By Matt Mingey

With just over a month until this year’s Clockenflap Music Festival, it’s tough not to be excited. Three days by the bay will feature international superstars like Damien Rice alongside indie darlings like Rachael Yamagata, combining with the crowd, skyline, and junks in Victoria Harbour to create a concert experience unlike any other.

I should probably leave the musicologists and Pitchfork readers to debate the lineup’s merits; they’re much better qualified to use words like “glo-fi” and “nu-gaze”, for one, and the final schedule is not yet set. What is beyond debate is Clockenflap’s runaway success. Last year’s event expanded to ten stages and attracted more than 45,000 people. The festival’s ticket prices — nearly HK$1,480 last year — continue to surge, and might soon surpass those of established multi-day festivals like Bonnaroo.

Clockenflap 2014. Photo: HKFP.

Clockenflap’s stature might leave fans feeling sanguine about Hong Kong’s music scene, and maybe even lead them to believe the city has finally shed its reputation as a bad town for music. That’s not exactly the case. Clockenflap is all well and good, but during the other fifty-one weeks of the year, Hong Kong can be surprisingly hostile ground for local and foreign acts alike.

The problem starts with real estate. In a city filled with buildings, international acts have a choice of maybe three, each with its own drawbacks. The HK Coliseum in Hung Hom is a seats-only affair with limited floor space, making it all but useless to foreign acts. That leaves the Asia WorldExpo—a hollow bunker built for conventions—and KITEC, a smaller black box entombed in a Kowloon shopping mall.

Concert promoter Michael Roche seemed resigned to the problem when he spoke to the SCMP last year, explaining that “[organizers] desperately need more facilities run on a commercial basis…Without these, we just can’t compete”. Promoters already inflate ticket prices to entice bands to show up; paying for space they don’t need drives costs even higher. When the French band Phoenix played Hamburg in 2013, tickets cost about 39 Euros (about 350 HKD) each. Less than two months later, Hong Kong tickets had somehow ballooned to HK$780, all for a stage that wasted most of the Expo’s cavernous floor.

Clockenflap 2013
Clockenflap 2013. Photo: HKFP.

I paid anyway, but it was a trade-off: in one night, I had spent my music budget for the next five months (after all, we can’t all work in finance). Prices like these at underwhelming venues keep concertgoers away, driving unique acts to the greener pastures of Taipei, Tokyo, and Singapore.

For local bands and hangouts, the situation is sometimes worse. Many are moving out or closing down, and owners like Steveo Hui are cracking under financial pressure.“Everyone knows the government won’t support music,” he recently told the SCMP. “Running a live venue in Hong Kong is a foolish thing to do and I’m including myself when I say this.” Even some visiting acts find this out the hard way: the shoegaze band Yuck, with critically acclaimed albums and sold-out shows to its name, has played both of its Hong Kong sets in a Sai Wan Ho gymnasium.

In that climate, it’s a miracle that talented local acts like Chochukmo or King Ly Chee make it to Clockenflap at all. Strangely,  we don’t have to look that far for inspiration. The Chinese Mainland — a place that doesn’t exactly encourage creative expression — nevertheless houses a raucous musical culture featuring free-form jazz, homegrown hip-hop, and everything in between. It supports places like Beijing’s former D22 and Shanghai’s government-backed QSW, where bands build contacts and hone their sound. With access to year-round venues and Clockenflap-like festivals, the Mainland punk scene is flourishing and our friends in the north are traveling to marquee festivals like SXSW. This could be Hong Kong someday. In the present, though, many find times are only getting tougher.

Revellers at Clockenflap, 2014. Photo: HKFP.

I know it’s easy for this kind of criticism to come off as expat whining; certainly Hong Kong has pressing issues besides its concert lineup. But music is important, too, and not just to young hipsters. It entices those whiny expats to stay and contribute to the local economy; a vibrant music scene helps keep Vienna and Sydney among the most desirable expat cities worldwide. Music tourists boost hotel rates and retail sales, like the overseas fans making the pilgrimage to this year’s Clockenflap.

Most importantly, musical communities forge what academics call creative capital —the benefit of strong creative networks and institutions — that encourages innovation and boosts local economies. Research by scholars like Richard Florida at NYU suggests a tangible connection between cultural arts and economic growth, so much so that American cities from Portland to Omaha have established music development councils to help bands and labels find footing.

So why not Hong Kong? The territory does have an Arts Development Council, but so far it has managed only to build a drawing centre in Aberdeen. Grants and venue support exist as well, but they mostly open the doors to gawky LCSD venues like City Hall or the Cultural Centre, and some discounts require groups to be sponsored by a registered charity. And all have strict deadlines and extensive paperwork— not indie bands’ greatest historical strength. Any change has to come from music fans.  A few measures might help:

  • Open up the venue subsidy process to local bands — reduce deposits, loosen sponsorship requirements, and streamline the strict deadlines and required paperwork.
  • Subsidize student festivals and competitions that don’t involve chamber choirs, french horns, or ABRSM rubrics. A Battle of the Bands would be a good place to start. Look no further than the one that took place at the AIA Carnival last January for one successful example.
  • Offer government grants and/or tax rebates to operators of small and community performance spaces. Many are already running at a loss.
  • Most of all: back an affordable, mid-sized, indoor music venue that can host local and international acts. Hong Kong has run a budget surplus for the past six years; surely it can find a few dollars for this. A venue would be a win for all parties. Fans get a suitable local venue, city bands get a place to hone their sound, and government officials score points from the territory’s critical young residents.

Steps like these would be only the first, but that’s the great thing about music festivals like Clockenflap: by bringing music lovers together in one place, they offer the perfect opportunity to discuss Hong Kong’s musical future. Clockenflap’s success is by no means a bad thing for the city’s music scene. But fans can aim for more than concert selfies and annual Facebook posts. They can be active allies after the festival’s last chords have been strummed, and the last fans have gone home.

Matt Mingey writes on travel, culture, and cities around Asia. You can follow  his latest work on his blog, Planes, Trains & Rickshaws.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.