By Hans Ebert
Horse racing and the world of music might have made strange bedfellows back in the day when the twain could never meet, but, not these days, where we’re seeing once insular industries with those running them having equally insular thinking waking up to the fact that for businesses to grow, it’s all about increasing one’s customer base, and how, why, where and when partnerships, and thinking outside of the square, must come into play. It’s all part of that often used, but rarely understood word called “marketing”. And in the horse racing industry, marketing is all too often about talking to and reassuring itself that everything is alright. The similarities with the music industry in denial is eerily similar.
In Hong Kong, however, the HKJC took a massive gamble for a racing club when it introduced ‘live’ music in between its races. Holy shit, Batman, what a concept! Actually giving people some entertainment during those twentysomething minutes of dead air between races where those new to the sport- and those even un-new to it all- start to whistle Dixie and hum, “Is this all there is?”
Not only has this ‘live’ music silenced the Doubting Thomases, and purists shackled to the past like Mandingo, like the gift that keeps giving, it’s become a hit that keeps growing.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the Club’s Happy Wednesday brand without ‘live’ music at the core of its hugely popular Beer Garden, and more upmarket venue called Adrenaline. Music, after all, is the great leveller in that it speaks in every language and brings people together like that famous Coca Cola commercial where the brand wanted the world to sing in perfect harmony. It’s a We Are The World, We Are Family thing.
Horse racing clubs with their hardware- the venues and the crowds- and music companies with their software- the content and delivery platforms- is something that’s more than piqued my interest for over a decade. When it came to a music company working with a racing club, the HKJC seemed a natural fit- and having a CEO who threw his own support system to make this happen was the key driver. It could have all died a quick death at Hello without his divine (and strategic) intervention.
Quick cut to the Mongolian-owned Mongolian Saturday winning the Breeders Cup Sprint last weekend. The marketing savvy owners brought with them more than a taste of Mongolia to the winner’s circle- and to the non-racing media- and the hardcore punter- and America- and a racetrack for its greatest racing showpiece.
The one thing missing was the incredible music from this amazing country- all those chants led by “throat singing” intermingled with fascinating rhythms and traditional instruments. More on this later, but it made me wonder whatever happened to that quaint term known as “World Music”, for so long associated with artists like Peter Gabriel and David Byrne, and later, people like Damon Albarn, with their own labels for these side projects and, for a time, every major music company having its own World Music Division.
The problem was that those running the music companies never took these divisions- nor their music- seriously. World Music was so much on the edge, it had basically fallen over the geographically-challenged precipice into netherworld. Looking back, these divisions were setup to simply keep the vanity projects of some big commercial artists alive. It was seldom looked at as a business. Like the term “Crossover Artist”, it was one of the many vagaries of a music company- something there, but which was never part of the whole. It was the internal freak show.
When at EMI, I was heavily involved in a number of these “World Music” projects. One brought together Robbie Williams and the legendary Asha Bhosle, the Grandmother of Hindi music, for a one-off download deal with a local telecom company. That’s where it stayed despite the absolute uniqueness and commercial appeal of the three tracks recorded in Mumbai where the original recordings were augmented by some of the country’s best musicians. Nothing ever moved from there. What was created in Asia stayed in Asia. And, in this case, India.
The brilliant East/West recordings produced in Hong Kong for David Bowie, for Gorillaz, for Placebo, for Duran Duran, for John and Yoko? Again, nothing moved. The Not Invented Here Syndrome raised its ugly head.
In the middle of all this was the music of Nominjin, a then-young and gifted vocalist from Mongolia. Her songs in Mongolian were brilliant, and we even had her replicate the same duets with Robbie Williams.
Nothing happened, minds were turned off and floated downstream despite loud tablas beating in the ears of EMI’s Church of the Head Office where corporate priorities were decided and handed down to the disciples to spread the gospel. It was heavy work carrying those tablets.
Around six years ago, right after EMI in Asia crumbled in a heap of carefully orchestrated politics, my girlfriend at the time and I attended one of those music conferences branded as Music Matters in Hong Kong.
Apart from a stuttering presentation by Daniel Eck about a then-fledgling music streaming service called Spotify, there were the usual musical showcases where second and third tier acts were duped into playing for free based on the promise that they would be heard by some of the biggest names in the music industry. Yeah, right.
One of these bands was a folk rock band from Mongolia named Altan Urag. They were fortunate to have their visit funded by an Australian mining company based in Mongolia- SouthGobi Energy Resources- and whose Aussie CEO, one Alex Moyneux, gave an extremely persuasive presentation of the band and the potential of the country. Many in the audience listened to a clever salesman and heard the sound of ka-ching.
The band’s showcase was good without being exceptional, but this didn’t stop many of those present talking about recording deals for Altan Urag, touring opportunities etc. Dinner dates confirmed with this CEO from SouthGobi never happened- they were always postponed at the last minute- and neither did the band when infighting between those managing them muddied the Roger waters. Altan Urag sank without trace.
With the win of Mongolian Saturday, memories of World Music and plans once held for Altan Urag, and through them, an introduction to the amazing culture and colour and romantic notions of the nomadic lifestyle of Mongolia, came rushing back- but, this time against a new background and where horse racing and music can come together to create something lost to many in music companies.
Today, for this amazing music from Mongolia to be heard, it needs fairy godparents to give it wings- a David Bowie or an Eddie Vedder or an Annie Lennox or a Jack White or a Keith Richard- artists with credibility, relevance, and passionate about music from all parts of the world.
How easy would it be to persuade any of the aforementioned to be part of this musical rainbow? As discovered, nothing happens if one doesn’t ask or even attempt to ask. Build it, however, and they might come along for the ride purely because of their love of music and with new delivery platforms in place to take this music where it’s never gone before. At a time when the music business is sitting in limbo with not much “newness” to shake it awake, it could mean taking a different One Giant Leap, something which Jamie Catto took with his groundbreaking project to bring the music of the East and West together.
Perhaps “World Music” tried to find its feet at the wrong time and with no clearly defined business model? Perhaps it was seen as a fad? Perhaps it needed its own Google Earth?
Perhaps now is the time for the connections behind Mongolian Saturday to meet the HKJC’s Happy Wednesday and for a group of passionate horsemen and marketers to team up with the most forward-thinking racing club in the world.
Together, they can bring something new to the sport while, at the same time, showing every music company how wrong they have been in their efforts to bring World Music to a bigger audience.
Looking at things on a much bigger scale, India has Bollywood, Hong Kong has its Canto-Pop, Mainland China has its Mando Pop, Indonesia and Malaysia have their Bahasa Pop and Rock and the Philippines has its Pinoy Rock.
When it comes to Mongolia, the country has so much to offer with horses, colour, costumes, food, pageantry, a fascinating culture and history going back to Genghis Khan with music holding everything together and creating a product whose time for export is now.