By Hans Ebert
To those musicians who think that performing covers is beneath them- and most who think like this are those still to make it anywhere except up their basement steps- well, they should get out more and travel. There are doing covers as note-for-note copies, and interpreting hits by others. Even the Beatles, the Stones, the Searchers and the Animals and so many others started out recording covers. When did performing covers of good songs become such an uncool thing to do, especially today when the world isn’t exactly flooded with great songs?
To these novices, no more astral traveling. Actually travel and see who’s out there, what they’re doing compared to what you’re doing, and really listen and learn how they’re changing things up with every opportunity that comes their way. And gawd knows, good opportunities for unknown musicians are more than rare- opportunities that actually lead somewhere other than the dead people’s cabaret circuit, rigged television karaoke competitions, pubs for former AA dropouts and lounge bars for tourists that are often five-star pickup joints in hotels though there’s nothing worth picking up.
In Hong Kong, these days, the Mecca for musical mediocrity with its copycat musicians, small pockets of originality though being “original” doesn’t necessarily mean being good, the unknown artists from overseas who become legends in their own dim sum because “foreign is better”, and the usual suspects who are first to grab the best gigs simply because there’s no one else, should get out of their comfort zones. Of course, if happy to be in these comfort zones and too paranoid to take a break for a refresher course in case someone new might step in, stay put and do what you’ve been doing for almost two decades thinking that ageism doesn’t exist while having egos stroked on social media.That’s fine. Not wishing to hear the truth is necessary high avoidance when facing insecurity and a career leading nowhere despite drinking the Kool-Aid.
The past few months, I’ve forced myself to travel at a time when travel is fraught with tension and intimidation when being grilled at Customs and Immigration. It’s the year of living dangerously with zero fear. Life in Hong Kong has become as formulaic as Canto-Pop while the chorus of naive meowing by overnight local politicians and seeing so many businesses go down the toilet with no sign of relief has filled the already polluted air with a very thick blanket of negativity. It’s still better than listening to the politics going on in America where two wrongs don’t make a right. Hong Kong people should think about how much worse things can be.
Visiting Singapore and Malaysia, then Dubai, Sri Lanka, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne has me undecided when I might return to Hong Kong. London and Europe might be next. What’s there in Hong Kong to keep me inspired anymore? A night at the Hong Kong Brew House to watch my friend Jay play to an empty house? The pretentiousness of Peel Fresco? The boredom of Orange Peel? Other than the horse racing on a Wednesday night at Happy Valley, more sniping and petty politics? More doodling by tinpot musicians along with warbling jizz? Listening to pearls before swine from has-beens and never-beens? Listen to daft ideas by those who have no idea how the machinery that is the backbone of any industry- and the music industry is a messed up one- continue with no changes because no one has the answers? Not even one. Continue to work with mediocrity? Write songs when always realising that though there might be performers popular with local audiences by serving up corny slabs of ham, they have no place nor future as recording artists? Why? They’re unoriginal. Simple as that. They’re clueless how to be creative and creativity cannot be learnt.
Hard as it might seem, it’s only when in a city like Melbourne, a place my parents came to retire, and where one needs to breakaway from becoming a boring creature of habit by moving in the same old tired circle that one realises the opportunities available to musicians- and their creativity- but who, for some reason, don’t realise what they have. Melbourne has some truly excellent young musicians performing originals and covers in all kinds of venues doing great business- musicians like Chris Cornell did, creative enough to take a song like “Rock With You” or “Crazy” or “Uptown Funk”, and usually with an excellent female singer and guitarist who really knows chords and how to use a loop pedal, change the whole mood of the song. It’s consistently very good stuff and would work wonders in a venue like Stockton’s, the popular whiskey bar in Wyndham Street or any hotel lounge. But as has been written here before, trying to get new acts into the latter venues is an impossibility. These are closed shops with longtime booking agents working closely with General Managers and Food and Beverage Managers who refuse to look outside of the square as side businesses are part of the game or family connections are involved.
