By Hans Ebert
“We’re not pushing the envelope. We’re licking the envelope.” I said that to a musician friend of mine recently who shan’t be named as he has to work in Hong Kong and do what he has to do to make a living.
As for myself, I’ve now come to a point where I really don’t care what anyone thinks and am spending more and more time away from the usual chatter that doesn’t seem to have an Off switch. It’s boring as none of it leads anywhere except maybe to a Facebook page that has no relevance to where I’m heading.
Forget the tiresome excuses about there being a lack of venues. There have been venues and they closed because they went bust. The Morrison Cafe comes to mind. So does the doomed-from-the start Orange Peel. There’ve been more.
It’s not difficult opening venues. It’s how to sustain them through clever management and playing by the rules. Keep breaking these rules and it ruins it for everyone.
There are venues around today that are on life support. There are venues out there like The Wanch, a Hong Kong institution, doing the best it can with what it has because those who have invested in it have a passion for music, and especially want to see Rock music live and prosper. And then there are venues that are front for money laundering. Take away The Wanch and what else is there for a younger brand of music? How many support it? Really support it?
What’s always brought about a wry smile to this face are those unknown bands struggling to be heard who think they’re too good for the venue.
However, the real problem is that there’s no money in being a musician in Hong Kong unless Chinese and prepared to play the Canto Pop fame game and willing to do everything possible to be the new incarnation of the former Four Heavenly Kings, below.
The Four Heavenly Kings happened in another time and space. It was a very different Hong Kong. It wasn’t a Hong Kong spoiled for choice. It wasn’t a Hong Kong looking and getting quick returns because all the big players who controlled the message of the medium and controlled every powerful medium in a pre social media world played in the same sandbox and worked together to feather their own nests. They did and are now looked up as being “legends”. Yes, “legends” who managed to keep one step ahead of the ICAC and are now “respectable” business people who get the best seat in the house.
If one knows why Hong Kong is the Humpty Dumpty city that it is today, they know where the cracks first appeared and how many were tied to the dark side of the local entertainment business with ties to Taiwan and Mainland China- and the UK.
Working for PolyGram which became Universal Music before moving to EMI was quite an adventure and a great school of learning where one knew when to turn a blind eye to palms being greased, the local fat cats working on retirement plans and the “foreign investments” being made using company money on properties in cities like Shanghai to keep the Chinese mistress happy.
The real problem here and now is where are the musicians good enough to draw an audience- CONSISTENTLY- and fill these venues with talent other than the same old and now even older usual suspects still hanging in there. Not the usual “Adult Contemporary” musicians playing covers at functions attended by rich tai tais and those who can afford paying ten times extra for an ordinary bottle of red, but the younger musicians and BANDS who have that youthful exuberance and something approaching creativity as opposed to copying copies of covers and thinking that this will move careers forward?
Why there’s little or no creativity in Hong Kong is because musicians here might be technically proficient, but where they fall way short are in A&R skills.
A&R- Artists and Repertoire- is knowing what works best for an artist. It’s a skill, but it’s a position that has seldom been on the organisation charts of most major music companies in this region. It’s because those running these companies have always believed that they knew best and forced their personal tastes and agendas on artists ironically signed for their originality. But once signed and legally contracted, it was and is almost always about becoming a muppet doing what’s been told to get anywhere-get radio airplay, a television appearance, concert appearances in China etc.
There’s never been a whiff of there being a good A&R person to help produce the best possible music product other than the formulaic Canto Pop slush that keeps being produced over and over again with audiences not familiar with contemporary music duped into thinking this is all that’s out there. That this is what everyone is listening to and buying.
Lyor Cohen who started Def Jam might not be one of my favourite music people, but he did legitimise and introduce Rap to the world and recently returned to head up YouTube Music. He was an A&R man who was a game changer. Credit where credit is due.
Back in Hong Kong, there are very different music groups, some older than others, some being old school booking agents, others play acting at being “managers” with no knowledge of contractual law, and everyone simply falling into line and just going through the motions because this is the way it’s always been so why break into a sweat and change the wheel when everyone else is happy to just continue? What individual thinking?
Why doesn’t anyone change this tune? Maybe they don’t know how? Maybe it’s way too late?Maybe there’s too much money involved for too little returns?
