"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Travel
May 11, 2010

Who Can Start The Music?

Hong Kong has no shortage of elaborate opening parties. Not a week goes by, in fact, often not a day goes by without an invite to some kind of opening, for a store, or gallery or whatever. To be honest, these events seldom attract me. They can keep their free drinks and stale canapes, their […]

Hong Kong has no shortage of elaborate opening parties. Not a week goes by, in fact, often not a day goes by without an invite to some kind of opening, for a store, or gallery or whatever. To be honest, these events seldom attract me. They can keep their free drinks and stale canapes, their fashion-followers clamouring for a photo in the society pages and, most of all, they can keep the thoughtlessly curated, DJ-driven music.

That said, I made an exception for the opening of the Monocle pop-up store, in the Pacific Place branch of Lane Crawford. I was delighted, upon arriving to see a neat set-up for a live band – whoever this band were, I thought, they were ready to sound good at a modest volume level.

However, my heart sank as the band walked past me. This wasn’t a local, Hong Kong group. Speaking to Tyler Brule, Editor in Chief of Monocle a little later confirmed my suspicion. They had flown the very excellent Immigrant’s Bossa Band in from Tokyo for the night. In fact you can read about the night on their blog (or if your Japanese is as non-existant as mine, you can just look at the pictures). To make matters worse, Monocle’s recent Hong Kong city survey made no mention of the local music scene – a glaring omission compared to their reviews of other cities!

When I arrived here in 2006, the local music scene didn’t inspire and I made the decision not to look for live opportunities. Moreover, in the first year or so I had a number of bad experiences and decided to focus my work online. However, I’m increasingly keen to get back into live playing and in the last year I’ve reconsidered my stance on local work and collaboration.

Which leads me to why, on a late Friday afternoon I was walking into Lan Kwai Fong, the popular entertainment district in Hong Kong (and easily one of my least favourite parts of the city). Red Bull were organising an event focussed on encouraging the local music scene (as part of the Red Bull Music Academy), bringing together an insightful panel of active, locally experienced DJs and musicians. The discussion soon turned to the challenges facing musicians here.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Hong Kong is a lack of live music outlets – rents are astronomical and few venues are committed to live music (Spike HK has an excellent post on this here ). For example, compared to most global cities, Hong Kong is unusual in not having at least one well established, decent-sized Jazz venue.

It was surprising to hear the panel suggest Hong Kong needed better music journalism. Sure, the main local newspaper, the South China Morning Post is a disappointment. But some of the magazines, such as BC, HK magazine and TimeOutHK all have supported local showcases with regular features.

I wonder if the obstacle may have more to do with the quality of local music publicity. Quite a few festivals, local acts and smaller touring concerts don’t seem to be supported by sustained and strategic media campaigns. Moreover, few local acts or venues have compelling, regularly updated websites.

At a number of points in the discussion, the panel came back to the need for better promoters and managers. Certainly the shape of the music business today demands a new kind of music manager. The digital revolution and the collapse of the old music record business presents a lot of opportunities for musicians who are willing to be entrepreneurial. It’s pointless to follow the approach that bands and musicians took when I was a teenager!

I was encouraged to hear some of the panellists suggest that local musicians raise their sights and not just focus on being “big” in Hong Kong. It will help any band or musician who wants to break out internationally to focus on doing something fresh and original, perhaps collaborating across musical genres.

It was surprising to hear no mention of the role of record stores and musical instrument stores in supporting the local music scene. Historically record stores have been a focus of attention for music fans and musicians alike (in Sydney Bluebird records played that role for the jazz community, utopia records for the heavy metal crowd and Red Eye for independent music). Moreover, musical instrument stores can support local artists, studios and performers in both casual and formal ways.

It was also surprising to hear no mention made about the effect of corporate entertaining. Massive entertainment budgets can sometimes mean well paid gigs for musicians, but they can also distort the local music scene, putting some of the best gigs behind a wall.

Personally, I’d like to see more cross discipline interaction in Hong Kong. Although music venues are expensive and sometimes uncooperative, there are a lot of other creative spaces in this town. For example, there are a lot of great photo studios, which makes me think about Chase Jarvis’ live music photoshoots. There is a lot more scope in this town for enterprising partnerships that support more than one artistic platform.

