Life & Art
Indie music in Taiwan
Besides articulating the general pathos and anger of Taiwanese youth, indie is the preferred musical genre of many young political activists
By Brian Hioe
Indie bands have become surprisingly mainstream in Taiwan today. This, in many ways, has to do with political developments in Taiwanese society.
In particular, there was an increased focus on Taiwanese young people after the 2014 Sunflower Movement. In previous years, young people had been derided as a weak and soft “Strawberry Generation”, unable to make ends meet and subsisting off of “22K” salaries, unlike their boomer parents.
But the Sunflower Movement seemed to signify that young people had the ability to take charge of their future, that far from being weak, they were willing to take great political risks for their future. No longer were young people derided as incapable, but they came focused upon by Taiwanese society. This, in turn, also magnified focus on indie bands, indie being the preferred musical genre for young Taiwanese activists at the time.
Indie, in many ways, reflected the political orientation of the Sunflower Movement. Taiwanese young people listened to non-mainstream bands that tried to stick it out with their musical aesthetics, rather than give in to the mainstream and sell out. After all, the Sunflower Movement was a movement in protest of a free trade agreement that was to be signed with China, which the then-ruling Ma administration claimed would bring economic prosperity to Taiwan. There was perhaps a similarity in values.
Young people took the view that this would be to sell out Taiwan’s political freedoms to China, given that this was pushed for by the pro-unification KMT and there was concern about the self-censorship that would take place from allowing Chinese investment in Taiwan’s service sector industry. This is what led to the eruption of the Sunflower Movement in March 2014, as one of the largest youth-led protest movements in Taiwanese history, if not the largest.
It may be no surprise that President Tsai Ing-wen, who rode into power in the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement, signaled the significance of indie rock to this generation of Taiwanese young people herself. Indie rock band Fire EX, which provided the “theme song” of the Sunflower Movement, played Tsai's presidential inauguration for both her first and second terms. In many ways, Fire EX was taking over a role previously occupied by May Day, as a pro-Taiwan band that sang in Taiwanese Hokkien, though May Day eventually drifted towards Mandarin songs with wider success.
In particular, indie rock was seen as articulating the pathos and anger of Taiwanese young people, as reflected in protest as the Sunflower Movement. The band that was perhaps seen as best summing this up was No Party for Cao Dong, formed by a group of art students at the Taipei National University of the Arts. No Party for Cao Dong’s lyrics sing of economic disenfranchisement, hardship and lack of opportunity, rage, and disenchantment.
As a group that catapulted to fame after the Sunflower Movement, emerging in the movement’s wake, the band was seen as capturing the spirit of the era. As with many other indie artists, No Party for Cao Dong’s initial fame was Internet-driven, with a few songs uploaded to YouTube by the band becoming viral hits.
What No Party for Cao Dong encapsulated, then, was the rage of a generation. But also its pathos–and the poetry that was born of that pathos. This led No Party for Cao Dong to achieve mainstream recognition, with wins at the Golden Melody Awards in 2017 for Best Band and Best New Artist.
Since then, one has seen the universalisation of the indie aesthetic. This extends far beyond indie rock, but also with regards to hip hop, jazz, electronic music, and other musical stylings. One has witnessed the popularity of hip hop acts as Leo Wang, or DJ Didilong, the retro stylings of Sunset Rollercoaster, the surreal psychedelic rock of Amazing Group, electronic-influenced acts such as Indigenous singer-songwriter A-Bao, or jazz and RnB influenced 9m88. Although indie rock seems to be where Taiwanese indie music as a whole is most political, indie acts seem to broadly share an ethos of eschewing mainstream conventions.
Sometimes musical trends seem quite directly related to identity trends. For example, the rise of DJ Didilong in 2016 was around the time of Tsai’s first presidential victory and took place in a context in which a strong emphasis on Taiwanese identity may have been popular. DJ Didilong rose to fame after a music video, Taipei Didilong, became a viral hit. The visual language of the MV seemed drawn from the Taiwanese New Wave, as well as the film of Wong Kar-wai to some extent, but emphasising a strong visual “Taiwanese-ness.”
The rise of a DJ Didilong, as with No Party for Cao Dong and countless other acts, points to the significance of viral fame for indie artists. But some artists become famous not only because of their music, but because of their aesthetic or personal style, of which Didilong is a notable example. The rise of such figures is usually driven by social media, particularly Instagram.
Another comparable figure might be songstress 9m88, whose music is often jazzy, but combines a number of influences. 9m88 also rose from obscurity to superstardom through hit YouTube videos, as well as because of her unique personal style.
Either way, it still proves difficult for all but a few musicians to be able to survive entirely off of their music. Even members of a band as successful as Tizzy Bac, which has been active for over twenty years and is one of the major dominant presences in the indie scene, still consist primarily of members that work day jobs. There are few artists that reach the fame of 9m88, DJ Didilong, or No Party for Cao Dong.
The gap between superstardom and relative success within indie circles is still vast. Most bands do not survive more than a few years either, particularly with band dissolution sometimes driven by the fact that male members of the band need to do their mandatory military service.
Likewise, there remain relatively few indie venues or labels in Taiwan. Given the paucity of venues, it is not uncommon for a band to have played most major venues in Taiwan. However, a vast gulf still exists between playing sold-out shows at the Taipei Arena or at the largest of the indie venues, Legacy in Huashan and The Wall in Gongguan. Prospects are smaller outside of Taipei, with Taipei having long been the centre of Taiwan’s musical scene, and artists often needing to move to Taipei to pursue wider audiences.
Releases by a band that has not reached an established level of success may remain primarily self-released. This is aided by the fact that the internet and social media has removed many of the barriers that previously existed for release and distribution, seeing as one can distribute an album digitally and promote it on social media. Some bands, in fact, even design their own album artwork and make their own MVs themselves.
What comes next for Taiwan’s indie scene? Notably, the Tsai administration has sought to promote Taiwanese indie bands internationally through programmes such as Taiwanese Waves, which brings Taiwanese bands to the US. The international success of Sunset Rollercoaster is particularly notable, with international acclaim made easier by the fact that many of the band’s songs are sung in English.
At the same time, the fundamental dynamics of the scene may be harder to change. Clawing one’s way to fame, then finding ways to continually keep in the limelight and make it in one’s career is still easier said than done, and beyond the reach of all but the most successful acts. One does not expect this aspect of the indie scene to change anytime soon.
Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom