Indie Music in Hong Kong
In 1976-77, the punk movement emerged in the UK and the US. This movement not only marked the tide/surge of punk rock, but also significantly triggered the autonomous D.I.Y. music spirit of young independent musicians and created D.I.Y. music aesthetics, as well as opened unlimited possibilities and creative spaces. Their rebellion against the mainstream music establishment and recording industry spurred a spectacular growth of independent record labels and the building of an independent records distribution network. The UK Indie Chart, for instance, has been compiled since 1980, helping to open up an independent music world.
Indie music can be defined as a music genre or style, or an attitude of maintaining independence and individuality in general in music-making, which gives rise to the local independent music scene.
Hong Kong’s independent music scene began in the 1980s. At that time, people called all forms of music that were different from the mainstream as "underground music". Later, the label "alternative music" was also used. However, many musicians either resisted or rejected labelling their music as "underground" or "alternative". While the term "indie music" seemed more neutral, it has been commonly used locally since the 1990s.
The history of the Hong Kong indie music – known locally as "underground music" at the time – began in the mid-1980s, the era of vinyl records and cassette tapes. Unlike the vibrant foreign music scene where various independent record labels flourished, when Hong Kong’s indie bands in the 80s wanted to record and release their works, they never expected any support from major recording companies. Since there were no independent recording labels for indie bands, they would rather choose to produce, publish and release their music at their own expense.
Most of the Hong Kong indie bands at that time only self-financed their music on cassette tapes because it cost much less than producing it on vinyl records. After good responses to several local indie cassette albums, including Blackbird's East Is Red/ Generation 1997 and Manifesto and Beyond's Goodbye My Dreams, self-financing cassette albums became a prevalent phenomenon among local indie bands.
Tracing the Hong Kong indie music history from the 1980s to the early 90s, we can call it the "cassette era/the heyday of the cassette". The works of local indie bands were all recorded on piles of cassette tapes with plain and simple packaging – even only fewer than 30 cassette albums were released within this period. The advent of self-financed cassette albums seemed representing the autonomous spirit of early indie music scene in Hong Kong.
Small-scale performances were mainly held/staged at the Fringe Club in Central and Rick's Cafe in Tsim Sha Tsui, while medium-sized performances usually took place at Ko Shan Theatre in Hung Hom.
Starting from 1986, the local music publication Music Week organized From The Underground concert series (1986 to 1989) that made the term "underground music" famous/legendary. The venue, Ko Shan Theatre, also became a shrine for rock/indie music fans – at that time, Ko Shan Theatre was a semi-open air theatre with no air conditioning but only a few large fans. The audience sweated heavily during the hot summer, but rock fans regarded it as kind of "rock" under the heat.
Led by Lenny Kwok, Blackbird is the godfather band of Hong Kong indie music. Classified as political rock, their music combines rock, blues, folk, punk and even sound collage filled with political overtones. In the 1980s, they continually released several self-financed cassette albums, while their complete albums collection was re-issued several years ago in CD format in bag set as Body Of Work 1984-2004.
Formed by Fung Lai-chi, Hui So-ying, Tam Kwok-wai and Pang Moon-yuen, Cicada launched a self-financed vinyl record On the Road in 1984, produced by Blackbird's Lenny Kwok.
At their early/formative stage, Beyond is known for playing lengthy, progressive rock/art rock with complicated structure. They were the vanguards of the local “underground rock” scene with strong independent D.I.Y. spirit, such as staging the self-financed one-man show, "Forever Waiting Concert" at Caritas Hong Kong on Caine Road and self-issuing the cassette album Goodbye My Dreams.
Tats Lau formed the psychedelic underground group DLLM (Don’t Like Loud Musik) in the early 80s. As a solo project, Lau recorded two songs in 1983 with elements of art rock, electronic music and Chinese music. The songs were recorded for the “Xiang Gang” compilation released the following year. These works are almost a precursor to Lau’s later musical involvement in the Oriental Electric Orchestra (OEO) and Tat Ming Pair.
The first gothic rock generation in Hong Kong, performed in “Underground Concert 1” and “Underground Concert 2” organized by Music Week at Ko Shan Theatre. Other than adaptions, the band had the original song “Hypnotizer”.
The first gothic rock generation in Hong Kong, performed in “Underground Concert 1” and “Underground Concert 2” organized by Music Week at Ko Shan Theatre. Other than adaptions, the band had the original song “Spiralingr”.
A gothic rock band formed by members of Octave of Prayers and Black Church (the two bands had performed together at “Underground Concert 3” under the title of Church & Prayers”), The Martyr was one of the local hot bands in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Self-issued cassette record (1990): Secret.
Formed by Kung Chi-shing and Peter Suart, The Box is a multimedia music ensemble taking an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to dance and theatre. Their music style at the early stage was full of eclecticism and wide-range variety that blended with electronic music, improvisation, avant-garde, new wave, folk and world music. They self-issued cassette record Box One (1990) and CD album Go Home (1993). The 3 books + 2 DVDs box set the box book was released in 2009.
As a synth-pop band belonging to the second generation of local indie electronic music, Minimal was also the first electronic band self-financing their works. The band, with members Arion, Timmy Lok and Johnnie Lok, self-issued the cassette album Songs of Sequence in 1988.
In the early 1990s, D.I.Y. self-financed cassette recording was blooming. Some self-released cassette albums, such as The Martyr's Secret and The Box's Box One, received notable attention. After a few years, however, the Hong Kong indie music landscape underwent major changes: 1. With the start of the CD era, indie music recording began ridding itself of the "underground" image of the cassette era; 2. With the birth of indie music labels that focused on publishing alternative/indie music (without bringing pop/commercial artists on board/without signing up pop/commercial artists), the Hong Kong indie music scene established its own indie music label network. The 1990s, therefore, was a CD era whereby Hong Kong indie music was released by indie music labels.
The first alternative music CD production, Voluptuous MUSICK (also known as/a.k.a. “Leon Lai” – with pop singer Leon Lai's face and name printed on the cover) by experimental industrial noise genius Xper. Xr. & The Orphic Orchestra, was released by indie music label Sound Factory in 1992. Other local indie classics/icons, such as AMK, ...Huh!?, Anodize and Virus, were indie bands at the dawn of the CD era under local indie music labels.
Sound Factory, started as importer and agent of foreign indie music records, was the first Hong Kong indie music label having a clear-cut stand on alternative music publication. Xper. Xr., AMK, Juno from Juno’s Infant, Gaybird (Leung Kei-cheuk)'s Multiplex, I-666 and even Tats Lau were signed under its label. DIY MUSIC was another label on the local indie music scene with notable rock bands, such as Anodize, ...Huh!?, Virus and Black & Blue. Anodize was its prime band, selling an average of 10,000 copies per record. Later, G.I.G., the music label releasing records for Blackbird, Black Box and Anthony Wong Chau-sang, emerged. By then, the local indie music scene was in a tripartition led by those three labels.
After the mid-1990s, some short-lived new indie labels appeared, such as NOCO Records that produced compilation albums for the Bone series, and “Hong Kong Tribes” formed by musicians Lenny Kwok, Chan Wai-fat, Nelson Hiu, Ling Lee and Peter Suart.
In the 1990s, Hong Kong indie music was no longer limited to a handful of/a few music magazines. Mainstream media such as Commercial Radio Hong Kong's FM 90.3 programme "Quote Zone" gave enormous support to local indie music by holding such a large-scale show as "Musical Forces in Parade" (樂勢力大閱) to stage indie bands at Hong Kong Coliseum. Later, another radio programme "Inti Band" released a compilation, "Band Together Inaugural Disc"(組Band時間創碟號) and organized the show "Band Together Encore" (組Band時間再一激) at Hong Kong Coliseum. It was with tremendous resources that they brought local indie music to the masses.
In the early 1990s, Ko Shan Theatre was still the key venue for Hong Kong indie band shows. In 1993, led by Cheung Yee-sik, former drummer of The Martyr, the Heavy Metal Students Association hosted another "Dark Entry" (rock concert featuring local underground bands, first held in 1989). This was turned into a long-lived concert series and the seven shows between 1993 and 94 were all held at Ko Shan Theatre until it was closed for renovation.
For staging small-scale performances, besides the Fringe Club in Central, there were venues such as Amoeba and Music Union in Tsim Sha Tsui that for very brief periods had held several indie live gigs.
The Warehouse Teenage Club in Aberdeen also started as a venue for young indie rock bands in the late 1990s.
Xper. Xr. was a pioneering industrial-noise wizard in Hong Kong, known for his outlandish and subversive music style. He generated sound works onstage by banging on metal and hitting percussion. He also employed such industrial tools as electrical drills and grinders in live shows. He had earlier released two self-financed cassette albums and one vinyl record. The cover of the vinyl record, Entomb Vol.2, features a soiled sanitary towel/pad hidden under a pool of melted wax. He later joined indie music label Sound Factory and, together with The Orphic Orchestra, released Voluptuous MUSICK (a.k.a. “Leon Lai” – with pop singer Leon Lai's face and name printed on the cover) in 1992 to become the first local alternative/indie music CD ever produced.
Anodize, the most sought-after/influential and popular rock band in the Hong Kong indie music circle of the 1990s, started off as a heavy metal group before steadily leaning towards grunge rock / alternative rock. It had collaborated with Anthony Wong Chau-sang and Jan Lamb Hoi Fung. Anodize’s three special albums were released by D.I.Y. Music, followed by a farewell EP under Warner Music.
From its early years’ marked post-punk style to the Shoegaze / Noise-Pop path it later took, AMK, known initially as Adam Met Karl, rolled out songs infused with childlike innocence. AMK was, without question, the first truly Indie-Pop group in Hong Kong, ushering in an era of indie Cantopop with local flavor. It released two EPs and three special albums under Sound Factory, and was the most productive Hong Kong indie band of its generation.
As an indie rock band …Huh!? was not only quite popular at the time, it was also known for its heart-throbbing/mind-blowing live performances (and even billed as a fairly hardworking live band). The songs were spellbinding/shocking and awe-inspiring, brimming with surging tensions. With the charismatic lead singer Time Leung as frontman, the group’s first two special albums, What a Drag and When the Light is Low, became Hong Kong’s indie rock classics of the 1990s. After the departure of Tim, Edmund Leung and the other two members, Ian and Ming, continued to explore music as a band.
