Room for all
Older acts such as Air Supply will always look to Asia to keep their careers alive, but the market for fresh music is growing, even in Hong Kong
Australian soft rock duo Air Supply's love affair with Asia never seems to end. While their popularity has waned in the West, the balladeers who produced a string of chart hits in the 1980s always find loyal crowds in Hong Kong and the region waiting to sing along with them.
"Because we came there such a long time ago, we established a relationship," says Graham Russell, the band's guitarist and singer-songwriter who penned songs such as and . "We've been coming since 1984. It seems our Asian fans are very loyal."
While younger local music fans have long grumbled about a lack of variety or modern relevance in Hong Kong's live scene, promoters have never seemed to worry about a lack of venues or ticket buyers for so-called "dinosaur" acts that tug on the heart strings of older fans. Huey Lewis and the News play in the city shortly, Jethro Tull and Suzanne Vega visited recently, and acts from Sting to Elton John regularly fill AsiaWorld-Arena.
Justin Sweeting, who books bands for the annual Clockenflap festival in West Kowloon as well as putting on smaller gigs with current or rising stars, says Hong Kong has always been a happy hunting ground for dinosaur acts, but things are slowly changing for the better.
"I grew up in Hong Kong and if you weren't into Celine Dion or The Eagles, you might as well forget about getting to see a live show," he says. "The major motivation from the start for what I do has been all about trying to at least give other options to folks. There'll always be a place for the 'legends' and fair play to them. It's just up to everyone else to work on the other bits."
"When a government wants to open up, they come to us. That's probably because they know what they're going to get and it's safe," says Russell.
While the band have a lot of hits in their back catalogue, after almost four decades together, Russell says he's still writing new songs and always tries to bring something fresh. "We don't want to be just a nostalgia band," he says. "We added a brand new song to the set list just two days ago. We like to be on the edge and the fans appreciate the new songs as much as the old ones."
Hong Kong's live music scene has prospered in recent years, with live shows by acts from the 1990s such as Blur, Kratfwerk and the Stone Roses, which attract plenty of 40-somethings. Suede, who built a following here with gigs at Queen Elizabeth Stadium early in their career, are also returning. But there is greater variety now from megastars such as Lady Gaga to smaller indie acts such as The Drums and The xx.
Even so, some promoters say the city is missing out on a much more vibrant scene by a combination of poor government regulations, inadequate venues and ruthless rivalry. "For a city of seven million people the scene is really small," says Jane Blondel, who set up Songs for Children with her husband after moving here from Britain several years ago, and being dismayed by the live music options. She's not surprised that older acts can pull in fans by the thousands while ad hoc venues such as Grappa's Cellar in Central can count audiences in the low hundreds.
"It's symptomatic of Hong Kong's innate conservatism rather than anything else. I can't imagine the sort of person that would go to Air Supply would be our target market," says Blondel, who has brought in acts such as young guns Ringo Deathstarr, Swedish pop sensation JJ, and Scottish noisemakers Jesus and Mary Chain.
How many songs a band have at the city's karaoke bars can determine whether it has a market in Hong Kong, says Michael Roche, managing director of Live Nation Lushington, a joint venture of two promoting giants that specialises in organising events in Hong Kong and Singapore.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Western acts such as The Beatles and Bee Gees came to Hong Kong in all their pomp, which explains why older acts such as Air Supply still do well - fans have remained loyal 30 years on. But during the 1970s, Canto-pop eclipsed overseas musicians, with the media and music distribution firms devoting themselves mostly to local talent.
The 1990s were among the darkest days for music fans. Celine Dion played a concert in January 1999 that attracted 18,000 people, but still lost an estimated US$1.5 million because of the high costs of erecting a temporary venue and the crowd falling short of capacity. The revamped 40,000-capacity Hong Kong Stadium hosted a gig by Alan Tam Wing-lun in 1994 that brought 120 noise complaints and led to a ban on loud concerts. As a result, Michael Jackson was refused the chance to open his 1997 world tour at the stadium and when Elton John was lined up to play there, the idea of a silent gig as the audience wore headsets tuned to a simultaneous radio broadcast was floated. The concert never happened.
There was barely anywhere to promote artists in those days because promoters of Canto-pop booked out the few venues available, such as Queen Elizabeth Stadium and the Coliseum, Roche says. And while AsiaWorld-Arena and Kitec have improved options, there is a paucity of venues that host smaller and medium-sized acts, including indie acts that have a small following in Hong Kong.
"The problem is trying to monetise it," Roche says, noting that ticket sales only reached about 1,000 for acts such as Two-Door Cinema Club and The Jezebels.
Singapore, which allows events on beaches and in parks, is much easier and has a more varied annual selection of music events than Hong Kong, he says. Hong Kong missed out on Florence and the Machine last year because his company couldn't find a suitable venue in the city, he says. The band played Singapore.
The lack of a dedicated music station also makes it hard to get new music heard, Roche says. "People want a whole new breed of music," he says. "Having great radio would promote that music."
Some acts have proved surprise successes, such as Icelandic guitar rockers Sigur Ros who attracted a significant Hong Kong Chinese audience. The biggest stars, such as Rihanna, are playing Macau, where there are incentives for bringing out the best talent.
Margins are certainly tight. Blondel judges a gig successful if it doesn't lose too much money. She brings out younger bands that carry a high risk, but it sometimes works out. She expected about 20 people to go and see British indie rockers Yuck at the Hangout centre in Sai Wan Ho in 2011 - but got almost 500 fans.
"Our big problem has been with other promoters," she says. "Some are pretty ruthless and are determined to monopolise Hong Kong. And working with the bigger venues is tortuous to say the least. Hong Kong needs to change the usage regulations on former industrial buildings to allow for entertainment licences. Also, promoters should stop thinking with their wallets and show some courage."
The reason Air Supply's star still shines bright may have a lot to do with their down-to-earth manner and personal interaction with fans, even back during their heyday when women went crazy at their live shows. While modern musicians may blog, Russell and Hitchcock prefer meeting their followers after shows to find out what they think.
"We never put ourselves on a pedestal," Russell says. "We want to know what they're thinking. I think our fans know we're approachable and we know what songs they like. The feedback is like a giant snowball rolling downhill."