How Elton Yau And Nicholas Cheung Are Making Waves In Hong Kong's Music Scene
If you’re not finely attuned to internet culture, you might not have heard of artists like Kero Kero Bonito, Phum Viphurit or Sunset Rollercoaster, young musicians who are defined by their online popularity and DIY approach. Nicholas Cheung and Elton Yau are boosting this new generation of performers by enabling them to perform for fans in Hong Kong.
The two—both lovers of hiphop—met in 2016 while watching A$AP Rocky perform at the annual Clockenflap Music and Arts Festival. They immediately bonded over their mutual admiration for the rapper’s set. But it was only in 2017, during a night out in Lan Kwai Fong, that Cheung, 29, and Yau, 27, decided to team up to bring their favourite acts to the city under the moniker Gluestick.
“We saw internet-viral rapper Rich Brian draw a huge crowd that night. We finally had validation that there was enough demand in Hong Kong for the type of music we enjoyed—from hip-hop to indie,” says Yau.
Gluestick specialises in identifying rising acts on the cusp of mainstream popularity who, despite large online followings on streaming platforms such as SoundCloud, may be too risky or niche a prospect for large-scale promoters to bring to Hong Kong to perform. It is proving a winning formula: Thai-New Zealand neosoul artist Viphurit, for example, counts 1 million streams per month on Spotify and sold out his first Gluestick gig in 2018.
Hong Kong’s live music industry operates on notoriously challenging margins, due to the costs involved in flying in artists and their equipment from overseas, as well as high rents that drive up venue hire costs. Both Yau and Cheung still have full-time jobs outside their start-up. By day, Yau works as a data analyst for Hypebeast, a men’s fashion website, while Cheung handles marketing for the Warner Music Group. Gluestick takes priority after work—sometimes into the small hours if a show is looming.
Cheung spent some of his childhood in Canada, where he discovered an affinity for hip-hop culture, but had trouble finding music he liked upon his return to Asia, aged 14. “There was no hip-hop on the radio then, and my friends here didn’t really listen to rap music, so I turned to the internet to learn more about it and I became obsessed. I loved how dark, unfiltered and sturdy rap sounded,” he says.
Yau, too, felt frustrated at how the musicians he liked never seemed to come to the city. “The music scene in Hong Kong has not deviated too much from when I was younger,” he says. “Karaoke culture is bigger than ever now. The city needs to catch up with neighbouring countries.” Yau’s first experience of the music industry came from his aunt, whose production company Elf Asia brings K-pop acts to Hong Kong. A young Yau would be recruited to carry equipment, sell merchandise or act as a bouncer during events.
Show Your Mettle
While international acts rush to book shows in more established markets like Japan, Hong Kong is not often on the list, and convincing performers to play here has been a struggle for Yau and Cheung. It took a year of negotiating to book their first artist, the Los Angeles-based R&B group Moonchild, whose Gluestick gig sold out.
“It’s a lot easier to secure acts nowadays compared to when we first started because we now have more shows under our belt and proof that we can sell out shows. Initially, we would have to fly to the US to meet whoever we could get hold of, because our cold calls and emails were getting ignored,” says Cheung. “I remember climbing fences at the [Californian hip-hop event] Day N Nite Fest in 2017 to give our name cards to artists,” he adds.
In less than three years, they have built a trusted network of agents and artists across North America, the UK and Asia. Their biggest success to date was booking US rapper Denzel Curry last year. After months of planning, the pair celebrated another sell-out show by getting stuck in with the crowd. “During the event, Nick and I actually joined the moshpit and briefly forgot we were running the show,” says Yau. “It was surreal for us to see all our hard work come to fruition like that.”
It is not all glitz, glamour and hanging out with celebrities, however. Organising a gig involves lots of work behind the scenes, from wrangling big egos, to tending to performers’ every need, which has so far included having to buy condoms, underwear, sports equipment and even sourcing rare flavours of the fermented drink kombucha to keep acts happy.
The dream is to throw a Coachella-sized festival in Asia
Gluestick previously relied on the independent music venue This Town Needs to stage its shows. However, the global pandemic forced the venue to close in January, after its owners announced the business could no longer keep up with the industrial space’s HK$320,000 monthly rent. Once international travel is reinstated, the biggest challenge for Gluestick will be finding spaces large enough for shows.
This year has been particularly challenging for promoters: in 2019, the duo organised the first Gluestick Fest, a music festival featuring local and international acts.
Plans for the 2020 edition were stymied by the virus, though rather than shelve the event entirely, organisers instead created a two-day digital event featuring artists streamed from across the world, with proceeds going to Covid-19 relief.
The widespread lockdown hasn’t diminished the scale of Gluestick’s aspirations, and they plan to resume live shows as soon as they are able. “We just ask ourselves: how can we use this experience to create something better? The dream is to throw a Coachella-sized festival in Asia,” says Cheung.
“Music is universal and I hope that one day all Asians will be able to make music culturally relevant and authentic to themselves in the same way they do it in the West.”
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