By Hans Ebert
To understand the current state of the Hong Kong music industry today- pretty much dead and buried- there’s a need to understand at least part of what happened and didn’t happen yesterday, and how things have been allowed to evolve and dissolve into very muddy waters with some Howlin’ Wolf thrown in. We’re going back to the future, Marty…
A fish stinks from the head down, and today’s local music industry is paying for the sins of the past by those handful of decision making executives who engaged in dirty politics, made use of their “Chineseness” to sell themselves and their side projects to naive Head Offices blinded by the “China Dream” that here was “potentially the largest music market in the world”.
That was the hook, line and sinker flogged at every worldwide meeting where all those who would not have known the difference between Beijing and Peking Duck bought into this Sandra bollocks. I should know as I wrote and made every presentation on the “potential” of the China music market, first at Universal Music, and then at Every Mistake Imaginable aka EMI Music. Show those “gweilos” millions of bicycles and waffle on about the number of new mobile phone users in Beijing and the size of the country and they were sold that here was the next gold rush for music.
They started to throw money at the Greater China market. And if one played the role of the urbane Chinaman who knew his wines, wore designer brand suits, and was quoted saying all the right things to Billboard, at the time, the world’s leading trade publication, a larger-than-life image had been created for whom cheque books were opened and multi million dollar cheques were written for projects in China, most of which never saw the light of day.
This money was “funding” for new startups that had nothing to do with the parent company other than when they paid again, this time to buy minority shares in this new business. How easy was that? Then, when the big Poohbahs from Head Office would travel to this part of the world, they were wined, dined, karaoked and laid and left believing everything was under control and the company was expanding in China and “gaining market share”.
Everything was actually out of control as every other junior executive wanted to have a share of the financial honey pot. This meant them surreptitiously forming artist management companies along with owning shares in CD pressing plants and, basically, helping to be part of one big royal scam. Everyone wanted a slice of the China market pie. The Hong Kong market? It was left to its own means. It kept Head Office happy by producing big sales figures by flooding Europe with illegal exports of International releases manufactured in places like China and Malaysia. The other trick was to pump up the numbers of the sales of local acts in markets like Indonesia. But Indonesia was a music cassette market so sales figures in their millions hardly meant huge profits. But this was never mentioned.
Eventually, well-known Chinese money launderers joined the gang of local music thieves to develop the Chinese movie industry, and despite some close scrapes with the law, most were given a free pass, or else, were suddenly ostracised. It was every crook for themselves.
It was against this background that deals were made with “artist management” and where catalogues and various “product” were purchased for chump change along with small music companies in Taiwan struggling to keep their heads above water. When put together into a neat little package, everything accumulated so it could be sold as one big corporate entity. The artists had no say in anything. They were bought and sold and traded according to who and what looked best when it came to the sale.
Here’s what’s seldom discussed or even mentioned: Most of those who rose up the ranks to head up some of the major international music companies almost fell into the business. Some were “pop stars” during the fledgling days of the Hong Kong music scene- very average musicians. They became the music industry’s version of the Peter Principle by taking a short cut to what at the time was the next only career move by joining a music company. Some didn’t last, others were saved despite stagnation having set in, whereas the more ambitious learned to play the corporate game, allied themselves with those who could help them move up the ladder, and from here came the building up of artist rosters to underline that there was product and which bought market share.
Though the public relations strategy was to position these executives as “former pop idols”, what was omitted was that this was decades earlier. It was more irrelevant than being one of Herman’s Hermits. Fast forward to where they were now, and they were hardly great A&R men. It’s why so-called Canto Pop came into being- formulaic turgid ballads based on “Desperado”, more often than not commissioned to be written by the same person and his team. Why? Rights issues, ownership of publishing contracts and where kickbacks were the norm. Of course, it were these songs which were and which were pushed and promoted by those allies mentioned earlier, especially in radio in order to “top” their charts. And if artists proved difficult and didn’t play along, like many “starlets” in the fledgling Hong Kong movie and television industries, they were left out in the cold and held to the long recording contracts they had naively signed. Some had to wait years before being finally “allowed” to record.
There were the favourites and these became “heavenly kings” whereas the carefully chosen princes and princesses won most of the ubiquitous awards for “Best Newcomer”, “Most Stylish Pop Princess”- anything really where they could get television exposure and be seen winning something.
It was and it still remains very much a rigged business formula and which, like anywhere else in the world where these television singing competitions pop up, nothing more or less than a few hours of mindless entertainment.
With no other choices, local music fans were force-fed these same old artists for decades, and nothing much has changed since. There are still sixtysomething “pop idols” performing to fifty and sixtysomething audiences while fortysomething “youngsters” simply follow their elders with a herd mentality.
Of course, the driving force behind all this is money. It’s always been about the money. And with the casinos in Macau throwing millions their way- who mentioned money laundering?- and touring in Mainland China raking in millions, Hong Kong’s elder statesmen and divas of Canto and Mando corn mush have something new to add to their retirement plans.
So, where is Hong Kong today when it comes to a music scene? Forget about a music industry. Well, it’s everywhere and nowhere. One hears about an “Indie” scene, but the sad truth is that it’s either the same merry-go-round of musicians who have been around for decades, or bands that are “good for Hong Kong”, but would be laughed off stage in somewhere like Melbourne. So would the third rate singers booked to perform at the various hotel lounges and all those copycat bands playing to alcohol fuelled audiences in the bars in Wanchai and Tsimshatsui East area of Kowloon trying to make a comeback. How? It’s bloody deserted.
What’s sad is that radio and television in Hong Kong ignored and, in many ways, banned Western music for so long that many in the city are still living with the sounds of the Bee Gees, Air Supply and the Eagles. Everything else had been blocked including all those years of early Hard and Heavy Rock.
It’s only the small pockets of newly arrived expats here who are making small changes by wanting to hear all the new music in English or French or Italian or any other language where the music speaks to us through its emotional connection that will help Hong Kong break away from conformity and explore new avenues of creativity through music.
If there’s to ever be a truly independent music scene with all the funding needed to carry on without fear of the bogeyman arriving at the door, it will come from these much more globally knowledgeable and DIY music fans who have seen and heard the best- and the best of everything new. This couldn’t happen sooner. Applauding second rate singers trying to be third rate versions of Rihanna, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars must stop. All this does is offer false hope to singers who have seen better days, and amateurs who Hong Kong has stupidly welcomed and given them opportunities they would not get almost anywhere else other than perhaps Phuket. Hong Kong has been sucker punched long enough to accept more mediocrity.