By Hans Ebert

“You need to get straight to the chorus because this is what everyone is doing as no one has time to listen to a whole song.”

This was an unknown, unrepresented and impressionable young musician in Hong Kong depending on those “in the business” to guide him, and him telling me about the advice he recently received from a senior executive of a major music label in the city about writing a hit.

It made me think of all the greatest love songs ever written- “Skylark”, “Moon River”, “The Nearness Of You” etc- the fragile honesty of these songs and which came straight from the heart. They weren’t cooked up according to some “recipes for success” and push-button creativity.

Yes, all those classic pop songs of the Sixties including Motown and “The Sound Of Young America” were often driven by choruses, but these were created by real musicians and played on real instruments. Musicians in Hong Kong can learn much from knowing and listening to people like the Funk Brothers. But will they bother?

Their work, which was fuelled by inspiration and energy and passion, took many of us to happy places we often didn’t know existed. It was called being creative. Being Axis:Bold As Love. They showed that there’s no difference between the music of Django Reinhardt, Dylan, Sergio Leone, Miles Davis, Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, Joni Mitchell and Tupac. Music is music is music. Music is its own language.

Artists like these blazed their own trails of glory. What they created connected with many of us because, well, it just did. It was soul food.

Today, it’s almost always about selling “celebrity”- the whole enchilada comprising fashion and endorsements and being Instagram KOLs. Music has a cameo role.

How did this happen? The ease for someone who’s no one to be manipulated by social media into thinking that they could be someone more than they are by putting anything out there and they not believing that anyone other than friends and family give a damn. And even that’s a maybe.

Though once heading up two majors in the region and having seen many things going on I was not supposed to and which were of interest to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) those of us who decided to be in music was because of how it made us feel along with being passionate music FANS.

Somehow, the good outweighed the bad. It was a journey of discovery. Perhaps we were naive, but there was something uplifting about being involved in the most minor hit song and being in the recording studio with artists.

Knowing about those whose only interest were back door deals and shaking the money tree, “advice” about cutting straight to the chase of a chorus and which is then pummelled to death, isn’t really surprising. It’s part of scamming one’s way through today’s dumbed down world where many in different businesses don’t have a clue what to do next.

The REAL Peter Principle is happening now where incompetence is not only promoted, it’s supported by those who should know better. It’s about looking after número uno and allowing the small fishes to sink or swim. It’s management with band aids. But the sores are visible. It’s just that many have been conditioned to look away and pretend that everything is alright because this is how it is. It’s survival. It’s being that deaf, dumb and blind kid Pete Townshend wrote about named Tommy.

Believing offered a recording or publishing deal in 2020 is “making it”- it meant nothing even twenty years ago- is something for Facebook fame.

My young friend mentioned a “distribution deal” with this label. How this worked is that he paid for everything and gave the label his product. They “helped” with the marketing via “social media” though most of the marketing had to be done by him. For this “princely deal”, the major would take 30 percent.

Though 30 percent of nothing is nothing, we continued chatting. I kept reminding him to not sign anything- told him the ways I had been duped by supposed “friends”- and to only consider signing something when YOU have something that THEY want. This is when you’re in the financial driver’s seat.

Being an unknown artist, he was desperate to be successful. But he didn’t know where to start. Hong Kong? China? Taiwan? The Philippines? Vietnam? Thailand? Indonesia? Australia? With what exactly?

He had some rap demos in Cantonese and Mandarin that “needed work”. A local producer was willing to help. For HK$60,000 a track. He apparently had cred as he had worked with some fairly successful Canto Pop artist around twenty years ago.

Having been brought up in Hong Kong and coming from a musical family, and though knowing that Canto Pop has come and gone, this kid seemed in awe of those once involved in this genre in its heyday. You know, those cashed up uncles and uncles who have already made their retirement plans and are now playing the nostalgia circuit outside of Hong Kong for another truly, really, definitely “farewell tour”.

It made me think that if Hong Kong’s “freedom fighters” really wanted to do something that’s very much needed, they should have bashed what is passed off as the “Hong Kong music scene”.

What “music scene”? The same old handful of venues? The merry-go-round of the usual ageing suspects not bringing anything new to the party? The younger brigade with their tedious social media self-promotion? And how big is their fan base? Where is it?

