A Better Music Scene In Singapore?

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a music industry forum here in Singapore. It’s exactly the kind of thing I swore I wouldn’t be doing this year. I’m going out of respect for the organisers, the speakers and because I actually believe it could be the start of something good for the local music scene.

But, with the six month anniversary of my move to Singapore coming up, I did find myself wondering what could be done to help the Singapore music scene grow. A lot of my ideas for developing and marketing local music were captured in last year’s posts on developing a better jazz scene in Hong Kong and my presentation on social media for musicians.

Things That Could Be Done

Structurally, there are some big things that could happen. With MusicMatters’ relocation from Hong Kong, Singapore already has the premier regional music conference. Singapore could attract a major international music college, like Berklee, to set up a campus here. It would also be beneficial to develop an inclusive trade body focussed on developing and exporting talent and musical enterprises, as SoundsAustralia (check out their awesome Generate 2012 initiative) and the Canadian Independent Music Association do so well.

I’m still collecting my thoughts on the local scene. There does seem to be a lot of kids playing with lots of gear available locally and opportunities for music education. There are good musicians here, venues with potential and a ready stream of touring acts.

I do see a need for more good quality music journalism and blogging. SonicScoop is a fantastic example of a local music industry blog, covering studio openings, recording sessions and music tech stories in New York. Singapore could do with something similar.

But, there’s one big issue that I feel needs to be addressed. As a way of talking about that issue, let’s look at another well known city.

From The Outside In

When people think of the US music scene, they focus on LA and New York. But, in recent years Nashville, has risen to prominence. Formerly known as the home of country music, Nashville is now a music industry powerhouse. As Sociologist Richard Florida writes in The Changing Geography of Pop Music,

“Over the past several decades, Nashville transformed itself from a rather narrow country music outpost in the 1960s and 1970s into a major center for commercial music. By the mid-2000s, only New York and Los Angeles housed more musicians. Nashville’s rise is even more impressive when you look at its ratio of musicians to total population. In 1970, Nashville wasn’t even one of the top five regions by this measure. By 2004, it was the national leader, with nearly four times the U.S. average. Today, it  is home to over 180 recording studios, 130 music publishers, 100 live music clubs, and 80 record labels.”

Few better represent the modern face of Nashville than Keith Urban. But, here’s the thing. Urban is not a Nashville native. He’s not even an American. Urban is New Zealand born and grew up in Australia, where he started his recording career. And, he’s certainly not the only one to move from Down Under to a successful music industry career in Nashville.

Florida’s point is not about making simple comparisons; this city is better than that sort of stuff. Rather, he is trying to spot trends that drive the growth of a music scene. As he said in another article, back in 2009,

“This is not about comparing New York and Nashville in particular. My point is more general: we need to think not only about music industries, but also about music scenes as a factor in attracting musicians to cities and sustaining their creativity once they’re in place.”

For example, Florida mentions some factors that have led to the growth of Montreal’s music scene,

“Though Montreal may not have the commercial punch of Nashville, its musical assets extend far beyond Arcade Fire. In a study of Montreal’s creative economy I conducted with Stolarick and consultant Lou Musante in the early-2000s, we found musicians from around North America relocating there to take advantage of the city’s historic and cultural heritage, openness, and affordable real estate.”

To summarise the point, here’s one final quote from Florida, again discussing Nashville,

“…Nashville has begun to suck in talent from the rest of the country and the world.”

What Needs To Happen

Of course, Nashville is just one example and it may well be an impossible example to replicate. But, the story holds for the growth of other great musical capitals in history – they sucked in talent.

A great contemporary music scene is always porous. It will attract musicians from elsewhere. In many ways the idea of a “local” music scene is kind of misleading. When I was growing up there was lots of great live music in Sydney. But the scene was made up not only of “locals,” but also musicians who had moved from other Australian cities, from New Zealand, from the Pacific Islands, from the UK, from Europe and from North and South America.

Every generation of musicians dreams of moving to the big cultural sponge. When I was young, it was New York, London, Boston and LA. This wasn’t the stuff of fantasy. I know people who did it. Some never came back. Every few years the cities change, but the dynamics stay the same.

