In the 1990s, Taiwan's music industry surpassed Hong Kong's to become the global engine of Chinese pop. But the last decade has seen a different trend: the mushrooming of Taiwanese independent music.
Next weekend Taiwan Calling 2011 - a two-day festival of 19 acts at the Kowloon Bay International Trade and Exhibition Centre - will showcase the variety of Taiwan's indie scene, from singers who have burst onto commercial radio, such as Sandee Chan and Waa Wei, to the island's best rock bands, including Sugar Plum Ferry and Macbeth. It will also try to deliver that rarest of rarities: an actual indie music festival in Hong Kong.
'There has never been an indie music event in Hong Kong on this scale,' says organiser Oliver Ching, a local musician and producer who's been living in Taipei and working in its music industry for the last three years. Last year he helped launch Black Market Music, a label which releases music by indie Taiwanese artists in Hong Kong.
For the concert he has teamed up with Taiwanese producer and session musician Wilikus Han and Chen Chien-chi, a Taiwanese singer and producer who has worked with Chan and Wei, as well as familiar names such as Karen Mok Man-wai and Faith Yang.
'Every year, lots of people from Hong Kong go to Taiwanese festivals like Spring Scream or Simple Life, and that's because there are no real music festivals here,' says Ching. 'When Hongkongers go to those Taiwan festivals, they're not necessarily even going for the music. What they want is to experience the atmosphere: lots of bands, people hanging out, vendor stalls and all of that. So we're going to try to do as much of that as possible, and also give people a full sense of Taiwanese indie music.'
Headliners such as Chan will be Taiwan Calling's biggest draw; the indie pop diva released a hit album, I Love You, John, in June and will drop another album through a collaborative project in autumn. But Ching is also banking on the depth of Taiwanese talent to give the festival real weight.
The scale and importance of Taiwan's independent music scene may be hard to quantify, especially now that so much music is downloaded illegally. 'But if you look at the number of bands, venues and festivals, it's really obvious,' says Orbis Fu, general manager of popular Taipei live house The Wall.
This year, six open-air multi-stage rock festivals have drawn a multitude of Taiwanese fans. The largest of these, the Hohaiyan Rock Festival in July, reportedly pulled in 300,000 attendees over five days. Sponsored by New Taipei City (formerly Taipei County) for 12 years, it also hosted Taiwan's annual indie rock awards.
Meanwhile, Taipei has half a dozen venues that host at least three performances a week, with capacities ranging from 150 to 1,200 people. The Wall, the best known of those, hosts about 20 performances each month and sells 5,000 to 7,000 tickets.
In other cities - notably Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung, all with populations of one million to two million - live music venues anchor local scenes for punk, rock and other genres. And a new wave of indie pop idols such as Sandee Chan, Crowd Lu, Deserts Chang and Cheer Chen has filtered into the regional music industry. In 2009, the last year major Taiwanese record companies participated in Hong Kong's International Federation of the Phonographic Industry sales awards, three of the top 10 best-selling Mandarin albums came from Lu and Cheer Chen.
Though indie pop singers easily blend into the catchy, melodic Mandopop heard on commercial radio, they generally play their own instruments, write their own songs and incorporate more individual themes. They also largely come up through Taipei's university rock clubs and band scene, and several, including Chan, still release their music through small indie labels.
Radio DJ and singer Waa Wei fits this mould well. Perhaps best described as a cuter version of American singer Aimee Mann, Wei, 28, started out as the singer for bossa-nova-inflected band Natural Q, which won best album and two other prizes at the 2005 Golden Melody Awards. In her recent solo career, she has maintained a considerable following.
While Taiwan's mainstream music market may still not be big enough, or perhaps adventurous enough, to fully embrace indie rock, several bands - what Americans might call 'college radio' bands - are starting to gain a measure of international exposure. This year, seven Taiwanese acts performed at Japan's bellwether music festivals Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic, and the first all-Taiwan showcase took place at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
One group, the self-styled 'electro-hippy chicks' of Go Chic, have so far this year toured Spain, Germany and the US. This autumn, they will produce their next album in Berlin by radical electronica performer Peaches.
Taiwan's indie music scene has also benefited from a government policy supporting music as a form of cultural production. In early 2010, a new law allocated about US$72 million for the five-year Pop Music Flagship Project. Though it may sound like a commercial music initiative, it includes plenty of funding for unsigned bands. In 2010 alone, 62 outfits received money to record albums or EPs, and at least a dozen received subsidies for international touring.
Four bands from Taiwan's SXSW showcase - Sugar Plum Ferry, Wonfu, Tizzy Bac and Echo - will bring this new-found international experience to Taiwan Calling. All have more than a decade of live gigs and multiple albums under their belts. Wonfu's self-consciously poppy sound draws from Japan's Shibuya-kei movement (a la Pizzicato Five), and Tizzy Bac's piano-based rock is far quirkier than what the standard pop formula generally allows.
Echo and Sugar Plum Ferry, meanwhile, are dyed-in-the-wool indie rock bands, and both have recently sold out Taipei live houses for album-release concerts. Echo's sound emulates 90s Britpop bands such as Suede and Radiohead, and Sugar Plum Ferry is considered a pioneer of Taiwan's instrumental post-rock.
The combination of grass-roots culture and government support is starting to bear fruit in Taiwan, while Ching laments that Hong Kong has no discernible official backing for up-and-coming musicians and that noise restrictions rule out most outdoor music events.
Organisers' insistence on keeping things indie even meant turning sponsors away from Taiwan Calling.
'One clothing company wanted to bring their own stars into the concert, but we refused that deal,' says Ching. 'We want this to be 100 per cent about the music.'
Taiwan Calling 2011, September 17-18, 3pm-12am, Rotunda 3, 6/F Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$380 (one day), HK$680 (both days), HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288