Indie bands in Hong Kong get a say in their music with Redline record label
Gary Chan's brief for his Redline label is to give bands control over their music
It isn't easy being a musician in Hong Kong. Once you get over the initial hurdle of writing a decent number of songs, comes the question of distribution. Record producers in the city are often sharks in suits, and if you can catch their interest, most will require that you sign your rights away.
Now, one label is hoping to change all that.
Gary Chan Chi-yan is the owner of Redline Music, an independent Hong Kong record label with a difference. His philosophy is simple: quality over quantity, focusing exclusively on a small number of bands and giving them complete control of their sound, while offering hands-on support for the extras - all the little things that hinder progress and stifle creativity.
It's a rare move for a label - especially in Hong Kong where money often rules over vision. But it's an attitude that Chan believes in and one that seems to be working: among the names signed to Redline are local indie sensations Supper Moment and Chochukmo. It all stems from Chan's own interest in music and his obsession with sounds dating back to his youth.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Chan grew up surrounded by music; there was always something playing in the background at home: his mother played piano for their church, while his father practised the trumpet and his sister the cello. But when the young boy asked for a drum set, his parents refused. "So when I got my first pay cheque from my very first job, I spent it on drums and a guitar," he says.
He started in the media industry, edging his way up Chinese-language fashion and trend magazines over 12 years, from reporter to editor to publisher. At night, however, he was involved in the city's then-limited music scene, playing in SIQ, an indie band he started in 2002. And it was his moonlighting interest that eventually turned the tables.
"SIQ was attracting media attention back in the day, and they'd always want to position indie bands as problem kids, relating them to things like drugs and violence," he says. "The reporters would ask us to pretend that we were poor and uneducated, and that's why we played music, and we felt it just wasn't healthy to make up stories."
Chan experienced the lows of media music coverage and was tired of it. Along with friends and business partners Jesper Chan and Sean Chan, he decided to launch his own publication in 2007. Chan named it re:spect as a dedicated symbol to honestly covering mainstream and indie music, and made it a free publication to bring in as many readers as possible.
But despite financial support and general acclaim, after a couple of years the magazine was facing hard times. "We depended heavily on running mini-gigs and events to pay our printing bills," says Chan. "In 2009 we hosted a band competition and one of the bands came up to me afterwards to ask if I would like to start a record label so that I could sign them."
And so Supper Moment became the first name on the new label, Redline. "I'd interviewed many big names in the music industry, from record label owners to artists and promoters. Based on all that, I came up with a business model that combined my media expertise with my musical knowledge. I started the label to help artists and bands connect the dots, and guide them to a direction they wanted, rather than moulding them into something that suited the local market," Chan says.
Word spread in the music circuit and soon Redline was the city's go-to label for indie bands hoping to make their mark while retaining their rights. Chan fully puts his trust in his musicians and rarely interferes, but he's also quick to explain that it's his experience and connections that have helped the label survive the past few years.
"Although I position myself as artist management, I'm more like a mentor to them. Not so much on the actual musical aspects, more on the entertainment side," he says. "There are many things that confuse artists and I have to keep reminding them we're not chasing awards, rankings in the pop charts, screaming fans, or fame and money. All of these will just hinder you from reaching your goal. Managing expectations is really what it's all about."
Indeed, Chan's own expectations for Redline took a serious step forward in 2012: he sold his shares in re:spect to the magazine's staff and dedicated himself full-time to the label. Last year, Redline celebrated its fifth anniversary, a major landmark given the city's often unsupportive scene.
"It's an old saying that everyone knows, but Hong Kong's music scene is the worst in the region. In other countries such as South Korea or Taiwan, the government will sponsor bands to record albums, or arrange tours," he says. "They treat music culture seriously because they see it leads to an increase in tourism. Here in Hong Kong, we have no government support, we don't have enough of a market, we don't even have enough land."
However, Chan feels Hong Kong's music scene is in a strong position now, mostly based on what the industry has built for itself, although he sees its future not so much as growing as keeping on. "Building dams to survive" is what he calls it, an analogy in which Redline is the beaver and the city's music scene is a quickly drying-out river. His label is the ideal dam-builder: strong and resourceful, while letting the river do its thing.
"The music scene in Hong Kong is much bigger than it was a few years ago, but the audience is scattered all around. The key is to group that broken segment, and the music that Redline produces seems to be right in the middle," he says.
"We serve as a bridge for the masses to discover local indie music. Over the next few years, more music media will appear and more festivals will take place. Music lovers will start to seek rather than be fed, and we'll be right there to provide."