This is Part 2 of 2. If you haven't already, we recommend you read Part 1 first.
GigGuide: Legacy also hosts The Next Big Thing, giving spotlight to up-and-coming bands. Which current young groups stand out to you and why?
Arthur: The Next Big Thing is another series we've been doing. The best bands on StreetVoice are awarded the opportunity to play. We subjectively choose a couple of great bands and hold a concert once a month. A big name band like MATZKA won't be on the list, instead the band might never have played on stages, or usually plays at Riverside or Underworld. Because we think we're more professional than other places, regarding our PA, etc, we hope they could play at a venue with a higher standard than other places from the very beginning. By doing so, they (the bands) will ask the same standard when they're playing at other live houses, and they'll also become more mature.
Most of the bands we choose are those that people have never heard of, and we attract our audience with a very low price, NT$200 for 4 bands, including one free drink if you bought an advanced ticket. This is to attract students. As well, we also invite some good music producers, record companies, reporters, and other media to let them see the development of new bands in Taiwan nowadays.
We've also discovered many bands we couldn't find if we didn't do this series, like Flesh Juicer from Taichung. I like them very much, but they rarely play in Taipei so we have few chances to invite them. Or Doodle. They're all very new bands. I'm always looking forward to these concerts since I'm always getting surprises from those bands I've never seen before. Of course, some bands you might feel great about when you're listening online yet the live show's awful. It has happened, but you have to give it a shot. Yeah, maybe they've never done a live show before, and you don't know what their strength is.
I think the pressure of sales here (at Legacy) is very heavy - expensive rent and a large capacity - so I have to hold many mainstream shows to cover this series. The Next Big Thing will definitely keep going, I'm sure. We call it “earn big shows to feed small shows," like holding two shows of Tiger Huang, which would definitely sell out. I can hold ten The Next Big Thing concerts by these two mainstream shows. This is how we do it so far.
GigGuide: Years back, you were filming music videos for Chairman and We Save Strawberries, then got into the promotion business, booking bands for the Ho Hai Yan and Simple Life festivals - you've witnessed lots changes in the local music scene from a variety of vantage points. How do you see the Taiwanese music scene today? What makes you feel positive? What concerns you?
Arthur: In terms of indie bands, I think indie bands in this generation are very lucky. First of all, there are lots of opportunities to develop. Although the musical industry has been declining and the number of people who buy CDs are fewer than before, the gap between indie and mainstream has shrunk.
For example, Jay Chou may occupy first place on the billboard and probably could sell fifty thousands discs; the leaders before, like 陳淑華 and 江蕙 , they sold eighty thousand or a even a million discs. Meanwhile, LTK might sell only two thousand; eighty thousand vs. two thousand. Now, Jay Chou could sell fifty thousand, and LTK could still sell two thousand, but the difference is less than before.
Let's talk about the mid-level artists, like Tanya Tsai or Faith Yang. They could hold a celebration party with ten or twenty thousand albums sold, but Tizzy Bac could sell ten thousand over time, and the distance between indie and mainstream has lessened. This is a chance for indie bands. And the government has been substantially helping indie bands recently. Maybe they still don't know how to nurture or raise bands, but at least they did one thing right. They give money to let some bands have the chance of recording and publishing their own work, about twenty thousand per band each year. Apart from the recording subsidy, there's also an opportunity to help them play abroad, such as making alliances with Summer Sonic, FujiRock, Modern Sky and Strawberry Festival. That is, they invite our bands to play at their festival and vice versa. It's a great chance for the present indie bands because there were no chances like this before. They used to fight alone.
This is all an aspect of marketing, but in terms of musicianship, I think that's still the area that needs improvement. The genre of indie music in Taiwan has become more varied these past ten or twenty years. That is, we can have the same contemporary styles as foreign countries have, unlike thirty years ago when we had mostly hard rock or heavy metal. Now there's everything you could imagine. Basically, the music scene is getting international and synchronized, but I think regarding the quality of music, the present indie bands have three big problems.