They’re happy to not try and reinvent the wheel despite it having dropped off years ago. They’re totally uninterested in trying to improve the customer experience with better musicians. They, too, need to travel and see the competition. They desperately need to get real. But, then again, music and providing entertainment is not nearly as important as having someone order a bottle of Moët. Frankly, the Hong Kong Jockey Club does a far better job of improving the city’s entertainment scene and providing customer satisfaction with its Happy Wednesday brand than those who pretend to be game changers in this business. All those bitter people who know life has passed them by and go onto social media and criticise those more successful and refuse to admit their personal pock marks.
Much of everything that made Hong Kong special, especially entrepreneurship, has dropped off over the years, but no seems to mind. The most successful business in Lan Kwai Fong is the neighbourhood 7-Eleven. Alan Zeman, the Father of Lan Kwai Fong, has a dysfunctional son on his hands. Not that he really cares. He made hay while the sun shone and Hong Kong thought it could party like it was 1999 forever.
In music, while the cheats and money launderers in the city and Macau took and continue to take and never give back, but instead find losing propositions in entertainment to hide their money, Hong Kong trudges on with its plodding Canto-Popsters, studios going nowhere, the ubiquitous nostalgia concerts by seventy year olds and “indie” trashing about by the sons of Blink 182 and Soundgarden. Around eight years ago, an American couple based in Hong Kong named Jeff and Leora Caylor were producing some really fresh music.
They still might be, but who’s to know? Friendships are fragile. People move on and you do the same as trying to make many “friendships” work, like relationships, are not worth the time and effort. As someone much wiser advised me, Use others whom you know are using you if they actually have something to offer. If not, Adios. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business. And getting on with life looking out for Numero Uno.
While Hong Kong drowns and big fish make tadpoles in a small pond, many of those young enough in Melbourne to make a difference in music and better their lives, seem to suffer from chronic complacency. Maybe they’re surrounded by those living in a past of Missy Higgins, Powderfinger, Kasey Chambers, Delta etc.
Despite a vibrant restaurant and club scene on weekends for mainly thirtysomethings who certainly have the spending power- a huge contrast to the older of the species which is more like Dead Man Walking who have their favourite haunts and “low key” lifestyle- ask these musicians how they market themselves, and they have no answers other than, “We just geeeg”. Can their music be found on YouTube? Most have not even thought about it. Many talk in riddles about having performed with “international names” and their demos being heard by Jay Z- really?-while there’s always the arrogant and suspicious guitarist who thinks no one can be trusted. Offer help to get them and their music out there, and prepare to receive a grunt as an answer. It’s all very Neanderthal. And they wonder why life is passing them by- and why life is just one continuous “geeeeg”. Musicians in Australia still young enough not to end up on “The Voice” desperately need something or someone to shake them out of their lethargy. Many are thirty going on sixty and spectacularly old fashioned. So are those managing their careers.
In Scandinavia, meanwhile, it’s almost as if that wonderful region’s incredibly creative artists, give themselves a deadline: if you don’t make it before 35, just give it up, get married, have some kids, get divorced, and forget all those dreams. When one thinks of bands from Scandinavia who should have made it in such big ways…Then again, maybe they’re happy with this cheese and herring lifestyle. Maybe they have no clue what Michael Learns To Rock from Denmark achieved by traveling outside of their home and succeeding with their pop-schlock to Asia?
There’s so much very good music and some brilliant young musicians, but despite social media bringing the world together, it’s not working for music. Music remains fractured and sadly insular from others making music around the world. Everyone seems to be in their own little boxes. There’s extremely little or no collaborations between musicians from different parts of the world. There’s no new version of One Giant Leap, but without that horrible “World Music” label.
What the world- even Hong Kong- might need is to find ways to be part of a global music community by making music with those from around the world. It just might stop the current stagnation. It might bring about something new and fresh with a price tag attached and which music fans will pay to own. It might be music that could definitely “travel” with the excitement of not knowing where that next destination might be. But sitting there doing nothing has no future.
To reach this point, there’s a need to travel, absorb other cultures, learn from the successes and mistakes of other musicians, and try to find your musical soul mates. Don’t do this, and you’re back on the merry-go-round where you’re thinking you’re going somewhere when actually standing still and conning yourself while The Carnival Is Over plays in the background.