When Jan Curious strutted across the Clockenflap stage in 2012, his fey persona greeted by an adoring crowd on the West Kowloon waterfront, it was something local indie music had never seen. “Chochukmo were the first Hong Kong indie band to headline at West Kowloon, under lights, in front of the skyline, in front of thousands,” says local magazine editor Mark Tjhung. “This felt like a watershed set.”
It was Clockenflap’s fourth year and only its second at such a prominent venue on the harbourfront. At the time, Tjhung was writing about Hong Kong’s music scene for Time Out, and the sound of change was in the air. The city had long been known for Cantopop, but independent bands had always struggled in a place with few venues and not much grassroots support for music. Now a homegrown band was playing a stage just as spectacular as the one in Cantopop’s mecca, the Coliseum.
Tjhung began to keep an eye out for local talent at Clockenflap. In 2014, he caught math rock band GDJYB – it was an afternoon set with a thin crowd, but he still found it transfixing. “They’re now one of the best known groups in the indie scene,” he says, “but even at this early stage, they had a presence, distinctiveness and X-factor that made that set really memorable.” That same year, My Little Airport’s performance was another standout. “Under lights, umbrellas out, as Occupy Central continued across the harbour, the political messages of Ah-P and Nicole took on a whole new resonance.”
Clockenflap is an international music festival, but it has always had a strong focus on local music, too. This year is no exception. GDJYB are back, along with more than three dozen Hong Kong-based bands and DJs. GTB bring their sassy “Kong girl” pop to the stage on Friday, when Cantonese rap group The Low Mays also perform. The next day will see local DJ Cocoonics play a mix of 80s funk and traditional Chinese music, while on Sunday, fans can enjoy hypnotic electronic act Blood Wine or Honey and the catchy folk of Mukzi and the Island.
“For local musicians, it’s like their dream to play that festival,” says Kung Chi-shing, a local indie maven who runs the music programme at Freespace, along with the renowned Street Music Series. With a memorable outdoor setting and a diverse crowd made up of locals, expats, mainland Chinese and overseas tourists, Clockenflap gives local groups the chance to reach an entirely new audience. “If they got invited they feel they’ve reached a certain level of recognition,” says Kung.
Now that it has ten years under its belt, Clockenflap is no longer the ragtag upstart it once was. And it’s now possible to trace its impact on local music. “The scene has continued to evolve and that is exactly what needs to happen,” says music director Justin Sweeting, who founded the festival alongside Mike Hill and Jay Forster. “More acts are getting more experience both locally as well as overseas, and in doing so gain better understandings of both the challenges and requirements of being a career musician. We are really buoyed by the fact that there are more independent artists making more varied music across the musical spectrum, and that more and more are finding growing audiences.”
Hong Kong has always been a challenging place to make — and listen to — music. Soaring rents have made it commercially unviable to run a live music venue in the city’s commercial districts, and licensing restrictions have forced venues like Hidden Agenda and XXX Gallery out of more affordable industrial space. The high cost of living takes its toll on aspiring musicians, too.
“Most young people finish school, start working and they still have to live with their parents,” says Kung. “It’s hard for them to find time to practice. I see some really good bands but eventually they have to choose between their careers and their music. It’s hard for young people in this city to 100 percent commit to music. And if they don’t commit, everything is half-assed.”
And yet, despite the odds, people still try. Last year, some of the organisers of Hidden Agenda managed to find a fully-licensed, officially-sanctioned space in Yau Tong, which they christened TTN – short for This Town Needs Music. Since opening at the beginning of 2018, it has provided a rare medium-sized concert venue for local and international indie acts.
“Compared to 10 years ago, I’d say the indie music scene has completely transformed,” says Tjhung. “For one-off gigs, there are far more small- and medium-sized acts coming to Hong Kong, whereas a decade ago, you’d generally only see big headliners. There’s also a broader range of venues for local and international gigs, and generally, a much broader public awareness of indie music. Of course, it’s hard to say how much of that is attributable to Clockenflap – there’s a multitude of people and initiatives driving the indie scene forward. But Clockenflap has definitely had a significant impact.”
Sweeting is cautious about taking too much credit. “Clockenflap is just one piece of the overall puzzle,” he says. “Festivals are a very different, though complimentary, element to regular shows, and they play a highly important role in terms of the overall scene ecosystem.” His goal is for Clockenflap to give local bands a stage to reach new audiences, as well as international producers who visit the festival to scope out new talent.
It helps that, after years of tiptoeing around Hong Kong bureaucracy, which has always been sceptical of live music, Clockenflap finally has the support of major institutions like the Hong Kong Tourism Board. The trail blazed by Clockenflap is now being followed by other music festivals like Wow and Flutter, which focuses exclusively on local music. “I think Clockenflap has really helped to legitimise music festivals in Hong Kong on a broader level,” says Tjhung.
For all the local talent at this year’s Clockenflap, the headliners are still coming from overseas. This year’s big names include David Byrne, Interpol, Khalid and Amadou & Mariam. But Sweeting is optimistic they may one day be joined by a local act.
“I’ve always said that my happiest day with Clockenflap will be when we have a local independent band headline the main stage,” he says. “We’ll certainly do everything we can on our side to make that happen, though number one, there needs to be that breakthrough artist which we can book which resonates with the audience in such a way that they fully justify the position. Things are moving in the right direction.”
Clockenflap takes place from November 9 to 11, 2018, at the Central harbourfront. Click here for more information.