A BURLEIGH Heads independent record label has become the first in the western world to successfully launch into the heavily regulated Chinese digital music distribution market.

Cowbell Digital Music has established a Chinese government-approved website for the online buying and downloading of a variety of artists as well as an office in the Shandong province.

The Chinese website was launched in February and is based on the same model operating Cowbell’s worldwide distribution since October 2009.

In addition to a catalogue of 12 ‘direct artists’ that includes Duran Duran guitarist Dom Brown, the label has signed partnerships with more than 30 independent and major labels with MGM Distribution.

The MGM partnership was established following unsuccessful attempts by the distribution giant to break through China’s cultural filtering systems and has added high profile Australian acts Sneaky Sound System and the John Butler Trio to Cowbell’s repertoire.

“I had a discussion with Sebastian Chase (MGM CEO) and he told me he’s been trying to get into China for 10 years, but every time he’s got something the rules change and he gets shut down,” says Cowbell CEO Shayne Locke.

“He said ‘really you’re our competition to a certain degree, how can we work with you’? The day we launched our new website in China was the day he called and said ‘we’re ready to go with material’.”

Cowbell was established in March 2009 by Locke, Andy Browne (chief operating officer) and well known Gold Coast restaurateurs Michelle and Glen Day. The business name is derived from a Saturday Night Live comedic skit featuring actors Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken.

The Days, who own three Aztec restaurants and Surfers Paradise Montezuma’s, were looking for a better way to support the music career of daughter Jess Day who recently recorded tracks with successful UK dance/trance duo Dreamcatcher.

Explaining the Cowbell model in more detail, Locke says the company acts as a ‘retail portal’ for labels and independent artists looking for support worldwide.

“The basis of it was ‘let’s get other labels to benefit from the digital distribution platform we’ve created’,” he says.

“Partner labels come on to the worldwide platform and act as a distribution point for their material.

"The agreement with MGM is a two way agreement in that they act as a retail distributor for our hard product (CD s) which includes their distribution points in the US and the UK.”

Cowbell’s direct artists benefit from an online store set up on their own websites.

This complements the collective store on the Cowbell website, but the ultimate advantage is that the Gold Coast company assumes absolutely no copyright ownership of any material it’s distributing.

“We upload material under our collapsible copyright system so we don’t own any copyright – more provide a service,” says Locke.

“So rather than us saying, ‘hey you release this track’, we basically go into a partnership with the artist and any marketing, track releases and promotional material we work on in a consultancy role. That’s how we’ve focused on our artists and we could never have secured the likes of Dom Brown without that policy.”

While Locke says it is still ‘early days’ in assessing the success of Cowbell’s global and Chinese operations, the move is making serious waves in a largely untapped industry.

“The most important point is this whole thing is that there is no other western label on the ground in China at this point,” says Locke.

“The day after the Chinese launch was announced I received an email from the biggest digital distribution company in China who contacted me to say ‘we think we need to work together as we see you as competition’.”

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