Hamish McKenzie in the Sunday Morning Post lamented over the weekend how no Hong Kong acts/bands had been invited to perform at the South By Southwest [SXSW] conference in Austin, Texas.

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Of course, there is a fee attached to perform at this music conference to beat all other music conference- around US$10,000- and, honestly, if I were managing a band- and gawd knows I won’t unless they were the second coming of the Beatles- that’s a hefty price to pay to fly half-way around the world and probably play for around 10-12 people.

Sorry, folks, but very few people are interested in a singer, duo, band, or polka band from Asia, let alone Hong Kong.

A few years ago, I was asked to speak at the SPOT Music Conference in Denmark about Asia and I reckon the organizers paid to have people attend my session.

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Apart from some old Danish hippie who had written a song called “Sakura” which he thought- because of the name of his song- would be a humongous hit in Japan, and a member of Michael Learns To Rock, a Danish band only known in Asia, no one really gave a shit about what I had to say. Same with acts/bands from Asia playing SXSW.

Hell, how many unknown acts pass through Asia every day of every week? How many people care about hearing them? Not many.

Hamish McKenzie mentions how acts from Japan,  Singapore- the duo Zsa+Claire, below- Taiwan, and China are playing at the music conference this year. Yeah? And so what?

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These acts pay their own way, there is no promotion, there is no marketing, there is the “freak factor appeal” of, especially, being “direct” from China, and then- silenzio.

Screw SXSW. What has ANY music conference done for a band outside of the States? I still remember all the shuck and awe of a band from Mongolia playing at Music Matters in Hong Kong- Altan Urag. They had a great “back story”:  Wealthy young Aussie miner and his company “invests” in the band, they perform in Hong Kong dressed in Mongolian garb, do some “throat singing” and everyone goes, “Wah”.

Suddenly, people wanted to record them, wanted to have them tour, wanted to manage them. And then nothing. The latest news about the band is that they have become members of BMI. Not EMI. BMI.

Were they really that good, or were we caught up in the moment of supporting some “world music” by a band from Mongolia?

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Truth be known, a few weeks later, the “investor” dropped off, there was a tug-of-war between the two women “managing” the band who, despite all their ethnicity, wanted to be Slipknot.

In the article in the Sunday Morning Post, there are quotes from Justin Sweeting, below, a newbie promoter in Hong Kong who once worked for Channel [V] and is a decent guy who is trying to create “a scene” in Hong Kong and has brought out acts like Raveonettes and Flaming Lips.

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But the man-child is off the mark when he says that “Hong Kong has been under-represented in showcases even in Asia and Australasia so it isn’t surprising that that numbers all the way to Austin have been limited.”

Reading all his quotes, what is missing is this: Are there any really original bands and acts in Hong Kong? Not from what I’ve heard. They are all derivative and dismissive. There is not an iota of originality in any of them.

Yes, tar and feather boa me, stick two arrows up my arse and drive me outta town, but Hong Kong acts/bands are simply not up to par when outside their own comfort zones- and with many of the members being too damn old to be in bands.

You are in your mid-Thirties and trying to compete for that same “space” as a band made up of teenagers and who have time on their side and can afford to gig for 2-3 years?

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Same with most acts outta Asia: They are way too old. It hurts me to say this as, despite my Teutonic-sounding name, I’m as Asian as a fish-head curry, brinjal and dhal.

When a Singaporean friend recently told me about his city’s newest rave band and how much they sounded like Sigur Ros, I almost hurled. Isn’t one Sigur Ros enough? And are they really THAT good- even as copyists- or are they just le band de jour until the real deal appears? It’s like all the sons of Coldplay in the Philippines making whiny noises.

Damn it, everywhere one goes in Asia, it serves up truly derivative crap- wannabe rappers, wannabe emos, wannabe wannabes. Sure, there are guitarists from the Steve Vai School Of Chops, but when was Steve Vai last relevant?

l get requests every week from promoters/entrepreneurs/music guys in Sri Lanka- and where I was born- and nearly all want Akon or T’Pain or Snoop Dogg  to guest with their local artists? What the hell for? Who will buy into this bastard son of an illegitimate daughter? And aren’t most of these rappers ripping off Bollywood with US$350,000 price tags attached for one track and video with some oily Bollywood artist?  