This is the big challenge – can Singapore continue to develop an inclusive music scene that attracts musicians and music entrepreneurs to come and live here, developing new music and musical ventures with local and regional talent?

What People Don’t Care About

Over the Christmas break we had some guests stop by, on their way to Europe from Australia. The teenage son noticed, amongst the screensaver images playing through our Apple TV, some shots of Canadian band Simple Plan.

He asked me if I had met the band. I mentioned that they had been at last year’s MusicMatters, that I had met some of the band members and had really enjoyed the set I photographed in Clarke Quay. I then went on to talk about the band’s management and the support acts get in Canada. But, I could see his eyes starting to glaze over. Clearly this kid from Australia didn’t give a hoot that Simple Plan came from Canada, or the Canadian industry that supported them. So I changed tack.

“You should have seen the crowd reaction when they came on stage to play their free set,” I said. “It was awesome; they are a great band.”

“Yeah, they rock,” he replied.

Dalí, Subversive Humour And Learning To Be An Artist

My favourite film of 2011 was Midnight in Paris. Among the many memorable scenes there is a wonderful moment when Owen Wilson’s lead character meets Salvador Dalí, played by Adrien Brody.

Of course, the real life Dalí was every bit as over the top and amusing to behold as Brody’s portrayal suggests. Yesterday I stumbled upon this US television appearance by the artist, on the long running show, What’s My Line.

It’s a wonderful performance by Dalí, quietly subverting the game he has been asked to join.

What stood out for me was the way he nonchalantly said yes to a large number of career definitions. Dalí was happy to be identified not just as an artist, but also a writer, cartoonist, performer, athlete and even leading man.

In so many ways this is contrary to the kind of advice we are often given today; to neatly define ourselves within one career path or niche.

Of course, Dalí did define and explain the art he made. But, watching him on What’s My Line, you can imagine his subconscious saying “yes, Dalí can do that too.” He is not letting a definition, in terms of career, limit what he feels he can do, as an artist or simply, as a person.

I see that as the essence of artistic freedom and something we could all learn from Dalí.

7 Kinds Of People You Need In Your Creative Universe

Sustaining yourself in a creative endeavour, be it photography, music, design, writing or any other art, requires relationships. You can’t do it alone. People won’t just “discover” your work and you’ll struggle to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks and disappointments. Moreover you’ll need folks that can help you stay true to your goals, focussed on your work and advancing in your craft. And, of course, without people who value your work you won’t sustain yourself financially.

This list is a distillation of my thinking and experience over the last few years; a summary of several blogposts, many emails and hours of conversations in a number of countries.

Mentors

Mentors help you improve your craft. While mentors may sometimes help your feel better about yourself, the role of the mentor is not to put you on the road to happiness, but rather to help you find your way to creating art. Mentors will help you clarify what you need to do, experience and learn in order to grow. Mentors know how to balance your relationship with technique; both when you need to improve it and when you need to stop leaning into it.

I’ve been blessed to have mentors who were “world class” in their field. I would always encourage you to aim high when looking for mentors. Look for mentors who’ve really been there and done it, who have invested years of hard toil, who have a body of work behind them and who are respected by their peers.

Sponsors

Sponsors help you find jobs and sell your work. For a long time I lived in frustration because I was good at finding great mentors and terrible at finding sponsors. Then I would get frustrated that my mentors wouldn’t help me find work. But, of course, good mentors are too busy hustling for themselves to hustle for you as well.

That’s where sponsors come in. They may not have the expertise of a mentor, but they have good taste and a passion for sharing what they like. Sponsors are well connected, well known and seen as opinion leaders in their field. You often won’t find them at industry events or conferences. Good sponsors move across the silos that most of us live within. They might be the restauranteur who introduces you to an editor, or the renovator who introduces you to an interior designer, or the just the friend of a friend who introduces you to an agency head.

Evangelists

While sponsors help you sell work and find jobs, evangelists simply tell the world about your work. One of the mistakes many people make (and I made this for a long time) is to view Social Media as one giant billboard, or broadcast platform. They go on Twitter and Facebook and endlessly shout about their new thing, or what they have to sell.