First of all, indie bands in Taiwan generally lack good skills, or strictly speaking, a professional vocalist! Besides some aboriginal bands whose singers may have been born with good voices, it seems that bands have some trouble in finding a voice to fit for their own style. That's kinda different from twenty years ago when the most popular genre was metal. There were great vocalists in most of the popular bands to attract an audience. But now it seems that people still think rock 'n' roll is just screaming, with no professional vocals. Of course, there are still some exceptions, like the vocalists of Tizzy Bac and 88 Balaz. I think both of them fit their own music very well.
Second, the lyrics are still moaning and groaning. This is the biggest problem in my opinion. That is, people pay too much attention to the melody, genre, and caring that the music can't be too popular, and yet ignore the meaning in lyrics. I know what I say might make you feel uncomfortable, compare all the people writing songs with being Chinese, or like (the differences between) China and Taiwan. There might exist certain differences; that might be because of the cultural level (文化水平) and the environment we've grown up within (生長環境). This is what I've noticed so far.
And last but not least, I think the present bands pay too much attention on the development of their own music than to (developing) their audience/fans. It doesn't sound that important because there's not much connection with music, but the situation would became sort of an indulgence in self-admiration. In another words, by writing songs for yourselves, you may have been playing for decades but your audience is still small. That happens very often.
Running a band - we still use the word “running” - to run a band long-term, you still need some commercial thinking, although that’d be nothing related to music. I think that a band needs time. Maybe there were not so many resources twenty years ago - everybody did things under the same conditions - but now there are more resources. So, we can think about and spend more time on it. Maybe 80% for music, and for the other 20% you should focus on one thing - on how to make your fan base grow and let more people hear you. That's not a bad thing.
GigGuide: I've been guilty of bugging you in the past, saying things like, "Oh, so-and-so should play Taipei!" as though it is simply a matter of writing a nice email to a band. But what is that process really like?
Arthur: The problem is, the big-name bands abroad are not (always) the big-name bands for Taiwan. That's very different. It's rather rare that we bring foreign artists to Taiwan without any risks. First, unless you have enough funds, you do not necessarily have lots of choices. There's still a gap between foreign countries and Taiwan. Take the Cranberries, for example. They're probably the safest option that promoters in Taiwan would choose. In another words, finding artists who are not so famous anymore abroad but still popular in Taiwan. So, assume that a promoter brings the Cranberries to Taiwan for say, US$100,000, and if they could sell approximately ten thousand tickets, that's a big profit. That's why they came again in April after a very short period. Maybe there are not one hundred thousand people who would see them, like in LA or NY. If you're bringing a hit band, like The Strokes, maybe you spend US$250,000 but only sell less than two thousands tickets in Taiwan. I think this is a cultural difference.
Of course, we all have many bands we want to invite, but we just need to find a balance. This is an art and I think there's an organization doing it very well - The Wall. I think they've done a very good job. They're always finding some great, but not top artists which many people like in Taiwan, like Kings of Convenience, who are popular both abroad and also in Taiwan. I think they're very good at these kind of things and we're still observing and learning. Actually, many bands we've brought often made us lose money, so we think The Wall is very exact. They know how to choose and promote shows without losing face, and even could make some money. What I would say is that they've run for a decade and researched this market thoroughly; they've raised lots of talent who've grown up with them. Legacy Taipei doesn't have talent like that so far. We're still learning right now.
GigGuide: May I ask about pricing? The tickets for most international touring bands are well over $1000nt, not only at Legacy but throughout Taiwan - that can be a lot of money, especially for an avid fan who hopes to see lots of these shows. But has it been an issue? Can fans expect prices to go down, up, or stay about the same? What factors go into setting a price?
Arthur: Compared to some countries near Taiwan, like Hong Kong or Japan, the ticket prices of foreign artists' concerts in Taiwan are cheap; but compared to China, we're still sort of expensive. Especially in high season (July), there are probably over ten concerts in a month, and it's quite difficult to ask a student to spend all their money on concerts in a single month.