The most important gothic rock / psychedelic band of the 1990s, Virus was known for playing songs infused with a mysterious, dream-like, psychedelic ambience. Starting off as a five-member band, Virus were left with four people after the departure of lead vocalist Ah Wai, whose place was taken by guitarist Seasons.
Formed by Elvin Wong, Makin Fung and Thomas Chan, Endeavour displayed a style heavily influenced by new age music and world music. Its repertoire encompassed simple, elegant compositions to works of low-key sensibility, and embraced genres as diverse as Gregorian chants to spoken words, with themes covering the issue of nations to modernity. The group released two special albums, Ode to Wandering Souls and Bliss.
Former Minimal member Timmy Lok formed Juno’s Infant with Tat Law and Morris Wong. The group leaned towards the more physical sound of EBM (electronic body music) and techno. It had self-released three cassette albums before shortening the band’s name to Juno. It published three special CD albums under the new name, while also collaborating with indie label Sound Factory on other projects.
With Veegay joining Arion, the remaining member of Minimal, Minimal was regrouped as a two-person band. The new reincarnation of the group, ver2.0, entered the Electropop or Synthpop phase of its development in the 1990s, churning out music with sweet, catchy beats. Minimal ver2.0 later formed the basis of Anthony Wong Yiu Ming’s team of artists and musicians, PMPS (People Mountain People Sea).
An early independent musical body of GayBird featuring electronic music, Multiplex was both his personal incarnation and an entity made up of two people. Diverse musical genres, ranging from the independent, aesthetic voice of continental Europe to new classicalism, and from trip hop of the 1990’s to even avant-garde music, all left their marks on his music/acts. He later became a member of Anthony Wong Yiu Ming’s PMPS.
The forming of Ube was Hong Kong’s response to the phenomenal blossoming of acid jazz in the UK. This five-member band was known for its smooth, easy songs as well as charming and groovy rhythm, epitomizing the pretty voice of the 1990s.
Led by Chris B, this all-female indie-rock band, Sisters of Sharon, had released a number of special albums between 1994 and 2001, including Blush, Paper Planes And Daisy Chains, and Underground Recipes. Chris B later founded The Underground and staged a series of live gigs by indie bands.
Entering the year of 2000, self-recording and self-financed CD publishing by Hong Kong indie bands was no longer an unachievable goal; Hong Kong indie music field truly entered the independent and autonomous era.
In the early 2000, the amount of Hong Kong indie music production was larger than ever before, that led to a little short-term blossom of local independent music.
The exciting scene was due to the popularization of hard disk recorder and computer technology for recording software that allowed bands and musicians to record by themselves at their own rehearsal room or at home. They can study and practice by their own pace without paying an expensive studio rental fee. On the other hand, the cost of CD production also dropped significantly, so that musicians and bands can afford self-financed publication. Therefore, it was not difficult for indie music units to self-record and self-publish their CDs.
Indie bands no longer sat and waited for the favour of recording companies in order to publish their works. From 2000, Hong Kong indie music entered a complete D.I.Y. era that everyone can set up their labels to publish their works and find a distributor to release their albums.
Those few well-known local indie labels in the 1990s disappeared like bursting bubbles before 2000. Some faded, some closed, all ended. In the generation of 2000, Hong Kong indie labels broke a new ground.
One of the emergent forces was Harbour Records. Established in 2004, it was originally co-financed by bands including 22 Cats, My Little Airport, False Alarm and JoyTrendySound. As an indie label in collective form, they released works of their own bands and also other indie bands. In 2014, they celebrated their 10th anniversary by holding the concert "Harbour Records 10th Anniversary Party".
In those years, local indie labels that could compete with Harbour Records were 89268 Music that signed Gayamyan, Arumimihifumi, In-Love and Oliver; Catalyst Action Network (Elf Fatima/Ghost Style/FAMA/Blackwine); Far East Records (Uncle Joe/Whence He Came/Think Up A Clear); people mountain people sea's indie music
branch Poo Records (Slow Tech Riddim/Squarefruit). Lona Records, set up by indie musician Alok, was another unique alternatives/experimental indie label. Besides releasing his own works including the 3”CDR series, he also explored indie rock band The Yours.
Among Hong Kong indie band performance venues in the early 2000s, the hottest name was "Warehouse".
To be accurate, "Warehouse" refers to Frank White Studio at The Warehouse Teenage Club Ltd. in Aberdeen. Since the late 1990s, it has become a hot performance spot for young indie bands; bands and fans travelled a long way to Aberdeen to participate in indie music activities were all because of "Warehouse". The Warehouse not only helped facilitate the original music development of the local youth and organize music instrument courses, but also held "Hong Kong Young Band Competition" each summer and released "Be Original" compilation series.
In the early 2000s, performance venue was not confined to downtown areas. Live houses in industrial buildings were emerged, though lots of the venues were short-lived. Hidden Agenda, a renowned live house in industrial building, set up its first venue in 2009.
In the early 2000s, diversified development of Hong Kong indie music was observed. Rock/freshy/heavy/electronic/hip-hop and rap were in bloom; indie-rock, hardcore, metal, electonica and hip hop musicians formed their circles, released works, flourished vibrantly.
