The Music Industry in Hong Kong – The Development of Canto-pop Music from 1920-2010 (Part 1)

After discussing the music industry in Japan, it is time to introduce another important music industry in Asia, Hong Kong Music Industry. Although Hong Kong was located in China, she was a British colony in the 19th and 20th century until 1997. Therefore, it is a place with a fusion of east-west culture. Before the introduction of the open-door policy of China, Hong Kong served as a very important hub to connect China with the other part of the world. Because of her special historical background, Hong Kong absorbed the music from both China and the west to form its own Canto-pop songs. The Hong Kong music industry was extremely prosperous from the 1970s to 1990s and played an indispensible role in Asia. However, it starts to decline in recent years with the open of China and the rise of K-pop.

Since Canto-pop has a long history of development in Asia, I am going to explain it in two posts. Below is the brief introduction to the development of Canto-pop songs in Asia from 1920s to 1970s.

  1. 1920s-1940s: The Origin of Canto-pop
    It is not easy to trace the origin of Canto-pop. The word “Pop Music” was originally from the US in the 1920s. In the 1920s, China was facing the danger of imperiled by the western countries. At that time, wester culture spread to China unconsciously. It was believed that Shanghai was the melting point of east-west culture in the 1920s and also the origin of Canto-pop.In the 1940s, due the the Great Depression and the Second World War, a lot of Shanghai citizens migrate to Hong Kong along with the western culture, leading to the formation of Canto-pop. However, the status of Canto-pop was incredibly low. Its blueprint was mainly from Mainland China and old songs from the west such as Over the Rainbow etc. Therefore, Canto-pop music, in the1920s to 1940s, lacks its originality.
  2. 1950s: The Turning Point of Canto-pop
    Although Canto-pop has been developing for several years, it status remained low. However, it was highly influenced by western pop and Cantonese Opera. Most of the pop song singers sang like Cantonese opera. Yanfen Fang’s Belle of Penang (檳城艷) was a very good example. She used a very high pitch to sing the song.As you notice, in the 1950s, Canto-pop music still lacked its own characteristics and originality.
  3. 1960s: The Downturn of Canto-pop
    In the 1960s, Canto-pop music was severely hit by western-pop. At that time, people were extremely into The Beatles. In 1964, The Beatles visited Hong Kong and spread the “Beatlemania“, leading to the trend of playing band music, singing English songs. This undoubted undermined the status of Canto-pop in Hong Kong.At that time, people generally believed that western music were more high-class, better taste, the entertainment of the upper class while Canto-pop were more localized, usually for the general public. That was why the lyrics of Canto-pop was more “rude” and localized as to cater for the taste of the general public. Wan Kwong (尹光) was a Canto-pop singer in the 1960s. The lyrics of his songs include a lot of foul languages.
  4. 1970s: The Rise of Canto-pop

In the 1970s, Canto-pop started to gain more popularity and social status because of the emergence of television. Hong Kong people loved watching TV, as a result, every theme song of TV series was popular.

There were two important people in the 1970s, James Wong (lyricist) and Joseph Koo (songwriter). They cooperated and produced a lot of famous TV theme songs. One of the example was Sandra Lang‘s  “The Yuanfen of a Wedding that Cries and Laughs” (啼笑姻緣).

Joseph Koo used the pentatonic scale to compose pop-music. As you can hear, Canto-pop at that time was full of Chinese style but with played with western instruments.

With the complementary impact of TV dramas, Canto-pop music was super prosperous in the 1970s. Its influence even spread to Mainland China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and so on. It definitely marked a milestone of Canto-pop music and paved the way to its indispensable status in Asian music industry.

The Music Industry in Japan – The “Miracle” (キセキ) in the declining Japanese Music Industry

Although the music industry in Japan is still the second biggest music industry in the world, the total production value in the industry has decreased continually. According to the Recording Industry Association of Japan, in 2014, the total production value of recorded music (audio and music videos) decreased by 6% versus the previous year to 254.2 billion yen while unit production posted a year-on-year decline of 9% to 226 million units. In recent years, even the most popular single still cannot be sold for over one million units. This was definitely a hard time for the Japanese music industry.

However, in 2007, there was a “miracle” in the contracting music industry. A Japanese pop rock vocal group, GReeeeN, suddenly emerged. The group is comprised of four male members Hide, Navi, Kuni and Soh from Fukushima. One of the notable characteristics of GReeeeN is that none of the members have ever shown their faces in the public sphere as a part of GReeeeN, whether in their promotional videos, CDs, television performances, or the Internet.

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Despite the fact that none of them have shown their faces to the public, their 7th single, キセキ (Kiseki), which was released on May 28, 2008,  could miracally reach the number 1 on the Oricon charts and sell for 500,000 physical copies. In 2009, the Guinness World Records certified their song キセキ as “the best selling download single in Japan” with the full-track ringtone download sales of over 2,000,000 copies. The success of GReeeeN broke the traditional perception that pop singer must have a handsome/pretty outlook and show their face to the public.

Here is the question, what led to the success of such a mystery male group?

1. Curiosity

As mentioned above, none of the members of GReeeeN has disclosed their faces publicly. The reason is that when they were debut in the industry in 2007, all of them were still university students. They claimed that they needed to balance their academics and singing career, so they were not willing to disclose their faces and real name. And all of the music videos and albums did not include their appearances. This undoubtedly aroused the curiosity of the public and seized the focus from the audience.

Among all the music industries, the Japanese music industry places tremendous emphasis on packing and appearance of artists (as you can refer to AKB 48’s success in my previous articles). All artists are fighting to maximize their exposures in various media. However, GReeeeN chose to hide their faces, that was extremely new to the public and created their curiosity.

