Starving and Struggling: Hong Kong musicians close to bowing out

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Months of protests followed by the COVID-19 pandemic have found musicians without steady work for almost a year. Chris B, of record label and promoter The Underground, has conducted one of the only surveys into musicians’ livelihoods during this difficult period. 

A continuous ban on live music has made the starving musician trope a reality for even the most veteran performers in Hong Kong.

Live music was first banned from 3 April to 9 June due to COVID-19. However, just as work schedules started to fill back up, musicians once again found themselves stuck at home when the ban was reinstated on 15 July.

The total number of working days for musicians has been a mere 27 days over the last four months. Performers who had consistent working schedules suddenly found themselves in debt – some were even evicted.

In solidarity, The Underground, a recording label-cum-performance promoter of original music in Hong Kong, ran a one-week survey in late July studying the effects of COVID-19 on musicians.

“When this third wave came, I went back to my working musician friends and asked them how they’ve been doing,” said Chris B, founder of The Underground with over two decades of experience as a promoter, “One guy came back to me and said, ‘My friend’s being evicted – he’s got five kids!”

“I said right then and there that I’m going to run a survey. I’m going to find out who’s homeless, who’s being evicted!”

Between 28 July and 4 August, 646 musicians took part in the study.

The survey – which Chris describes as “hardcore” – took inspiration from studies by other struggling arts communities across Asia but dealt with franker issues such as homelessness.

Participants describe their “Current Feeling”.
Image courtesy of The Underground

The results show a grim reality for musicians in Hong Kong.

41 percent of musicians have seen an 81-100 percent drop in earnings since the pandemic broke out. Over 70 percent of musicians have now dug into their savings with 15 percent borrowing money as a result of unemployment. 4.6 percent of participants are facing eviction while 2.8 percent have become homeless.

“If I presented this to a government official saying we’ve got a hundred musicians looking for non-music jobs, I don’t think anyone feels anything emotional,” said Chris, “But if I turn around and say, ‘[T]his is how many people are now homeless,’ then we get something a bit more urgent.”

“We’re being told we fight this virus together with the government, but then the government stops our ability to work.”

Limited Supporting Acts

As part of the government’s ‘Anti-Epidemic Fund’, HK$150 Million was allocated to the Arts and Cultural sector in March. Funding for promoters such as Chris was capped at HK15,000 regardless of the original expenses of cancelled events – The Underground’s 16th Anniversary, which was rescheduled from 25 April to 27 June, had cost approximately HK$15,000. 

Nonetheless she and other promoters applied only to be met by bureaucracy.

“When they gave the money to the Arts Development Council we thought, ‘Hooray!’…but as it turns out, promoters can only get funding if your event was taking place in a government venue.”

As the majority of live music performances take place in bars or independent performance venues, the funds did not reach the pockets of struggling businesses.

The past year has been riddled with lack of support for the sector, and Hong Kong has already seen a number of long-running venues close, including Hidden Agenda: This Town Needs (TTN) in Kwun Tong which shut down in February. Earlier in the year, The Aftermath Bar, a popular musical and visual arts venue, had to be saved by crowdfunding. Chris believes that in order to support musicians, the government also has to support venues – and that many venues might not survive August without intervention.

Image courtesy of The Underground

Individual musicians also found it hard to get funding as they needed to have been working in a government venue. Eligibility for a one-off HK$7500 grant for self-employed workers was later announced in April under the Employment Support Scheme (ESS) but a new hurdle came in the form of needing a valid Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) account. This requirement excluded musicians over the legal retirement age of 65 at which point MPF accounts automatically stop. Musicians who previously held a full-time job but have since become freelancers also found themselves denied funding as their MPF accounts were often not registered under ‘self-employed’ status.

“Compared to businesses which get HK$9000 per employee per month, it feels like self-employed freelance people were really thrown under the bus,” said Chris.

According to RTHK, in June over half of all self-employed applicants were rejected “due to ineligibility”.

Shattering the Musical Myth

Aside from showcasing the difficulties of being working musicians in Hong Kong, findings from The Underground’s survey on questions about nationality and working status shattered long-held assumptions about Hong Kong’s musical scene, particularly that most musicians, especially non-Chinese performers, are transient or hobbyists that perform for fun.

The veteran promoter described herself as “shocked” when her own study found that over 60 percent of participants were full-time musicians with no other income. Over 85 percent of participants relied on music either as a full or part time career with 82 percent having performed for over five years.

Nonetheless, in a city which was until recent years described as a ‘cultural desert’, stereotypical ideas remain entrenched.

A screenshot of a recent advertisement from Taikoo Place for PROJECT AFTER 6, a live music performance program aimed at traditional 9-5 workers with an interest in performance, was shared on The Underground’s Facebook Page. It contradictorily called for “professional working musicians” to audition for a “unique opportunity to perform…outside the workplace” and drew ire from some professional musicians within the group, one of who described the ad’s wording as “corporate nonsense from a company loyal to the government and looking for a handout.”

Advertisement screenshot from Taikoo Place. The original ad is no longer running.

Another shattered fallacy was the finding that the majority of Hong Kong’s musicians were not transient. According to results, 93 percent of participating musicians are Hong Kong Permanent residents.

While this study is unlikely to solve the deep-seated plight of musicians in Hong Kong where arts and culture get limited funding, Chris hopes that the results will start a conversation on a higher level.

“If we don’t tell people about [the problems musicians face], they don’t know, they just go on with their fallacies or myths about it. They’ll think, ‘They’re probably just hobbyists, let’s not worry about them, let’s worry about the real people.’ But these are real people.’”

Disclaimer: The author of this article is also a writer for The Underground.

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