Why music graduates craving a career in Hong Kong feel they must go it alone

Lacking connections and unwilling to conform to the city’s sterile mainstream scene, Berklee College of Music graduates Joyce Cheung and Mark Tai pursue personal ventures in the hope they’ll be heard

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 8:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 8:03am

Making music as a career in Hong Kong is anything but easy. The unstable working hours and income and lack of opportunity means even the most gifted are likely to give up on pursuing their dreams. But a new breed of young, passionate independent musicians are determined to rise to the challenge and take matters into their own hands.

Joyce Cheung Pui-chih is a classically trained composer who returned to the city two years ago after having completed a double major in film scoring and contemporary music writing and production at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, United States. She graduated with a first-class honours degree.

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And despite having such a glowing résumé, the 23-year-old has little illusion about her prospects in Hong Kong as a music maker. “You will constantly be in a state of misery,” she says.

Attaining her dream of being a film score composer is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, she says. “First, the market is already dominated. Second, even if you try very hard, making demos and sending them to people, it doesn’t mean you will find any job opportunities.

“It all depends on what connections you have.”

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Likewise, 24-year-old songwriter Mark Tai Chun-yeung says though there are opportunities on the local pop music scene, they are often out of reach for those without guanxi.

“If you don’t know a lot of people and don’t have a lot of connections, you would not have any chance to develop. The starting point is too high,” says Tai.

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Even when he receives commissions to write songs, the freelance income means he needs to constantly hunt for other projects to make ends meet. “Sometimes I get a cheque payment for thousands of dollars, but that already covers everything I have been doing for the past four to five months and I won’t get paid again for the next half-year,” says Tai.

Still, neither Cheung – also a Berklee graduate – nor Tai are giving up.

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While he was still in college, Tai reached out to music producer and Berklee alumnus Alex Fung Hon-ming through Facebook. He sent Fung his own compositions, asking for feedback and advice.

Tai met Fung again when he won a songwriting contest held by the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong, which Fung was adjudicating. This helped jump-start his career – he has been assisting Fung for the past two years.

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The work he did was not exactly what he had imagined. “Though I was initially hired to write songs, in the end that is what I [did] least,” says Tai.

Instead, he spent a lot of time arranging music and organising scores for artists with whom Fung worked when they hold concerts. Still, the experience enabled him to get a feel for the commercial music industry. He also noticed that recording labels and most artists were not keen to experiment with new music, worrying that unfamiliar tones would not appeal to a broad audience.

Eager to write his own music and explore less popular genres, Tai eventually found his way around such restrictions – by forming his own band.

“I realised I don’t want to just write music for others. I want to do it for myself,” says Tai.

The contemporary rock band IX is Tai’s new creative outlet. Not only is Tai the lead vocalist and guitarist, he also writes the songs and lyrics. The group is still in the process of finding a record label but he’s determined to take his songs to the stage.

Like Tai, Cheung set out to make a name for herself. Unable to find a platform for young musicians to market themselves, she created her own.

She co-founded Music Crossing, a company that consists of 20 young musical talents like her and provides all kinds of music-related services, from songwriting and recording, to performances in shopping malls to live bands for events.

Having invested a good part of her own savings in setting up the business, she now works around the clock. She spends a great deal of time teaching in local music schools, takes on private students, accompanies choirs and arranges scores for them, all to maintain a stable source of income – necessary to keep the business afloat.

As a new start-up, I should be dedicating all my time and efforts to making it work. But I can only afford to spend 30 per cent of my time doing what I actually love
Joyce Cheung

“As a new start-up, I should be dedicating all my time and efforts to making it work. But I can only afford to spend 30 per cent of my time doing what I actually love,” she says.

Though she doesn’t have the budget to run advertisements or stage concerts, Cheung and her fellow musicians promote their company through one powerful marketing tool – social media. They’ve uploaded their music and songs to YouTube, Facebook and Soundcloud.

“When we make song covers, we consider how to present them visually and how to incorporate funny elements that can entertain people,” says Cheung, who hopes to build up a fan base online.

Music Crossing also acts as an agent, reaching out to shopping malls, hotels and other venues to pitch different musical performances, and often to negotiate deals with them.

“They are very reluctant to pay the performers,” says Cheung. “They think they are already offering opportunities and exposure to the musicians so they don’t have to compensate them.”

It is this mindset of “doing them a favour” that makes the exploitation of musicians so prevalent in Hong Kong, says composer Charles Kwong Chin-wai, who conducts contemporary music research for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

“Commercial organisations think that they can exchange the service [of musicians] for so-called exposure. They don’t see that their service should be paid because it is work, a product made with a lot of time and effort by these musicians.”

Kwong – who has written for festivals and groups including the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, the Sinfonietta and Hong Kong Composers Guild – thinks to survive in the city, an independent musician needs to be proactive and self-driven.

“Ideally you sit and write a commission,” says the 31-year-old. “Another group commissions you again and carries you on. In reality, you have to reach out to musicians, present yourself and your ideas and see who will be interested in collaborating with you.”

William Lane, director of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, agrees that a successful creative artist needs a lot of self-discipline and a clear focus.

Though a lack of local platforms for musicians to showcase their works and performances means opportunities are sparse, Lane says musicians themselves are responsible for building their own careers and cannot rely on the private sector or the government to make things happen.

“It goes both ways. Part of the reason is there aren’t any paid opportunities for them or very few. But the other [side] of the coin is they don’t seek out these opportunities and create them for themselves,” says Lane, an Australian violist who founded the Ensemble. “One cannot happen without the other.

“In Hong Kong, you can become a teacher or join an orchestra as a classical musician. If you’re going to do something different, you have to make sacrifices and pave that way yourself.”

And sometimes, Lane adds, money is the sacrifice.