Friday, 28 December, 2018 – 05:04
It’s more than four years since my son released his first album, “Stay.” And now, with “Lost and Found,” he’s back. “Stay” was good. “Lost and Found” is much, much better.
I’m amazed by the longevity of “Stay.” Recently, I was sitting in a bar, chatting to a lawyer who wanted to show me something on his phone. As he looked at his browsing history, at the top was a link to a youtube video. “That’s my son,” I said. He told me that he had only one CD in his car: James’ and when he wasn’t in the car, he played it on his phone.
I’ve had the same electrical supplier for years and when I walked into his shop recently, the accounts clerk said “Long Time No See.” I thought nothing of it until I was sitting in her boss’ van as we headed towards my flat with my purchases. His phone rang and his ring tone is “Long Time No See.”
A friend’s father is one of Malaysia’s big 1970s pop stars. These days, he plays odd pub gigs with my friend’s brother. “Who’s this “James” we keep being asked to cover,” the brother asked my friend. We sent him a selfie of her standing in front of a copy of the album.
Another friend, sitting in a café where there was live music phoned me: “listen,” she said. The band were playing one of James’ songs.
Rarely does a first album, maybe an only album, live on especially when the record company doesn’t support it.
But live on “Stay” does, long after he parted company with that record company. Tracks from the album have more than a million plays on YouTube. “Long Time No See” is a shade short of 4.5 million and that’s all generated by word of mouth from fans. The record company didn’t even issue a proper press release when the album was released.
James’ fan base comes from people that have found him. Without them, he’d just be another singer songwriter playing to an audience of one in his bedroom mirror. Ironically, they found him because of something the record company did right long before the first album was recorded: they entered him into Taiwanese TV talent show and then, when he tested well, into Chinese Idol, the mainland version of all those Pop Idol spin offs.
There he became a firm fan favourite. He would not win – he wasn’t eligible to win because, like all those programmes, the prize includes a recording contract and he already had one.
As planned, he left in fifth place.
But that caused uproar; he had an enormously vocal, increasingly international, support base who decided (rightly but they didn’t know the reason) that it was a fix.
Hurriedly, he was recalled for the final where he gave a farewell performance and was awarded a “People’s Choice” trophy that had not been part of the plan.
As the album approached release, the fractious relationship between James and H.I.M. records reached a peak. The album came out with a whimper and, to all intents and purposes was left to die.
There were a few half-hearted PR things around South East Asia but it was weeks before any of it appeared on e.g. YouTube by which time illegal recordings of James in gigs and on TV were building a steady buzz.
Copies of songs were starting to appear on Spotify, YouTube and many more. We even found a copy of one song on a Russian website. One CD shop I used to use (it’s closed now) told me they were getting many requests for the album but couldn’t get stocks.
The album would not die.
Radio play continued.
The fans kept posting messages of support on James’ social media.
It gained the dubious accolade of being illegally duplicated by organised crime gangs and sold in street markets alongside fake Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags.
James left Taipei and joined a company in Shanghai. Nothing ever got recorded there and James developed a separate career as an actor: for example, he’s one of the leads in the DBS Bank series “Sparks” which, again, has gathered a surprising following on YouTube.
He’s tested for several big films, including THAT one where he was a very close second (I’m glad: yes, he’d have been a global figure within three months but then he’d have had no time for music or the private life that had, until last week, remained private).
He’s one of the leads in an extended advert for Kate Tokyo where he speaks in Cantonese (and had four days to learn the script in a dialect he does not speak) and the company adopted one of the songs from the new album for the soundtrack.
That’s reached almost half a million views in two weeks. It’s an ADVERT! See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Zzkzf7GlwI .
One of the Sparks episodes is heading for a million views. Again, IT’S AN ADVERT.
A chance meeting resulted in an introduction to Cros Music, a small Taiwanese / Chinese independent label that has a tiny, close knit team.
Talent is paramount but being part of the team is a close second. It is an extraordinarily supportive environment while encouraging artistic freedom – and then harnessing it to keep the essence while gently smoothing the rough edges to turn the work of artisans into something the mainstream will recognise.
The end result of “Lost and Found” is James being James, sometimes with a background that encourages (he’ll hate this) AoR or MoR radio to pick it up.
And then there’s the stuff where there is a rawness that comes from a singer-songwriter doing his thing in the way he wants to do it. Some might see that as compromise and say there is no room for compromise in art.