Hong Kong's indie music scene fights to survive as two venues close due to high rents
The closing of two live music venues due to escalating rents has Hong Kong indie musicians singing the same sad song - the government should do more to support local acts
In 2010, local singer-songwriter Vicky Fung Wing-ki travelled to Shanghai to catch a show featuring Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Olafur Arnalds, who went on to win a Bafta last year for his work on the soundtrack of TV crime series Broadchurch. The concert drew a crowd of 1,000. She returned to Hong Kong the next day and found Arnalds performing for an audience of 200 at Backstage Live, the restaurant and live music venue she co-founded with friends in the music scene, including producer-songwriter Abe Lau.
That encounter made her realise how running a live venue can put Hong Kong on the map for touring musicians, Fung says.
But home-grown acts and visiting musicians alike will have fewer options with the closure of Backstage Live and Musician Area, a space in the industrial district of Kwun Tong.
Musician Area, which focuses primarily on rock, will close next month. Backstage Live called it quits last week after staging a month-long series of farewell performances that ended on Sunday. Both ventures had to close shop because their revenues couldn't keep up with rising costs.
These places mean a lot to independent music fans and artists in Hong Kong - as was evident when Backstage Live managed to crowdfund more than HK$90,000 to finance its last shows, nearly double its target figure.
The restaurant in Central was meant to be a place where everybody can listen to music, "a place where music is the main character rather than a supporting one", says Fung, who has written hits for pop stars such as Joey Yung Cho-yee and Kelly Chen Wai-lam.
"We want to provide a stage for artists and bands who want to present their work before they have a big audience or fan base."
It has drawn scouts from The Voice of China, the hugely popular reality TV programme on the mainland, who would pop in to seek out new talent to audition for the show.
Although Fung doesn't claim credit for the success of acts that debuted at Backstage Live, several performers have gone on to mainstream fame, including pop duo Robynn and Kendy, pop rock band Supper Moment and singer-songwriter G.E.M. (Gloria Tang Tsz-kei), now a sensation on the mainland.
Fung says the last day at Backstage underlined how much it meant to music lovers in Hong Kong.
It featured bands from hardcore punk group King Ly Chee to indie-pop outfit Modern Children, as well as a sharing session with veteran DJ and critic Elvin Wong Chi-chung, who described the venue as "an academy" where people can come to learn and where they can find soulmates.
Many in the crowd were so keen to have keepsakes of the place that they organised a sale of wine glasses and mirror balls as mementos.
Fung says she and the team have been so busy organising more than 50 shows in the past few weeks that she hasn't had time to mourn the loss of the venue. But she adopts an upbeat note about the potential of other projects: "We're closing one door, but opening another."
The demise of the space dismays Chris B, who runs The Underground Hong Kong, an organisation that has been supporting original music in the city for 11 years.
"We will need more venues in Hong Kong," says Chris B, an indie musician herself. "It's really sad and frustrating for a [venue to close in a] world city, especially for Backstage, which is in the heart of the city. When you visit London or Sydney or New York, you expect there to be live music downtown. You don't expect to have to travel to a factory far away or to the suburbs to find a venue."
At the same time, managers of new venues should do more to promote their events, she says, noting that she's seen venues promote a performance just by creating a simple Facebook event page.
As is often the case, escalating rent was a key factor in the closing of Backstage Live: the venue's landlord abruptly raised the monthly rent from HK$120,000 to HK$160,000.
It's a similar story with Musician Area. It began in a 1,400 sq ft space in 2009, paying HK$6,000 a month in rent; now it's paying HK$18,000 for a 2,800 sq ft space.
That leaves its founder, 27-year-old Wong Yuen-long, with annual losses of about HK$100,000, which he covers with his earnings as a freelance video producer.
"I've been doing this for the past nine years, and I have no savings. I've borrowed money from the bank for this venue. I've used all my money, including money that doesn't belong to me," he says.
Mill Lau Wing-sze, his partner at Musician Area, says Wong obsesses over the sound, lights and stage set-up.
"When he gets a new speaker or a new set of lights, he'll work on them all night so the next show is better. No one notices the work and he never tells anyone," she says.
Lau, who works for a sound engineering company, adds: "For years, he has sunk a lot of money into Musician Area just to make sure that when bands get their first start, they have a good place to do it in."
At Hidden Agenda, a well-known venue also in Kwun Tong, founder Steveo Hui Chung-wo reckons it's almost impossible to make a living running a live music space in Hong Kong.
"Everyone knows the government won't support music. And it's not just music; they don't even care about how people live. If you want to stay in this business, it's only because you want to; it's because you're stubborn. It's like this in Hong Kong: if you can survive, then great," says 28-year-old Hui, a sound technician by day.
"Running a live venue in Hong Kong is a foolish thing to do and I'm including myself when I say this."
Yet, despite the enormous odds against succeeding, a few music buffs continue to devote their money, time and energy to starting live venues in Hong Kong. Among the new entries is Dominic Lam King-fai, who recently opened Focal Fair, a performance space in Causeway Bay.
Lam, 24, knows revenue from live music won't be enough to keep the 3,000 sq ft venue going, so the space also includes a recording studio and he plans to serve food and drinks.
But Lam says his initiative will be different from regular businesses because he doesn't intend to make money from it - he says he has enough money saved from his day job at a travel agency to fund the venue.
"But doing this requires a strong will and a lot of energy," he concedes.
"I hardly sleep. That's why I'm so skinny. It's hard, but at least I'm doing what I want to do," says Lam, who has been playing in bands since he was 15. "When I'm not at work, I'm here or thinking about Focal Fair. My work hours are irregular because I'm on call 24 hours a day."
Not many young people would accept such a lifestyle without even the hint of better prospects for themselves, but Lam finds it worthwhile.
"There are very few live music venues in Hong Kong. We should support all of them. You can't just leave these things be, otherwise Hong Kong's music will lose its character.
"People in the mainstream industry treat it too much like a business. They don't think about developing new markets or regard their work as an art form. They just think about immediate profits and income."