The Underground concert series was headed by the all-female indie rock band Sisters of Sharon, and founded by “rock mum” Chris B in 2004. The Underground has organised hundreds of performances and pop-up music events, hosting over 400 bands and musicians. Their concerts have taken place in Joe Bananas, The Edge, Venue, Les Visages, The Cavern, Club Xici, Rock School, The Melting Pot, Backstage, Orange Peel, The HUB - Venue Provider & Community, and other venues. It is one of the longest running concert series in Hong Kong. The Underground also produced a total of five double-album compilations between 2008 and 2012, documenting the works of Hong Kong indie bands.
Since 2009, the Street Music series has existed to create a free and open atmosphere for performing music. The series embraces diversity and inclusivity, exhibited by its performance artists. Apart from indie bands and singer-songwriters, it also hosts jazz, classical, Chinese, and folk music performances. Local artists and occasional overseas acts participate in the concerts. The concerts take place near dusk, where audience members can witness nightfall in a comfortable setting, which is also a remarkable characteristic of the series. As an expansion, the Try Out Gig series also takes place on the fourth Sunday of each month at Comix Home Base. Also, the organisers have put on various guerrilla gigs in different districts.
LMF, short for Lazy Mother Fucker, has long been a prominent name with an unrivalled status in the Hong Kong indie music scene. They originally played as an improvisational closing act at the Dark Entry concert series, where members from various bands came together to play cover songs. They only started composing original works later on, and formed the collective lineup comprising DJ Tommy and members from Anodize, NT and Screw in 1999. From then on, LMF not only evolved into a full band. They have established their rap-metal / nu-rock / hip hop sound and influenced Hong Kong’s music scene significantly. Their songs explore and examine political and societal topics in a radical manner, where explicit language is used extensively. The mainstream media back then dubbed them the “swearing band”.
The Pancakes is Dejay’s one-woman band. Known as the queen of Hong Kong indie-pop, she introduced her audience to the homemade and DIY ethic of indie-pop. The Pancakes’ first three albums were all recorded and mastered by herself on Cubase. All her albums were also released on her own label, Rewind Records. With The Pancakes’ alluring personality, her songs were used in KMB and HSBC commercials within a year of their release. She was also invited to produce advertisement music, and provide the voice of Miss Chan Chan in “My Life as McDull”. She even appeared personally in the lead role of a China Light & Power Company advertisement, where she innocently told the Hong Kong public that she was favoured by Spanish independent label Elefant Records.
Formed by Nicole and Ah P, My Little Airport is one of the most popular bands in Hong Kong today. Nicole and Ah P are also founding members of independent label Harbour Records. To music lovers, MLA is Hong Kong’s first indie-pop group. While they have set the bar for twee-pop, they are not just an indie pop group that writes about youthfulness. They certainly are an indie-pop group, but Ah P’s songs are rooted in ballads; they are regarded as so-called hipsters, but they present many critical protest songs; their songs can be light-hearted works, but they can exhibit post-punk or even psychedelic elements in their live performances; their lyrics are very poetic, but its wordings can sometimes be extremely colloquial; their songs are funny and ironic, but are often artistic. My Little Airport’s songs always express fresh yet complicated feelings. They have also produced the most songs among
Introducing Hong Kong’s most prominent hardcore band! Formed 16 years ago, King Ly Chee has released six powerful albums, and is one of the most internationally renowned local bands. They have toured mainland China extensively, and were invited to play in Taiwan, Indonesia and even Eastern Europe. The ancient Chinese saying that “lychee ignites your soul” is surprisingly accurate in describing the band. Their fierce performance in live shows is bound to light a spark among audience members.
Whence He Came was formed by frontman Joshua Wong and guitarist Ephraim Bano in 1999. They are a truly “international” band, with members from China, Malaysia, Australia, the Philippines, Japan and the United States. As a typical indie-rock/emo band, it can be said that they introduced emo music to the Hong Kong scene. Many bands were influenced by them in the years following their formation.
The Lovesong was formed by Ben Tse, Nic Tse, Yat Ding Lee and Ephraim Bano. They are a Hong Kong indie-rock / post-hardcore outfit with world-class standards. Their works include “Songs from 2002-2005”. After Ephraim moved to the US, Ben, Nic and Yat Ding formed Oh! Nullah.
Elf Fatima was originally a post-punk / goth / dark-pop group formed by two women and three men. Their song “Jealous” once reached No. 8 on the Commercial Radio Hong Kong’s pop charts to become the talk of the town. Since then, Elf Fatima has evolved into an all-male post-rock / instrumental rock band – a significant shift from their previous style. Their trilogy of albums – “Kill All W”, “Elf Fatima” and “I See The Light Before Our Planet Explodes” – reflects this transformative process.
Formed in 1997 under the guise of Spring Deer, indie pop-rock group Gayamyan took its current name in the 2000s due to lineup changes. Following the name change, “Feijaiming” (Chung Chak-ming) of renowned indie band ….HUH!? and bass guitarist “Ball Jai” (Alex Li) joined the band alongside founding members, vocalist Chan Ho-fung and guitarist “Ma Jai” (Ma Lap-yin). During the Spring Deer era, their ornamental Cantonese independent pop-rock songs gave a humorous and playful impression. As the band entered the Gayamyan phase, they forged stronger tension in their works. They released their first eponymous album “Gayamyan” in 2002.