But, Social Media is only really powerful when other people are talking about you, not when you talk about yourself. Sure, take a photo and share it with the world. But, it’s only when other people share that photo, without you having to prompt them or ask, that your work really starts to spread fast and wide. For that you need evangelists, people who believe your work is good, is worth sharing and tuned into your output.

Collaborators

Collaborators are people who pay to work with you. That might not be the common definition, but that’s how I see it. There is always a sacrifice and an exchange in collaborating. Collaborators may pay you in money, by investing in your business, or in space to help you work. And, they always invest in terms of time and by saying no to other projects in order make the one they are doing with you succeed. Moreover, collaborators have put their reputation on the line to make something happen with you

That’s the way you can tell real collaborators from leaches and hangers-on. They’ve sacrificed and risked something in order to work with you.

Friends

In such a hard nosed discussion, it’s easy to overlook friends. Friends understand the importance of your work but also recognise the other parts of your life that help round you out. Because of that, friends can remind you how to relax and recharge when your emotional batteries run low. Moreover, friends help you keep a perspective on what the rest of the world looks like from outside the bubble we often live in during our creative days.

For me cooking is an essential part of who I am. I’ve never worked as a cook (apart from a few months in a Pizzeria during my university days). But, when there’s always a connection between the times when I’m cooking often and the times when I’m productive. Oddly, creativity and cooking seem to fuel each other for me. The people closest to me don’t just like eating the food I cook, they also remind me what it means when I’ve stopped cooking.

Consiglieri

We tend to associate the word consiglieri with advisors to crime bosses. It dates back a little further than that and means a political advisor. Whatever word we use I believe we need someone in our lives, who we allow to give us advice and occasionally tell us where we’ve gone wrong. In particular a consiglieri will help us think about the consequences of our actions and also reflect on how we could better manage conflicts and disputes.

But, in order to do that, the consiglieri needs to be someone we trust and also someone who has a sense of the bigger picture of what we do. This person might be a friend, or family member, or they might be a manager or other business associate. The import thing is that they have our permission to tell we’ve messed up, gone off track, or need to rethink our actions.

Supporters

Supporters are into your work – sacrificially. In the age of Social Media, the notion of “fans” is increasingly becoming meaningless. Eventually we will all be able to hire bots to pump up our Facebook likes, Twitter numbers and Klout scores anyway.

Supporters are all the people who are willing to do more than just hit the +1 buttons of the internet. They’ve paid to be part of your world, either with time, or money and that means your work matters to them. They want you to succeed, to go on producing more good work that they can use to illuminate and furnish their life.

In The End

There are so many voices out there that can drag you down and so many attitudes that can sway you from being productive and purposeful (the original title for this post was 7 Kinds Of People You Need In Your Creative Universe And 3 Kinds That You Don’t). My feeling is that by building a diverse constellation of people around you that fill all these roles you can better sustain yourself as a creative person and do the amazing stuff that you know you’ve got the potential to deliver.

Can You Hustle?

Last week I was having one of those really cool meetings that make this whole “creative” work thing worthwhile. Great location, with a cool person I respect, talking about a project I’d love to be part of. Then I was hit with the kind of question that can be (well, for me at least) really hard to answer.

“Can you hustle?”

How to respond? Truth is I tend to sell myself short when it comes to selling, innovating and gettting things off the ground. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always tended to surround myself with high-potential or high-achieving people. Or, perhaps it’s a misplaced desire to be (or appear to be) humble. Whatever it is, my temptation is to say no, I can’t really hustle – at least, not like the hustlers I know.

Of course, that’s not quite right. Earlier this week I started re-writing the about me section of this blog and last night I updated it with this,

“These days I make music, create photos and write words. That’s my day job. I’m not doing this as a side to some other kind of career or because I’m “in-between things.” My whole life I’ve wanted to make art, shape sound, tell stories and explain things.

Since 2004 I’ve done just that and nothing else.

I went back to full time study to familiarise myself with digital technology, first in music, then later photography, started my own production company and embarked on the crazy journey that is digital entrepreneurship.

I have over 25 years of live and studio music experience and have played everywhere from caravan parks to opera houses. For as many years I’ve been repairing, modifying and building guitars and guitar effects. Moreover, I’ve worked on sound installations in studios, halls and churches and most recently, in an award winning upmarket cafe.

