Music documentary to shine spotlight on the south

Back in January 2009 I attended a screening of the documentary “Voices from the South: Kaohsiung’s Independent Music Scene” at The Wall in Taipei. The documentary, directed by Don Quan, was about the indie music scene in Kaohsiung. The film followed the fortunes five Kaohsiung bands and four of these bands (KoOk, Orange Doll (橘娃娃), Shy Kick Apple (害羞踢蘋果) and Fire Ex (滅火器)) also performed at The Wall following the documentary screening which made it a unique experience.

Four years have now passed since Don Quan made the original documentary and he is now planning a follow up titled “Dig The New Breed: Voices From The South Part II.” I contacted Don by e-mail to ask him some questions about his new documentary project and the current state of the indie music scene in Kaohsiung.

Don is also the owner of the Mercury, a bar and live music venue in Kaohsiung. I asked him how the fallout from the Ala Pub fire in Taichung in March 2011 had affected Kaohsiung venues. “About a week after that incident, the fire marshals showed up at Mercury to do a thorough check to make sure the venue was up to code (it was/is). However one venue, The Living Room, was forced to close down because they could not afford to install necessary equipment to get their premises up to safety standards. The owner, Ya-Bao, had a very public battle with government officials (it was in all the newspapers) trying to save his venue, but to no avail.” Don also notes that, “In the four years since Voices from the South, three venues have closed up shop.”

Music festivals are the other major outlet that provide an opportunity for bands to perform. Spring Scream is Taiwan’s longest running festival and the biggest festival in the south of Taiwan. Don says, “Major festivals here are an excellent way for bands to get exposure. Spring Scream is good for younger, newer bands who may not be that well-known. In addition, just playing at such an event is good experience, and can boost bands’ self-confidence. Many of the better-known indie bands cut their teeth playing the Scream every year.”

The other major festival in the south of Taiwan is Mega Port. “Mega Port used to just feature the more well-known of the indie crop, but this year, they added a free stage which was used to feature new up-and-coming bands. I think events like these can do much as far as inspiring future musicians. They will see the thousands of people in attendance and think ‘Yeah, maybe that could be me on that stage playing to all these people,'” Don said.

“Voices from the South” (Part I) focused on five Kaohsiung bands. Three of these are no longer in existence. Part II will have updates on what happened to the bands in the first documentary. It will also focus more on the entire scene, looking at the history and development of indie music in Kaohsiung. Don plans to look at “the main players behind the scenes, the music shops that foster these bands’ development, and the new venues that currently provide a stage for the bands.”

Don notes that the scene in Kaohsiung went through a period of stasis before a recent resurgence. “The emergence of new bands was almost non-existent, but suddenly in early 2011, several new groups just sorta popped up out of nowhere. Moreover, everywhere I go now, I see kids with guitar bags strapped to their backs alongside their school bags.”

However, a lack of suitable venues is holding back the development of new bands. “I think there’s no shortage of interest in playing in a band, but resources are lacking, particularly venues. With the loss of ATT and Living Room, students now don’t have a place to hold their mini-festivals where like 10 to 20 young bands will get together for a day and play for their friends and peers. It’s probably the biggest thing missing from the scene right now,” Don wrote.

Another difficulty faced by bands in Taiwan is the lack of support from the media. Don noted how the internet had made it easier for bands to promote themselves, “but in the western world, college radio has always been an important launching point for bands. Sadly, college radio doesn’t exist in Taiwan, so bands have to find other ways. I think even if each and every commercial radio station dedicated just one or two hours a week to featuring Taiwan Indie, that could go a long way in bringing indie into the general consciousness.”

The other problem is geographical. “Venues for indie bands are few and far between, when you look at it from a per capita perspective. If you want to ‘tour’, you can play four cities, and that’s it,” Don wrote.

However, this may be changing for the better. “I think college music clubs are slowly changing this by actively promoting indie bands on their campuses all over the island. In 2010, I got a request from a campus group in Hualian for a copy of my film. They had some little festival on their campus and I believe brought in Fire Ex and some other bands to play,” Don wrote.

Part one of “Voices from the South” was screened around Taiwan. However, Don plans to reach out beyond Taiwan with the next documentary. “The new film is being made because I want to bring this scene to a global audience. With the GIO sending bands to Canada and the US (SXSW, CMJ, Canadian Music Week, etc.), I think the time is right to go international with this,” Don wrote.

Don mentioned that Exclaim! magazine from Canada is helping out with the project and can help to promote the film in Canada. I earlier reported on how a team from Exclaim! were impressed by Taiwan on their 2010 visit.

Don is seeking to raise US$5,000 to cover the costs of the project via the crowdfunding website Indiegogo. Please dig into your pockets to contribute if you can afford it. You can also check the Voices from the South blog for updates on the project.