Live Music vs Covid-19: How Hong Kong Talents are Faring

Story by Alvin Lam and Antonia Tang

From bushfires, Black Lives Matter, political events in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Belarus, to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has had its fair share of events that turned the world upside down. So much happened that Oxford Languages refused to follow the tradition of choosing a single word of the year, opting for a group of words to encapsulate the eventful year of 2020.

Pilots, who have been viewed as having well-paying, stable, and prestigious jobs, now face mass layoffs, with those remaining in the industry looking at “bleak” prospects in the near future, according to Skrine. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, had to shut down its subsidiary Cathay Dragon that operated regional routes, and cut a quarter of its normal headcount.

Screenshot of The Underground’s survey

Those who work freelance, like many musicians, are facing a similar fate. According to a survey of 646 conducted by The Underground, a live music events organizer in Hong Kong, the majority of musicians are using their savings and looking for non-music jobs to deal with their loss of income due to COVID-19. The same survey found that 4.6% were being evicted, and a further 2.8% have become homeless.

This loss of income can be attributed to the repeated closures and live performance bans in pubs and bars, where musicians typically perform to an audience. In these venues, they could only perform on 49 of the 250 days between April 3 and December 9. 

Lung Siu Kwan described that her band, Carrier, did not experience a decrease in live in-person shows — they had zero.

Lighting and audio stage rental company Show Bros faced a 80-90% drop of income from live shows, citing their largest source of income, being speaker rentals, becoming redundant due to the lack of audiences.

No performances of any kind can be held with a live audience until December 23, 2020, but that too may be extended depending on the virus situation in Hong Kong

The typical musician’s income derives mainly from performing live shows, and through the sales of recordings. That includes streaming, digital downloads, physical sales, and synchronisation revenues (licensing and royalties of music for other commercial usages).

Credit: PwC, World Economic Forum

As long as the social gathering ban is on, musicians’s earnings from live performances easily drops to nearly zero, and halves the overall revenue of the entire industry. Not only does the cutting of live shows affect revenue from live performances, it affects record streams as well. This is because live shows and tours are an important promotion platform for distribution sales. Because of this, countless musicians have delayed their music releases when COVID hit the entire world.

Clearly, musicians are in dire need of outside help, to mitigate the hits they suffered due to Covid-19 restrictions.

In Hong Kong, a one-off subsidy of $7,500, which was later supplemented by an additional $5,000 subsidy, was offered to “individual arts practitioners”, under the “Support Scheme for Ars & Cultural Sector” by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC). Musicians, however, found it difficult to get access to this funding as it required them to have been affected by work cancellations in select LCSD performing arts venues and “legitimate art venues” such as Tai Kwun and Youth Square, but did not include the venues they most commonly performed at.

Application form for Category D beneficiaries – Individual arts practitioners with work cancelled due to the epidemic

In the end, less than 3,500 “individual arts practitioners” received this subsidy.

Promoters such as The Underground and Zuk Studio faced the same situation, being ineligible for the $15,000 subsidy under the “Arts and Culture Sector Subsidy Scheme” also by the HKADC. This scheme was allocated $150 million under the Anti-epidemic Fund to assist the arts and culture sector to tackle the difficulties arising from the COVID-19 epidemic, according to a spokesperson for the Home Affairs Bureau.

Chris B from The Underground previously criticised the arrangements, comparing the lack of actual support received by full-time musicians to the $9,000 subsidy per employee granted to businesses to help retain employees earlier this year.

In an attempt to make up for their losses, some have taken their performances online.

Zuk Studio, a music events organiser, took performances online through their “TONE Online Music Festival”, which had two iterations. Each iteration premiered an array of pre-recorded recordings made especially for this festival on Facebook and Youtube. The first experienced an unexpected success, garnering more than four thousand total streams. The second, however, fell short of financial targets, with ticket sales falling short of their $500,000 goal by around $100,000.

Having had their concert postponed til 2021, Carrier have since participated in and have organised live streamed performances. They are maintaining a positive attitude and keep on looking for the silver lining. The band’s drummer, Ah Po, said he was happy to have had the opportunity to organise online shows.

“Facing the social gathering ban, we feel helpless, but have to accept the fact that we cannot go live for now. But we believe we can overcome the obstacles.” said Kwan.

“Even if the earth stops, we should not stop.” said Ah Po.

“Let’s think it this way, we now have more time to sharpen or pick up new skills.” said Ah Fa.

“We have to adapt to a constant uncertainty, and rescheduling from time to time.” said Ah Mann.

As a full time musician, Kwan was appreciative of how the pandemic gave her a break, and gave her room to reflect on past work and improve her songwriting chops.

Guitarist Fa, on the other hand, felt that rearranging his schedule to accommodate his son’s study from home arrangements was quite tiring.