Although I have only been working as a photographer for a little over a year, I’ve photographed all sorts of people, from nomads in rural India to pole dancers in urban Hong Kong. I’ve had a public exhibit of my work, sold some fine art prints and had images featured on AOL and CNNgo and in Time Out and Campaign Asia-Pacific magazines.

In more than 18 years as a writer I’ve had articles, reviews and letters published in a variety of magazines and journals and currently I’m an occasional columnist for the South China Morning Post.”

There’s plenty of “hustle” in there and, as you can imagine, there’s also some hustle that I left out.

Part of that is what I did between school and deciding in 2004 to go full time with the “creative” thing. Out of school I was a full time musician and part time music teacher with some odd jobs on the side (working in a hotel, a music store and then a pizzeria).

Then to make ends meet and be “responsible” I landed a job in finance (motor vehicle finance to be precise) for which I was under-qualified and ill-suited. Still I managed to end up running a small department, worked on some new products and in the end turned down some good offers for jobs in that field.

I left to return to full time study, eventually working as a lecturer and researcher (in ethics, philosophy and religious studies) and along the way also holding down roles as a minister and chaplain. I ran a couple of research student groups and co-ordinated the long term strategic planning for my research centre. I also spoke often in those days, conferences, seminars and sermons as well as organising a lot of events, services and gatherings. Perhaps my favourite was the Sacred Images series at King’s College London, where we screened films like The Matrix in the 19th Century Gilbert Scott designed Chapel.

So is that evidence of an ability to hustle? I don’t know. What I do know is that nothing I’ve managed to do in life has ever come cheap or come easily.

Turning up isn’t half the battle, it’s the whole war.

Conferences, Workshops or…

I’m normally pretty ruthless when it comes to attending events. I’ll pencil a lot of things in, then skip them if I can. It’s great to hear industry figures speak and networking is important. But, there is a global industry built around conferences and public speaking. Sometimes this industry is the path to great ideas and inspiring stories and sometimes it is just a whirlpool of recycled theories and simplistic commentary.

When I attended MusicMatters last year I totally expected to revisit the conference in 2011. The move to Singapore further reinforced that feeling. Then, organisers published a short list of confirmed speakers and my heart sank. As much as I admire and would like to meet Steve Lillywhite and Imogen Heap, the rest of the list was all about the big end of the industry. There’s still a place for meetings that involve major labels, large-scale distributors and multinational marketing departments. But, times are not just changing, they have changed – for good.

MIDEM seems to have recognised this, which is why this year so much of the reporting focussed on new music services and app development. If I could afford the time, I would definitely travel to Rethink Music (founded by MIDEM and Berklee College of Music). That feels like a place where people will talk about new models that are directly relevant to where musicians like me find themselves.

Any meaningful conversation about the music business ought to cover the whole of the industry. That’s what makes the music tech revolution so fascinating. SoundCloud is growing and becoming financially stable by offering a service to the whole music scene, from hobbyists through to major labels. Topspin will soon open its service to all musicians on a very affordable basis. This is the same platform that is behind Grammy winners Arcade Fire, Eminem, Cee-Lo Green Bela Fleck, Herbie Hancock and Paul McCartney.

As attractive as the spectacle of the Grammys (or, for that matter, American Idol) might be, it only represents a thin (if previously lucrative) slice of the pie. I explored that a bit last year when I wrote Whose Music Industry Is It Anyway?. We have been through a revolution in the music business – not just the drop in sales that has devastated the major labels, but also the fundamental change in the music tools available to every musician and the ability they now have to transform their local music scenes (see also Who Can Start The Music? and How To Develop A Jazz Scene In Hong Kong).

Like many other Jazz fans, I loved seeing Esperanza Spalding win the best new artist Grammy. It’s good to see such incredible talent rewarded in that way. But also, she is a teaching-artist; a model Berklee has long developed for working musicians. Unlike the big-hit recording industry model, the teaching-artist approach has deep roots in history.

Good teaching is transformational and powerful. It’s hard to copy a good teacher and their work is valuable, both culturally and as a sell-able commodity.