What Hong Kong- what Asia needs- is some bona fide talent and not someone making pixie dust music or singing Bruno Mars covers on their YouTube channel. The whole world has enough of those.

Now, if there is this bona fide talent and which has fallen through the cracks, they need to be found, nurtured and put together with a a great producer.

For years, the great Bob Ezrin has been looking at working with a band from Asia. But, time is money and a producer like Bob Ezrin isn’t going to be cheap. So we end up with money.

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Is it money holding back musical creativity in Asia? Then again, like love, can money buy creativity and real talent? Of course not.

Money buys one some fakirs who pretend to buy into one’s music while the parents’ pay through their noses thinking their son or daughter is in a band that is the new Radiohead. Or the new Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.

But if poor and talented, what does one do? Pray? Send demos? Go on a show like “Idol”? Become desperate?

Sure, send demos but be choosy who receives those demos- and what those demos are. Less is more.  Pick only the very best songs.

As for Hong Kong and why no band is going to SXSW, well, seriously, if not a complete loon, what will this trip accomplish other than “experience”?

Who is the “best” band in Hong Kong today, anyway? Noughts And Exes? Probably. They spend HK$60,000 to haul ass to Austen, they play to a few people and not at any of THE big showcases and, then what? They write down on their cv, “Played at SXSW in 2011 “. To how many people? And what happened next?

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Forget who you meet at all these music conferences. They- and music conferences- all want music content- for free. Showcases is another term for “free entertainment”. What are any of these people going to do for you? Really. So you have their name cards. Name cards are just an excuse to have more trees  felled.

The real problem with Hong Kong and why there is no scene here today can be traced back by going all the way back to the Sixties.

As with everywhere else in the world, the Beatles and the British Beat Boom had happened and, suddenly, everyone was forming groups.

Some still stuck with the sounds of the Ventures and the Shadows, but singers were making themselves heard over squeaky Farfisa organs and tinny-sounding guitars.

Some were better than others, there was radio support, there were tea dances, there were signings to record labels for 1-2 singles and there was a an innocence and a camaraderie. It was fun and money had not come into play and Chinese guys all sang in English.

Then, the music industry grew up. We went from music cassettes to CDs, and many of those who were in these former pop groups became music company executives- and they became greedy.

They started to smell money and so quietly took shares in manufacturing plants, printing companies and ad agencies.

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Deejays were hired so they could be controlled. Radio and television stations were run by men and women who determined what would be played- and for how much.

Canto-Pop was born and flogged to the masses and caricatures of “singers” and “songwriters” were created as different versions of the casting couch were pulled out.Then, the media was also bought and they hyped who they were paid to hype.

English recordings by local artists were all but banished. The mantra, “English does not sell” began. This has become, “International does not sell”. Well, of course it won’t sell if not marketed. The internet can only help so much get new music “out”.

The showcases for bands have shrunk to industrial buildings in the nether regions of Kowloon and the gawdawful sound system of places like the Fringe Club.

The “Indie” bands in Hong Kong have barely changed in the past two decades. It is still Audiotraffic or whatever they are called today. The only known “rappers” are way past their thirties- 24 Herbs and MC Jin. More to the point, the music is so bloody horrible.

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Sure, there are efforts to make new music heard, but there are no mentors. It’s the blind leading the blind down one very dark alley way with no way out. Mentors were killed off at the pass through greed and when the current fat cats decided to suck this city dry of everything to do with music and create “stars” they could control and manipulate- and make sure they won awards. Jeez, the meaningless awards shows they have in Hong Kong.

Yes, “meaningless” to me and my mates, but you’d be surprised how many take everything at face value and how many sponsors and brand managers are willing to pay to have these “stars” even attend their parties.

Forget a “manager”. The most important person to these “stars” are their stylist and publicist- not that different to anywhere else in the music world today.

