If you’re a budding musician, and you ask Brian Wong, you should remain an indie singer and refuse to sign with an artist management company. Wong, 26, signed a contract with Royal International in 2015, putting an end to three years as an independent musician. It was a choice he made that has, he said, brought him new opportunities – but at a cost.
Like many Hongkongers, Wong took up piano lessons when he was very young, and he remembers disliking it.
“I only made it up to Grade 7,” he laughed. “I ditched my Grade 8 exam because I didn’t practise for it.
“It was boring. I dropped [piano practice] when I started middle school.”
It wasn’t, in fact, until he listened to an album by Hong Kong American singer-songwriter Justin Lo, did he find a renewed interest in the instrument.
“I listened to it over and over again,” he recalled. “I would sing all the songs and play them all on my piano.”
After completing his HKCEEs (and receiving less than stellar grades), Wong decided to move to a school that was more creatively focused than academically, where his passion for music steadily grew.
“I met a lot of music lovers there,” he said. “We would get together and play every day. That’s when I really fell in love with music.”
At university, Wong studied Digital Music and Media at the Hong Kong Design Institute and, upon graduating, used the knowledge he had gained from his three years of studying to produce his debut album, My Lullaby.
After that, he continued to produce his own music for his YouTube channel, and made a living by penning pieces for TV adverts. He made good money – but it wasn’t what he wanted to do.
“It wasn’t my music,” he said. “My clients already knew what they wanted, and they just needed a musician to make their vision a reality. I had very little input into what was created – five per cent, at most.
“I made a lot of money out of that,” he added. “More than what I make now after signing.”
Two years ago, Wong signed with Royal International.
“There are a lot of limitations,” Wong said, though he acknowledged he has access to resources he previously didn’t. Becoming a signed artist means not having to organise anything on your own any more (a great thing if you find booking venues, or hiring an entourage, tiring and stressful).
Still, giving up his status as an indie singer means he’s no longer the master of his own destiny, and he’s had to learn how to balance what he wants to do with what the company wants him to do. There are some jobs Wong’s had to turn down, for example, because they go against the company’s wishes.
There are other negatives too – the budget for a Canto-pop star in Hong Kong, in comparison to that of a K-pop singer in South Korea, is much lower.
“In Korea, singers become successful because they’re completely produced from start to finish, from the way they look, the way they sing, to the way they’re promoted,” he said, before contrasting it with what it’s like in Hong Kong. “Say you want to have an amazing poster made to promote your music. You can’t, because the company will have put a lot of money already into producing your album.”
That’s why music students who want to turn singing and performing into a career have to think carefully about whether they should sign anything, and whether they want to sacrifice creative control for access to resources.
There are definitely some very good reasons to why signing with an artist management company is a good thing, Wong said. Not having to worry about how to promote yourself, for one thing, and not having to think about the logistics of holding a concert for another.
“Everything is arranged for you, but,” he added, “If you want to be able to do what you want, and when you want it ... stick to being an independent musician.” His final piece of advice for all wannabe singers? Head to YouTube – where Wong himself started out. Do that first and, no matter where you go or what you decide from there, enjoy the time you spend living by your own rules.