Hong Kong's foster father of indie music
Tommy Chan helped open up Hong Kong to a wide variety of new music, writes Pavan Shamdasani
For all the praise about our city's rapidly growing music scene - the regular international acts at AsiaWorld-Expo, the weekend-long festivals at West Kowloon, the cult DJ favourites at underground clubs - few remember that it all started with a few humble music stores.
After years dominated by the major music chains and their underwhelming selections, a few dedicated souls hoped to change that by importing the world's finest sounds, then selling them for barely a mark-up - all in the name of good music.
Hong Kong-born Tommy Chan is possibly the most well-known of the bunch and probably the only one still plugging away at a record label. As the owner of the Love Da Group, he can now count a music café in San Po Kong and sister divisions in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan among his ventures. But before Chan built his mini music empire, there was a humble little local label called Love Da Records.
"In the mid-1990s, I worked at Form Music in Singapore, a publicly listed company," says Chan. "Unfortunately, the 1997 stock market crash took a toll - while I received interest from other majors, my boss told me to start my own company. He planned on selling and his new set-up would streamline a lot of the 'smaller' independents at that time. His advice was for me to take in these smaller labels."
In 1998, Chan founded Love Da Records, starting out by distributing a number of overseas labels that were largely unknown but held great potential in their musicians. The labels included Ministry of Sound, Warp Records, Ninja Tunes, React! and Hooj Choons, and it was their artists who all but built the foundations of Love Da.
"Our philosophy from day one has been simple: bring quality music to the people," says Chan. "We've had numerous successes over the years: we broke Sigur Ros and Carla Bruni onto Hong Kong radio charts, both of whom weren't singing in English at that time. We've had great experiences with Ministry of Sound. And recently, we found Two Door Cinema Club success in Southeast Asia with radio rotation and a No1 iTunes album."
Love Da Records is now arguably the biggest distributor of choice independent music in all of Southeast Asia, dealing with more than 200 overseas CD labels and more than 2,000 digital labels. But the world is changing: the halcyon days of independent record labels are dying out, quickly being replaced by pay-what-you-want systems, iTunes and Spotify.
"In the past, it was much easier to develop and help grow these labels, but there has been a shift in the business model of the record industry," Chan says. "Labels no longer have pull on many of their most successful acts. It tends to belong to the artists and their management teams. But we're willing to evolve; willing to try new things, even if it doesn't completely make sense economically."
The first step in that direction came a few years ago, when Chan started thinking beyond Hong Kong's close-mindedness to music.
"The majority of Hong Kong's population doesn't listen to non-pop Western or Asian artists, and there are other contributing factors: cost of living, lack of venues, lack of government support," he says. "But then you look at bigger markets: Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, their music scenes are continuously growing. So we expanded our reach in Southeast Asia - we've set up offices in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan and recently; we've been exploring the Philippines and Indonesian markets."
It's a shrewd move, but it doesn't change the fact that where most people used to save up to buy an album, they can now download one for less than the price of a fast-food meal. Still, Chan believes there's a silver lining in every cloud: the internet may have put a question mark over the relevance of modern record labels, but it's also created greater availability of every musician's work. Chan is excited at the possibilities of live music.
"Over the past few years, I couldn't believe how good Hong Kong indie bands have become - they're almost as good as ones from the UK. The problem, though, is that there isn't much of a platform for them to be noticed," he says. "So when we were moving offices recently, we found an extra 1,200 square feet available for us at a really good price. I thought, 'Why not do something I'd always wanted to do?' And Love Da Café was born - I handpicked everything from the sound and lighting system, to the stage and décor."
Reactions to the industrial space venue have been positive, and while the Café isn't as prolific in its showcases as other underground spots around town, for Chan it's about quality over quantity. Names that he can proudly notch-up include New York psychedelic band Psychic Ills, London-based DJ Joe Syntax and local experimental acts such as Room Torrent, Pandora and Jungle Jim.
It's a step sideways for Chan, but one that keeps him in the loop. On a daily basis, he's still picking choice cuts from the dozens of labels Love Da distributes, but long term, his ambitions are endless.
"The biggest challenge between the music services and Love Da Café is myself: I only have 24 hours in a day," he says. "We've built a team on the basis of work ethic, resilience and passion, and we'll continue to explore Southeast Asian markets while also working with more Hong Kong artists. But what I feel is most important, is that a record company believes in what it releases."