This is something the photography world seems to understand better than the music world. I just heard today that the team from Lightenupandshoot will be hosting a workshop in Hong Kong. I’ll be there. These guys are great photographers, but they are also tapping into the urge, amongst both hobbyists and professionals, to become better by shooting more compelling images and working smarter.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Lumen Dei tour in Ladakh was a watershed for me. I’d love to travel with David duChemin and Matt Brandon again and there are a few other touring photographers that have caught my eye. After all, two weeks on the road with “best in class” photographers – if that doesn’t change you deeply, then what will?

Which, leads me back to the conference thing. Meeting Steve Lillywhite or Imogen Heap would be cool and I’m sure they could give a great conference presentation. But, I’d much rather pay the money to spend a day or two in the studio with them, seeing the way they work and trying to apply that to my own craft.

In a way I’m feeling the same about the upcoming Semi-Permanent conference here in Hong Kong. Some great names featured there (especially Kayt Jones and Stefan Sagmeister). But, back to back fifty minute presentations are only going to take us so far. What is this really? A tour? A show? I’m not sure.

Maybe I’m being too cynical about the conference industry. There is a place for insider discussion and networking sure (and, I may still go to MusicMatters). But, right now I’m a lot more obsessed with getting better at the things I do and completing the projects I’ve undertaken.

Eleven Things I Can Do Without In 2011

Here’s a list of eleven things I can do without in 2011

Luxury
Don’t get me wrong, I like good food, nice clothes and having a comfortable place to live. But luxury, as a way for brands to differentiate themselves, is a tired idea. In fact, anything that uses exclusivity or costliness as it’s main point of distinction feels vacuous and, well, cheap.

Foie Gras and Truffles
Perhaps nothing speaks more clearly to the failure of luxury as an aesthetic ideal than foie gras and truffles. While they are both ingredients that I love, their presence on a menu typically suggests a profound lack of culinary imagination. In fact there is nothing more tiresome than reading a restaurant menu full of expensive and rare ingredients flown in from all over the world. That is cookie-cutter epicureanism.

Lists
OK, this is a list, so I’m guilty of falling into this trap as well. As bloggers have gone after itinerant traffic from social media sources, we have succumbed to writing in list-based formats. We should call time on “the five best,” “the top ten” and “twenty-five ways,” style writing. Nick Hornby’s excellent novel, High Fidelity, made clear that thinking in lists is a by-product of delayed adulthood.

Expats
I’m tired of the whole expat thing. I’m tired of expats who claim to love their new city, won’t hear criticism of it, yet live totally immersed in the popular culture of their home nation and barely pause to wipe their feet as they run “home” once their “assignment” is finished. You would think that with their experience of travel and foreign culture, expats would consistently be fascinating people to meet. But, sadly, they often are less than the sum of their experiences.

Newspapers
My father taught me to value newspapers as windows into different ways of interpreting current affairs. The editorial standpoints of newspapers were a school, for me, into political and cultural ideology. But, far too many newspapers these days rely on lifted, borrowed and syndicated content. If you regularly read the major papers (like The Guardian or The New York Times) there is little reason to dive into smaller and regional papers.

Pop-up Stores
Once a by-word for chic and current, they are now a tell tale sign for risk-averse, me-too retailing. They clutter otherwise navigable retail spaces and all too frequently don’t offer new brands or products, but simply extensions of existing brands, or tired and maxed out categories.

Binary Oppositions
Even as I wrote this post, it is clear that binary opposition, what we can call either/or thinking has crept back into my mental repertoire. Breaking down that kind of logic was a big focus for me in the early 90s and most of my best academic writing (from 99-02) emerged from a more open and inclusive intellectual space. The time has come again to weed out the purveyors of binary opposition from my reading lists and conversational spaces.

Twitter
I still really like Twitter. But it no longer has a place on my iPhone. Sure I’ll miss the quotidian tweeting about life in Hong Kong. But, it’s too much of a distraction, too much of a mental drag. I want to balance the immediacy of Twitter with a desire in 2011 to live a more reflective and intentional life.

