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The Challenges Facing Indie Musicians in Hong Kong

BY Reported by Katherine Li and Rachel Yeo; Edited by Jade Li / Hong Kong Baptist University | 25-Oct-2018
As most people head home at the end of the working week, it’s just the start of yet another Friday night of jamming at MOM Live House in North Point. Multi-coloured laser slice through the music while the crowd cheer the performers with drinks in hand. This is “The Week Hong Kong Indie Music Festival”. There are performances every night with a different theme each week and there’s a line-up of more than 25 acts. The performers are all unknown local indie bands.
As most people head home at the end of the working week, it’s just the start of yet another Friday night of jamming at MOM Live House in North Point. Multi-coloured laser slice through the music while the crowd cheer the performers with drinks in hand.

This is “The Week Hong Kong Indie Music Festival”. There are performances every night with a different theme each week and there’s a line-up of more than 25 acts. The performers are all unknown local indie bands.

This particular evening was “Girls’ Night”. In one band, After After Party, the guys wore long floral dresses and neon pink wigs while two women were in suits with moustaches on their faces.

“We want to be funny and make people laugh. We don’t want to be just a rock and roll band, but we are interested in any performing art,” said Yanyan Pan, the lead singer of After After Party.

With Jaedyn Yu on drums and Cory Pearce on bass, this band formed in 2015 and has since come up with a few numbers of their own. But building a music career in Hong Kong, they say, is tough.

“It is very difficult to produce music without a label in Hong Kong, but that is the case for most of the musicians here. There are limited venues and audience. Bands who signed with labels would get to do commercial shows, such as at car exhibitions, but we only get to do independent band shows like tonight,” Ms. Pan said

Speaking from her personal experience, Ms Yu said some young indie musicians also face a lack of parental support.

“My parents were not too supportive at the beginning,” Ms. Yu said “because they think that when you play music, you usually go out very late, and they don’t know what kind of people you play with. But I just kept playing, and eventually, I got the chance to show them that this is the type of music that I do. We had shows sometimes and we invited them to show them that music is a way to help me relieve stress and a good way to balance school and work.”

Music is not the main source of income for the band. Ms. Yu has a career in finance while Ms. Pan works in marketing.

“Indie music is different in the sense that we have the freedom of creativity, while if you do commercial music you have to go with the trend,” said Ms. Pan. “Also, in Hong Kong, to be a commercially successful musician, you have to create very karaoke-friendly songs.”

As one of the main organisers of The Week Music Festival, Elaine Ip recognises the difficulties indie musicians face and the challenges in promoting a festival dedicated to them.

“When your job is an artist, and you also have to market yourself, this is not what you do best. So that’s where we come in. We handle all the promotion for them, so all they have to do is come and have fun,” Ms. Ip said.

This is the second year of Indie Music Festival. The organisation is on a shoestring budget, but they still do everything they can to focus on the show because they see value in promoting indie singers in Hong Kong.

“I think for Hong Kong, in general, this is important, because the creative scene here tends to have a hard time,” Ms. Ip said. “It is not really in the local culture for people to attend shows featuring musicians they have never heard of, so it is our responsibility to promote and show people how good our local bands actually are.”

First name, Chikin, from the Hong Kong Music Critics Community (HKMC²) said running music festivals in Hong Kong is tough because of limited audience and venues.

“For example, Hidden Agenda, is a famous local indie music live house. It is in an industrial area, but its licence was not recognised and the fire prevention was not good enough. After they moved three times, they thought of many methods to survive. For instance, the possibility of turning their place into a coffee shop, but unfortunately, they were simply unable to continue,” Chikin explained.

Other music festivals, such as Wow and Flutter, also have problems despite surviving for three years. This year the organisers said that they did not want to arrange it anymore because the government is going turn their venue in West Kowloon into the Forbidden City Museum.

“Unlike popular artists from large record labels who can earn their living through advertisements and commercial music, indie musicians rely on album sales and performances. So when the venues are so limited, the rent goes up. How could they have enough sustainability to continue their music career?” Chikin questioned.

But indie musicians are getting some exposure. Chikin noticed that Radio 903 has been playing indie music pieces. He hoped the media can do the same in order to boost the development of indie music.

“There will only be more and more indie musicians because the cost of producing music is decreasing in comparison to before. Nowadays, you can use your own instrument and recording devices to create a decent piece of work at home. When this trend can possibly be the mainstream way of creating music, our range of musical pursuit does not have to stay within the boundaries of popular music,” said Chikin.

As for musicians who work hard at their day jobs in order to live their dream, Chikin believed they have a different mindset that makes their music beautiful. He thought that they put their souls into their music and their work should be appreciated.

“I think in Hong Kong currently it is difficult to profit from music, especially if you think of record sales. Overall, bands are not making money. So we don’t play music for money. We play it because we love it,” said Ms. Yu, the drummer.

As the show ended and the crowd dispersed, the three members of After After Party disappeared into the night together with their guitar cases, their mutual passion sustaining them despite the challenges.