Backstage Live may be gone but there's still hope for HK's live music scene yet

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Backstage Live is dead. But despite the struggles of Hong Kong’s independent music scene, it’s not all bad news, as Douglas Parkes discovers

"The most dramatic point was when we issued our official closing announcement. But ironically, the lowest point actually became the highest point for us.” It seems counterintuitive to claim the closure of your business as its greatest success, but such are the sentiments of Vicky Fung, cofounder of Backstage Live. While many despair at the loss of another cultural outpost, the venue’s closure after eight years has left Fung with a surprisingly optimistic outlook on the future of the city’s indie music scene.


The final night at Backstage Live

Not everyone shares her rose-tinted point of view though. “You can judge the health of a city’s music scene by the number of its live venues,” the former Noughts & Exes vocalist Joshua Wong told Time Out earlier this year. If his remark is accurate, the prognosis for Hong Kong is grim. Backstage Live hosted its final gig last month and its closure leaves not only a gaping hole in Central’s nightlife scene, but provides one less outlet for the city’s up-and-coming musical talent – especially indie or rock bands – to get onstage and perform before an audience.

Many stalwarts of the live music scene in Hong Kong shrugged their shoulders at the news of the closing. Luke Chow, owner of Little Bay recording studio, is blasé when we discuss the matter. “There are lots of venues that have come and gone before this. Nor will it be the last.”

Nonetheless, the survival rate for Hong Kong live houses is woeful. Chris B, of live music organisers The Underground, estimates that 12 live venues have closed over the past 11 years. But while previous venues have been mourned only by their regular patrons, notice of Backstage’s closure caused alarm and a flurry of media stories across both sides of the city’s language divide. From Apple Daily to South China Morning Post, numerous outlets bemoaned the state of Hong Kong’s independent music scene. The media interest was a surprise for Fung – “Before, we had never received much attention from parties outside of the artists and customers who visit. ”

Despite media attempts to paint the landlords as ‘devils and vampires’ for seeking a 30 percent rent increase, Fung is more sanguine. “It’s not a small amount, but it’s the landlord’s right to earn money, right?”

Unsurprisingly, landlords and rent are common themes in discussions with the management of other live spots in the city. Speaking to Joyce Peng, the former proprietor of Joyce is Not Here who now runs LKF’s Orange Peel, it’s clear the issue is a primary concern of hers. “Landlords are the big issue. That’s why Joyce closed. If the landlord is all right, it’s okay.” This time around, Peng is confident about the future of her venue since she has a six year lease on the property and an understanding owner. She reveals, “They reduced our rent for half-a-year because they know how difficult things are. Have you ever heard of a landlord reducing the rent?”

It’s reassuring that not every landlord in Hong Kong is villainous, but Fung still has concerns that Hong Kong is not doing enough to foster an ecosystem within the city that nurtures its creative talent. It’s a view shared by Riz Farooqi of King Lychee, the city’s veteran and premier hardcore act. He tells us, “In terms of being able to reach a point where people can contemplate terminating their day job in order to pursue their band full-time because the opportunity exists – hell no. We’re no way close to that.”

 
King Lychee performing

Chelsea Chung, a marketing assistant who meets us on behalf of Hidden Agenda echoes the sentiment. The Kwun Tong venue has made a name for itself as the city’s bastion for rock, metal and other guitar-focused genres. Yet despite such recognition, she exclaims the venue is ‘always dying’. For Chung, it’s not landlords who are deserving of scorn, but the general public. “It’s the culture of Hong Kong people. They say they’ll support Hong Kong indie [music], but when it comes to paying they won’t help out. They’ll click ‘like’ but they won’t pay for a show!” Despite her contentious point of view, Chung is adamant this is where the problem lies. She continues, “[People] just say it with their mouths; when it comes to action, they don’t do anything. It’s like with the protests. Many people say they hate the government, but when it comes to getting out on the street they stay at home instead and ‘click, click, click’. That’s why we’re dying.”

Such words paint a gloomy picture that fits all too easily into the accepted narrative that Hong Kong is a territory too busy and too dollar-obsessed to find time for music, let alone of the more underground sort supported by Backstage. There is hope, however. Fung relates how, “After announcing Backstage was to close, a lot of people actually called and asked if we needed any help in terms of money. Some actually offered space. Whatever their interests, the fact that they’ve offered something is very touching.”


If more venues close, bands like the Nowhere Boys will only have the street to play.

One band for whom Backstage Live matters more than most are the Nowhere Boys. The group’s first two members, Van Chan and Nate Wong, first met at one of the establishment’s gigs. Their story demonstrates the vital role live venues play within the scene. Without them, the community is significantly diminished.

One might expect a band with such close ties to Backstage to be the most pessimistic following its closure, but the Nowhere Boys remain certain that independent bands can make a successful living inHong Kong. “Definitely,” proclaims Chan. “There are more and more online platforms through which you can promote independent music… And in HK, people are much more wired in, it’s very easy to reach them.”


Vicky Fung (right)

Although Fung admits ‘there are so many people who don’t care [about the closure] and that’s sad’, she perceives the good that has come out of Backstage’s demise. “Our death is actually worth it because it raises a lot of issues that people wouldn’t normally talk about before.” Awareness, it seems, is key. Even the coruscating Chung confesses that, ‘People are more aware now, which is definitely a good thing. [Hidden Agenda] is getting more coverage, people are beginning to pay attention’.

Asked to prophesise on the future of Hong Kong’s independent music scene, King Lychee’s Farooqi states flatly that he has ‘no idea’ what’s in store. Nonetheless, he offers up a tantalising promise. “My ultimate hope is that bands that don’t go down the commercial route will gain opportunities here that will one day lead them to a fork in the road where they have to decide if they should stick to the comfort of a steady day job, or go down the route of uncertain risk because suddenly there are real opportunities to develop their band. I long for the day that this materialises. It won’t be in [King Lychee’s] lifetime – but maybe in 10 or 20 years this could be a real dilemma that bands in Hong Kong have to face. That would be a fucking cool dilemma.”

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