Monocle
I’ve been a fan of Monocle magazine since their first edition. I celebrated my 40th birthday at the Monocle acclaimed Hotel Nimb in Copenhagen, made a special detour to visit the Monocle store in London and enjoyed their hospitality at the opening of the Monocle store in Hong Kong. I like what they’ve done with their newspaper venture. But the quality of their output, online, in their podcast and most sadly, in the magazine has slipped dramatically in 2010. I hope they can right the ship next year, but the omens are not good.

Gadgets
In 2011 I bought an iPad, an iPhone, a MacBook Pro and upgraded my Mac Pro. I regret the first two of those decisions and was surprised by how time consuming the later two turned out to be. Of course, that’s only the tip of iceberg. Gadgets are a huge time suck – an enormous font of distraction and frustration. I love them, but it’s time to admit that it is, largely, a dysfunctional love-affair.

Hyperbole
The digital age has bequeathed us a surplus of language-mangling puffery. Few things really are “game-changers,” calling young people “digital natives” is obscenely inane and the less we say about the abuses carried out on the word “conversation” the better. Language is like music theory and visual composition – you’d better demonstrate that you understand the rules before you try to change or break them. Otherwise, you will sound and look like a fool.

iPhone4 Launch In Hong Kong

The 30th of July marks the launch of the iPhone4 in Hong Kong. I just took a quick stroll among the huge crowds in the IFC Mall, here in Central Hong Kong, who are patiently lined up to get their hands on Apple’s latest mobile phone.

It was a quite extraordinary sight, with the throngs corralled into various zones, each of which seemed to handle a different stage of the purchasing process. There were clowns and live music to entertain the waiting Apple fans as well as free McDonalds meals to sustain them in what will surely be a long night of waiting.

Adelaide Central Market

Like every major Australian city, Adelaide has a good selection of cafes and restaurants. In fact, locals will argue that given their size, the city punches above its weight in terms of great places to eat (and accolades for their best eateries). I can certainly remember one glorious meal, at the Bridgewater Mill, in 1998, that rivals anything I ever experienced elsewhere in Australia.

That said, Adelaide has one ace up its sleeve in terms of food – the charming and historic Adelaide Central Market. The oldest part of the current complex was built in 1900, but, the market’s roots stretch back to January 1869. The large, covered and comfortably spaced central area has stalls with everything from fresh produce (a lot of it organic and regional), seafood, cold meats, cheeses, through to cakes, coffee and speciality shops (including several Asian stores). My parents go there to buy their cold meats and Yerba Maté and I always make a pilgrimage to the Smelly Cheese shop, which has the best selection of European cheeses I have ever seen in Australia.

Unlike markets in most other cities, Adelaide Central Market is, as the name implies, centrally located – a short walk from the business district and near the heart of the city. The market has ample parking as well as being serviced by the excellent Adelaide Tram system (free within the centre of the city, with a $2 park and ride option from the edges of the city).

“Get out of the Supermarket whenever you can.” Michael Pollan, Food Rules

While nowhere in Adelaide ever feels crowded, the Market always has a vibrancy and buzz. Partly that is because local office and retail workers rely on it as a cafe and eating destination. Also, Central Market is popular with families and given the issues Australia is now facing with obesity (Obesity is now more deadly than smoking), it is reassuring to see young kids shopping with their parents among the fresh, regional and seasonal produce!

Passports And Nation-Branding

There is probably no trend that speaks more clearly to the pervasiveness of consumerist thinking than the penchant for countries and cities to try and brand themselves. Take, for example, sites like FutureBrand and NationBranding, which describe countries in the language of marketing and highlight the ways that countries are trying to “brand” and “position” themselves.

Of course, there is some potential merit to this kind of thinking, when a country is trying to “sell” itself. National tourism campaigns can benefit from developing a strong brand identity. Moreover, it is tempting to think that all government departments should align themselves with the national “brand.”

Except that governments are reflections of society, of people, not just of business interests. Moreover, a society is, in any meaningful way, far more complex and far less malleable than any brand could or should hope to be. It is one thing to sell a version of the country’s identity to tourists and potential investors. It’s quite another to pretend that everyone in a society fits a neatly packaged social and cultural stereotype (or that they even should).

