This Chicago startup makes 'local radio' for Chinese living abroad

Quantum Music is a streaming service for Chinese living abroad.

Written by Andreas Rekdal
Published on Apr. 13, 2018
This Chicago startup makes 'local radio' for Chinese living abroad
quantum music chicago tech company
image via quantum music

Like millions of Chinese expatriates, Chicago entrepreneur Quan Zhang uses WeChat to stay in touch with family and friends still in China. So when the company behind the popular app opened its platform up for third-party developers last year, he saw an opportunity to build a new kind of community for overseas Chinese.

“There are 50 million Chinese people living outside of China, of which 7 million live in North America,” said Zhang. “Somehow, this community is overlooked both by domestic media outlets in China and by media outlets in the United States and Canada.”

His startup, Quantum Music, wants to fill that gap with a network of digital “radio stations” playing a mix of music and original non-fiction audio stories about life as a Chinese person living outside the mainland.

It’s not easy to survive in a different culture, so we’re trying to spread a positive attitude about it.”

Moving from China to North America can be difficult for many, Zhang said. Especially in the first few years after moving, many overseas Chinese find themselves with small social circles. And cultural differences can make it tricky to expand those networks, he said.

“People feel lonely, and they want to be supported by a bigger community,” said Zhang. “We want to build a platform for curated premium Chinese content that serves this community, makes them feel supported and makes them feel accompanied by millions like them.”

Quantum Music is a WeChat “mini-program” — a lightweight app built on top of the chat platform.

Building a music app within a chat app might seem strange to the uninitiated, but WeChat is a far cry from your run-of-the mill messaging service. Since its founding in 2010, WeChat, which has more than one billion monthly active users, has become a hub for practically everything people do online: telephony, gaming, media consumption, payments.

The startup operates on a premium subscription model, charging users directly through WeChat's wallet functionality. According to the company's research, many overseas Chinese have “pocket change” — between $15 and $30 — in their WeChat wallets, from trips and transfers to friends and relatives, that they might be open to spending on premium content.

For now, Quantum Music has two stations: one that plays EDM and pop music and a mellower station that primarily plays jazz. Both stations play a mix of Mandarin and English-language music, a decision made based on extensive user research, Zhang said.

Music and stories are combined in thematic half-hour blocks. The stories are sourced from listeners as well as from freelancers from across the world. Quantum Music employs a team of editors and radio producers who record those stories for broadcast in a professional studio in Shanghai.

“Segments can be about interesting apps available outside of China, fun facts about the overseas Chinese community and common misunderstandings that come up within the community,” said Zhang. “We also have columns about travel, movies and music.”

But although topics may vary, Quantum Music’s content all has a common goal: helping listeners gain a sense of community and belonging.

“It’s not easy to survive in a different culture, so we’re trying to spread a positive attitude about it,” said Zhang. “A lot of the difficulties people are going through are not that unique; millions of people have been through similar challenges. We allow the voices of those people to be heard, to offer some peace of mind.”

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