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  Declining Pop Music Industry in Hong Kong
By Ng Wai Pui

Throughout the past decade, there have been calls that the pop music of Hong Kong is on the verge of demise. Despite that, from the early 90s when Jacky Cheung's milestone Every Day I Love You More became a hit, the mid-90s when Faye Wong's The Fragile Woman was red hot, to when the acoustic tunes of Eason Chan's Unique in the World was praised by the whole city in 1998, I had been cherishing that Hong Kong's pop music could still offer surprises and innovations. It was last September when I first sensed the crisis of Hong Kong's pop music industry while hunting for an album. Since then, I am convinced that the industry is contained in a closed system, in which almost all marketing and art principles have been misinterpreted, twisted or shattered. The chief culprits are record companies, singers and lyricists.

Decades ago, when the shelves of record retailers were still dominated by cassettes, a recording was a pure recording. Inside the plastic case lay only a cassette cartridge, with no extra materials. Now, a pop album with similar size of a VHS tape is not rare. The sizes of local albums reached a historic high in the summer of the millennium year when Kelly Chen's Paisley Galaxy, which was as big as an LD case, was released!

Today, records go with tons of gifts: key-rings, shopping coupons, concert tickets, cosmetics samples, railway tickets and more to name. Outstanding ones included a blow-air polythene 'rubbish bin' introduced in 1997; an album even came with a set of five-inch figures of the singer! Sometimes there can be several versions of an album. The likes of 'First-round Limited Version' (I can't understand why people today use Japanese-style Chinese words instead of pure Chinese ones. This may be another cause for teenagers' diminishing abilities in Chinese.), '24-K Golden Edition', 'Remix', 'Christmas Bonus Edition' and of course, 'Special Edition', are common phrases used by record labels to describe their goods. Last year Edison Chan's debut album had four sets of copies, each bearing a different cover. Every copy was contained in identical packets so that buyers had no idea which was which. Buyers desiring one of them had to try by luck. It is also a usual practice to enclose the singer's photo collection in his album, even if the singer has not a nice face. Besides, large-scale promotion campaigns like supporter gatherings and erections of huge billboards in shopping districts. Mini-concerts were held frequently, arousing short-lived public attention.

Understandably this style of album production pushes their cost upwards, and in turn makes their retail prices rise. In certain situations they can be beyond reality, or even imagination. My experience told me to keep patient with them - the unreachable prices would come back to our planet one day.

I am a regular buyer of albums of local Canto-pop singer X, who has been a long-time favourite of mine. Despite that, my frustration at her record company was heightened by what happened last autumn.

In mid-August, X's record company publicized that X's coming album would be on sale soon. On the final Saturday of August, fans said on the singer's newsgroup they had paid $98 for the 'first-round limited' version. During the following noon, a friend of mine told me he had obtained it too, costing him $108. Minor fluctuations of the price of a CD could not be averted, and the price level at that by this moment still sounded sensible.

Since that noon, there were reports that the price of the album in major shopping malls were soaring. It was found marked at $126 at two thirty then $150, $170, $185, $200 and reached the pinnacle of $208 at seven thirty! That's incredible. For imported recordings, say, a Japanese or an American version, $208 can be a bargain, taking the transportation expenses into account, bet never a local one.

Rumours in the newsgroup boasted that the album had smashed all sale records in Sino Centre, which is a concentration node of CD stores, of the past several years. CD stores were depicted 'in desperate shortage of stock due to an unexpected sell-out'.

By the time I examined how the prices were going on 1st September, the asking price of the red-hot album had plunged quite heavily by 60% from the climax, lingering at some $120. A week afterwards, my impatience and eagerness erupted and propelled me towards giving out $108 in exchange for the album.

Let's take a look at what my spoils included: two CDs containing 6 songs each, a VCD which I would never watch, several pictures of X, who can never be 'beautiful' viewed from all angles, and some virtually useless coupons. All these summed up to $108 for me. Something to add, normalcy resumed in CD stores when the price of pack landed at $83 a fortnight later. Oh my goodness, I was charged an extra twenty-five dollars for assuming the ownership of the album just fourteen days in advance.

Money could drive everyone towards madness, no exception for the marketing staff of record labels. Weeks later, the album was split into two volumes instead of one set and sold individually at $55 each. Some time around Christmas, the record label launched the fourth edition of the album, compiling everything in the third version onto one CD. Fortunately I was not the kind of 'loyal' adherents of X who snap up whatever discs containing X's music, otherwise my spending spree would have amounted to $98 + $83 + $55 + $55 + $83, i.e. $374, in minimum.

Why do albums nowadays have to envelop shopping coupons and other unnecessary souvenirs? Why do record labels release endlessly new versions of a single one after one? I firmly believe that if the quality of the music is high enough to attract buyers, there's no point in enclosing so many free gifts in the album. Obviously the record companies are aware of the poor content of the CD. Offering small materialistic advantages to customers is probably the most efficient method to salvage the modest sales in the short run. If they would like to stick to their big-spending habits, that's fine, but have they ever thought of utilizing their capital wisely? There are millions of ways to spend money other than hiring a crane for a singer to sign his name on a 30-feet tall mega-poster hung on the wall of a commercial block! Buyers are not obliged to finance the extravagance, if not sensible investments, of inter-continental record-producing magnates.

