Tastemaker: Redefining the local music business
Arthur Urquiola's new label offers local bands a chance to be heard and fans to hear them, writes Pavan Shamdasani
It isn't easy being a musician in Hong Kong. The live scene might have emerged from the slump that once held it back, with numerous decent acts now taking to well-equipped stages, but there's still that little problem of getting people to listen to your music at home.
Arthur Urquiola is well aware of the setbacks. A broadcast journalist by day and a musician in multiple bands by night, he has a pure passion for live music. But unlike many a guitarist drunkenly extolling its possibilities outside a bar, he's actually doing something about it.
Urquiola recently launched Artefracture, a new Hong Kong record label that separates itself from profit-based projects through its decidedly different approach: the albums are recorded by Urquiola, hosted on his website and offered to the public through a pay-what-you-want system.
It's a simple yet bold idea, and one that first found inspiration through one of Urquiola's own recordings. "I've been making recordings on and off for a decade or so, but after all the short circuits, wrong turns and horrible demos, I figured out how to make things work out as I intended," says Urquiola. "I'd put out a record with my band Tigerbombers, which was recorded quickly and cheaply, and we were able to put it online for a free download, make it accessible to everyone and make no loss from it."
It was an important first step and the record's minor success saw Urquiola approached by other Hong Kong-based musicians to help with their projects. "But with all that on the go, it didn't make sense for everyone to go out and fight for attention."
Hence, Artefracture, a label that removes all competition by collectively bringing together some of the city's up-and-coming names. But make no mistake, this is far from a simple hosting site - Urquiola is knee-deep in the label, using his influence and industry contacts to assist as much as he can.
"There's a long process with a lot of little details when anyone puts out a record," he says. "Whenever an artist I'm working with needs something during the whole process, I can drop in and help out by recording, finding graphic artists, making calls, organising interviews or booking gigs."
Unlike traditional labels, Artefracture has no employees, no office and no contracts - there's just a single, dedicated soul here. It might offer a streamlined focus that cuts out any middlemen, but it also raises the question of the criteria involved for his recording choices. Some might see it as bias, but most appreciate Urquiola's wide-ranging musical tastes.
"Basically, I have to love the music enough to want to invest my time and effort," he says. "And the bands have to be into what I'm doing - they have to understand that the music's only going to be as good as how well they perform live, since that's how I record. They also have to allow people to decide what they want to pay, even if it means a few free downloads."
Which brings up an interesting point: the pay-what-you-want system, a process first popularised by Radiohead's In Rainbows in 2007 and now practically the norm for any up-and-coming band not signed to a major label.
"I've long made music for the love of it, with no expectation of making any money off it. I actually think it's kind of presumptuous for musicians to expect otherwise," says Urquiola.
"The pay-what-you-want system allows people to support the bands as much as they like and allows artists to be their own machine. All the horror stories you hear about bands and their labels - lawsuits, unpaid royalties, meddling in the creative process - you can bypass all that as the labels are no longer a necessary evil."
Cynics might still view the endeavour as just some guy with recording equipment and a website, but the internet is killing off traditional music formats and technology has reached a point where studio-quality recording can be achieved with a laptop. But despite the changing times, there's still one constant: trust.
"I grew up with record labels that I liked and respected. I would check out bands because they were on certain labels, or it would be at least a very big selling point," Urquiola says. "A good record label can still exist and still be very important as a link between the artists and their audience."
It's a realistic approach to a problem that has often perplexed local folk: removing all personal ego and extraneous approaches for a simple solution where the music matters. Urquiola is one of the few helping the scene without dollar signs in his eyes - he only hopes that more would share his sentiment.
"If more people would put on their own shows, instead of trying to get someone else to do it for them, there'd be more going on," says Urquiola. "It's the same with recording; there's a myth that recording in a studio with some ludicrous budget is the only way to legitimately document music - this is horse****, especially nowadays when making records is so easy.
"For the bands I work with, putting out a record is not some unreachable goal reserved for people who can afford it and have every move planned out. I'm willing to do it, willing to try different things and I've never charged anyone."
For more information, go to artefracture.bandcamp.com