I was wondering about this while filling out a Passport renewal form in the Australian Consulate office here in Hong Kong. Comparing my experience this morning, with pervious experiences in London and Delhi made me wonder: Do Australian Consulates and High Commissions have a brand?

The Australian High Commission in London, at the turn of the last decade, exuded a kind of swaggering cultural confidence. The offices were comfortable, almost plush (more like an airport business lounge than a stuffy government department). It was easy to feel an expansive sense of the country’s culture; from newspapers, to magazines, to art. For me, that connection was even more vivid, having experienced events at the intersection of that Commission’s and the Robert Menzies Centre for Australian studies at King’s College London. From presentations of ballet, to film, music, or poetry there was a sense that Australia saw itself as self-assured and “world class.”

Delhi was an altogether different adventure – the high Commission felt more like a bunker, with a siege-like defensive approach that reminded me of bank branches in the 70s and 80s (“young man, why are you making this withdrawal”). After a two hour wait for completion of a simple process, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Again my experience of cultural events connected to that High Commission bled into my “brand” experience. Speaking to an officer of that commission at an exhibition of Indigenous Australian Art was representative of a number of encounters in those years and a moment I’ll never forget – one that reminded my of my trouble associating with the Australian “brand.”

“I’ve always felt like an outsider. You would think that having lived nearly 28 or my first 30 years in the same city (and close to 20 of those years in the same house) would have given me a strong sense of local identity. However, having been reckless enough to spend the first two years of my life outside Australia, it didn’t matter what I did from that point, I would always be an outsider. This point was driven home to me within a few weeks of arriving in Delhi. I met an Australian at a Gallery opening and by way of introductory conversation, we shared part of our life stories. After finishing my account, the Australian said to me “so, you’re not a real aussie then?”

Here in Hong Kong was a different experience again. The Consulate was clean, efficient and almost friendly. It definitely felt like an “Australian” space, but one that was neither expansive, nor defensive. Again, the experience seems to connect with the kind of cultural events I’ve seen in the city – solid, but with neither the swagger of London or the antagonism of Delhi.

Of course, it’s easy to think these three radically different experiences point to some kind of branding failure. Certainly none of those vignettes would give a full, true and accurate picture of the country. However, taken as a whole, without trying to force a reconciliation of the contradictions they represent would, for me, give a pretty compelling picture of of what Australia is like.

That’s the problem with nation-branding. Brands are partial (and often fictional) narratives. Like photos, brand identities are compelling as much because of what gets left out of the frame as for what gets put into it. Countries are infinitely harder than products to shape, describe and frame with any real honesty.

If, perhaps there is a deep value in the whole notion of nation-branding it is connected to G.K. Chesteron’s thoughts about travel,

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

In this sense, some branding/re-branding efforts can appear very shrill, like Hong Kong’s claim to be “Asia’s World City.” Take, for example, the claim that,

“Research also showed that the top five core values associated with Hong Kong were progressive, free, stable, opportunity and high quality, while the most commonly perceived attributes were cosmopolitan, connected, enterprising, innovative and leader.”

Some of that may be true But, in the past few months I’ve had conversations with a number of people running quite successful businesses in Hong Kong who would question most of those “values and attributes.” The problem is you can spin those words into any number of stories that may, at best represent the viable aspirations of this city and, at worst, be pure fiction.

Perhaps that’s why the great global cities, the ones that fire our imagination really don’t need branding at all – New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Rome. Sure, some of these cities may have problems that need addressing, but their qualities speak for themselves. Experience them and you need no explanations.

Who Can Start The Music?

Hong Kong has no shortage of elaborate opening parties. Not a week goes by, in fact, often not a day goes by without an invite to some kind of opening, for a store, or gallery or whatever. To be honest, these events seldom attract me. They can keep their free drinks and stale canapes, their fashion-followers clamouring for a photo in the society pages and, most of all, they can keep the thoughtlessly curated, DJ-driven music.

That said, I made an exception for the opening of the Monocle pop-up store, in the Pacific Place branch of Lane Crawford. I was delighted, upon arriving to see a neat set-up for a live band – whoever this band were, I thought, they were ready to sound good at a modest volume level.

