SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Yang Chengang was a music teacher by day and lounge singer by night in central China's Hubei province when one day three years ago a friend suggested putting one of his songs on the Internet.
Fast forward to 2005, when Yang and his song, "Mice Love Rice," have become two of the hottest refrains on China 's music scene -- all without the help of a slick marketing campaign, national concert tour or even a proper album release.
"At first, the Internet posting didn't have much effect," said the 26-year-old Yang, whose debut, self-titled album won't even hit music stores until November.
"But then last year, a DJ made a disco version of it. It was the original song, but with a faster rhythm. He put it on the Web, but people started playing it in discos as well."
The phenomenon that propelled Yang to fame has gone on to lift a growing number of others to similar stardom, all helped by China's 100 million-strong Internet user base that is now the world's second largest and a growing crop of young companies trying to cash in on the trend.
"Mice Love Rice" has been downloaded from the Internet around 100 million times, according to Yang -- a fact that led more than 20 record companies to approach him about signing a contract.
Even Vivendi's Universal Music, the world's biggest record label, has got in on the act, signing a recent contract with Internet singer Dao Lang, said Harry Hui, Universal Music's president of Southeast Asia .
Since signing Dao, Universal has released an album of his previously recorded tracks, and is preparing a new CD as well.
"We have been tracking this pretty closely," Hui said. "The Internet is becoming a very good promotional platform that did not exist before for finding new talent. I don't see it as a threat, but as a complement to our business."
Similar phenomena are happening in other markets, as exemplified earlier this year when the song "Crazy Frog Axel F," based on a cell phone ring tone mimicking the sound of motorcycle engines, became a major hit in Britain .
But the trend of using the Internet as a promotional tool is especially suited to China , where traditional broadcast media typically used to promote new music are tightly controlled and less available to promoters, said Hui.
The market's lack of big labels with fat promotional budgets is also a factor behind the trend,said Scarlett Li, chief operator officer of R2G , a content management company.
She estimated that at least three or four of the top 10 songs on China 's music charts at any one time have come from Internet artists over the last year.
"There is a music community in China online," she said, citing chat rooms, peer-to-peer download sites and music portals as parts of the broader Chinese online music community.
"These are spots where young people go to find and exchange music," she said. "Some of the Internet singers just throw their music into these different pools and hope something comes out."
A number of the major western labels, including Universal, Warner Music and EMI Group have operations in China, which was the world's 19th largest by value in 2003 but was No. 7 in terms of units sold, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).
But despite the market's huge potential, all the major labels have been reluctant to make significant investments there due to piracy rates that some estimate to be as high as 90 percent.
Enter the Internet, where a growing crop of entrepreneurial Web site operators have seized on the medium and started signing exclusive deals with online singers.
Site operators then post the songs on the Internet, collecting a fee each time one is downloaded and paying a cut of the proceeds to the artist.
One such service, operated by Hong Kong-listed Tom Online, charges about 2 yuan per song downloaded, and gives 40 percent of proceeds to the artist while retaining the rest, said chief executive Wang Leilei.
"We sign contracts personally with singers and repackage their Internet songs and promote them via our music channel," he said. "We believe we'll get good results for the effort."