Justin Sweeting is happy to be making a live music scene in Hong Kong
Clockenflap co-founder Justin Sweeting relishes his role as pioneering promoter of live music, writes Jonathan Maloney
It's not easy fighting on the frontline for forward-thinking music in Hong Kong. Being surrounded by one of the world's most efficient pop machines, sky-high rents and a dearth of live music venues means it's a never-ending battle to entice audiences, pay for venues and, most of all, continue to bring quality acts to our city.
But this is what Justin Sweeting, co-founder and music director of this weekend's Clockenflap festival and a sometime music writer for the South China Morning Post, has been doing since 2002, after spending a few years working in the live music industry in Britain. Sweeting is a breath of fresh, positive air in a city many are quick to dismiss as being in dire musical straits.
"Wherever you are there'll always be obstacles and issues to overcome. I'd rather focus on what can be done to help make things better instead of complaining about the external factors working against us. There's no time to worry about what people aren't doing for you. Do it for yourself on whatever level you can and get over it," he says.
"What many bands and people don't realise is that there are no steadfast rules yet. This is incredibly exciting and people should revel in that," the former Island School student says.
A peek behind the scene at local live music concerts would leave most flabbergasted at the number of government restrictions that appear to exist solely to put would-be promoters off even considering Hong Kong as a viable alternative to regional cities such as Tokyo, Taipei and Singapore.
This is partly why Hong Kong has struggled to sustain a stage for non-mainstream music, whether domestic or international. The fledgling Rockit Festival ran from 2003 to 2006 in Victoria Park, before government pressure prevented further events and the organisers moved the festival to put on the Macau International Music & Arts Revolution in 2010. A look at the upcoming international events calendar shows a selection of artists who peaked at about the same time as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Sweeting, who served as Rockit's artist relations manager, says: "Hong Kong was a very different place 10 years ago, and more than anything, it probably just wasn't the right time for Rockit. It's easy to write things off as failures, though I think both contextually and in terms of legacy values, Rockit was a starting point, and I believe it sowed some vital seeds which have contributed to where things are today."
Sweeting sees opportunities in the nascent live music movement. "If we were in more developed scenes, it would be that much harder to simply get started let alone stand out from the crowd." Still, he acknowledges the limitations of being in a band in Hong Kong: "Not many bands can sell out a 350-capacity venue, and when they do then what's next? There isn't a natural path bands can take."
Despite the lack of an obvious next step, Sweeting feels things are changing. "It's a whole series of factors that are all pulling things forward. On the local side, there's more demand than ever, which is crucial. There are also more promoters willing to take risks and who are capable of putting on good shows, which creates more choice, competition and encourages new audiences."
But it's not just the promoters who are taking risks. "On the artist side, agents and managers are more open to exploring options in the region and we're finding that the Asian shows are fast becoming highlights of many artists' tours."
Clockenflap is an important part of that development. Now in its fifth year, the festival has grown in leaps and bounds. From humble beginnings on a patch of grass at Cyberport, followed by a year exiled to a warehouse in Aberdeen due to government red tape, it came roaring back with last year's hugely successful event on the West Kowloon waterfront that could easily have been a poster weekend for any music-loving tourist visiting the city for the first time.
"There's no shame being at the start of the development curve either," Sweeting says. "Quite the contrary - this is the most fun and exciting part to live through. Still, there have been moments in the past where I've questioned the sanity of what I'm doing. But it's all about perspective, and I've had to learn to develop much thicker skin, which hasn't come naturally to me at all."
The Clockenflap co-founder may not be the originator of the phrase, but in a way, his easygoing nature adds gravitas to what have long been defiant words for generations of artists and musicians: "Don't let the naysayers get you down."
The Clockenflap Music and Arts Festival concludes today at the West Kowloon Cultural District