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#WYNTK (what you need to know): The rise of Taiwan indie music

This could well be the new mainstream.


Published: 16 Apr 2018

Time taken : >15mins

Chen Yuneng's original Chinese-language piece was translated by Hong Xinyi 

In March and April of 2014, a 20-day protest erupted in Taiwan. Objecting to the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement made between then-ruling party Kuomintang (KMT) and the People's Republic of China, tens of thousands of young students and other members of the public staged sit-ins outside the Legislative Yuan.

As tensions rose between the citizens, police and the government, a song began to play, piercing the night sky. The emotions it expressed were powerful, yet gentle; the following year, it even won Best Song at the state-organised Golden Melody Awards while the KMT were still in power, triumphing over popular singers including Jacky Cheung and Jolin Tsai.

The song was Island’s Sunrise by Taiwanese indie band Fire EX.. It’s a song with its own Wikipedia entry, one that could not have been created by mainstream artists, and which solidified Fire EX.’s reputation as a band of the people.

Taiwan’s indie music phenomenon isn’t just about social impact. With multiple platforms for downloading and streaming music now available, the sales of physical albums have been declining. In their heyday during the 1990s, Chinese artists had Asian album sales that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Today, most mainstream artists, including the biggest stars, sometimes move just a few thousand units of their work.

However, amidst this bleak landscape, an intriguing trend has emerged. Eschewing commercial predictability for alternative experimentation, indie singer-songwriters and bands haven’t just been winning critical acclaim for their unique musical stylings. They also often achieve sales figures that are double, even triple, that of their mainstream peers.

How did this indie music scene begin?

The first seeds were planted in Taiwan’s music industry close to 40 years ago. 1982 was a very important year for Chinese popular music. With lyrics expressing social critiques and even an injection of reggae beats, Lo Ta-yu’s Pedantry broke away from the period’s prevailing taste for folk music, kicking off a new era of stylistic diversity for Chinese music. This wasn’t exactly the start of the Chinese indie movement, but it did lay a foundation that would eventually make this movement possible.

The real beginning came in 1986, when Ren Chiang-ta took over Crystal Records and started bringing in indie and underground from Europe and the United States. The following year, he launched Rocker magazine to introduce underground music, and then staged four consecutive editions of the Taipei New Music Festival, which became a launching pad for non-mainstream artists. Under the auspices of Crystal Records, the likes of Wu Bai, Summer Lei, Chen Ming-Chang, Blacklist Studio and Sissey Chao created the era’s most significant alternative music.

In the 1990s, Crystal Records ran into financial difficulties, which limited its development. But it had greatly influenced other record labels in Taiwan, and the spirit of indie music was not extinguished. For example, Friendly Dog and Magic Stone are not considered indie music labels, but both record companies nurtured many artists who are key figures in the indie music movement.

Sandee Chan and Ze' Hwang, who have both performed at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, started their careers at Friendly Dog, while Cheer Chen and Lee Yu-Huan were from Magic Stone. Chan’s first album Washington Chopped Down the Cherry Tree featured alternative lyrics, melodies, and themes. In Hwang’s 15 Seconds Etude, she omitted verses in favour of repeating a four-line chorus. Lee’s Techno Love was a work of avant-garde electronica. All this music displayed the deep influence of indie music’s thought processes and essence, despite not being released by indie labels.

As these examples demonstrate, the inherent nature of indie music is not defined by the label, but rather by the artist’s singular point of view and how he or she expresses this through the production process. So a better definition of indie music might be music that cleaves closely to pure creative expression, rather than cater to mainstream tastes. In any case, indie music was not a widely used term during the 1980s and 90s. The artist who popularised this term from the year 2000 onwards was Chen.

Hipster icons Cheer Chen and Sodagreen

Now known as a hipster icon, Chen’s first three albums—Think Twice, Lonely Without You and Groupies—were produced under Magic Stone and Rock Records. In 2003, she struck out on her own, independently producing three singles—Sentimental Kills, Travel with Sound, and After 17. She took care of all aspects of production, even looking for printing presses. For many music-lovers, this do-it-yourself model of autonomy formed their first impression of indie music.