However, my heart sank as the band walked past me. This wasn’t a local, Hong Kong group. Speaking to Tyler Brule, Editor in Chief of Monocle a little later confirmed my suspicion. They had flown the very excellent Immigrant’s Bossa Band in from Tokyo for the night. In fact you can read about the night on their blog (or if your Japanese is as non-existant as mine, you can just look at the pictures). To make matters worse, Monocle’s recent Hong Kong city survey made no mention of the local music scene – a glaring omission compared to their reviews of other cities!

When I arrived here in 2006, the local music scene didn’t inspire and I made the decision not to look for live opportunities. Moreover, in the first year or so I had a number of bad experiences and decided to focus my work online. However, I’m increasingly keen to get back into live playing and in the last year I’ve reconsidered my stance on local work and collaboration.

Which leads me to why, on a late Friday afternoon I was walking into Lan Kwai Fong, the popular entertainment district in Hong Kong (and easily one of my least favourite parts of the city). Red Bull were organising an event focussed on encouraging the local music scene (as part of the Red Bull Music Academy), bringing together an insightful panel of active, locally experienced DJs and musicians. The discussion soon turned to the challenges facing musicians here.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Hong Kong is a lack of live music outlets – rents are astronomical and few venues are committed to live music (Spike HK has an excellent post on this here ). For example, compared to most global cities, Hong Kong is unusual in not having at least one well established, decent-sized Jazz venue.

It was surprising to hear the panel suggest Hong Kong needed better music journalism. Sure, the main local newspaper, the South China Morning Post is a disappointment. But some of the magazines, such as BC, HK magazine and TimeOutHK all have supported local showcases with regular features.

I wonder if the obstacle may have more to do with the quality of local music publicity. Quite a few festivals, local acts and smaller touring concerts don’t seem to be supported by sustained and strategic media campaigns. Moreover, few local acts or venues have compelling, regularly updated websites.

At a number of points in the discussion, the panel came back to the need for better promoters and managers. Certainly the shape of the music business today demands a new kind of music manager. The digital revolution and the collapse of the old music record business presents a lot of opportunities for musicians who are willing to be entrepreneurial. It’s pointless to follow the approach that bands and musicians took when I was a teenager!

I was encouraged to hear some of the panellists suggest that local musicians raise their sights and not just focus on being “big” in Hong Kong. It will help any band or musician who wants to break out internationally to focus on doing something fresh and original, perhaps collaborating across musical genres.

It was surprising to hear no mention of the role of record stores and musical instrument stores in supporting the local music scene. Historically record stores have been a focus of attention for music fans and musicians alike (in Sydney Bluebird records played that role for the jazz community, utopia records for the heavy metal crowd and Red Eye for independent music). Moreover, musical instrument stores can support local artists, studios and performers in both casual and formal ways.

It was also surprising to hear no mention made about the effect of corporate entertaining. Massive entertainment budgets can sometimes mean well paid gigs for musicians, but they can also distort the local music scene, putting some of the best gigs behind a wall.

Personally, I’d like to see more cross discipline interaction in Hong Kong. Although music venues are expensive and sometimes uncooperative, there are a lot of other creative spaces in this town. For example, there are a lot of great photo studios, which makes me think about Chase Jarvis’ live music photoshoots. There is a lot more scope in this town for enterprising partnerships that support more than one artistic platform.

I’m cautiously optimistic that live music could continue to slowly improve in Hong Kong. Musicians have it within their power to improve their online offerings, to work harder on original material, to collaborate more widely and generally be more professional. But, that will only change things up to a point. Without changes that make it easier to open larger venues in a wider range of districts, without better publicity to get information about artists out to the public (and to other artists) and without more local businesses willing to build partnerships with musicians things will not change in a hurry.

Moreover, the market itself might resist. The irony is that although those elaborate openings and the whole culture of Lan Kwai Fong are bathed in loud music they are, in fact, anti-music.

In a couple of weeks the Music Matters Conference will take over a number of bars and clubs in order to showcase 40 live acts from around the world. Personally I think it is the boldest and most important cultural experiment I’ve seen in my nearly four years here in Hong Kong. Can it help start the music? I don’t know, but I hope so.