After all, Hong Kong is not exactly a Mecca for music. In today’s flawed Spotify world with very few not being risk averse when it comes to investing in tours and making records no one hears, what’s the point in bothering? To be the next Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre?
Even Singapore, once regarded as a far inferior version of Hong Kong when it came to music talent has leap frogged over what’s churned out in this city. Why? There are at least a handful of artists who really know music- and follow those artists making a difference- Sia, Florence and the Machine, Jack White, the new music of a Rock icon like Robert Plant, Beck, Hozier etc. This new generation of Singapore artists like Gentle Bones offer hope because they have potential. Someone like singer-songwriter Gentle Bones just MIGHT have a career outside of the Lion City.
Speaking to those involved in the music industry in Singapore, they come across more real. More knowledgeable. They know the music from the past which helped shape the future. The artists are their own A&R people. They don’t want to sound like everyone else. They’re at least trying to create something new.
In Hong Kong? In Hong Kong it’s about “playing nice” and happy to just belong. But this modus operandi has been going on for almost two decades. Nothing has changed.
Where are the A&R people who hear something in a song, no matter how small, and instinctively know how much farther it can travel? It’s what made George Martin so integral to the Beatles.
Apart from being their producer, George Martin, also an experienced musician, was a brilliant A&R person who, for instance, brought together two unfinished songs, one from Paul, the other from John, and created “A Day In The Life”.
Of course, the Beatles were beyond extraordinary. They were magic. They learned about record production from George Martin and he heard that certain something which made this pop group different. He pushed them to write their own material at a time when when all the other pop groups were covering the same songs.
He made them realise that if they wished to stand out from the rest, the Beatles needed to up their game. They needed a USP- and which started with the songs. The haircuts, collarless jackets and boots was about the savvy management of Brian Epstein. But it all had to do with the songs.
A&R and understanding how it worked and can still work can be heard in this revealing documentary in the making of “I’m Not In Love” by 10cc.
In Hong Kong, if in music, one learned as they went going way back to all those local pop groups in the Sixties. But because everything about this new brand of popular music and no one really knew what was good and what wasn’t, everything was accepted without any questions.
Where were the A&R people? There weren’t any because it was a fledgling industry which everyone knew wouldn’t last- local bands covering Western pop songs and “Uncle” Ray making them seem more than they were. It was fun while it lasted but apart from nostalgia, there was nothing to any of this music. It had a very short lifespan.
Canto-Pop, meanwhile, had a pulse when Sam Hui created something a little different, but it was hardly groundbreaking. Not really. It stayed with Tsimshatsui Susie and some goofball comedies and which continue today in large Chinese communities around the world as family nostalgia tours like the Brady Bunch. But these sell and one supposes that’s all that matters. It’s a financially viable commercial formula which works for those who need some positive memories. It’s nothing to do with music.
Canto Pop continues today with hardly any difference to those cliquey days when Mark Lui wrote most of the songs. It was one tedious sausage factory of ponderous ballads which owed more than a passing nod to “Desperado”. But audiences were sold on style over substance and flocked to concerts that continue to be ‘live’ versions of cheesy television variety shows.
Only the band Beyond, Rappers LMF and Ramband and Chyna, both led by the creativity and unwavering commitment to his craft of the late Don Ashley, below, offered up something different.
Faye Wong? Gorgeous, but a Cantonese version of the Cranberries whereas Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung, below, changed mind sets, broke down taboos and unfortunately decided to leave us. We’ll never know how much Hong Kong- and Hong Kong music- lost with their passing.
Fast forward to today and nothing much has changed. There are glimpses of very good talent young enough to be more than they are- singer Kel, the group Esimorp, below, and a handful of others.
The question is who’s out there willing to take a chance on investing in especially Hong Kong based musicians when music is just no longer selling because there’s too much of everything and not enough of anything very special?
Having invested in recordings and videos and seeing absolutely no return on investment doesn’t exactly augur much hope for the future. Either that or we’ve been listening to the wrong people and blindly following without taking the time out to think independently and think creatively and then just DO IT- as long as it’s not another music streaming company that does nothing to market musicians, especially unknown musicians.
So you’re a musician with your product on Spotify. Who’s to know? Not even Daniel Ek. And now what? More whining? More of the blah blahs? Again?
#Music #musicindustry #A&R #GeorgeMartin #Beatles #HongKong #HongKongmusicindustry #musicexecutives #musiccompanies #Cantopop