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.