I’m cautiously optimistic that live music could continue to slowly improve in Hong Kong. Musicians have it within their power to improve their online offerings, to work harder on original material, to collaborate more widely and generally be more professional. But, that will only change things up to a point. Without changes that make it easier to open larger venues in a wider range of districts, without better publicity to get information about artists out to the public (and to other artists) and without more local businesses willing to build partnerships with musicians things will not change in a hurry.

Moreover, the market itself might resist. The irony is that although those elaborate openings and the whole culture of Lan Kwai Fong are bathed in loud music they are, in fact, anti-music.

In a couple of weeks the Music Matters Conference will take over a number of bars and clubs in order to showcase 40 live acts from around the world. Personally I think it is the boldest and most important cultural experiment I’ve seen in my nearly four years here in Hong Kong. Can it help start the music? I don’t know, but I hope so.

Paul 14 years ago

A very insightful posting on the music scene. I think the “Hong Kong arts scene” as a whole is still a culturally divided idea. All areas (music, drama, film, etc) seem to be affected by this division and suffer a form of isolation as a result. ‘Local’ music for example is either the domain of Canto/Mandarin-pop controlled by the big idol making conglomerates and consumed by native HK Chinese. Mention ‘indie’ among most locals and you hear names like Anthony Wong, Ketchup, Pancakes or LMF but its a relatively small list. Even that tier is more semi-pro than ‘indie’ these days. For most people under the age of 40 though music is whatever plays in the HK auditorium, a continuous cycle of the Andy Lau’s, Joey Yung’s and Twins reunions etc. Is this music or singing? Depends on who you ask I guess. This is all fed back into the whole Karaoke industry that remains a staple of entertainment for many young locals.

But then you have the whole ex-pat scene with its club house DJs and imported mix-masters. But as foreign as the canto-pop concert might be to many ex-pats I would gather that many locals would find this music scene equally distant.

Local Drama/Theatre suffers from this same notion of division. There are quite a few local drama productions put on each year that are amazing. Yet these shows are often specific for the local audience. Non-Cantonese speakers are generally out of luck as only a few of these productions will offer English subtitles (or even a synopsis in the program) which is a shame as many of them are extremely well done and focus on local issues and topics. Of course there are a handful of English based drama troupes but these can fall outside of the LCSD range for funding qualifications and lack the political connections to get funding or space to perform. This seems to fall in line with your points on a lack of performance spaces/venues for musicians. Larger venues are usually booked year round by established companies and the large number of international festivals hosted in Hong Kong.

Of course education remains the biggest issue in my book. Despite the large number of private tutorial centers in Hong Kong that teach music there is only one real institution to follow a dedicated music path in Hong Kong and the is HKAPA. While it is a good school, it lacks competition to its program offerings and only accepts a small number of students each year. Despite Hong Kong’s push for the West Kowloon Cultural District, it is really going to take allot more than fancy architecture to change it into a true ‘arts hub’. I have read more than a few articles with regard to Singapore’s push for arts development and I gather that they are far surpassing Hong Kong in this area currently.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Paul, thanks for the excellent comment. You’ve run with a lot of important issues.

It’s really important, for the sake of completeness, to mention CantoPop. That’s the big end of the music-business here. Also, the karaoke angle is fascinating to me. It drives the style of songwriting, which is why so much Cantopop sounds to me completely like the soft end of contemporary Gospel music. Moreover, there are a lot of people belting out Karaoke every week, which is actually a lot of creative energy that might have, in another time, been devoted to performance – maybe.

I find the drama scene even more tragic because my limited exposure makes me believe there is huge creativity there. By not offering any English support, they not only limit audience size locally, but also international reach.

Up to a point I agree with you about education. I would have loved to study in some form at the HKAPA, but they have been totally unreceptive. I had one smaller school offer to charge me double the going NYC rate for a DAW certification course. Behaviours like that actually hinder, rather than help the local music scene. The arrival of SCAD is an important step for visual arts and HK, if it was keen to promote music would be wise to chase a similar venture with a music school. But, my feeling is that when Berklee open something in Asia, it will not be here.

WKCD will not fix things, largely because it is an island in terms of human interaction. What Hong Kong needs are creative districts with a mix of music venues and stores in amongst other creative industries. Making it easier to convert post-instrustrial spaces in the studios and live venues would have a greater impact. A big hall at WKCD might help in drawing big name touring acts. But creating a local scene means more venues like City Hall and smaller as well as pubs and restaurants that can host live music, with audience comfort and good sound.

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