Hong Kong gigs

Why are tickets for Hong Kong gigs so expensive? High rent and lack of venues the problem, music industry says

For the price of seeing a niche indie band play in Hong Kong, you can watch an A-list international supergroup play in a large stadium in London or Paris

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 October, 2017, 7:18pm

On a midweek September evening, indie fans are flocking to Kitec in Hong Kong to catch the debut local show by New York hipster shoegaze band Diiv. Advance tickets were sold for HK$480 (US$61), while entry at the door sets fans back HK$580. When Diiv toured last year in Britain, tickets only cost £16 (US$21) – almost one quarter of the price at the door in Hong Kong.

Diiv’s ticket prices are in line with other similar sized shows by international acts in the city. As a result, it is no wonder music fans relocating to Hong Kong from most major cities in Europe, the US or Australia find concert ticket prices quite a shock.

For just an extra HK$150 (totalling HK$740), music fans who saw Diiv play in Hong Kong could have seen Muse or Coldplay play large exhibition halls or stadiums in London or Paris. For slightly less than that (HK$635), they could have attended Summer Well, a two-day festival in Romania, where popular indie acts such as The Kills, Birdy and Interpol played this year. Ed Sheeran’s postponed shows at AsiaWorld-Expo sold out at HK$880 a ticket, but tickets to his shows at Wembley Stadium in London next June are available for just HK$570 (HK$10 cheaper than Diiv at Kitec).

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Last week, New Zealand’s Fazerdaze played at MOM Livehouse, a Fortress Hill venue that opened last September, with an advance ticket price of HK$295. However, only a few weeks before, the band performed in London for £8.80. Despite being twice as far from New Zealand as Hong Kong, tickets for the London show cost only a third of the price.

While Fazerdaze played multiple shows around the UK, the band would still need to cover other costs such as van hire and accommodation. Unlike in Britain, venues in Hong Kong usually provide a backline (drums, guitar amps, microphones), sound and lighting engineers, saving considerable costs.

So why are music lovers paying so much for gigs in Hong Kong? The two main reasons are Hong Kong’s notoriously high rental prices and the small number of venues holding entertainment licenses.

“It’s a sad state of affairs,” says Justin Sweeting, co-founder of Magnetic Asia, which operates Clockenflap festival, Ticketflap and the Your Mum events. The company is responsible for bringing in a string of heavyweight international acts to Hong Kong such as Suede, Morrissey and The Kills. After Clockenflap next month, the next band the company is bringing to Hong Kong are British trio The xx on February 1 - the Hong Kong tickets are selling for HK$720, compared to HK$188 for the band’s show in Jakarta on the same tour.

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High-profile acts, who often demand large fees, are Sweeting’s biggest consideration when setting ticket prices. He says the company typically needs to sell 70 to 80 per cent of tickets on average to cover costs. “It makes very little sense being the promoter in the process chain. You take all the risk, do all the work and only take a small cut for your efforts, if it goes well,” he says.

Live Nation Hong Kong, the local arm of the global entertainment agency which has organised Hong Kong concerts for the likes of Britney Spears and Ariana Grande, also has massive overhead costs. “We try to offer the lowest ticket prices possible so all music fans can see their favourite artists,” says managing director Dennis Argenzia. “That being said, our ticket prices are determined by the costs that go into producing a show: artist fees, venue hire, production, hotels, security and marketing. Then we look at the market demand, as well as the purchasing power of fans.”

Regular Hong Kong gig-goer Juliet Shayne Lui says she expects to pay between HK$800 and HK$1,500 for big international acts, and from HK$180 to HK$350 for smaller shows. “If there are multiple bands and it’s a decent venue I’m OK with paying HK$300. If it’s a bar and you get a free drink, then HK$300 is fine,” she says. However, Lui feels let down by a lack of funding support for the local music scene. “Hong Kong has the appetite and the market to become a world leader in performing arts and live music. We have the infrastructure to support huge names, which in turn boosts the local music scene,” she says. “There are a lot of talented musicians in our city.”

Coldplay did a world tour earlier this year but Hong Kong missed out because we couldn’t put them at the Hong Kong Stadium.
Dennis Argenzia

In this age of music streaming, artists now rely heavily on income from live performances and merchandise sales. As CD sales and paid downloads decline, many artists insist on a guaranteed fixed performance fee, particularly when performing abroad, which obviously affects ticket prices.

One of Hong Kong’s most experienced promoters is Chris B, founder of The Underground, which has been organising unsigned band showcases for more than 13 years. When asked what her biggest challenge is, she says: “The venue.”

She says the main factor in determining ticket prices is the rental fee. If the event sells well, The Underground’s costs are covered, and there might even be a small profit to pay bands. “We always share with bands when we have a profit,” explains Chris. “But I bear all losses if we don’t.”

For example, one popular 300-capacity venue in Hong Kong charges HK$8,500 to hire for one night. A promoter would need to sell almost 60 tickets at HK$150 to cover the cost of the venue hire alone. That does not include artist visas (for overseas acts), artist fees, promotional and administrative costs, as well as the cut given to ticketing websites for each ticket sold.

Chris says the trick is selecting a line-up that appeals to a broad audience. Regardless of whether it is a small indie show or a well-known band, Hong Kong-based promoters have no guarantee of success and can often be two or three poorly attended events away from ruin – just like some venues themselves.

One venue that has famously battled for survival is indie live house Hidden Agenda. It has consistently battled with the government over licensing and has moved locations four times since opening in 2009.

We agree that we need to increase the supply of venues – the opportunities available for individual artists or art groups are never enough.
Elaine Yeung Chi-lan, Leisure and Cultural Services Department

Founder Hui Chung-wo recently announced that the venue would be closing at the end of this month due to a stalemate in talks with authorities.

Due to the city’s lack of venues, gig organisers have little bargaining power when it comes to negotiating a rental fee.

“Changes need to happen across all levels and from all sides,” says Sweeting, explaining that a lack of venue options often thwart efforts to organise events. “We have to turn down plenty of shows simply because there isn’t a space available which we can legally use … We’d encourage the government to re-examine the zoning regulations so potential safe spaces for venues can be legally licensed.”

Live Nation’s Argenzia confirms that a limited number of live venues can mean A-list acts are forced to skip the city. “Coldplay did a world tour earlier this year but Hong Kong missed out because we couldn’t put them at the Hong Kong Stadium. If we had more options, we would definitely be able to bring in more shows and be more competitive in the region,” he says.

But the government is listening. Elaine Yeung Chi-lan, assistant director of performing arts at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), recognises her department’s role in keeping up with Hong Kong’s artistic needs, but expresses concern about the unauthorised use of space in industrial buildings. “The Development Bureau is thinking of better ways to adapt these buildings for different purposes, like artistic culture. But they have to pay attention to fire and safety regulations,” she says.

The LCSD offers 14 venues for rent, including Queen Elizabeth Stadium. Yeung believes these venues are affordable, as part of the fee is subsidised by the government, but says she understands the need for more performance spaces at the grass-roots level. “There are lots of major developments in the pipeline. There is the West Kowloon Cultural District and the East Kowloon Cultural Centre, and in the New Territories East we are considering another major construction project for a new cultural complex as well,” she says. “We agree that we need to increase the supply of venues – the opportunities available for individual artists or art groups are never enough. There are new artists emerging every year and we only have so many resources. So we are building them – it’s just a matter of time.”

While this is welcome news from the LCSD, if rental costs and artist fees continue to increase at current rates, the music scene in Hong Kong could be strangled before these developments are even completed. And, as the cost of living rises, the city may soon be priced out of its own culture as well.