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This promoting of mediocrity still goes on today and which is why “Only okay” in Hong Kong becomes “Good” and “Good” becomes, “We are better than Arcade Fire and Foo Fighters- combined, baby”. It is a warped sense of “being” and where the ordinaire become legends in their own lunchtime and go nowhere. Except to maybe Macau and Lamma Island.  

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It’s not where you play, Hamish, it’s what you play and  how good you are at playing it. And, sad to say, there are very few in Hong Kong who are good at it. 

 

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  3. Hamish Mckenzie says:

    Hey Hans – it’s good to see this discussion. Thanks.

    Sorry to say that I largely agree with you, and I don’t really see how your comments are incompatible with my story. Unless it has been edited out (I haven’t seen the finished product), you can read in there that I quoted Justin as saying SXSW could only be considered a stepping stone and not something in isolation. You’ll also read that DP paid HK$60,000 for the trip and got not much out of it. And that the investment for any other bands is a very uncertain one. I also pointed out, via Justin’s comments, that festivals like SXSW often put Asian bands on the bill as a kind of lip service to the region – just ticking the boxes.

    None of that changes my opinion that Hong Kong bands need to play outside their bubbles and comfort zones in front of audiences that aren’t automatically appreciative of what they do. Whether that’s at SXSW or any other event in Asia or Australasia, or even just going over to Manila to play to an empty room, it’s healthy and part of the learning experience.

    • We-Enhance says:

      It’s all been great food for thought, Hamish. We shall try and move it forward. Maybe we need a new radio and television station? That’s a whole new subject.

  4. Justin says:

    Agree with almost all of this Hans. Not seen the article myself though the crutch of what i was saying in the interview was that the question would be better phrased “Why would a band from HK want to go to SXSW?” and indeed – what happens next afterwards. My points were also that the fact that there haven’t been many from HK comes down to they’re a) not interested as it’s not relevant to them and/or b) they’re not good enough.

    The West is focused on the West, and unless an artist has designs and the capability to be following up with committed time/energies on what happens next over there, then strategically for sure there isn’t a point. It certainly can’t be seen as a one off, and yes agree that unless you are going as part of something bigger, with gigs around your showcase at the buzzy parties, or, you’re clearly going into it with your eyes open and just wanting to go for the experience (and nothing more) then under any other guise, it’s not going to meet your expectations.

    Indonesia is for all intensive purposes, light years ahead of HK’s music scene though taking the example of an artist like WHite Shoes & The Couples Company – they first secured an international release through an American label before heading to SXSW. They were one of the most buzzworthy acts there the first time they played and really made an impact because they successfully leveraged their originality plus had a platform to promote it – which ultimately led to more fans and more opportunities for them to further their career within a new market. The difference is the level of marketing that needs to be around an act before they even consider going.

    I am however far more optimistic that things are (slowly) getting better in HK and it’s a case of baby steps pushing things forward from the ground up (it certainly aint coming from the top down). That original band that we all yearn to meaningfully break through will be born organically, and that bar needs to be constantly raised – by the likes of Noughts & Exes and a handful of other acts who are doing just that.

    • We-Enhance says:

      Sure, Justin, remember I know pretty much about the music scenes in Indonesia, the Philippines, even Singapore, Malaysia, India, Taiwan, China and Thailand and they are downright vibrant- and young- compared to Hong Kong.

      What is HK’s problem? Lack of real talent? Lack of exposure? Lack of originality? Simply not a “band” market as this is where 50 and 60-year old Canto “Idols” and dinoaurs rule the Earth?

      Or, as I KNOW as I was there and trying to change things when at EMI, there is a problem with those at the very top- and Chinese- and who will quash any change as they do not control or have any “stake” in a band.

      Watch all the hype right now- and awards won- by the Rubberband. Why? They have the Commercial Radio and RTHK DJs behind them and the television stations. And their label plus they have been touring China for two years. This is HK’s “most popular band” today. If they were to play SXSW- and they never will- they would be laughed off stage.