2. The Musical Value

GReeeeN is a talented group. Their music is refreshing, encouraging and relaxing. All members are responsible to write the lyrics and songs themselves. Their songs contain various musical elements. For example, they will suddenly include a rap in a soft melody. Instead of feeling mismatch, they can perfectly balance the beauty of the melody and the rhythm of rap. Under the shadow of economic turmoil in Japan, people demand for more encouraging and relaxing music. Therefore, GReeeeN’s music can satisfy the current market needs, leading to their success.

3. The Power of TV drama 

キセキ (Kiseki) is the ending song of the Japanese TV drama, Rookies.

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Rookies was famous in Japan. After a month of Rookies’ debut, the ending song キセキ (KiseKi) has already reached one million downloads. The movie of Rookies even reached 5.7 million people’s entrance in the cinema, bringing another promotion effect of the song キセキ (KiseKi), the total number of downloads reached 5.9 million times. Actually, the Japanese music industry always has an intimate linkage with the TV, anime and film industry. They always have a complementary effect.

From the case of GReeeeN, we can learn that the prerequisite to succeed in the music industry is the musical talent, handsome face is not a necessary condition. Moreover, it is paramount to find some ways to grab the spotlight from the public and arouse their curiosity. Last but not least, it is always good to cooperate with other sectors in the entertainment industry to magnify the promotional effect.

Do you think that a successful singer needs to show their face but not their voice only? Are there any other things that other music industries in the world can learn from GReeeeN?

The Music Industry in Japan – The Controversy of the “Celibacy Clause” in AKB48

If you have followed my last article, you would probably have some basic ideas about AKB48. AKB48 is the most successful girl idol’s group in Japan with 140 members. As of March 2014, the group has sold over 30 million records. In 2013, AKB48’s total sales accounted for US$128 million.

To belong to such a successful group, all members have to follow very strict rules. One of the rules is the “celibacy clause”, which means all members are not allowed to date a boyfriend. The main purpose of this “celibacy clause” is to maintain the virginal and pure image of all group members. With such an image, they can appear to be available and accessible by their fans.

In 2013, Minami Minegishi, a 17-year-old girl of AKB 48, was discovered of bringing a boy-band member back to her hotel room and spending a night with him. As a result, the management company claimed damages of US$42,375 from Minami and her parents for breaching the “celibacy clause” in AKB48. What’s more, Minami was forced to shave her head and apologize publicly. She said, in the video, “everything I did is entirely my fault. I am so sorry.”

In the Japanese society, shaving head means the lost of freedom or the abandon of dignity. Only armies, prisoners or secondary-school male students are required to shave their heads. It is very rare for female unless they are nuns.

Minami’s apology video raised a lot of controversy in Japan or even other western countries. Some Japanese women said, “I know she wanted to say sorry, but shaving her head is too extreme.” On the other hand, some Japanese boys said, “as a Japanese idol, I think she does have to follow the rules of the group.” Nevertheless, most of the western media condemned the Japanese culture of depriving of women’s rights.

From the perspective of artist management and record labels, it is their mission to develop a unique selling point of an artist as to earn money. The most powerful selling point of AKB48 is their image of purity and innocent. Therefore, it is very normal to set the strict “celibacy clause” or other rules to maintain their virginal image in order to sustain the super-fan base. Do you think it is the appropriate and effective way to manage an artist or a girl idol’s group?

The Music Industry in Japan – Why do Japanese still consume physical music?

As an Asian student, I would like to grasp this opportunity to introduce some interesting phenomenon about the music industry in Asia, mainly Japan, Hong Kong, China and Korea. The first industry I am going to talk about is the Japanese music industry.

According to the 2014 IFPI statistics, Japanese music industry is still the second largest music industry in the world, accounting for US$2,628 million. Interestingly, 78% of the industry revenue comes from the physical album sales. Under the global trend of digitalization, record labels still rely heavily on CD sales as their main source of revenue. However, why Japanese consumers still stick to buy CDs instead of streaming or downloading music?

  1. Japanese purchase albums not mainly for the CD, but for the “souvenirs” inside the album

When Japanese fans purchase an album, they do not mainly buy for the CD itself, but also other souvenirs attached to it. For example, if you buy an album of AKB48, a famous Japanese idol girl group with 140 members, you will find there are a “handshaking ticket”, “voting ticket” and the photos of their idols tied in with the album.

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In order to shake hand with their beloved idols, a lot of die-heart fans will purchase a large amount of CDs to get as many “handshaking tickets” as possible. Also, every year, AKB48 organizes a competition to select the most famous member. The winning member will have more chances to perform and have a better career prospect. In order to vote for their favorite member, fans will also purchase lots of CDs to get the “voting tickets”. With a lot of physical souvenirs attached in an album, it is very difficult to ask a Japanese consumer shift to consume digital music.

  1. The number of albums bought reflects the loyalty to their idols

Another reason for Japanese fans to buy albums is to show their support to their favorite idols. There is a “collection” culture among Japanese. Usually when a Japanese idol releases a new album, they will release various versions for the same album, such as normal, deluxe, etc. Therefore, fans will buy all of the versions of the same album in order to collect the whole series. Most importantly, in some of the subcultures, the number of CDs that a person bought reflects his own loyalty to the idols. With the motivations to collect and to show off in front of their peers, Japanese fans are willing to spend a lot of money to buy physical albums.

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A Japanese fan purchased boxes of albums

The above are my own observations in the Japanese music industry. I think some of their operation models are pretty successful and can definitely create the incentives for consumers to buy physical albums. Do you all think other music industry can also adopt the above strategies in order to boost the sales of physical music?