The high-rising price of CDs may provides a possible explanation to the prevalence of piracy. Nevertheless, even if piracy was eradicated from this city, a pessimistic future still lies ahead of the record industry. Poor performance displayed by singers and mediocre lyrics of pop songs may account for this.

Several unhealthy tendencies exist among singers. You may also recognize some as you read through.

Record companies keep promoting young female singers who look innocent. Commonly called yuk nuis, they are girls with big and watery eyes, a slender body figure, snow-white skin and usually an appealing smile. Whether their voices are suitable for performance does not matter, as long as their outlook is good. There exists a female singer who matches all criteria of a yuk nui. She was hailed as one of the 'future stars in the new millennium' by a radio station. Her singing skills? Hmmm... She just quacks like a frog, in resemblance to an advertiser for porno VCDs in Goodview Commercial Centre. In recent months, a record company has reached the extremes by throwing in a 16-year-old tall girl who barely knows the ABCs of singing!

An overwhelming current of 'singer-songwriter' prevails among singers. They claim to write songs for themselves as well as other singers. Nonetheless, it is doubtful whether the songs are the singer-songwriters' genuine outputs. Miraculously, a young singer who has lived in a foreign country since his boyhood and does not know writing Chinese can be able to compose the lyrics of his Cantonese songs! He is also named as the author of the melodies of his songs. Do these singer-songwriters write their songs all by themselves, or anyone behind the scene does the magic for them? God knows.

Being 'rock' is a new trend among singers. A typical example of a 'rock' singer has been shown to me on a TV show: with her hair dyed blonde, a rookie singer holds a black electric guitar on the stage. She plucks violently the strings of the instrument and yells out notes. Fans below the stage scream in craze for their 'stylish' idol in the already deafening environment. Does the singer really know how to play the guitar? Seems not.

Another fellow 'rock girl' usually flaunts her tattoos before people. Yet another youngster is infamous for smashing guitar and flinging microphones; ironically, several tabloids interpreted these actions as indications of his 'challenging' and 'uncompromising' character! This poses great harm to teenagers, who tend to imitate their idols. Authentic rock singers also find their markets narrowed by these kind of copycats.

The lyrics of pop songs are also deplorable. In the heyday of Canto-pop in the 70s and 80s, masterpieces of the rhymed art were penetrating, succinct and, at least, meaningful and intelligible. Ideas in lyrics ranged from family intrigues, appreciation of the natural scenery, and the mixed emotions of a swordsman, to the hardship of the grass-root class and the relations between lovers. Lyrics of current pop songs fail to retain that momentum. Now more than half of the lyrics of local songs are penned by a handful of prolific lyricists. These lyricists control the general themes and wills of pop songs, confining them to love, love, love and love.

This scene is doubtlessly unhealthy, for a genius writer cannot guarantee that have every single item from him is flawless; grammatical and logical errors are frequent from today's songs, which seldom show signs of the possession talent of their authors. Iterating words like 'love you', using Cantonese colloquial expressions like fan tsin (Jordan Chan's song, got it?), and using Chinese interrogates for rhyming are common evidences of lyricists' droughts of creativity and diligence. At the extremes, I've once heard that twelve pieces of a lyricist's work found their seats in a 20-placed chart! Overproduction from few lyricists results in below-par work. It is disheartening to hear teenagers reciting the lacklustre lyrics of Living Viva uttered by Nicholas Tse or Andy Hui-sung Lend me your Ears to Say I Love you (What a bizarre name indeed! How can an ear speak?). Phrases like these keep filtering into teenager's mind, and perhaps induce a backward step in their language skills. Many educated ones in this city are capable of writing lyrics of much more fluent and comprehensible languages than them, I believe.

In the past months, several sets of lyrics even intrude into the religious sector, which is taboo. Lyricists express their suspicion and condemnation of religious thoughts, as reflected in A Maiden's Prayer and If There is God, sung by Miriam Yeung and Patrick Tang respectively. Predictably the lyricists invited attack from all fields, having attacked Christian principles in an attempt to catch public attention. Particularly, another piece sung by Yeung, Number Zero, contains more radical ideas, which has aroused resentment among Christians, including Christian fans of Yeung. Obviously the trend of questioning religions in lyrics is not and should be stopped at once. If lyricists want to express their doubt in religions, why don't they simply write to newspapers, magazines or religious bodies?

To some extent, the tastelessness of Canto-pop scene also fuels the emergence of local swear-song icon LMF, whos offer an 'alternative' genre to listeners. From this fact , the boringness of pop lyrics can be perceived indirectly - people prefer swear words to the traditional lyrics, which used to be some kind of literature.

The Hong Kong pop music trade is now caught in a deadlock. Album sales fall far behind that of ten years ago; juvenile singers fail to be good examples for youngsters; the clich m lyrics further push customers away. The responsibility for this should be shared jointly by record companies, singers, lyricists. In my mind, a polarization in Hong Kong pop music fans can be anticipated: one side comprises blind fans of their pop gods, the other turning to foreign music. If Hong Kong's record industry continue its sloppy run, the breathing space of local pops may be completely annexed by the likes of Westlife, Britney Spears and Ayumi Hamasaki. Local people in that sector should pull up their socks and try and claw the lost territories back before it is too late to resist the influx of foreign colonists.

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