Qiu Hong was formed in May 2002. Qiu (“Autumn” in Chinese) expresses the sentimental season of Autumn; while Hong (“Red” in Chinese) not only indicates members’ passion, but also represents the colour, power and glowing characteristic of burning flames - this symbolises their attitude and enthusiasm towards music.
According to the author of Popular Music and Society and Professor of Sociology Brian Longhurst, boundaries between art and commerce are breaking down in this postmodern age. The term ‘indie pop’ is increasingly used in local and international media in the coverage of popular music. For me, such a term is reminiscent of ‘pop art’ which also questions and challenges the boundaries between art and commerce in the discourse of contemporary art.
This article aims to discuss the cultural implications of such a breakdown of boundaries between pop and indie. In order to expound on some observations of musical cultures, valuable views are collected from four significant music practitioners and writers in Hong Kong -- Kung Chi Shing (musician/curator), Wong Chi Chung (DJ/writer), Yuen Chi Chung (music critic) and Saville Chan (lyricist/screenwriter/film producer).
The emergence of ‘indie pop’ can be traced back to the early 1980s after the punk movement shook the western world. Independent (indie) record labels were formed alongside the punk movement in response to the flamboyant rock styles and image which were made possible by the big investment of major record companies in the 1970s. Indie record labels were established with counter-cultural meanings which challenge the commercially-driven stances adopted by major record labels. Indie artists/bands, on the other hand, were characterized by non-mainstream musical styles and adopted a ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) operation which did not depend heavily on the financial and media support from the major labels. Unlike ‘indie rock’ which is seen as more abrasive and angst-filled in styles, ‘indie pop’ borrows a more mellow and melodic sound from mainstream pop while remaining its ‘indie’ position by adhering to independent record labels.
Holly Kruse’s monograph on indie music, Site and Sound – Understanding Independent Music Scenes suggests that even indie bands and record labels cannot be disassociated with the mainstream completely. As a scholar in communication, she acutely pinpoints that independent-major label relationships are more complex than it seems. Some of the examples given include major label-owned independents, signing independent label bands to major labels and indie labels’ dependence on major record companies’ in terms of distribution and scouting.
Kruse further elaborates the blurring of boundaries between indie and pop by highlighting the rise of originally independent acts such as Nirvana and REM to mainstream stardom. While some music critics of the 1990s argue that independent bands may retain its ‘alternative’ credibility by staying in their home towns and keeping away from musical ‘centres’ in the US (e.g. New York and Los Angeles), such a tactic is no longer valid with the growth of social media which can literally take new independent artists/bands to the global platform with only a click on the Internet screen in this day and age.
When asked if the upsurge of indie pop is related to the wide use of social media in music marketing for both indie and pop artists in Hong Kong, nearly all of the music practitioners/writers interviewed agreed on the impact of social media in blurring the boundaries between the two genres. ‘The boundaries are getting more blurred after digitalization…Positively, people gotta know more music in terms of genres. But at the same time, there are more mixed and sometimes confusing concepts…Niche music genre/artist of a place can be transformed into a global niche or pop name theoretically and potentially,’ Wong Chi Chung said. Kung Chi Shing commented that social media (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Sound Cloud, etc.) definitely helped to promote non-mainstream music which embraced artistic integrity. Chan agreed that it is now much easier to cross the threshold of music industry as the production cost of music-making is much lower than that of the 1980s. The relatively low production cost may be due to the prevalence of music production software which is easily obtainable for people from all walks of life. Simultaneously, social media makes music-marketing relatively cost effective with the easy access to the Internet nowadays. Yuen, on the other hand, commented that it was the oppositional attitude behind the music that defined indie music even in this digital age.
Attitude seems to be a recurrent theme in the discussion in relation to indie music. In response to the question on how to be a ‘popular’ band that remains its ‘indie’/’alternative’ credibility, most of the interviewees highlight that an attitude that is not easily influenced by commercial needs of the market is the key to remain ‘street cred’. Kung rendered that popularity should not be the first priority of a band. Popularity is a relative concept. Radiohead can be regarded as very popular by some music fans but their popularity pales when compared to very mainstream artists, such as Madonna. Wong suggested that it was a matter of maintaining the initial mindset and dedication as well as a passion to keep what the band believe and to practice without being easily distracted by the market needs. The number of ‘likes’ on social media can be deceptive at times, according to him. Yuen referred to the anti-establishment attitude in the punk movement as he discussed how a band could retain its indie credibility. As long as the band makes music with good quality and even a good gimmick, they would gain credibleness from the peers. Chan, however, stated that even music that was originally considered to be ‘alternative’ could become mainstream once it became more popular in the music market. He does not see the boundary between indie and pop as necessary. If the musicians create music with a genuine heart, they should not care too much about what the media say.
Holly Kruse also claimed that indie music should not be defined only by its musical styles or the type of record labels musicians are signed to but also by where its practices are located and are not located. For example, indie acts and its related cultures in Hong Kong can usually be found in sites like Clockenflap, Freespace and so on. But indie acts can hardly be found on TVB and its events. In other words, indie music is better to be defined holistically.
