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Burghers, dim sum, and... Chapter 7

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

One learned mainly through trial and error. Nothing was really explained. If fortunate enough to be given a job- and maybe even one with a title- unless a quick learner, it was some years before understanding what was expected of you and the role you were given.

Why were you given a particular title? Probably because it was there and there might have been some tenuous reason that you could fill it.

It took time before you figured this out for yourself and, to be perfectly honest, how many around you also knew what to do to make things happen in their respective roles?

This was very often the case in joining a music company. Sink or swim, but, most of all make the most of every opportunity that came your way. Most everything was virgin territory and you could be setting new rules.

These titles offered sounded good, but what exactly were you meant to do in order to receive that pay check at the end of the month or a 2-3 year contract?

Frankly, it’s a question I find myself asking of many around me today, especially during these days where there’s more of what one cannot do than is able to do.

It’s also thinking of how you and others reached where we are today. We must

have had our wits about us to figure out our strengths and then fine-tuned these into actual skills.

Having said this, I really doubt most knew shit about what they were doing.

Everything was a learning experience and much depended on how much effort you wanted to put into anything.

It’s not unlike like the character of “Don Draper” in the brilliant “Mad Men” series about the early days of what became the advertising business.

Once “Don Draper” saw an opportunity, he absorbed everything going on around him and was street smart enough to talk himself into wherever he wanted to go and others couldn’t. He was a brilliant salesman.

Isn’t this what we still are today? Salesmen? Some are better than others.

Call it the gift of the gab and that lucky old sun, but it really was making things up as you went along, or being hired because someone might have been hoping that you could help navigate a career path for them. It’s good to be needed, but never good to be used.

It’s something I often think about when going back to those decades when in the music business, especially those early years when the Asia region was still an afterthought.

We understood the roles of the bean counters sent over from head office and those around these bean counters. But what about those like some of us with the sexy new titles and the entertainment allowances to match? Weren’t we mainly the sons and a few daughters of “Don Draper”?

What the hell was “marketing”, anyway, and who knew the difference between marketing, advertising and promotions?

This same beat still goes on today where the blind lead the blind because that’s how it’s always been though these days there’s clutter to overcomplicate things and offer more time for incompetence to be rewarded.

Often this clutter is “social media” and where almost everyone is a “social media expert”.

Ask why there’s a need for a product to be on Facebook or Instagram or any of these online platforms and one can hear tap dancing louder than Jose Greco on a tabletop. No one really knows. One makes it up and everyone is seemingly too busy doing not much of anything to come up with answers.

When first joining a music company, there was the big office and a secretary who was given the title of Personal Assistant.

Other than listening to the latest records that crossed your desk and basically playing “juke box jury”, there wasn’t a helluva lot to do. Maybe this is why there was The Long Lunch? We were quietly trying to figure things out. Sometimes we did.

It came down to seeing what was missing and having the answer to own and sell this, and parlay it into something bigger.

Again, it comes down to “Don Draper” being able to think quickly on his feet and having the supreme confidence in being able to sell himself and whatever it took that would make him successful.

Of course, these small successes would lead to opportunities to make you score some legitimate home runs.

There are then always those who are smart enough to somehow be associated with these home runs. They became enablers and shoeshine people and have always had a role to play.

Knowing how this region worked is what made Norman Cheng and I such a good tag team in the music companies where they needed whatever it is that we had.

Norman was probably Hong Kong’s best guitarist when with Teddy Robin and The Playboys, the leading amateur pop group.

From here, he learned to be a recording studio engineer and producer before rapidly moving up the corporate ladder and transforming himself into an urbane Chinese businessman and music executive. He looked the part and played the part.

The Chinese artists he signed respected him as he came from a music background whereas those in Head Office knew they now had someone who understood how the Asia region worked.

Having been a correspondent for Billboard, the world’s only music trade publication, and seen by some as the person who “created” the Norman Cheng “brand” and marketed this just as I did any consumer good in my full time job in advertising, moving into the music business was the logical next career move.

From here, we became whoever others wanted us to be.

Though there were the old schoolers who resented change as no one had questioned them before, It didn’t take long to dismiss and overtake them and be high flyers at a time when Asia, and especially the Japanese music market, was starting to take off.

Also, India might have had the glamour of Bollywood and numbers and billionaires, but the golden carrot to dangle at global marketing conferences was the China music market.

China was always the sleeping giant that was about to wake up.

