Sky's not the limit

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Popular singer My Linh performs at a live show in Ho Chi Minh City May 2012. Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

A number of online news and music channels formed a league called Sky Music late last month, promising to pay for and promote musical projects, protect artists' copyrights and stand by them in times of difficulties.

The members are entertainment TV channel YanTV, its news website Yan News as well as popular websites VnExpress, 24h, Ngoi Sao and Eva; trendy music sites Nhac Cua Tui, Nhac Vui, Nhac So; and Hanoi-based digital content provider VMG Media.

The three music websites are listened to by some 10 million people while the news websites serve 90 percent of local online readers, representatives said at the launching ceremony on November 22.

Singers and songwriters signing contracts with the group will be supported through three projects Sky Promotion, Sky Production and Sky Chart, besides an annual Sky Music Award, said Trinh Hoang Tuan of Nhac Vui (Fun Music) which plays at

Sky Music will spend up to VND400 million (US$19,000) for each musical project, either a recording, a live show or musical video production, besides updating their work constantly.

The artists won't need to pay back, but their recordings and videos will be presented exclusively by the league's music site members for two weeks before other units can use them with Sky Music's agreements.

Sky Chart results are based on the numbers of plays on the member music websites and is likely to be the biggest music billboard in Vietnam, and the data will pretty much decide the names to be called at Sky Music Award.

For all the promises, there is still skepticism that the new federation is not simply an umbrella for artists, but an attempt to counter the Recording Industry Association of Vietnam (RIAV), a non-profit NGO that used to be the only effective representative of local singers and songwriters on copyrights issues.

One day before Sky Music was introduced, the association sent complaints to the culture and information ministries, newspapers as well as the aforementioned music sites, saying Nhac Vui had been using 1,255 recordings registered on RIAV without permission, Nhac Cua Tui 2,181 recordings, and Nhac So 2,069.

Some people also wonder if it was really a strike against the cooperation between RIAV, the country's leading Internet content provider VNG, and the top music website Zing Mp3, which has been running all the kinds of support and charts and awards that Sky Music is going to adopt, and successfully, according to a report by The Thao & Van Hoa (Sport and Culture) newspaper.

The conflict dates back to last July, when Zing became the only music site that has access to recordings registered with RIAV.

This privilege was gained after the association signed a contract with VNG (operator of Zing) and put all recordings under the company's development right, after four years leaving the songs to be shared between Zing and other music sites.

Other sites had spent months and still failed to come to an agreement with the company, and in October, they announced they were removing all songs that belong to RIAV.

Asked about the association's beef, a Sky Music representative called it inappropriate as they were still trying to deal with the problem.

"There are a number of songs that we were still figuring out if they are old or new (i.e. if they belong exclusively to RIAV store or RIAV was reusing from other sources)," Nhan The Luan, a manager with Nhac Cua Tui (My Music), said.

Luan said the sites had sent a notice to consult the association, asking it if they had missed any songs but the association or VNG never replied, and chose to condemn them publicly instead.

Truong Thi Thu Dung, vice chairwoman of the recording association, told Tuoi Tre newspaper that it signed the contract with VNG as the association lacks people, technology and equipment "to develop and manage the recordings most effectively."

Dung said any site that wants to use RIAV's 40,000 recordings will have to go through VNG, and several sites have failed to do it, although "we have many times contacted the websites and expressed our interest in continuing the cooperation."

Luan said the fees and terms set by VNG "do not suit" them.

Zing now occupies nearly half of the online music market, and the three other sites combined account for the other half.

But the copyright market is divided into more and smaller pieces as recording units are also in the fray.

Zing, which is the sixth-most visited site in Vietnam, has nearly 20 percent of the pie. In October last year, it signed a streaming and downloading agreement with Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, allowing Vietnamese users of the website to listen and download songs from Universal for a fee.

Industry insiders have said artists are unlikely to be attracted to the deal with Sky Music if it makes them an opponent of Zing or the VNG-RIAV alliance. 

Pros and cons

They will have to consider the pros and cons between signing a contract with Zing and with Sky Music. One minus would be the first two-week exclusive use of their products by Sky Music, before it shares their use with other sites, which may not include Zing.

Tuan, also managing director of Sky Music, said at the launching ceremony that the new league aims to use "group power" to protect artists and the audience.

Copyrights violations have been common in the local business although they have rarely been brought to serious settlement.

Established people said that young artists are not used to copyright issues and do not realize the importance of respecting others' property.

The use of pirated songs has been common practice in the music industry, including in popular game shows like The Voice or Vietnam Idol, with both organizers and participants paying no regard to copyright rules.

Such violations happen almost every day, if songs that have been criticized for imitating Japanese, Korean or Chinese songs are included.

Songwriter Pham Toan Thang, who has been a victim of copyright violations several times after songs he sold to some singers were used by others on stage, said he usually chose to let things go as government agencies never intervened effectively.

Thang said artists that make a fuss about the violations can "end up caught in noisy scandals for nothing."

Late last year, the government considered introducing fees for listening to and downloading online music, but little has happened since.

Zing's contract with Universal was signed only after it was caught in strong criticism that the website was a hotbed of piracy. Companies like Coca-Cola and Samsung pulled advertising from the website after being alerted that the site provided unlicensed downloads of Western and local songs.

Luan said that Sky Music was set up to offer artists another choice when they need to promote and protect their works.

"It aims to boost the development of local music industry," Luan said in a VnExpress report.

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