Us and EM

Updated: 2017-03-31 09:48

By Agnes Lu(HK Edition)

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As one more music festival debuts in HK tomorrow, Agnes Lu wonders how much longer before the electronic music bug catches on in this city in right earnest.

Choi Sai-ho has performed in several international music festivals, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The audience abroad, says the local electronic musician and audio-visual artist, tends to respond with greater enthusiasm toward electronic music than Hong Kong natives normally would.

For instance, in Geneva, where he performed at the Electron Festival 2012, Choi could feel a vibe of excitement among the crowds that seemed to come from a far more deep-rooted culture of hanging out in clubs and listening to concerts than he usually finds in his hometown.

He described the Hong Kong audiences as a little "introvert". "We're not living in the 80s or 90s when people relied on the radio and television as the source of new music. That was a time when local artists like Alan Tam would add electronic music elements to their creations and thus the general public would be exposed to such a style unconsciously," says Choi.

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With the proliferation of entertainment options and the consequent decrease of attention spans, such receptivity toward newer forms of music is no longer a given. "Some of my friends get impatient when there are no vocals in a song, not to mention some young people nowadays only listen to a singer when they think he is good-looking."

Unsurprisingly, ALTN8, a new indoor and multi-venue electronic musical festival, opened to a lukewarm response from native Chinese Hong Kong residents earlier this month. The co-founders Charlie Toller and Roger de Leon had put the festival together after nine months of hard work. The show attracted around 1,000 patrons across its eight venues in Central - a figure lower than the organizers' initial expectation. However, as the crowds outside one of the main venues swelled, entry had to be regulated. After a point the organizers had to adopt a "one-in-one-out" policy. The turnout was 85 percent expats. "An electronic music concert is not a concept locals really understand or adhere to," remarks de Leon.

The co-founders emphasize that the scant local participation was not for want of trying. "When we released details of ALTN8 people were very receptive to the idea, commenting on social media, and there was a genuine interest in what we were doing," says Toller, regretting not being able to draw the native Chinese music enthusiasts in greater numbers.

"We want to get to a point where a large proportion of our audience is locals and if they're as comfortable in that environment as the international audience, that's when we're winning. If you go to a music festival in Tokyo it's not going to be expats, but the local guys."

However, de Leon believes it will take a while for the local music lovers to turn into an evolved audience. From being receptive toward electronic music festivals to gaining a sound understanding of the culture of attending such events might come at the end of a slow trudge down that road. "It's definitely a growing scene, but electronic music is just not there yet (in Hong Kong)."

Undaunted by the less-than-anticipated response, the co-founders are expecting to host a second round of ALTN8 within a year's time. Increasing local awareness of the electronic music scene and getting more locals involved continue to be their focus. "Part of that comes down to giving the local artists a platform to play on as well," Toller said. Half the line-up in the first edition comprised locals.

More coming your way

For those who missed ALTN8, there is Sonar Hong Kong to look forward to. Barcelona's prestigious festival celebrating music, creativity and technology makes its Hong Kong debut tomorrow, across six indoor and outdoor stages at Hong Kong Science Park. Global heavyweights such as DJ Shadow, Gilles Peterson, Dave Clarke and Daito Manabe will bring the local audiences a diverse feast of electronica. There is a bonus in the form of Sonar+D program - a series of creative tech-centered activities.

Music critic and DJ Yuen Chi-chung is curious to see if the festival's first Hong Kong edition might succeed in infusing new elements into the local electronic music scene and inspire creative collaboration. He pointed out many Hong Kong music lovers may not have a very clear idea of what the genre encompasses, sometimes confusing it with electronic dance music or EDM (electronic dance music).

While EDM is more common in mainstream music and more widely played at nightclubs and parties than is recognized as such, electronic music consists of a variety of sub-genres and can often be quite experimental. Producing such music could be as complicated as rock and roll, says Yuen. Getting round to appreciating the genre is often a matter of acquired taste. Not too many people in this city seem to have the time and effort to invest in developing such an understanding - one of the reasons why the genre has not found a big following here.

Sonar Hong Kong's music director Justin Sweeting, who is also the co-founder of what is taken to be Hong Kong's flagship annual open-air music and arts festival, Clockenflap, seems to be pulling out all the stops to widen the reach of electronic music in the city - hence the inclusion of hip-hop, house, pop, techno, grime and experimental music and more to cater to audiences across the board.

"We hope taking it out of the clubs and into a festival format allows more people to experience and be open to this music in a new kind of way," Sweeting said.

Choi is part of Sonar Hong Kong's local highlights, along with other local talents such as Ocean Lam and Yeti Out. He has been a composer of electronic music for over a decade and won several awards. While fellow musicians working in the same genre are constantly trying to break fresh ground, says Choi, he regrets that the market for electronic music in Hong Kong has not quite kept pace with such growth, primarily due to lack of public awareness and appreciation for these new genres.

Then such awareness might sometimes be found in unlikely places. Choi remembers discovering EDM playing in a pharmacy in Lan Kwai Fong. "I consider it keeping up with the trends and thinking out of the box," he says. And Hong Kong being such a dynamic, fast-paced, cosmopolitan and forward-looking city there's no reason why more people should not wake up to and embrace a genre of music that's found such a following in more musically-evolved cultures.

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(HK Edition 03/31/2017 page1)