Chan had reservations about the above view and said that venues like MacPherson Stadium held performances of both mainstream and indie artists. Wong agreed that indie music should be defined in a holistic way but also pointed out that mainstream radio stations such as Commercial Radio also promoted indie/pop crossovers. The example that he gave was the indie band movement led by CR 903 in the 1990s.
Kung made an extremely insightful point when debating on this question and mentioned that the idea of ‘indie’ could be interpreted on two different levels: operation and musical style. An ‘alternative-sounding’ band can be signed to a major label whereas a ‘pop-sounding’ artist can be signed to an independent record label. Yuen mentioned a similar dilemma and elaborated with a good example. Very pop-sounding artists like Kylie Minoque and Rick Astley were signed to an independent record company PWL back in the 1980s. Could these two artists be considered to be ‘indie’ then? An similar case in Hong Kong would be Summer Gold City (夏金城), an independent singer-songwriter whose music style is not necessarily counted as ‘indie’ by the majority of music fans and yet released a number of albums without the support of a major record label. Can he be categorized as ‘indie’ then?
In addition, my discussion with Kung inspired me to ponder upon the difference between ‘indie’ and ‘alternative’ -- two terms that are often used interchangeably in the discourse of guitar-led rock music. When a band is put under the category of ‘indie’, a question worth asking is if the band’s musical style taken as ‘alternative’, i.e. different from what is popular in the mainstream or just that they are signed to a non-major independent label. The Beatles produced a lot of ‘alternative-sounding’ psychedelic music back in the late 1960s and yet they were still signed to a major label EMI and were extremely successful in the mainstream music market. It can be seen that a band may sound ‘alternative’ as a mainstream artist. On the other hand, an artist can claim to be ‘indie’ and yet produces music that is pop-sounding just because of the type of independent record company being signed to. Therefore, the term ‘alternative’ seems to refer more to musical style and yet ‘indie’ alludes to the operation, i.e. the type of record company the band or the artist is signed to.
Given the blurring of boundaries between ‘indie’ and ‘pop’ in terms of marketing and musical style, is Hong Kong indie music better defined by its lyrical content then? For indie artists, there is less pressure to please the mainstream market and so they can sing songs that convey anti-establishment views, for instance, discontent towards the government’s political stance, calling for social justice or any topics that are regarded as ‘taboo’ in the mainstream music market.
Both Wong and Kung think that lyrics should not be the only yardstick to be used to define indie music. Wong suggested that more mainstream bands like Supper Moment and RubberBand also sing about taboos and have made bigger impact than that of the ‘purely indie’ acts. Kung also emphasized the importance of musical language because the cultural meaning of a song can be volatile due to the ever-changing political climate in the society. When an anti-government social movement is redressed by the authoritative institution, the ‘indie’ edge of a song may be lost if we merely judge a song by its lyrics.
When asked about a perfect example of a Hong Kong band that writes ‘outside of the box’, both Yuen and Chan commented that My Little Airport epitomized the voice of the local youths. Their lyrics are not necessarily anti-government but they reflect local youth culture poignantly. Their well-known numbers question the meaning of work and describe the rat race faced by young working adults, and portray candidly the complexity of dating relationships with the story of a young couple’s visit to a love motel. The topics in their lyrics are merely daily issues faced by young people in everyday life and yet are rarely found in mainstream pop music. According to Yuen, anti-government lyrical themes are not necessarily the best criterion to define indie music because some song-writers may just use them as a tool to seek attention from the media; sometimes politically apathetic song-writers may just present a persona that shows great concern for the society and politics and yet this can be taken as ‘fake’. The contentious notion of authenticity indeed plays an important role in the discourse of indie music.
With the relative freedom enjoyed by indie artists in terms of lyrical content, can the ‘fall’ of Cantopop in the new millennium be seen as the ‘rise’ of indie music in Hong Kong? The handover of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997 is often cited as the turning point for the downfall of Cantopop:
The handover, however, motivated Hong Kong popular artists to embrace the concept of ‘harmony’ and use music to spread the political message of joy over reintegration with the PRC. Hong Kong people consent to this publicly expressed message promoting patriotism in their songs, a message which is operational and measurable through the SAR’s control of market forces and other public institutions.
Before 1997, even politically satirical songs such as ‘Queen’s Road East’ by Luo Dayou could top the local pop charts. Such a phenomenon, sadly, is nowhere to be seen after the handover. Like it is suggested in the above quote, mainstream pop artists or song-writers may have the political pressure to avoid politically sensitive topics. Self-censorship is becoming a norm in the society. The declining freedom of literary expression in popular music could be one of the factors that lead to the fall of Cantopop. In fact, a prominent figure of Hong Kong popular music, James Wong also identifies 1997 as the point of downturn of local popular music in his doctoral dissertation on the rise and fall of Cantopop.
When compared to Cantopop, indie music does not need to please the mainstream market as much and can sustain itself in this digital age via social media, crowd-funding platforms and so forth. Indie artists can write more freely lyrically and musically in the era when Cantopop is being stifled by commercial and political pressures. A bad crisis in Cantopop can be turned into a good opportunity for change under the current unsettled social and political climate in Hong Kong. The more unstable Hong Kong society becomes; the more important indie music can get.
