By Hans Ebert
For musicians in places like Australia, Canada, the UK, Scandinavia, and the States- especially singer-musicians- still looking for gigs in all the wrong places, and wanting some financially viable place to lay their hats down along with their guitars or keyboards, now more than ever, is the time to think about heading East, and trying their luck in the huge Asian market. It’s not easy and it requires firm commitments and knowing the white hats from the sharks and shysters, but the opportunities are here.
This has been tried before, of course, especially by cover bands from all points Canada, and promoted as being “direct from LA” or “New York”. But this scam was decades ago when the world economy was booming and five-star international hotels in Asia had the venues and budgets- and customers- who could afford to pay top dollar to watch what were, basically, fifth rate show bands bedecked in outlandish costumes with the ubiquitous smiling Black front man or woman channeling Vegas shtick for audiences, and “getting down” with the watered down funk of “Sexy Back” and “Celebration”. It was Boogie Nights.
These “cats” were the Derek Zoolanders of what was then passed off as “funk”. And for around a decade, this business “model”, this golden goose/turkey, and game of charades was kept a tightly guarded secret by booking agents. In cahoots with their contacts in hotels, these absolutely cringe worthy show bands were booked to peddle their jive from Hong Kong to Vietnam, Korea, Dubai and Bahrain with the occasional stopovers in Bangkok and an emerging new Shanghai plus the cruise ship gigs.
For these has-been and never-beens, the gigs were a godsend. Work visas were taken care of by the hotels along with travel, accommodation, per diem plus performance fees. Add on top of this, the ego boost of being big fish in very small ponds- quasi celebrities with sycophantic groupies on the side.
It was good work if one could get it, and the same old tired faces made the rounds in different incarnations of “funk” bands with the usual suspects of booking agents either pulling the wool over the eyes of those in hotels approving these gigs, or else, these hoteliers getting their own commissions for rubber stamping the approval process. Whatever the case, it was a win win situation for all.
Once this cash cow ended up with all four legs in the air, there came the time when unknown bands and singers from Denmark mistakenly saw Asia as the land of milk and honey. This had to do with the loopy success in the region of a band from the land of herring and cheese called Michael Learns To Rock and the freakish popularity of their mawkish ballads- ballads so bland that they made the crooning of Richard Marx sound like Axl Rose backed by Black Sabbath.
Apart from MLTR and mild success for another Danish pop band, C21, there was no Scandinavian Beat Boom in Asia despite many in Denmark thinking insipid ballads warbled by boy bands and Poppy girl groups with blond hair and blue eyes was a passport to immediate fame in the region.
In recent years, a few Old School American performers who have seen better days, armed with bucket loads of name droppings about having worked with Stevie and Marvin and Smokey and, somehow, having also found the time to discover the Jackson Five, along with slightly younger wannabe singers from various points West and going nowhere with their careers, have flitted in and out of clubs and the hotel lounge circuit in Asia while the Filipino covers bands continue to play on and on and on and mimic whatever and whoever is big on the charts at any given time. It’s called survival.
There are a handful, minus a few fingers of singers and musicians with real talent, but what’s missing for them is the originality to take them any further. This problem can be rectified by importing original talent or creating a musical exchange programme. It’s like making Facebook an interactive Musicbook and online meeting place for musicians around the world.
What should be nipped in the bud, however, are those amateurs in this region who shouldn’t even be singing. Possessed with a misplaced sense of self-importance, they’re being offered gigs purely because they sing in English, they’re Westerners, and there’s no one else. Well, there are- the covers bands from the Philippines, but hiring these musicians, no matter how technically good they might be, is considered by those who run and own venues to be a “lowering of standards”, and an “image problem.”
So what’s left? Either the very average or the totally mediocre, and both, often being paid what a top session musician or singer makes in LA or NYC or London purely because they are foreign- meaning non-Asians. Asian audiences rarely accept another Asian singing in English. No matter how mediocre they might be as a singer, a Western face goes a long way. And this is not only stupid, it’s a con that needs to be headed off at the pass. Continuing down this path is what’s really a lowering of standards.
With the world suddenly awake to the fact that “It’s the economy, stupid”, those who are not geographically challenged, and with the ability to “do the maths”, realise that even with its economic downturn, Asia is where the business opportunities lie.
Catwalks of gawky frail looking males and females, most from France or Eastern Europe, arrive in Hong Kong, always the doorway to Mainland China, arrive as tourists and soon become “models”. If halfway good, more modelling assignments arise with work visas taken care of, no taxes to declare and other perks in all the neighbouring cities- Taiwan, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai.
Overseas musicians are still to see and really understand the opportunities that there are for them in this region- huge opportunities for those with a business mind and not expecting an easy ride on the gravy train to noodle town. What has been kept a closed shop for way too long to benefit self-serving agendas by a few must be torn apart. The doors must be broken down and audiences in this region, no longer content to take in the strays, and accept mediocrity because “there’s nothing else”, are demanding something else- something new.
Technology has given music fans in Asia what they never had before: a choice. Control of what could be heard wrested with others- disc jockeys, television executives, radio stations, and where, to this day, music in English is hardly played. But this doesn’t matter anymore, not when there’s iTunes and Spotify, streaming services etc.
New venues for ‘live’ music are also opening up and owned by overseas educated local entrepreneurs determined to bring about change. The fat cat Canto and Mandarin popsters and Bollywood song and dance squads belong to the generations before. There’s something happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?
Yes, there will always be a market for covers bands and artists, but the world doesn’t need someone else with ginger hair, a loop pedal and tatts channeling Ed Sheeran. Like Chris Cornell proved, Michael Jackson was not the only person who could sing “Billie Jean”. This region is demanding something and everything new that’s part of music.
Do audiences seriously want more of what’s been “trending” for the last few years in some cities in Mainland China- the booking of singers and dancers from Eastern Europe- who can’t sing or dance? Why have they been booked? They’re young, they’re females, they’re fairly attractive and have been hand picked, especially in the Ukraine, for their ability to pander to the kindness of Chinese strangers and businessmen who frequent bars and clubs looking for company.
Then, there’s always Macau and the Middle East, mainly Dubai and Bahrain, where foreign bands are booked, not for their musicianship, but for either VIP junkets where all the money is made in the casinos and, whatever entertainment there is, becomes part of the deal, or simply for bragging rights: We have a foreign band from overseas.
This part of the music business will continue. It’s like all those standing ovations for tuneless performances at the Grammys or television audiences erupting into wild applause when one of those Voices or Idols hit a high note no matter how sharp it might be or when growling is mistaken for “soul”. Erasing decades of ignorance is beyond our control.
Moving forward, however, what’s lacking in Asia is good original talent from the West. There are venues gasping for air, but this has to do with a lack of talent. Have some form of guarantee that a city like Hong Kong can have access to an ongoing roster of good Western talent performing music- Pop, Jazz, Rock- and more venues will open. The money is here and so is the commitment.
The roaring silence one currently hears is the lack of music- good music performed in English by good musicians who won’t settle for Okay, and are able to push the creative envelope. And Asia doesn’t need one or two of these musicians. That creates a small closed shop and vastly inflated prices. What’s needed is a community of musicians with the emphasis being on a diverse group of singers.