Subsequently, Sodagreen signed on with Willlin Music Studio. The band’s self-titled debut album did well in 2005, as did their follow-up Little Universe a year later. Their Little Love Song was very successful, proving that indie music could retain an individualistic style and still find an audience. Artists who didn’t strain for the commercial model of KTV-friendly music and big-budget publicity campaigns started to attract more public interest.

Taiwan’s indie music scene began to flourish. As the audience for indie music grew, artists such as anpu, Crowd Lu, Waa Wei, Hello Nico, and No Party for Cao Dong emerged, as did indie music labels such as Team Ear Music, Wonder Music, Black Market Music Production, and A Good Day Records. In addition to the Golden Melody Awards, the Taiwanese government also launched the Golden Indie Music Awards in 2010 to celebrate original compositions in diverse genres, including electronica, jazz and rock. So it could be said that indie music helped to breathe life into the possibility of a more multifaceted Chinese music industry.

Streaming may be denting the sales of mainstream albums, but many loyal indie music fans are still willing to buy albums from their favourite artists. This phenomenon has galvanised international record labels, which have started to change their management strategies. Many now work with singer-songwriters and bands in ways that allow the artists to retain autonomy over the creative process and product, while the record companies handle distribution and publicity.

Taiwan's indie influence overseas

We also see the influence of Taiwan’s indie music on Singapore. In February 2008, Bevlyn Khoo independently released her Lonely Afternoon EP. The next year, at the Singapore Entertainment Awards organised by Singapore Press Holdings’ Chinese media outlets, she won the Best Independent Album award. More homegrown indie singer-songwriters such as The Freshman, Ling Kai, Ruth Kueo released albums. More of their original compositions also penetrated the Taiwanese market. For instance, Celeste Syn’s Why was released in Taiwan in 2015, while Boon Hui Lu has been signed by Taiwan’s HIM International Music, and will soon be releasing a solo album.

Finally, when it comes to how Taiwanese indie music is making its mark on overseas audiences, we can look at Taiwan’s Calling Music Festival. Launched in Hong Kong in 2011, this event aims to introduce outstanding Taiwanese indie music artists to regional audiences. This June, Esplanade’s in::music and the Calling Music Festival will collaborate on a two-night concert featuring talented singer-songwriters and bands from Taiwan and Singapore.

Three names to check out in Taiwan indie music:

Fire EX.

The band released debut album Let’s Go in 2007, and now has four albums to their name. Their songs are mostly in Taiwanese Hokkien, and their style is grounded in punk rock. While the band takes its themes from contemporary life, it doesn’t tend to take a heavy-handed approach, instead choosing to move listeners through a blend of hard-edged and gentle creative choices. Iconic songs include Goodnight Formosa and Island’s Sunrise, both considered anthems for Taiwan’s social movements and both of which cemented the band’s status as a band of the people.

Waa Wei

She made her debut in 2003 as part of indie band Natural Q, and went solo four years later. Her style is constantly evolving, from the mystical inflections of her early years to an experimental phase that can be seen in her album Le Hérisson. Now, she has arrived at a signature style that is between mainstream and the fringe, and this coupled with her distinctive vocals have made her one of the most successful female singer-songwriters of recent years, with two solo concerts at the Taipei Arena under her belt.

Boon Hui Lu

One of the most promising new artists in Singapore, she started as a child star, and began playing the guitar and composing songs in university. By sharing her re-arranged covers online, she attracted millions of views and became known as the Cover Queen. Now living in Taipei, she is signed to HIM International Music, and her compositions Every Day is a Miracle and Your Body Speaks are featured in Hebe Tien’s albums. This is one creative talent to watch.

Some of Taiwan and Singapore’s best Chinese singer-songwriters and bands performed at Calling in::music on 9 & 10 June 2018 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio.

Contributed by:

Chen Yuneng

Chen Yuneng is the founder of the online music website Freshmusic, which has been running since 2006. He used to write under the pseudonym 老黄瓜 (old cucumber), and went on to write music reviews and articles on independent music in Singapore and abroad for the bilingual newspaper My Paper and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.


Hong Xinyi

English translation by Hong Xinyi.

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