They came, they saw, they rocked
If 2012 is indeed the end of the world, then Hong Kong's music scene can at least say it went out with a bang. From living legends (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Eagles) to established, world-famous stadium acts (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Linkin Park) to the current crop of pop royalty (Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Maroon 5), Hong Kong had a big star in town seemingly every other month.
And that's just the mainstream names. We haven't even got to the niche subgenres such as indie rock (MGMT, Friendly Fires, Paramore), hip hop (Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Far East Movement), and the not-super-famous-but-well-respected-veterans (Elbow, Suede, Mogwai).
Factor in two music festivals, Clockenflap (headlined by big indie names such as The Cribs and Bombay Bicycle Club) and Taiwan Calling (which featured 19 Taiwan indie bands), and even an emergence of respected, legitimate Cantopop shows, it's safe to say 2011 had, arguably, the strongest and most diverse line-up of live concerts ever.
'Across the board, we've had more shows, in more varying scales and genres, than ever before,' says Justin Sweeting, music director at Untitled Entertainment.
Cyrus Lo Sai-man, entertainment editor at TVB.com, agrees, adding: 'I don't remember a time when there've been so many shows to watch in Hong Kong.'
This year's boom in live concerts can be attributed to various factors - part dedication and hard work of local promoters and music lovers, part emergence of the internet, and part sea-change in the global music industry - coming into play, forming a perfect storm of chance and circumstances.
First, let's credit the promoters. Hong Kong has always attracted a steady stream of big-name commercial acts - think Christina Aguilera and Coldplay of previous years and Bieber and Lavigne in 2011. But the emergence of a group of dedicated indie promoters, such as Sweeting, Clockenflap's Jay Forster and Mike Hill, and Songs For Children's Mike Middleton and Jane Blondel, has given Hong Kong a platform for up-and-coming international acts - artists who may not be widely acclaimed, but are generating buzz in the music industry. These so-called 'middle-class bands', from The Drums to Vivian Girls, are coming to Hong Kong on a, seemingly, monthly basis.
The fact these up-and-coming, yet-to-be-world-famous bands have a built-in audience here can be attributed to the World Wide Web.
'The internet, specifically YouTube and social media sites, has made music much more accessible to everyone,' explains Colleen Ironside, managing director of Live Limited and a longtime promoter in Hong Kong. 'The Hong Kong radio doesn't really play music, so before YouTube and social media, it was a lot harder to explore and find new, different types of music.'
For example, when Ironside brought REM here in 1994, she estimates that expatriates made up 80 per cent of the crowd. For the Red Hot Chili Peppers this year? 'It was probably 80 per cent local [Hongkongers],' she says.
Of course, the internet is also the reason artists are placing more emphasis on touring these days.
'An artist back then could put out a hit record and watch the money flow in,' says music producer Jimmy Iovine, who has worked with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga. 'Now with internet piracy hurting record sales drastically, artists have to go on tour.'
And with Hong Kong being the gateway to the mainland and its booming economy, it's easy to see why artists want to come here, Iovine adds.
Nigel Peters, director of Midas Promotions, which organised shows such as the Bieber and Swift gigs this year, agrees: 'It's much easier to convince an artist to come here now than, say, 10 years ago.'
Ironside, who's promoted some of the biggest Hong Kong shows - including David Bowie and No Doubt - believes it all comes down to timing. 'Bringing an international superstar to Hong Kong isn't as simple as both sides saying yes,' she says. 'It's not financially viable for artists to just fly here for a one-off show - Kylie Minogue, for example, had 62 staff on tour with her - so Hong Kong is almost always just one stop in a long Asian tour. That means they have only a small window of time here, and we have to find an available venue to fit that slot - which is a lot tougher than it sounds.' Hong Kong has been very lucky this year in terms of venue timing, she says.
It's not just the western concerts that are getting more diverse and exciting - even the local Cantonese concert scene is going through a metamorphosis of sorts.
In addition to the usual big stadium shows starring Hong Kong's pop idols - two of the four 'Heavenly Kings of Canto-pop', Aaron Kwok Fu-shing and Leon Lai Ming, are staging huge pop extravaganzas this month - there's been a mini rock revival on the local music scene, with pop-rock bands such as Mister and Rubberband leading the way (they're headlining a rock concert on New Year's Eve alongside Kolor and veteran rockers Tai Chi).
'The Chinese music scene consisted of almost exclusively sappy, formulaic pop ballads a few years ago,' says TVB's Lo. 'Now we have bands and artists who actually write and play their own music.'
Gary Chan Chi-yan, long-time music critic and associate publisher of Re:spect music magazine, says everyone he knows in the 'alternative scene', from singer-songwriters to independent record executives to promoters, are more optimistic about their careers than ever before.
'It's just easier for bands to try now,' Chan says, adding that technology has made recording and distributing material accessible to everyone.
Chan and Lo agree that while the pop idols will always be there, Hong Kong is finally developing a market for real musicians, citing the concert by music duo Swing - consisting of two veteran music producers and songwriters, Eric Kwok Wai-leung and Jerald Chan - as one of the highlights of the year.
'Swing and [singer-songwriter] Ivana Wong Yuen-chi had really strong shows that had great turnouts,' says Chan. 'I think the people of Hong Kong are starting to understand that karaoke isn't the only way to enjoy music.'
With both western and local concerts stepping up in quality and quantity, Hong Kong's music fans have turned up in droves.
Promoters large and small, from Midas' Peters to Sweeting - who, in addition to organising big shows for Untitled, also brings small-scale, niche acts to Hong Kong through personal venture The People's Party - to Songs For Children's husband-and-wife duo, all say business in 2011 has been better than before.
'The business end is definitely improving, and that in turn makes us step up the scope and scale of our shows,' says Sweeting, whose shows were not making money as recently as two years ago.
Midas had an exceptionally big year, according to Peters, citing Swift and Maroon 5 as his two most successful shows. Michael Roche, regional director for Lushington Entertainment, which brought Linkin Park, Eric Clapton, Lavigne, and Michael Buble to Hong Kong, said in an interview with the Post this past summer that ticket sales have been 'through the roof'.
This month's Clockenflap saw a record turnout, with 18,000 turning up at West Kowloon for the two-day festival. 'We're very optimistic about the future of Clockenflap and the local music scene in general,' says co-organiser Forster.
So whether it's the hard work of promoters, growing sophistication of local music fans, a booming Chinese economy, development of viable venues, acts forced to embark on more tours, or just downright luck and timing - all the puzzle pieces are coming together to form a beautiful, big picture: a vibrant and diverse Hong Kong music scene.