With the founding of various music events that feature local bands, like Wow & Flutter, HK Street Music and Freespace, the development of indie music actually appears to be more vibrant than that of sheer Cantopop in recent years. Kung highlighted such a cultural shift by mentioning that pop singer Andy Hui had been working with indie acts such as Chochukmo in his recent recordings and live performances. Indie artists can infuse creative energy back into mainstream pop. All of a sudden the tables are turned, and instead of being the genre under influence, indie is becoming the genre that can influence pop.
Chan put forward an intriguing idea by commending that the so-called golden age of Cantopop in the 1980s only applies in economic terms due to the high record sales in those years. With regard to musical creativity, nevertheless, Cantopop of the 1980s was actually quite stale since most of the hits back then were simply cover versions of Japanese and Western pop tunes with Cantonese lyrics. This contention is reminiscent of a point mentioned by Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming (of Tat Ming Pair) at a seminar on local popular culture where he was commenting on the development of Hong Kong music in recent years.
Local popular music is getting more diversified because the Internet has helped new and talented musicians reach audiences without relying on mass media. Social media and crowd-funding platforms have helped independent musicians cultivate their niche markets and sustain themselves without the support of major record companies. These musicians may not be rich and famous like the Cantopop artists in the 80s or early 90s but at least they are happy and free, enjoying the relative autonomy in their own artistic worlds without bowing down to the demands of mainstream market. Someday, they may as well become the force that injects originality back into the pop scene.
You may say I’m an optimist but I’m not the only one. May the force be with you!
As post-rock, math rock and instrumental rock entered Hong Kong’s scene from European, American and Japanese circuits, numerous overseas bands toured Hong Kong. Within the local indie music scene, a number of post-rock / math rock / instrumental rock bands that broke free of traditional rock boundaries have also formed their own unique genre in the past 10 years. With its transformation from a primarily vocal goth / dark-pop band to an instrumental group, Elf Fatima is regarded as the first Hong Kong post-rock band. Names such as Kim Tak Building, Slept In Spray and Fragile emerged not long after.
As we enter the 2010s, the development of the genre just becomes more exciting. From the double drumming setup of tfvsjs, to the bass-led ANWIYCTI, to Life Was All Silence’s experimental rock - they all are one-of-a-kind bands. We also have Prune Deer, Topsy-Wave, the increasingly exciting More Reverb, among others. These bands mostly play instrumental music, as if they have adopted a universal musical language devoid of words. Nevertheless, ANWIYCTI’s songs also feature lyrics, Chochukmo’s works are rooted in math rock and GDJYB mixes folk music with math rock.
Strictly speaking, the “indie-pop” terminology used in Chinese media is not a musical genre. Rather, it is a form of acoustic music that focuses on minimalist and refreshing aesthetics. Having gained huge popularity among young art lovers and the middle-class, “indie-pop” has even been regarded as a cultural phenomenon. Fans of “indie-pop” music dislike the ordinariness of mainstream music. They cannot stand rock or alternative bands, but would rather listen to music outside the folk and ballad genres. So, they choose to listen to this soothing form of folk-based / acoustic-based music that is closer to pop music. During live gigs, “indie-pop” fans all behave courteously: they enjoy the show sitting down, and do not cheer or shout enthusiastically. “Indie-pop” also has an inseparable relationship with the modern busking scene. Due to their simple acoustic setup, “indie-pop” artists can easily participate in DIY street performances and outdoor music events. They also perform in cafes and shopping malls, allowing “indie-pop” to gain traction among the masses. “Indie-pop” acts in Hong Kong include New Youth Barbershop, Lil’ Ashes and Yukilovey.
As Hong Kong's factories move north, many industrial units are left vacant. For 10 years, a number of artists and arts organisations have rented inexpensive industrial units as their creative spaces. Because of this phenomenon, live houses started to emerge in industrial buildings. Live performance venues for local bands existed in industrial buildings during the early 2000s, but they did not last for long. This all changed when Hidden Agenda came along. Formed in 2009, Hidden Agenda has revolutionised the use of industrial spaces for indie music performances. They have explored the significant possibilities of developing live houses in industrial buildings, and transformed Hong Kong's indie music live scene. Ever since their second incarnation, they have become a highly sought-after local music venue. HA also isn't merely a music venue. They are also an events organiser, bringing international acts to perform in Hong Kong. For several years, HA has faced immense pressure from steep rent increases and oppression by the Lands Department (they are accused of offending “outdated” government leases). After being forced to move for three times, the current HA is at its fourth location.
Clockenflap, Freespace, Grasscamp, wow + flutter WEEKEND
Chochukmo is one of the most popular bands in today's indie music scene. The band was formed in summer of 2005 by vocalist Jan Curious and guitarist Mike Orange. In their early years, Chochukmo's musical style was diverse, and they performed with math rock roots. In 2009, they had the opportunity to record their debut album “The King Lost His Pink” after winning the “We'll Make Your Album” contest. Since then, they have gone from success to success. Chochukmo disbanded in 2010 following their China tour, and reformed after a year. Produced by PMPS member Jason Choi, their second album “A Tragedy Your Majesty” was released in 2013. During this phase, the band produced a maturer and more captivating sound. In 2016, Chochukmo put on the “Tree Hole Project” experimental concert, marking another milestone for the band.
