Keeping Taiwanese Pop Culture Alive
At a time when China is gaining dominance in Chinese-language pop culture, KKBox has chosen a new approach, launching cultural and entertainment platform “KKFarm” to give fledgling Taiwanese cultural and creative firms the chance to flourish.
Keeping Taiwanese Pop Culture AliveBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 624 )
“We have formally established a company to invest in cultural and creative endeavors, this is in fact nothing unusual. But we define the cultural and creative sector in a slightly different way than others. We see it as ‘cultural creation,’ aimed at creating new IPs and new content and driving what become new popular trends.”
Those were the words of Chris Lin (林冠羣), the generally media-shy CEO of Taiwan-based music streaming service KKBox, in an interview with CommonWealth Magazine for which he was joined by the four key people of the company’s new startup, KKFarm. Lin stressed that KKFarm will look at any proposal, from hundreds of thousands of Taiwan dollars and millions of Taiwan dollars to tens of millions of Taiwan dollars.
“We hope to turn Taipei into the London of the Chinese-speaking world,” he says.
The general economic and political environment has imposed massive challenges on Taiwan’s cultural and creative industries. In particular, the growing might and spending power of China’s cultural and entertainment sectors is quickly eroding the leading edge Taiwan once had in driving pop culture trends in Chinese-speaking communities.
KKFarm’s initial investment fund is NT$150 million, to be used for seed or angel investing. The approach differs from the typical venture capital model that pours tens of millions of Taiwan dollars or even more than NT$100 million into individual projects.
“We want to fill a gap in the market by investing smaller amounts with higher risk earlier in the development stages of cultural and creative teams,” Lin explains, adding that KKFarm will not imitate venture capital firms in demanding that they make back their investment in seven years.
“If a project makes money in the future, we might invest even more in it,” he says.
KKFarm’s main investment targets at present are startups involved in the music or video sectors, focusing particularly on music production, screenwriting, and curatorial startups. Beyond Taiwan, KKFarm also looks at projects in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Malaysia.
“China’s BAT has invested in so many young teams that Taiwan’s good talent is all being drawn to the mainland,”says KKFarm President Kai Huang (黃凱偉), referring to the influence of China’s three internet and content giants, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, or BAT.
“Everybody now watches Chinese drama series. If we don’t do this now, in five years everybody will be listening to [the Chinese song] ‘Little Apple’ and [the Chinese singer] Joker Xue,” warns Huang, who has been involved in mobile phone software development since 2000.
KKFarm is hoping that providing financing, big data analysis and other forms of support to young teams will help shorten their learning curve. The company’s investment committee consists of Lin, Huang, KKBox Chief Financial Officer Steve Wang (王獻堂), KKBox Vice President Terence Leong (梁永泰), and managing partners Joanna Huang (黃偉菁) and Pochang Wu (吳柏蒼) .
“These people have come together because they all enjoy making something out of nothing,” Lin says.
“In every industry, there are very few true stars. What we want to do is uncover the nugget of gold from a large pile of sand,” says Joanna Huang, a music business veteran who helped develop the careers of singers Jacky Cheung (張學友) and A-Mei Chang (張惠妹) and served as president for China and Taiwan of Chinese entertainment company Gold Typhoon Group.
Going from zero to one, she says, is extremely difficult because creative growth takes time.
One asset young Taiwanese may have, she says, is their ability to think independently because of having grown up in a democratic environment.
“They don’t necessarily take whatever you say as being right. They will find their own approaches. They might not care about the market and want instead to insist on their ideals and leave their marks,” Joanna Huang says, citing the example of Taiwanese indie band Sodagreen, which was formed in 2001 and is now on what it called a three-year break.
Huang compared the special glimmer of gold when it shines to the “incomparable beauty” described in one of Sodagreen’s songs. “When that happens, its world view and values end up going mainstream,” says Huang, who now hopes to use the influence she gained while working in China to help Taiwanese groups carve out bigger markets for themselves.
Helping Small Players Flourish
Taiwan’s diverse cultural environment, from its niches, segmentation and subcultures to the mainstream, continues to be seen as a good foundation for developing cultural and creative endeavors.
As the frontman of the band Echo and former communications director for indie music platform Street Voice, Pochang Wu is a veteran of Taiwan’s indie music scene. He contends that it is highly unlikely for another megastar or megaband like May Day to become ingrained in the “collective memory” of the ethnic-Chinese world in the internet era.
“But we still have many different types of cultural expression and give rise to different kinds of lifestyles that have a high degree of cohesion. If these can continue to grow, they will spur a highly representative cultural environment featuring many styles and genres,” he says.
Wu sees the budding of these different niches as the key to Taiwan’s cultural prosperity.
Singaporean Terence Leong, who worked at Sony Music Entertainment as A&R (artist & repertoire) director, agrees drawing attention in the internet age depends on whether an individual or cultural product can be differentiated from others. “Wanting to have an independent culture produce a big star or band seems a bit contradictory,” he says.
“More and more young people are self-contained units that can record, write and arrange songs,” says Leong, describing himself as a product of the “pre-YouTube” era. If cultural and entertainment businesses want to grab hold of young consumers, Leong says, they have to communicate using the language and thought process of people of that generation.
“That’s my problem, not the problem of young people. We really have to understand them better and learn more about them,” he says.
To Chris Lin, who has invested in many new businesses and faced failure on several occasions, KKFarm is just a starting point.
“When I look at startup talent, I don’t just look at their expertise. I also put a lot of stock in whether they are candid and whether they can face up to past failures,” Lin says.
He describes himself as someone who continues to make stupid decisions to this day but understands that entrepreneurship is a trial and error process.
“We are the kindergarten students of the investment world and want to learn from everybody,” Lin says.
KKFarm may embrace high risk and unclear profit streams, but it will not be one of Lin’s “stupid” decisions because it is providing a platform to carry on Taiwan’s pop culture heritage that the country’s cultural and creative sectors desperately need.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier