By Hans Ebert
It was raining. And these days one has to almost force one’s self to get out as there’s really nothing much happening in Hong Kong that’s worth making the effort to see or looking for new people to meet. It seems like it’s all been said and done and heard before and the only sensible thing to do is to get away from it all and find a new perspective in life. So, with my friend having made a spicy tofu salad with Chinese spinach, we decided to stay home and watch The Voice, something I hadn’t done in over a year.
I gave up on these television karaoke competitions years ago, but my friend, who still holds onto the dream of being a high powered female music executive, wanted to see some of the talent appearing on this particular night and who she knew.
While I went back for more tofu salad, she screamed for me to come back and watch a girl sing a version of “You’re So Vain”. Earlier, a girl had sung a song I feel no one except Lennon should sing- “Imagine”- and which was bland at best. “You’re So Vain” is such a personal song that it belongs to its writer- Carly Simon. After a few bars of pretty ordinary vocals, this young girl- Karli Webster- started to change the phrasing. She turned the song around so much that at the end of it, cynical me was more than impressed. “I know this girl,” said my friend and named writers already working on material for her. It’s an impressive list.
A little later came a more mature singer who apparently had been signed to a label that wanted to change her image so drastically that she gave up music and walked away from her record deal. True or not, here she was- Emily Luther- on The Voice as part of the blind auditions and did a stunning version of “Summertime”. It wasn’t “Nina Simons stunning”, but let’s get real here: For some unknown on The Voice, her rendition of a song that has been slaughtered by many, especially hotel lounge singers, was stunning.
For some reason- probably because of often feeling trapped in Hong Kong and sorely missing good, honest and truly original music, I thought about some of the gigs I’ve attended recently to get a handle on what and who’s going on. The answer? Not much other than a guy named Andrew who played with his band at the venue called Peel Fresco on Tuesday. He was in a different league to many performers seen here recently. If a half decent A&R person, the potential was there to hear. The drummer knew what he was doing, too. Here was someone interesting enough to hear his originals. You just knew they wouldn’t be hackneyed.
Getting back to venues, The Wanch is a local institution that provides a venue for some of the more musically adept bands from Hong Kong to present their music. Some work, some don’t, but like any relationship, one takes the good with the bad and walks away from where there’s an emotional void and slams the door on that misadventure.
What’s taking place more and more in Hong Kong are open mic sessions- in one way, a good thing in that these again offers amateur musicians something of a rehearsal room. But where these go wrong when there’s no discipline to the process- when there’s no proper planning other than everything being driven by how much one can make through turnover, meaning the food and drinks.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch and there’s no such thing as a free open mic session. Nothing wrong with this. That’s business and only a dolt will not charge for an evening of music. But the music served can’t be embarrassingly bad. And recently, I have heard so much that was embarrassingly bad that it almost made me take the next flight to anywhere.
Here’s the problem and it’s come up many times over the years: Even if Hong Kong has a hundred venues for ‘live’ music, where’s the talent? New, young talent. Good new young talent. It’s been awhile.
Then again, because of how Hong Kong lost out on hearing Western music or even being able to purchase Western music for almost a decade when a certain music company, one radio station and one television channel banded together and promoted only what became Canto-pop and the artists they “owned” along with rigging local music awards shows, this is a major reason why nothing has improved. Why so much is stagnant. It’s why so many don’t have any idea what is good music and what is mediocre. It’s why so many think artists like Norah Jones and Joss Stone, for example, are “Jazz” singers. Shame.
The Hong Kong music scene has been crippled and is trying to find its feet again along with discovering new music in the process. This city can’t survive only on more Air Supply concerts and more nostalgia concerts where the same old same old are wheeled out for one more farewell concert.
This might surprise some, but when it comes to music, Hong Kong is too often a sea of mediocrity- copycat copyists, wannabe jazzsters, has-beens clinging onto the past for survival and one dimensional part-time rockers without the chops to cut it with even an Indie band in Beijing or Jakarta, or some of the very good young artists from Taiwan like Julia Wu.
Does Hong Kong have someone approaching a Julia Wu? Not the last time I looked. How many in Hong Kong have even heard of Julia Wu? Or Tash Sultana or Maggie Rogers or anyone who are not the usual suspects? Could Hong Kong ever have a Julia Wu? Would many Hong Kong audiences even appreciate Julia Wu, Tash Sultana etc? Not unless there’s a paradigm shift and some form of musical evolution along with support from those with solid investment clout walking through the door. Enough with the empty blah blahs that music matters, but offering nothing in return that, well, matters.
As in any music company that still cares about the quality of the music that bears its name, these open mic or jam sessions or whatever one might wish to call them, plus those recording music need good A&R people. It’s the missing link- objectivity from those with experience, creativity, vision to make this business grow and quality control. It’s about protecting and building your brand- the performer, the venue and the end product. Some might think they have, but not everyone can pass the litmus test.
Like Lennon cheekily said after performing “Get Back” on the rooftop of Abbey Road Studios, “I hope we passed the audition”, those running these venues need to understand the need for audiences that help turnover through buying drinks and snacks and ALSO how there is the need for quality ‘live’ music that will have people returning for all the right reasons.
No one is expecting a Tash Sultana or a Flume, but they’re not going to be back for more posturing, more self indulgence, more sloppy performances and thinking swearing onstage gives one street cred. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even work for Liam Gallagher anymore. It’s fake. It’s old school stupidity.
All that is just crude and crud and no one’s going to pay to even sip a Coke and watch faked out performances that do artists with even a modicum of talent no good. For audiences, time would be better spent having dinner at home and watching The Voice.
Please continue with these open mic sessions, but just be more selective when deciding to give those the PRIVILEGE to perform. The tail can’t wag the dog. It should never ever be allowed. One might catch rabies.
Don’t turn these performances into something as amateurish and tacky as those who get up at an office staff party in an inebriated state and make arses of themselves. Audiences don’t pay good money to hear rubbish.
#HongKongmusicscene #openmicsessions #PeelFresco #music #TheWanch #TashSultana #JuliaWu #A&R