How to Be a Hong Kong Indie Rock God
It’ll take more than a chiseled jawline and sprinkling of stardust.
Reckon you've got what it takes to rule HK’s rock roost? You’ll have to be something special—but you’d also best be prepared to work hard and play empty rooms. We’ve asked the city’s rock stars, promoters, record producers and movers and shakers for their advice on making it big in the SAR. And as for the money? Ha! Be grateful if you get your beer and guitar strings covered…
Meet The Musicmakers
Adrian Fu: Singer-songwriter-pianist. Started as a songwriter for Cantopop stars, now a solo artist in his own right.
Arthur Urquiola: Founder of Hong Kong label Artefracture. (Ex-HK Mag intern, because they all go on to great things.)
Ashley Whitfield: Managing director of the Evolution Music Group, which runs record label Evosound. Has been working in Hong Kong music since 1998.
Chris B: Founder of live music night The Underground HK. In 12 years more than 400 bands have played its shows.
John Prymmer: Co-owner of The Wanch, which has averaged 65 live performances a month for the past six years.
Joyce Peng: Owner of live music venues Orange Peel and Peel Fresco.
Kashy Keegan: UK singer/songwriter based in Hong Kong. In October 2013 his song “This Is My Dream” beat Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber to the top of the SAR iTunes chart after it was chosen by Hong Kong Television Network as an anthem.
Nat B: A passionate pizza-loving bass player for Shatalene, a two-piece with Shaun M on drums. Nat is a regular on the Hong Kong indie scene.
Nate Wong: Professional indie, jazz and hard rock drummer. Plays in cinematic rock band Nowhere Boys and hard rockers Bamboo Star. Also a Cantopop session musician.
Born in the SAR
Newbie Rocker: Hey, guys! I want to be an indie rock star! Can I make it in Hong Kong?
Adrian Fu: Contrary to what many say and feel, I believe that Hong Kong’s music industry is doing relatively well. Hongkongers tend to rely on familiar types of entertainment and the social stigma attached to indie music undermines people’s desire to “have a go.” But I have seen the steady rise of talent over the past 10 years and there is an increasingly diverse range of music styles and more places for bands to perform. The perception of indie music is changing—but it’s slow.
Chris B: I think there is always room for more talent. However it's never been talent alone. Persistence is needed and the ability to take the bad along with the good. But if you can write an amazing song that connects with your audience, they will spread the word and grow your fan base for you.
Nat B: The industry is small. We don't earn much, except beer money and a high five, which we're happy about! At times the live music acts here are amazing and then sometimes the scene goes dead. It's not consistent or stable.
Knowing Me, Knowing You
Newbie Rocker: I’ve taken a few guitar lessons and I think I’m pretty good. Now how do I get famous?
Joyce Peng: You need to be talented, work hard and always have something new. Find a stylist who can help you on your image and a marketing person to promote you. It’s a lot of work but it’s a commercial world. Even artists need to be presentable!
John Prymmer: You can’t grow your music if you’re not being heard. Artists need to use every tool available to get their music out there and heard. You can’t just leave it to the promoters and clubs.
Chris B: Most labels or managers will not even consider a band unless they have 20,000 likes on Facebook and an album with concrete sales.
Money for Nothing
Newbie Rocker: OK, I’ve played a gig or two and I’ve got a few thousand followers on Instagram. When does the money start rolling in?
Ashley Whitfield: The traditional business model has virtually disintegrated. Generally, labels will no longer spend money on recording and promoting artists.
Adrian Fu: If you’re good, the money will come. Practice on your performance craft and songwriting, stay true to yourself creatively and play as many gigs as you can. The market always defines you. If you’re good, people will come.
Kashy Keegan: These days even the main Cantopop stars struggle to make a living from music. With more and more venues being forced to close down because of skyrocketing rents, it’s harder to find spaces to perform. I guess if you really want to succeed as an alternative musician, you have to look further afield to mainland China.
Don't Stop Believin'
Newbie Rocker: Wow, I thought it was just about singing on a stage! What’s the best piece of advice you can give me?
Nate Wong: You need a 45-minute set of good original music you can nail live, and an EP that sounds good. When you have that, perform as much as possible and produce and share content online. After that you have to maneuver your own journey. We're all trying to fit the music that we want to make into society. The opportunities are there to be had.
Nat B: Be creative, determined and consistent. Promote yourself, get out and perform where you can and meet lots of people. Get on social media and explore other bands. Don't limit yourself to Hong Kong either. Meet people in other countries who love live music, places like Manila or Beijing. We should be working together.
Arthur Urquiola: Respond to every email right after you get it. Make the calls to make whatever awesome, insane or improbable idea you have a reality. The worst that can happen is sometimes people on the other end say no.
The Last Word
Justin Sweeting, the Music Director, Magnetic Asia and co-founder of Clockenflap.
A major issue in Hong Kong is the low glass ceiling and a lack of venues to support the artists as they grow. Once you’ve filled a 300-capacity and then 600-capacity venue, what do you do next?
Events like Clockenflap provide a different rung on that ladder. The majority of the festival artists have been local from day one, and it’s been our mission from the start to nurture and contribute to growth in the local scene in a positive way.
We’ve put bands like Noughts and Exes and Chochukmo on the big stage and they absolutely nailed it with incredible performances. This year I can’t wait to see acts like Life Was All Silence, Leah Dou, Jing Wong, OWK and many others do the same.
As a band, make it impossible for us not to book you. Spend your time focusing on your songs and performance—if you get that part right, all the other stuff should follow naturally.
A version of this article appears in the November 27, 2015 issue of HK Magazine.