Some promoters have their own concerns about why they can't lower the prices. Assume that they have done their math and it turns out three thousand tickets could mean they break even, and that they must then set the price as NT$2,000. They won't think about the other concerts happening at the same time. All they think is, "My concert is going to attract the biggest audience. Definitely."
Only an artist of Radiohead's status can demand the highest price. They (Radiohead) do stipulate that the price can't be more than US$130 per ticket; that's why their tickets are that price: NT$4000 for Section A and NT$2500 for Section B. But this case is very uncommon. As far as I know, Radiohead's concert could break even (considering other expenses like plane tickets and hotel, etc.) with 16,000 tickets sold. So there are few promoters who would like to do things like that.
They're going to hold this concert at Taipei World Trade Center Nangang Exhibition Hall with a capacity of 18,000, so that's very risky. They could only profit from the sales between 16,000 to 18,000 tickets. So these big risks are the reason why they don't want to hold concerts with low prices. They'll calculate an average price and estimate the size of the audience and then decide an average price, instead of thinking that a lower price brings more people. They won't.
Another factor that I think would lower prices is a strengthening NT. I think promoters would react to this on the prices. The prices of tickets might be 10% less by July. NT$2,000 might become NT$1,800. Say, for example, I pay NT$ 6,000,000 to an artist but if I paid next year, the NT might be stronger and I may only have to pay them NT$5,500,000. That is a direct reflection.
Apart from this situation, I have no idea what can make promoters in Taiwan set a low price. Even for concerts at The Wall, the price is around NT$ 1,600 per ticket. So far, all they think about is the price that those core fans could accept. Only if we don't have much confidence about a show will we lower the price.
Like Marky Ramone in April, very few teenagers know him. Because our boss likes Marky Ramone very much, we were not thinking about making money on this show, and we acknowledged it would definitely lose money. So, we lowered the price to make more people come. We set the early bird price at only NT$1,000.
In fact, it could cost you the same amount to see a some local bands nowadays. A Sodagreen show might be NT$1,000 per ticket. Aside from this kind of situation (with Marky Ramone), I feel the same way: promoters will not lower the prices easily. Because there are still not enough people seeing concerts in Taiwan, the size of an audience isn't enough (to make a profit, as opposed to higher prices).
GigGuide: Looking into the future, what are you excited about for Legacy? What are your hopes?
Arthur: You know, I am a rocker, so of course I hope that Legacy Taipei could have more shows that our staff all like. For now, the reason we can’t do that is because we still have to cover expenses to make Legacy Taipei run sustainably. Also, we have many shareholders and we need to be responsible to them. But in order to help the rock scene improve, we could schedule more good musicians to play.
Additionally, we’re thinking about opening another branch. I think there should be three good live houses, each in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. We did consider a Taichung location, but since there will be a new live house there with the same capacity as Legacy Taipei, we’re not going to open another one in Taichung.
Now we want to find a place where there are still no live houses. We think the best location is Hong Kong. We've been to Hong Kong several times recently to scout locations. In fact, people in Hong Kong do have the habit of seeing concerts; the concert culture is very popular, though there's still no real live house. Maybe there's Hidden Agenda, but the way they do it is too indie. We prefer to use our 'Legacy Mode' to turn "seeing live music" into a thing which isn't so underground. Also, there are many local bands in Hong Kong with few chances to play. I know that Hidden Agenda doesn't have a regular schedule.
So, we hope to open a live house like Legacy Taipei in Hong Kong to offer the local bands more opportunities to play. We don't exclude China either, the south especially. There are some good live houses in Beijing and Shanghai, but few in the south, like Shenzhen and Guangzhou. We've been there a couple of times. We hope to make Legacy Taipei like a chain store. For example, if we plan a show, we could arrange one in Taipei, one in Hong Kong, and also one in Guangzhou. By doing that, we could not only create more chances to have artists visit, but also lower our costs, at least on the plane tickets. This is our long-term goal.
Arthur Chen interview Part 1