Bands on the run: musicians urged to look outside Hong Kong for a bigger audience
A shrinking local market, unstable venues and a lack of artistic curiosity blamed for limited traction for city’s groups
Before taking the stage at Live Wild Music Week in Guangzhou in January this year, Hong Kong indie rock four-piece The Sulis Club had only performed for small, tamed crowds at venues known only to a niche group of independent music followers. Making it big was only a dream.
“But performing in Guangzhou was such an eye-opening experience. If you only play music in Hong Kong, you’d never know how big the world is out there,” Jonathan Synn, the band’s vocalist and guitarist, says.
The Sulis Club isn’t the only Hong Kong band that has had such prominent exposure outside the city. They are one of six budding acts selected to take part in an initiative called Ear Up Music Global.
Organisers the Renaissance Foundation – a charity co-founded by a number of leading cultural figures in Hong Kong, including musician Anthony Wong Yiu-ming and lyricist Chow Yiu-fai – aimed to groom local young musicians by giving them training on music, production and distribution as well as opportunities to perform outside Hong Kong. The ultimate goal was to help them build a bigger, more global audience.
Wallace Kwok, a well-known figure in Hong Kong’s music scene and currently manager of Canto-pop star Sammi Cheng Sau-man, observes that the local industry, once glamorous and glorified, has gone through tremendous changes, and the old system dominated by major record labels and broadcast media no longer works.
“Hong Kong’s music industry has changed so much over the past two decades. Established musicians such as Anthony Wong, Denise Ho and Rubber Band have left the old system and found their new ways of making and promoting music,” Kwok, also a board member of the Renaissance Foundation, says.
“We cannot just put together another singing contest and get record labels to sign on the singers and musicians and build a career for them that way. We need to teach young musicians how they can work independently, so they can survive such a tough, competitive environment. Some might succeed; some might fail. But at least they will have a chance to have their music heard by a much wider audience.”
Hong Kong’s music industry is in dire straits, as reflected by sales figures. In fact, the industry association, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (Hong Kong Group), had to lower its benchmark album sales to reflect diminishing sales. In 2008, it slashed the sales volumes albums needed to qualify for its awards; from 25,000 for a gold award and 50,000 for platinum down to 15,000 and 30,000 respectively.
Hong Kong has been searching for the next Beyond or Tat Ming Pair for years, but the future doesn’t look promising for local bands and independent music groups. While their album sales – on CDs or in digital format – can never match those of mainstream pop stars, their chances of performing in Hong Kong are not all that hopeful either.
A shortage of performance venues, the city’s exorbitant rents and stringent venue regulations have forced many privately run live music clubs to close.
One of the better-known recent casualties is indie music venue Hidden Agenda, shut down in late 2017. Closures like this compound the problem and deter aspiring musicians from bringing their music to the world. Many in the industry believe if these musicians don’t expand out of Hong Kong, they will have no future because the local market is simply too small to support many musical careers.
Samuel Chai, director general of the Renaissance Foundation, says the only way out is to go global.
Under Ear Up Music Global, six musical acts – Linda Chow, Adrian Lo, Empty, Siu Yuen, SoundTube and The Sulis Club – were paired with four mentors – Supper Moment, GDJYB, Jing Wong and tfvsjs. Under the mentors’ supervision, the musicians received guidance and tips for live performances.
From September 2017 to February this year, each mentor led their mentees to perform in different music festivals: Zandari Festa in South Korea, Sound of Munich Now in Germany, Noise Pop in the US and Guangzhou’s Live Wild Music Week. The programme is funded by CreateHK, a government agency that champions the development of the creative economy in Hong Kong.
Jing Wong, who took Chow to perform at Zandari Festa as part of the initiative, says while the local creative industries are very mature and get a lot of government support, going global has made South Korean acts very successful. “We must remind ourselves that we need such global vision instead of confining ourselves just to Hong Kong,” she says.
Five-piece Empty joined The Sulis Club in Guangzhou. The band said they were surprised by the audience’s enthusiasm and curiosity.
Mandy Lo, the band’s vocalist, says they had previously performed in small venues in Hong Kong such as shopping malls and even secondary schools, but being able to go onto a big stage in front of a crowd familiar with their music was a big change. He says he later found out some of the fans had already checked out their music through different digital music platforms before going to the concert.
But he laments that such a culture of curiosity doesn’t really exist in Hong Kong.
Empty’s guitarist Chow Tin-hang says the Guangzhou experience also highlighted arts and cultural education, or a lack thereof, in Hong Kong.
He says the band has performed some 50 shows at secondary schools around Hong Kong, and when they played upbeat music and encouraged the students to stand up and enjoy the music, they would be stopped and told by their teachers to remain seated and stay quiet.
“We lack curiosity. We lack the courage to express ourselves. We as musicians can only do our best to make great music, but we cannot tell our audiences how to feel and react to our music, such as to cheer when we play an upbeat song or feel emotional when listening to a sad one. It’s important for our audience to be curious and explore with us in order for us to continue to make music,” he says.
Leading lights: Local bands making it big
The Hong Kong indie band is among the most successful home-grown musical outfits of recent years. Not only do they have a solid following locally but they have been actively expanding globally.
Last November the four-piece female band played their live debut at Iceland Airwaves in Reykjavik, hometown of Icelandic icon Bjork, with support from the West Kowloon Cultural District. And in February they headed to the US to take part in Noise Pop, in San Francisco, as one of the four mentors of Ear Up Music Global.
GDJYB is short for Gai Dan Jing Yuk Beng, which in Cantonese means “steamed minced pork with egg”, a common local dish. The local indie sensations, best known for their “math-folk” style and “Kongish” singing, in the hybrid of Cantonese and English lyrics, are favourites among Hong Kong indie fans for their unorthodox and humorous approach to music.
But language has never appeared to be a barrier for the band with overseas audiences. The band’s drummer Hei Hei Ng recalled her recent experience in San Francisco.“The people there were very curious. They were keen to explore unknown territories. And I would really hope to bring that spirit back to Hong Kong,” she says.
Hong Kong and Canto-pop followers around the world have been searching for the next Beyond, and Supper Moment could be the closest thing to that. Formed in 2006 as an indie band, the four-piece pop-rock outfit first made themselves known on the local scene in 2008 at the Soundbase band competition.
Their catchy songs, characterised by memorable lyrics, earned them a huge following among young people and students. In 2015, the band won the gold award for a local music group at Commercial Radio’s Ultimate Song Charts Award, sealing their status as the current top band of Hong Kong. Last year, they went on to win best original song at the Hong Kong Film Awards, for the theme song they wrote for local film Weeds on Fire.
Another hot band beloved by young people. The four-piece pop-punk outfit won the gold prize at the UMC music festival competition in 2007 and caught the eye of famed music producer Chiu Tsang-hei. Despite Chiu taking them under his wing, ToNick managed to maintain their distinctive style without giving in to the mainstream market. They are among the most popular university band shows, where students enjoy their pop-punk style uncommon in Hong Kong. They wrote the theme song for local cult film Vampire Cleanup Department – co-directed by the band’s lead singer, Hang Chiu. The song also won favourite song last year at Commercial Radio’s Ultimate Song Chart Awards, and was nominated for best original song at the Hong Kong Film Awards.