For Mann, the band’s bassist, living in the new normal made him appreciate how quickly Hongkongers could react and adapt to changes. As a music teacher in addition to being a performer, the changing schooling arrangements greatly affects his and his colleagues’s schedules. He saw how they didn’t dwell over the setback, actively testing out the possibility of teaching via zoom, and how people in different sectors were trying their very best to overcome challenges as well.

For this seven year old band, it’s far too late to give up now. According to Mann, music is an art that requires a lot of money to create, but the resulting income from music alone may not be enough to live off of. But this is a compromise they have to settle for to do something they are truly passionate about. This view is shared by Wah, the manager of Zuk Studio, who had to change his day job from managing the studio and curating shows to being a construction worker since the start of Covid-19, but said he would persevere for his passion.

Performers and music event organisers alike do not think that online shows are sustainable, despite their new-found popularity.

Overall, Carrier prefers live shows even though online shows allows them to reach out to a wider variety of audiences. As performers, they hope to form a bond and interact with their audience, which is best done in person. Though the audience can give reactions and feedback through typing comments on online streaming platforms, the band thinks that facial expressions and other instantaneous reactions are more accurate and sincere. Ah Mann pointed out that the emojis given by the audience via such online platforms may not reflect how they really felt about the performance, which could create misunderstandings. Ah Fa also mentioned how the lack of applause during online shows makes it hard for them to feel recognised for their hard work, saying, ‘Without this(applause and cheering), it feels empty when we finish a show.”

Albert Yu, manager of music promotion platform Music HotPot, observed that people in Hong Kong hold the notion that music is free, and thinks it would be very difficult to use online shows to generate profits sustainably. The dozens of online shows he had hosted were mainly used for promoting bands and his platform, rather than for earning money.

For those in the music industry, being able to go back to in-person live shows will always be the ultimate goal. In the near future, even when live performances are allowed, performers, organisers, and technicians face a plethora of challenges. Restrictions may be loosened, but social distancing rules will still have to be adhered to in this new normal, which greatly increases the cost of organising a live show.

David Chan, partner of Show Bros. Photo/ Alvin Lam

David Chan from Show Bros recalled his experience providing backstage support for a live show following social distancing rules earlier this year. They were tasked with arranging and setting up the audio system for the concert, which was held in Southorn Basketball Court. Normally, the audio projection area would only cover the arena for an audience of 700. But that wasn’t possible for them with the rules in place, with both performers and audiences members required to adhere to a 1.5 metre distancing. This lead to a far wider stage and larger audio coverage, and they ended up having to cover both the arena and the grandstand. Many more speakers and much longer cables had to be used in order for the audience to hear the performance, resulting in far higher costs. Because audience sizes are forced to be low, while operational costs increase significantly, the cost of hosting an in-person show during the times of Covid-19 is much more expensive than usual, which will inevitably be reflected on the ticket price.

Apart from practical issues, organisers hosting socially distant shows face obstacles from the government as well. Sunday Jazz at the Art Park, a series of outdoor performances at West Kowloon started to support Hong Kong musicians affected by Covid-19 restrictions, kickstarted on 27 September. Performances were held on subsequent weekends and a handful of other select dates until it had to be stopped less than a month later. Some criticizsed the cessation, citing the crowdedness of the Art Park regardless of the presence of live performances, as well as in other public areas.

Amid this reluctance to “re-open” Hong Kong, the city’s musicians may have to wait until widespread vaccination, which are seen by many governments as the solution to Covid-19.

The very first Covid-19 vaccinations started taking place on December 9 in the United Kingdom, but an article published on Lancet Microbe highlights how these vaccines will likely only “reduce severe illness and death” and possibly reduce some spread, but is unlikely to prevent “nearly all person-to-person spread”. It also mentions how Covid-19 mitigation measures will be required to continue for a few years at the very least. In Hong Kong, however, the chances of the city using the same Pfizer vaccine within the first quarter of 2021 are slim, according to Ho Pak-leung, an infectious diseases expert from The University of Hong Kong. Until then, much is up in the air regarding when “normality” can return.

UPDATE DECEMBER 11, 2020: Carrie Lam announced that the government has made advance purchase deals with Beijing biopharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech and Pfizer for 15 million vaccines, with half coming from each company. The former will deliver one million vaccines in January, and the latter will deliver the same amount, but arrive in the first quarter at the earliest. Medical staff, the elderly, chronic disease patients and nursing home caregivers will be given priority, with no expected date for when the whole of Hong Kong can be vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Wah will “hoard his ammunition” for use on a latter, more appropriate date, where the audience can once again enjoy in-person shows without having to worry about their safety. Ah Po remains optimistic about the future of Hong Kong music, saying it can only go up from here.

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