It is a dystopian image.
Young Chinese people in their twenties who stream their days for ten hours.
Their virtual world is colorful, but there is a gray, printed atmosphere around them.
The streamers have nothing special to report, but have follower numbers that reach millions.
The streaming boys and girls sing songs during their shift, tell jokes, or just look cute.
However, Chinese live streamers do not all have a golden voice.
Their singing performances are often questionable and when they look at their dances, Michael Jackson would turn around in his grave.
In other words: you don’t have to be there for talent.
What is the appeal of live streaming in China, and how is money made with it?
Part of the culture
Max, the CEO of MJ Entertainment, one of the largest streaming platforms in China, formulates an answer to the question about the appeal of streaming.
“Live streaming is so popular because it is associated with thousands of years of Chinese culture and history. In ancient China, people acted on the street for money. In cabarets, too, visitors often tip the singers to encourage them.”
That used to be, but what about now?
“Today Chinese young people lead fully digital lives. That is why there is also a market for those different types of performances,” says Max.
Meet Lele. But not in real life.
Lele Tao is 24 years old, lives in Shanghai and has been streaming since she was eighteen.
She always keeps her lips in a Joker smile from the many streams.
In a BBC documentary, she says that at the age of eighteen she did not expect that she would make streaming her career at all.
In the meantime, she has built up a follower base of more than 1 million peers and earns money through the streaming platform where she spends almost half of her day.
Lele did not expect that she would ever develop a streaming career, but now has more than 1 million followers.
The pressure to perform in front of your audience for ten hours every day is high.
Tao tells BBC that she is “not satisfied with her appearance”.
When the BBC cameraman points her camera at her during the report, she says apologetically that she “has never appeared on the screen without makeup”, after which she starts applying a thick layer of white foundation and contouring.
“Is it really OK that way?” Tao asks. “I’m so scared of losing followers.”
More than a monthly wage
Lele says that in her first month as a streamer she earned $2,800 in 15 days.
Her father seems to be proud of that.
“At first we didn’t believe her, but when we saw the money in her account, that changed quickly,” he smiles.
Meanwhile, Lele earns $37,000 a month.
Despite that astronomical amount, Lele feels constantly stressed.
“I feel a lot of pressure as more and more beautiful girls join the platform. I am not that pretty or interesting myself, so I have to work harder to be liked. ”
Gray vs virtual color
Unlike game streamers in our western regions, Lele does not stream from her bedroom, but from a gray office building.
The space where Lele streams is furnished as a real bedroom.
Lele is managed by MJ entertainment, one of the largest streaming companies in China.
MJ ensures that the live streamers – mostly girls – stay up to date with the latest dance trends.
That is why MJ organizes a dance session every afternoon, where they are taught sexy moves.
After the dance class, however, the girls do not get a break, but have to get started with their nine-hour streaming shift.
Success, ambition and stress
A lot of time creeps into the preparation of Lele’s streaming shift: “when I just started streaming, I spent three hours preparing.”
With her “preparation”, Lele means that she learns new songs for an hour, scans the internet for interesting news, and then prepares jokes for another hour.
Every streamer who wants to be successful must keep abreast of new trends – Lele Tao
You can say a lot about Lele, but she is ambitious.
“Every streamer who wants to be successful must keep abreast of new trends,” says Lele.
And Lele is certainly successful.
But what exactly is the business model behind the live streaming?
In other words; how can live streamers live from what they do?
The platform is mainly maintained by rich patrons.
They send money to Lele in the form of presents.
In the BBC documentary, Lele says that her fan Taoqi bought her $6,000 worth of virtual gifts that day.
You wonder where Taoqi gets the money.
One of her biggest fans, however, is Sha Ge, a young man who has already spent more than $15,000 on Lele.
“When I first saw Lele on her streaming platform, I immediately fell for her cute face and sweet voice.”
Sha Ge has a girlfriend, but sees Lele as a “family member” and a “superstar”.
He thinks for a moment and says he is well aware that most relationships on the internet are based solely on money.
No time for a “social” life
You also wonder if Lele actually earns as much money as is claimed.
Her management claims 50 percent of her income.
If Lele refuses to sign her new contract, she can risk a fine of up to 1.2 billion dollars.
I don’t have time for a social life – Lele Tao
When you consider that MJ Entertainment takes care of different streamers, the calculation is quickly made and you immediately know who earns the most.
That insight is also dawning on Lele.
She does not know how long she can continue with her streaming career.
“I don’t have time for a social life,” she notes.