicated. IRMA's latest figures are from 2001. Stats from 2002 will likely be processed later this year and will reveal whether or not China has been able to make any headway in curbing the bootlegging. In the late Nineties the government shut down more than thirty factories guilty of illegally copying CDs. But a crackdown on the bootleggers has just moved the production centers to neighboring areas like Hong Kong, which continues to feed an audience craving the Western sounds its government predominantly prohibits.

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