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My Main Stage Online

Chiu Tsang-hei

Not a Teacher to His Students But a “Friendtor”

Chiu Tsang-hei’s hashtag might look like it should be “boring”, with his trademark short black hair and geeky glasses perhaps colouring your impression of him. Initially, at least.

Yet, as the three “Share Music, Share Love” concerts of My Main Stage illustrate, there is much more to “Mentor Hei” than appearances, as the long-established music producer inspires his next-generation songwriters and performers to deepen their knowledge of the industry, more like an old friend (“friendtor”) than a teacher.

It’s fun too. A hit song such as Beauty and the Beast segues into Remember to Wear a Mask, making everyone laugh. It’s not only the youngsters who are enjoying themselves. Whenever Hei mentions his students, his voice takes on a warmer tone. Just watch the shared concerts, and see for yourself how enthralled he is when he listens to the performances...

Was it your dream to be a teacher?
Hei (immediately):
Hell no! I would hate that!

Hei’s emphatic response is so spontaneous that everyone listening to the interview laughs. He confesses that when the students call him teacher, it “gives him goosebumps all over”. “They don't make music for me. It’s not homework. It’s something they do for themselves.”

But back to the tale of the musical ties between a famous producer and small potatoes. How did it all begin?

A few years ago, feeling that his beloved local music industry was dying out, Hei decided to seek an alternative way forward. He established 16th Productions Limited in 2016 with a straightforward mission: to start a Hong Kong platform to nurture young people’s musical dreams.

He called the pilot project My Main Stage, and took the initiative to reach out to secondary schools, colleges, and universities to find young people interested in making music a career.

Hei fully understands the challenges of music production “because I’ve been there before”. He is also blunt about the increasing difficulties for music producers of this generation. “Nowadays, it takes more than being a singer-songwriter. You have to be a singer-songwriter-producer.”

Basically, it requires a would-be music professional to be a one-man/woman band, skilled in composition, arrangement, lyrics, production, recording, mixing, and more. “It’s hard,” he noted. “Extremely hard.”

Ongoing battle between old and new

The medium of music is always changing. Since the 1970s, it has gone from vinyl and cassette tape to the CD era at the peak of Hong Kong's record industry, then on to MP3 in the new millennium. The revolution in format, complicated by missed opportunities to establish a collaborative membership platform due to royalty disputes among record companies, and piracy and illegal downloads, gradually made most listeners take free music for granted.

While time and effort went into producing music, it took just a few seconds for users to upload it to the internet for free download. This was an obvious obstacle to making music a career – when not much of a living could be made out of it. But in the past decade, music streaming platforms have emerged, with paid streaming taking over from illegal downloads. Now Hei is optimistic that revenue-sharing can provide musicians with at least a minimum wage.

This is also the reason why he sees a future in training young singer-songwriter-producers. While the “pie” is small, at least there is no need to cut and divide it if you are a multi-skilled music-maker. And as careers are often prepared for on campus, before students move on to more conventional roles as doctors, lawyers, and other jobs, Hei seeks to show them that they can learn from scratch how to turn demos into releasable tracks, and start developing their own music channels to accumulate followers.

Music for its own sake first

Hei carefully plans everything for his students, but charges them nothing. “I’m not morally superior. I’m just conscious of the difficulties of making music.” He laughed, then added: “They are penniless anyway. What money can you make (from them)?”

What the producer is looking to do is to ignite the joy and generate the satisfaction of creating music, an element that may often go missing in commercial production. “I’m overjoyed to see their eyes lighting up – one can make music that way!” Indeed, all that exists between Hei and his students is a casual verbal agreement based on good will: no bill unless their works really become profitable hits.

Starting from visits to secondary schools and colleges, My Main Stage has now scaled up to accept all who are interested and passionate about music. While Hei turns down next to no one, meaning there are many applicants, a lot also withdraw as making music is “easier said than done,” he said.

He first asks a potential participant for a demo. Without a demo, it is obligatory to do the first exercise – a full cover of a favourite song. “Dropout rate is as high as 90%!” However, there are surprises as well. For example, Hei recently accepted a 12-year-old student. “I gave him the same exercise. He’s still working on it. Admirable! As long as you stick with it, I’m in,” he said.

Co-producer (Conventional Version) and Friendtor (Harmonious Version)

Hei currently has 30 to 40 students working in a variety of musical genres. As mentioned previously, the title of “teacher” is one he has yet to associate himself while “co-producer” seems a little too formal. In place of either, then, the warmer, more harmonious terms of “mentor” and “friendtor”.

Since students and friendtor generally lead busy lives, coaching time is limited. But Hei makes sure such time is put to good use. There is no curriculum, syllabus, timetable, or deadlines. Using a one-on-one mode of knowledge transfer, Hei gives suggestions and assigns topics according to individual capabilities and progress. As feedback flows back and forth, a work is propelled forward step by step towards the finished piece.

Take the five-member band, VIRT, to whom Hei only gives minimal guidance through such questions as: “Do you really prefer this?”. He adopts this approach in line with his belief that the young musicians already know what they want and just need a nudge to get there.

In another case, Hei has taught Rumbu bit by bit how to compose and arrange, what software to use, and what level of quality to attain before release. Three years have passed, and Rumbu's first song, Do You Understand?, is now ready to make its debut in My Main Stage.

Which story has affected Hei the most? A secondary school student with an “emo” rock style who joined in the early days. When they first met, the student handed in a work drenched in melancholy. “What the hell?” Hei thought, until he later realised that the student had had to quit school because of his inner turmoil.

A year later, the student had gone from knowing nothing about rap to singing his heart and soul out about “being on the verge of suicide while he was just a teenager”. After the performance, he had choked back his sobs, shocking everyone there. Hei was particularly touched. “After completing this song, he seemed to move on,” the friendtor said.

Recently, Hei heard from the student again and found him more cheerful than before.

Hey, doing good lately? Is the song ready? Want to release it?
He who cannot be named (carefree):
It’s done, but I’ve no intention to release it.

Hei laughed. The student is back in school, being the teenage boy he is supposed to be, while the producer patiently waits for the Song Which Cannot Be Named one day.

In the meantime, let’s listen to the original songs and music videos of the My Main Stage students. “I hope their enthusiasm will reach out to and resonate with others,” Hei said. Stay tuned.