      The whole English/Cantonese/Mandarin “thing” is rampant- and which I did not get into in my blog in case it became a novel:)…

      If Noughts and Exes were to record 1-2 tracks in Mandarin- and I hear they may/will- this would immediately get them noticed in Hong Kong by more than a small group of expats.

      Need a ginger beer now!

  5. Fernando says:

    Interesting take on all this. I’m not sure if lack of youth and originality is the problem as much as lack of drive and streetsmarts. Doing a festival, or something huge like SXSW makes sense if a band has traction and some sort of buzz.

    The TopSpin blog had a provocative comment the other day, to the effect that unless you have at least 2.5k of fan connection (email lists, twitter, etc) don’t even bother offering anything for sale. My guess is that to make a trip to SXSW worthwhile you probably want 4 times that.

    So, to put the question another way – which bands and musicians in Hong Kong have that kind of real, dynamic online presence. And if the answer is zero, or something close to zero, then why?

  6. Niels Schroeter says:

    What a terrible idea! You’re so on the money. Anybody playing sxsw better have a damn good reason. If you’re not:

    a. Already generating a major buzz
    b. Confirmed to showcase at THE parties to be at
    c. Going for the sake of going and just wanna get really drunk and try to get laid

    THEN STAY HOME!!

  7. Niels Schroeter says:

    What a terrible idea! You’re so on the money. Anybody playing sxsw better have a damn good reason. If you’re not:

    a. Already generating a major buzz
    b. Confirmed to showcase at THE parties to be at
    c. Going for the sake of going and just wanna get really drunk and try to get laid

    THEN STAY HOME!!

    • We-Enhance says:

      Hey, Fernando, see reply to Justin. Hong Kong- and those who run and “rule” the music industry have “zero tolerance” to bands- difficult to manage- and especially, bands that sing in English. It comes down to money and hype and style over substance. Nada to do with talent. Sad- but true.

      • Fernando says:

        Sure. You’ll know the situation far better than me. The thing here is pretty broken. Which, is why I don’t think there is any hope without sidestepping it.

        FWIW, I took a look at the Australian bands showcasing at SXSW. The first two I looked at, Wolf & Cub and Washington have proper websites loaded with direct-to-fan stores.

        I know it’s my soapbox, but it really staggers me that more Hong Kong bands and musicians don’t take this angle seriously.

      • We-Enhance says:

        Lotsa part-timers here, Fernando- in fact, most are as there is just no money here unless selling your soul and being a Canto-pop moppet and behaving like some Hello Kitty doll.

        At least in Oz, there are plenty of clubs/pubs/festivals where one can jam, or just play and become a tight unit. Some of the new bands coming out of Sydney, especially, are brilliant and when in Perth, there were some great acts just busking.

      • Fernando says:

        Actually, almost any night of the week you can hear people “jam” in Hong Kong. In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered if that is part of the problem. As a kid (in the dark ages, in Australia), you had almost no chance of getting onstage without at least a partly thought-out band. Sitting in on jazz gigs was reserved for the big boys and I can remember having to put together a presskit (crappy, sure) and a demo tape just to get fourth on the bill and no money at a small pub.

        Being provocative, for a moment, if someone’s goal is to get in one of the gweilo-oriented magazines and play small gigs in front of their mates, then it is too-easy in Hong Kong, rather than being too hard?

      • We-Enhance says:

        Do bands really need to get into the 2-3 “gwei” mags in HK? That’s like walking around Central with “Loser” tattooed on your forehead.

        If there is a need for something like a mag, let it be a really GOOD music mag like Mojo and which brings all of Asia together.

        Then again, Channel V tried to do this with their AMP online presence and got mainly acts from Malaysia and Indonesia and a few from the Philippines, none of which were any good.

        The main problem with bands in HK are that they have their heads buried so high up their bums, they refuse to see that they are not the cat’s miao. They’re not even kitty litter.

        Apart from musical chops, they need a serious dose of Humility.

      • Fernando says:

        Not saying that’s good, just that’s what those met often seem to aspire to. That and not much else.

      • We-Enhance says:

        Yeah, I know…Btw, it’s what they PERSPIRE to do…

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