Number One - https://youtu.be/6HlYsLuh3lo
Indie rock band Fantastic Day is an eminent act in the modern Hong Kong indie-pop scene. The band’s name is taken from the 1982 single “Fantastic Day” by British band Haircut 100. Fantastic Day’s indie-pop sound indeed resembles 80s indie jangle-pop and C86 indie pop groups, expressing rejuvenation and youthfulness. Fantastic Day has released two albums, ranging from the purity of “Innocent” (2013) to the colourfulness of “Kaleidoscope” (2016). The latter release is a tribute to the indie rock Madchester / baggy / indie-dance genres, evident from the groovier tracks.
Experimental rock band Life Was All Silence plays with a sophisticated setup: apart from producing their own effect pedals, they use the bass or synthesiser as their lead instrument rather than the guitar for their instrumental pieces.Their works also reveal jazz rock influences, and they would bring along the Analogue Solutions Telemark 2 synthesiser to their live performances. After two years in the making, the band released their debut album “The People” under their own label Stille Records towards the end of 2014. The album documents the band’s musical creativity as they perfect their sound tirelessly in the recording studio. Their sound is not limited to one end of the spectrum: it is fragmented and dazzling, while simultaneously endless and dark.
Promises - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ap4IElaKcw
Whether tfvsjs's musical style is classified as instrumental rock, post-rock or math rock, the Hong Kong indie band undoubtedly has a strong sense of style. The band's name translates to “decadence versus vitality”. They are known for their double-drummer setup, which makes their instrumental rock performances especially stimulating and structurally sharp. tfvsjs has released two albums, including 2013's “equal unequals to equal” and 2016's “zoi”. The former presents their smooth melodic form and fragmented musical style, while the latter displays their heavier side characterised by a grimmer and darker sound. This is a stark contrast to their dense and extravagant polyrhythmic double-drumming.
Days of daze - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlG5txG63d0
ANWIYCTI, which stands for A New World If You Can Take It, is a Hong Kong indie band with a unique sound. The band was initiated by Joey Pui of Zarahn and Eleven Wishes....Goodbye. With three bassists and one drummer, their songs are led by bass riffs. Their lack of a traditional guitarist frontman exhibits their “anti-rock-n-roll” spirit. At least, this is an unprecedented form for a band in Hong Kong. In their debut album “A New World If You Can Take It” released in summer of 2014, we can hear songs with Joey’s lead vocals, as well as instrumental pieces. The album presents a highly diverse sound encompassing neo-psychedelic, post-punk, noise rock, drone doom, shoegaze, post-rock and electronica.
A New World If You Can Take It - ANWIYCTI - Many But One https://youtu.be/b7PyKPZO-iQ
Sensi Lion is Hong Kong's only Cantonese reggae band. Their music is a combination of traditional reggae with psychedelic elements, which they describe as “Cantonese dub roots reggae”. “Sensi” in Chinese refers to one of the nine mythological sons of the Dragon King with the appearance of a lion, hence the band name. Sensi Lion's music often has an authentic local touch: the song Lion Rock Steady is a clever word play on Hong Kong's symbolic mountain with the Jamaican music genre Rocksteady (a derivative of ska music with a slower tempo, which is commonly seen as reggae music’s predecessor).
Lion Rock Steady - https://youtu.be/l8KIXRYIogU
Teenage Riot takes its name from an eponymous song from the 1988 album “Daydream Nation” by the American alternative rock band Sonic Youth. Teenage Riot’s members have played in numerous bands including 22Cats, False Alarm, Hard Candy, Rachel Believes In Me, Pony Boy, and Tide. In 2015, they released their debut album “The Revenge” with a limited print of 300 vinyl copies. The album is an experimental mix influenced by shoegaze, dream-pop, classic-pop, psychedelic rock, acoustic ballad, and even sound collage. Their male and female vocalists, Freakiyo and Porpor, make for a perfect musical pairing which gives life to the band's indie-pop style.
Tie Shu Lan is Hong Kong's most popular Chinese nu-metal band. Their vocalist Sunny is also a member of the pop-rock band Supper Moment. The band released two albums in 2011 and 2017, namely “Rang Xin Nian Fan Yan” (Let Faith Blossom) and “Confession”.
Chockma is Hong Kong's most unique metal rock band of the last decade. Not only is their breathtaking post-metal music aptly accompanied by frontman Hakgwai's erhu playing, they also express Buddhist ideals with a distinct poetic flair. The band's fusion of Chinese and Western elements reaches an unparalleled depth. Chockma has attained legendary status - having only released one album in 2014 titled “Dharma Bums”. they announced their split the following year a day before the Music for Nepal Concert, for which Hakgwai was one of the co-organizers. Hakgwai is now a popular solo didgeridoo and handpan player, and a member of The Interzone Collective. The remaining members of Chockma formed a new band named “v.a.k”.
New Youth Barber Shop is formed by the trio of Au Yeung, Fat Jai and Showroom. Their acoustic indie-pop style is popular amongst the young crowd. Their lyrics that depict local youngsters’ lives in a humorous and sentimental light are complemented by their exquisitely crafted music videos.