Newman Chang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 May, 2004, 12:00am

The past 12 months have seen more whingeing than ever from the music industry. Gone are the days when the record-buying public had no choice but to fork out over the odds for cheaply manufactured CDs. Internet downloads are giving 'the biz' the fight of its life. Record companies are struggling, and shrinking their workforce globally to compensate. Warner Music was the latest in Hong Kong to initiate a wave of redundancies earlier this year. Rumours suggest that rivals may be about to follow suit.

So, Newman Chang's independent record label and events-promoting Zino Group is a bit of a cork, bobbing in these storm-lashed seas, while the corporate armada sweeps ever closer to the rocks.

'We're in the middle of a journey,' he says. 'CD sales have dropped, but legal download sites such as iTunes have sold millions. I'm optimistic about it. It means that more people are trying out new music. There are more local bands in Hong Kong, and there are more overseas acts coming.'

The 35-year-old impresario is a 13-year veteran of the local music industry. 'I grew up here, I learned all the bad things here,' he says, referring to a Cantonese saying. Working for the likes of BMG and Polygram (which became Universal in 1999), he had the opportunity to oversee the likes of U2, Santana, Bon Jovi and DJ Gilles Peterson throughout most of the 90s. He's also worked with Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Leon Lai Ming, Kelly Chen Wai-lum and Andy Hui Chi-on.

By 1999, however, things were noticeably changing for the worse. 'A new corporate culture came in,' he says. 'Before, things had been very different. You had the cash-cow acts that needed taking care of, while new talents were encouraged and developed, too.'

Chang says the focus suddenly shifted away from nurturing new talent once the merger with Universal was sealed, and his job became swamped by Hong Kong's maddening penchant for bureaucracy.

'After the merger, most of the time you had people looking after their own agendas,' he says. 'Meetings were held, for no purpose. It got me thinking that there had to be things I could do to make this different.'

So, Chang left the confines of the corporate world in 2001 to go it alone. That year he helped stage the Future Sound Festival, the first to put local DJs such as Christian and Frankie Lam alongside so-called superstar acts such as John '00' Fleming and Mauro Picotto. 'I'd say that this was the moment when I decided where I wanted to go next,' he says. 'Doing events is exciting. It brings you in touch with all walks of life, whether you're arranging things with the police or negotiating with the triads.'

By the time he completed a two-year Berkeley Professional Diploma in Marketing through the University of Hong Kong, he'd already put together his own independent label.

The events arm of the Kowloon-based, three-man operation has brought the likes of the Plump DJs, Adam Freeland and Timo Maas to town, as well as nu-metal miserablists Korn.

'I had this pressure to sell Korn tickets,' he says. 'People mostly thought that it wasn't going to work, that it was too alternative and that the market didn't exist. But the show turned out to be a success. The music scene is very alive here.'

In the next six months, Chang will turn his attention to Hong Kong and the mainland, where he says he has some new signings in the pipeline. 'We've all had enough of those superstar DJs for now, I think,' he says.

Chang also plans to bring former Rialto frontman Louis Elliot over for a solo show next month. 'The best part of doing this independently is that there is less bull****,' he says. 'You can focus on the real things. The flip side is, of course, the fact that you have to chase revenue to support the company.'