Hong Kong has earned itself the title of being ‘Asia’s World City’. It has an abundance of international corporations embedded in a diverse and global market. It mirrors the West in thinking, and, as China’s gatekeeper, it harbors multi-billion dollar corporations, alongside the creative talent that travels with them. Companies bring people, and people bring culture – thus allowing the city to be a melting pot. Nevertheless, its music industry has yet to truly follow the footsteps of its counterpart in the West.
Hong Kong’s culture was born in a sophisticated fusion of East and West. The yearning for a higher social status is the common driver of life in this city. Yet Hong Kong’s society continues to be influenced by a Confucian legacy, and the reserved manner of its inhabitants is an integral part of its identity. This is well known by the power brokers that decide what is heard and what is not, and the music industry tends to stick with genres that have worked well in the past.
This is a business that doesn’t think outside of the box. The industry is built upon a mercantile mindset, not a creative one. Profits are valued much more than musical quality and the decision makers that shape and approve musical releases and productions do not seem to be experts in music at all. The percentage of musicians in the business is small and, overall, a staple product is fed to consumers.
In fact, karaoke dominates the market. This form of entertainment, naturally, depends on the supply of recordings of past hits without the lead vocals. Karaoke was born in Japan in the 1970s and spread to East and Southeast Asia during the 1980s; in-home karaoke machines soon followed, but lacked success in the American and Canadian markets. Karaoke celebrates the amateur, not the auteur. The denizen of karaoke culture, as has been said, is a cipher addicted to dreaming he’s somebody else: the one whose assertion of ego actually gets him somewhere.
It is within these limitations that the Hong Kong Music Industry has taken shape. People want to embody their idols, with karaoke providing a level playing field for all. So any business consideration that goes into single releases and song materials of any sort really takes its cue from the karaoke ballad culture found in bars.
Other than karaoke, it is Cantopop that is really closest to defining the sound palette of Hong Kong. Cantopop, the local version of pop in the island’s own dialect, Cantonese, developed in the early 1970s. Radio broadcasts of Cantopop and the presentation of the Cantopop Music Awards have since made a major contribution to the recognition of the genre. The government-sponsored Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) first began broadcasting Cantopop content in 1974 on RTHK2, and then followed in 1978 with the annual ‘Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs Awards’ (for composers, lyricists, and singers). Both awards played an important role in stimulating standards of local music production and Canto-pop began to attract a wide audience throughout Asia in the 1980s, when pop stars like Leslie Cheung sold 200,000 albums—a record figure.
As in other countries, Hong Kong had become conscious of its own ‘non-Chinese consumer culture’, and promoted, from public office, the diffusion of Cantonese spoken music. By the early 1990s, the major labels had made Hong Kong ‘the world capital of Canto-pop’, but brought more character to the market. Germany’s BMG, Japan’s Sony and Universal (then owned by the Matsushita-Panasonic Group), US’s Warner, and Britain’s EMI all established offices as they expanded globally, which energized the consumption of music. Indeed, English and Mandarin pop now vie for listener space more than ever, and western music today is played throughout the city in restaurants, bars, shops, and many television commercials.
The live music scene is particular. Hong Kong has a lack of space and can only grow vertically to fit its population of seven million. There is no suitable large concert venue. Moreover, it is accessible in terms of transportation, so that parking is not considered. The city, therefore, does not support payment of ancillary concert revenues, neither for parking or food and beverages. Promoters in Hong Kong can only profit from ticket sales and few are willing to bring outside acts. International pop and rock artists, such as Air Supply, Celine Dion, Oasis, Suede and Elton John, have played in Hong Kong, but major stars like Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen have bypassed it on their Asian tours.
Finally, digital content providers are currently playing catch up in Asia, as they are in Hong Kong. Music distributors such as Itunes and Spotify still have quite a road ahead of them. In the meantime, social media is one of the most important marketing tools for content delivery, and in Hong Kong it is sites like Weibo and Facebook that lead the pack. Traditionally, of course, both the karaoke charts and radio and TV plays drove the market, limiting music tastes and preferences. Instead, social networks in a multicultural city help spread alternative music, and some chart topping pop songs are soaked with choice English vocabulary that has cheekily made its way back into the market (Kong Kong was a British colony before 1999).
The new digital era thus brings hope of a greater pool of musical talent and an audience that is no longer as passive. Indeed, it is noticeable of late that original singer-songwriters are making their mark and joining new artist-friendly labels such as Hummingbird Music, which counts social media savvy artist G.E.M. in its roster. If genres become more fragmented, the old days of karaoke fun and cookie cutter Cantopop may not weigh as heavily on the market.
By Angel Chiu and Stephanie Martin