I don’t think either Norman nor myself thought about just how useful we two Asians could be to global companies like Universal Music and EMI Music. But once the penny dropped, we realised our combined and individual strengths.

At the end of the day, Asians only trusted other Asians. This was especially true of the big Chinese music artists.

Being Chinese- and business savvy- Norman made this work for him. I learned from him and added my own recipes into the mix. It worked for us and broadened our horizons and opportunities.

While he, for example, was entertaining his British horse racing buddies at the private club Aspinall’s in London, I was more interested to be with some of the very nice female artists who had passed through Hong Kong.

It was nothing to get hung up about. It was five star fun and where one was never short of interesting company and corporate networking on a global scale.

This lifestyle stayed with us when, for example, flying down to Melbourne for their Spring Carnival of racing. It’s a world into which I dived headfirst- the punt-followed by winning, but more losing, and then the constant chasing to win back those losses. It was stupid and reckless and an expensive lesson.

Having horse racing’s serial enablers around didn’t help. They were bogans, bums and bloodsuckers though I didn’t know it at the time. It took about two years for me to kick the habit and get out of that self-made prison. It’s easy to do when the cupboard is completely bare.

Norman was a far more cautious racing man who owned horses in the States, the UK, a few inexpensive ones in Hong Kong and many in Macau. How successful he was as a horse owner or in betting is something I never knew. But being somehow involved in the game, gave him “face”. It added to the brand.

Away from horse racing, Norman knew I always had his back. I intuitively knew those who were not who they appeared to be. There were always a couple of Keyser Sozes in our midst- in Korea, Taiwan, India, China, Hong Kong.

Norman had many strengths, but being a great presenter to sell what needed to be sold in front of an international audience wasn’t one of them.

This is why every band needs a frontman and every business needs a pitchman.

Those presentations and tricks of the trade from the years in advertising came in handy though when selling to music executives I didn’t need any script.

There were some brilliant and experienced presenters like the great Bruce Lundvall, head of Blue Note, Jason Flom and a couple of others. They were hard acts to follow, but we had the China market on our side. We called it and they bought it.

Later, and after he had retired and the private equity fat boy had taken a jackhammer to EMI, through Norman, I met the quite wonderful Bhaskar Menon, the first Asian to run a major music company- Capitol Records and then EMI Music.

Bhaskar, who left this world a couple of years ago at a well lived 86 years, made the time to meet with me every time he passed through Hong Kong for the Indian Curry Buffet at the Conrad Hotel.

He was there when some of the greatest artists in the world were being signed up and was close friends with everyone from Nat King Cole and each member of the Beatles to Pink Floyd.

Those lunches with Bhaskar Menon were a crash course in the music business by understanding how it began.

To move forward, there’s a need to respect and learn from those days of future passed and people who were there.

We also had a strong portfolio of home runs. Artists from outside of the region who were either past their Use By dates or didn’t have a chance in hell of making it in their own markets had a new market: Asia. Plus we knew our A&R skills and how to create hits for this region. Not many can say that.

The Philippines, for instance, was always a good touring market for international nostalgia acts. We figured this out and pretty much milked it dry.

By this time, Taryn was at university in Brighton and Trina was consumed by her role as Director Of Marketing for the Amanresorts luxury group.

I was happy for her until feeling I was playing second fiddle to her career. But this could have been my insecurity. I was happy in the music business and could see how much further I could go as far as my career was concerned.

Other than a stalker who was in her midst at the start of university life and initially missing home, Taryn was settling into life in the UK. I had to deal with the fact that she was now more than dating.

She would return to Hong Kong for her holidays and everything seemed fine on the surface, but who really knows anything for sure.

The concept of being married changes from almost year to year. I had seen married friends living a lie- many still are- and I was analysing and internalising all this in relation to my own life.

Whenever these questions about our future as a married couple would sweep over me, I would think about the time when Trina contacted some mystery disease after one of her Aman trips into some gawd forsaken country.

Her temperature shot up, her skin started to shed and we gave her the last rites. It made me realise how much in love we were and how we always told each other how we were going to grow older together.

Taryn was around four years old at the time and I had to think about being a single father. I couldn’t see myself without Trina.

Thankfully, our family doctor- the wonderful Dr Bill Oram- cut short his holiday in New Zealand and returned to Hong Kong after hearing about Trina’s condition.

He had me change hospitals and move her records to Canossa Hospital. He took over and Trina started to recover. I still think of those days.

We might be divorced, but those things that matter always live with you. They are life lessons.

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