INNOVATION & START-UP

Hong Kong crowdfunding site Music Bee hopes to generate buzz about indie artists

Chet Lam initiative intended to help careers of musicians the risk-averse recording labels won't pick up

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 7:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2015, 11:20am

There’s a buzz going round Hong Kong: Music Bee, a new crowdfunding platform that aims to provide an outlet for indie artists left out in the cold by mainstream recording companies.

Singer-songwriter Chet Lam Yat-fung, who has more than 10 albums under his belt, first considered having a new project crowdfunded several years ago, but discovered that pioneering site Kickstarter is not available to creators from Hong Kong. He got to talking with fellow songwriters Vicky Fung Wing-ki and Victor Tse Kwok-wai, and Music Bee was born.

The idea is to enable a greater variety of music to flourish in Hong Kong, says Fung, who has written a number of hits for pop stars including Joey Yung Cho-yee and Kelly Chen Wai-lam.

By setting up Music Bee, Fung says, “we hope [backers] can get to music that they might never have found if not for this platform, and so they can directly support certain types of music or artists, creating a new market.”

Among the indie artists they hope to champion is 25-year-old Stephen Mok. An audio engineer who also plays the guitar and sings in two bands, Mok is keen to become a full-time musician but has had a disappointing reception from local music labels.

Because most of his songs are in English, music executives told Mok he would not have much of a market in Hong Kong.

“A lot of the labels recommended I switch to Cantonese songs … I could ask my partner to write Chinese [lyrics], but some of my songs only work in English. So if you look for funding from a major company, then you’ll have to cater to the mass audience in Hong Kong and you might have to do songs in Chinese, or make music that’s less risky,” Mok says.

He has produced an album using recording facilities at the Academy for Performing Arts in Wan Chai, but for his next project, Mok will be looking for backing via Music Bee.

“He has talent, but he doesn’t have the money for an album,” says Tse (music streaming service KK Box has promoted the latest tracks from one of his bands as an editor’s choice).

“He’s performing at a high level but he has to do it one song at a time. Now you might never have heard of him otherwise and there’s no room for someone like him in the Hong Kong music industry.”

Tse knows what he’s talking about: he’s producer at Frenzi Music, and has written and arranged music for stars such as Hacken Lee and Kary Ng.

Major record labels have become increasingly risk-averse as revenues from music sales have shrunk over the years. In 2009, the music industry in Hong Kong earned HK$336 million; by 2013, that figure had fallen to HK$300 million, according to a report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. In this tough environment, Music Bee’s founders say, few are prepared to support independent acts that might not have immediate commercial appeal.

Music Bee offers an alternative to the traditional business model for music, which isn’t working that well now, Fung says. It has opened up options for a singer who is now seeking funds to stage an intimate performance including a bit of dance theatre, for instance. A dance studio would typically accommodate a few dozen people – too small a crowd for a major label, she adds.

Chet Lam got Music Bee off to a promising start when he put up his new album for funding on the platform. In the space of just over two weeks, he received more than HK$265,000 in backing, exceeding the initial HK$200,000 goal.

Could Jacky Cheung Hok-yau crowdfund a project with us? That’d be great, Fung says. If there are mainstream artists on this platform, then we’ll have made a difference.
Vicky Fung

However, Fung says the true measure of success would be if Music Bee became an accepted way of funding new music from independent and mainstream artists alike.

“Could Jacky Cheung Hok-yau crowdfund a project with us? That’d be great,” Fung says. “If there are mainstream artists on this platform, then we’ll have made a difference. It won’t just be the indies against the mainstream artists, it’ll just be a way for music fans to make themselves heard.”

As with Kickstarter, artists submitting projects to Music Bee set a deadline for funding goals and wait for supporters to pitch in. However, Music Bee staff will also help them craft a viable campaign before featuring the project on their site.

For example, they might need tips on setting a reasonable target sum, or reminders to put up samples of their music so people know what they’re paying for. They will also need to devise suitable perks or rewards for support (offering a date with a band member is not considered suitable, for example). Backers will only be charged if a campaign succeeds, with the platform deducting 15 per cent for administrative fees.

Crowdfunding wasn’t as popular when rising rock band Supper Moment started out in 2009, but lead singer Sunny Chan Chi-sun says platforms like Music Bee can bring fans closer to artists they admire.

“It’s like you can just buy a belt from a shop, or some shops will host workshops where you can learn how to make a belt. I think that’s the difference,” Chan says. “If you can take part in the project, then you’ll get more satisfaction out of it than just buying something. If you apply this to music, the buyers will be really invested in your work.”

In time, Tse hopes that Music Bee will take a similar trajectory to YouTube: despite their initial sceptism, record labels eventually embraced the video site.

“At first, record labels were reluctant to put up their music videos on YouTube because they could sell them to TV stations. But the world has changed and people go to YouTube instead.”

Just as music companies realised YouTube had become a channel for publicising their material, Tse looks forward to a time when the Music Bee platform might be viewed the same way.