With the popularity of KTV in China, a karaoke app was never likely to bomb. But the meteoric success of Changba, a smart phone app offering users a portable solo KTV booth, has confounded expectations. Despite barely any advertising or promotion, the viral phenomenon was the number one free iPhone app in China only five days after its release and had accumulated almost a million downloads in its first twenty.
The online market is so fickle that predicting which apps might go viral is as difficult as crossing a Chinese road – so how did Changba manage it? Being free and available on both iPhone and Android helps, but where Changba, meaning both “sing” and “song bar”, really excels is with its two unique selling points. Whilst it might not be the only KTV app on the market– others include KTV Hero and K-Daobao – it’s the first to embrace social media. Users can upload their own renditions onto Sina Weibo or Tencent’s Qzone, and even create an accompanying photo slideshow showing them in action. Other options include browsing other people’s songs and commenting or sending virtual flowers if they enjoyed it. It’s an exclusive feature that has given budding superstars an opportunity to build a grassroots fan base – in fact, after only a couple of months in operation, Changba has already created a number of in-app celebrities with thousands of fans. Secondly, Changba has a filtering facility including inbuilt automatic sound mixers and echo effects – a feature described by founder Chen Hua as “Instagram for sound.” For those struggling to hit the high notes (or any notes at all), it gives the voice a tuneful sheen that could make Shane MacGowan sound like Adele.
The popularity of the app reflects KTV’s status in Chinese culture. Ever since its introduction in the ‘80s, karaoke has been a mainstay in China’s social calendar. Arriving via Japan, the activity was established only in luxury hotels or home devices until it spread into nightclubs in the ‘90s. Now, soundproofed private booths, usually comfortably holding up to six people, offer a space for friends – and even business clients – to eat, drink, and socialize. Psychologist Gesang Zeren of Sichuan University, in an interview with China Radio International, puts its popularity down to China’s inimitable ethos: “Our culture values the cultivation of self-restraint. People are not encouraged to be aggressive and show individuality. But, in KTV clubs, they can unleash themselves and perform anything they want. It’s a way to relax… It’s a good way to vent their emotions.”
The app is owned by a Zuitao, a small company staffed by only 15 people, and was founded by 34-year-old Chen Hua. He originally started Zuitao as a coupon search company – even attracting $2 million of funding from BlueRun ventures – but it ultimately failed to take off. Chen, previously an engineer, changed tack and spent 18 months developing Changba. Though the app is yet to generate revenue, if its viral success can be monetized, Chen has boldly claimed it could be worth $1 billion within four to five years. Whether this is attainable though, depends on future rivals, with much talk discussing the possibility of a potential copycat product by China’s web giant Tencent. But when posed this question by Yahoo, Chen answered resolutely: “Every failed company is because you didn’t do [the product] well enough or you made a mistake, not because other people were competing with you.”