Local vocals live on

Local vocals live on

An expert on Canto-pop culture about its place today

Canto-pop used to be a massive part of Hongkongers' lives. In the 1970s, our parents listened to Sam Hui's satirical songs about social issues. Then came Japanese fever in the '80s, with almost every Alan Tam and Leslie Cheung song taking J-pop melodies and rewriting the lyrics into Cantonese. In the '90s, the four heavenly kings - Andy Lau, Leon Lai, Aaron Kwok and Jacky Cheung - performed across Hong Kong.

But many say the local music industry has lost momentum.

Arguably, Hong Kong's Canto-pop culture still exists, with singers like Eason Chan and Joey Yung bringing out new albums every couple of months.

But "Alan Tam could sell 400,000 CDs," says Professor Anthony Fung Ying-him, of Chinese University. "Now singers are over the moon if they sell 4,000 to 5,000 copies."

"Sales have plunged, and many people worry that records will no longer sell," he adds.

With the rise of the internet, downloading - be it legal or illegal - has struck a blow to many big record labels over the past decade. But this doesn't mean that Canto-pop songs are not popular.

The pop culture expert's research shows that many people collect thousands of songs on their computers, perhaps explaining the decline in CD sales. "When did you ever see people buying thousands of CDs?" he asks.

Canto-pop culture may also appear to be suffering because TV and radio appearances of Canto-pop songs and stars have decreased.

In 2009, there was a dispute between TVB and a group of record labels. Many singers have since been banned from appearing on TVB.

Radio stations used to play a lot of music because it was the only way to attract an audience. Now, with music readily available on the internet, radio hosts use games and conversation to appeal to listeners.

But these factors do not spell the end of Canto-pop. Fung says that these days people are exposed to music all the time without even realising.

"See? This cafe is playing a Cantonese song [right now]," he says, talking to Young Post in a university cafe.

Fung actually believes, despite poor record sales, that Canto-pop is thriving. He calls this era the return of independent and band music: two or three decades ago, musicians couldn't produce a record unless they had the financial backing of a powerful record label. Now, they can post their songs online for people to download.

Venues have also changed. The Hong Kong Coliseum used to be the only large venue where a pop star could perform. Mainstream artists today have big, alternative venues, such as the AsiaWorld-Expo and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, while indie musicians can perform in places such as the former industrial building Hidden Agenda or the performance space BeatingHeart.

"Artists now do gigs as their main source of income," Fung says. "CDs are their promotional tool."

Whatever its current status, Fung believes Canto-pop should be preserved for the future. The government, he says, should do more to protect this essential part of Hong Kong's history.

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