Do these legends in their own dim sum realise that people can see right through them? What have they actually produced? Where have they performed other than The Wanch and whose tireless efforts to help the ‘live’ local music scene should be respected. What’s on their CVs?CVs?

What many forget is that in the urgency and greed to profit from Canto Pop, a genre I coined when writing for Billboard, radio, television, and at least one major in Hong Kong and its senior executives, banded together in the Seventies to make this a monopoly situation. Western music hardly received a look-in. It’s been a historic problem.

This went on for over two decades. Hong Kong audiences barely heard any heavy rock. Most were weaned on what was spoon fed to them- Canto Pop, twee Western Pop, and later, a soft core R’B influenced version of Canto Pop which was sold as “jazzy” and supposed to be more sophisticated and “niche”. Very much part of the Canto Pop gang of inequity were those behind the ubiquitous and dubious television awards shows. It was ICAC territory.

With nothing to compare anything with, consumers bought into what there was and what still exists: more of the same doses of Canto Pop- but now older. When there’s nothing else, it all becomes a smorgasbord of garish style and BIGLY over substance.

This manipulation, control and with no forward thinking is what is really behind much of the anger of the current social unrest. Hong Kong has been “governed” by apathy and a fear of change for much too long. This has created a huge generation gap which is finally being seen and heard for what it is. It’s taken me a while to understand this.

Along with many other NEW improvements, Hong Kong needs a new music model. Sorry, and there’ll be the haters, but Hong Kong doesn’t have what it takes with regards to music to compete with many neighbouring cities. Mongolia and a band like The Hu Band leaves what Hong Kong has to offer in the dust- derivative “stuff” often played by hobbyist musicians.

Come on, people, there are no “Jazz” singers here. But because of decades of a lack of musical education, this, again, is what’s been sold by the same old booking agents at premium prices to F&B managers at five-star hotel lounges who are clueless about music. As for those who frequent these venues, they wouldn’t know the difference between Ella Fitzgerald and Lady Gaga, and buy into it. They believe they’re being “niche”.

Working musicians in Hong Kong complain about lack of venues. Where are the artists? There’s an audience to hear more of the same old people? Really?

Once getting this city up and running again, the Hong Kong government needs to really loosen up work visas and have a budget set aside to attract good musicians to Hong Kong- those who are finding it tough going- financially- in Australia, the UK and Europe, especially Scandinavia.

Next, change the business model of the music and publishing companies here. Head offices of especially the majors should finally get rid of the shysters in charge. They have long passed their Use By date. But can they be bothered? They never have. Why start now?

Those connected with music in Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Beijing, Singapore, India etc are doing exciting things and leaving what’s coming out of Hong Kong for dead.

Just speak to my friend Terry Lee in Taiwan and see how far he’s taken singer Julia Wu.

These players are different because they’ve changed with the times. They’re also savvy entrepreneurs who have moved on by making new music, creating different business models, knowing how to get the most out of technology while mentoring and guiding new talent- talent having something new to say with their music and management teams knowing how to get it out there.

How did I come to hear about Julia Wu? Or become such a huge fan of Tash Sultana from Melbourne? Their talent won me over.

Who’s here in Hong Kong with youth and talent and charisma on their side? Even if there were, what are they doing with this? Playing yet another a hole in the wall for a few hundred bucks and a couple of beers and thinking they’re Mork and Indie?

Who’s there to guide them? And how? With some interviews on local radio stations?

Television in Hong Kong, especially HKTVB with their faked out Canto-Pop awards shows which worked in cahoots with the majors and big local concert promoters to create overnight Canto stars is dead. The protesters saw to that.

Today, there might be “managers” who will sign up anyone who walks through the door simply to “collect” enough names for their books. These are presented to potential investors who need to build up their portfolios and attract more funding to open an IPO and be listed on the stock market. This is the new game in town. Geddit?

Hong Kong is too broke to play this game. But it’s not for the shake your money makers from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Taiwan and Mainland China. But what these wheelers and dealers need has nothing to do with music. They deal with illusion. It’s the big business version of Instagram played for huge stakes by fat cats, especially with an interest in being involved the tech sector.

As for the unknown artist in Hong Kong waiting to be discovered? Well, there’s always Spotify and asking friends to support them as their music streams into that bottomless pit of nothingness…

#music #hongkong #musicians #musicscene #venues #bigbusiness #socialunrest #CantoPop #audiences