The economics of rockstardom
Hong Kong’s humorist on why most people could have millions of dollars sitting at home – and not even know it
An accountant finds 500 promotional copies of an early song by rock icon David Bowie in a junk room. What does he do?
He throws them in the rubbish bin.
The year was 1970, and that music industry accountant, Laurence Myers, had no way of knowing that a single copy of that disc would be sold for thousands of dollars in the future. “Who knew?” he says, shaking his head at the memory.
I know the feeling. My wife keeps my daughter’s every scribble in case she becomes a famous artist one day, despite the fact that she changes career choice on a weekly basis and hasn’t touched a paintbrush for seven years.
Still, it MIGHT happen. So I did identify with the stories in a book Myers has written about the unpredictable shifts in fortunes in that business.
The book is called Hunky Dory (Who Knew?) because he keeps looking back on all the priceless memorabilia (useless junk) he threw away and saying to himself: “Who knew?”
Back in the 1970s, the accountant told his clients that people who chose precarious careers had to think about important long-term financial matters such as pensions. “Pensions?!” the young Mick Jagger replied. “After all Laurence, I’m not going to be singing rock ‘n’ roll when I’m 60!” (For the record, Mick Jagger is now 76, and still singing rock songs.)
But Myers revealed that rock stars do go through periods of insecurity – and Jagger at one state asked for advice on shifting to other careers, such as selling insurance. I, for one, think he would have been a good petrol station manager. (Jumping Jack Flash, I got Gas Gas Gas.)
In the early 1970s, a “single” (a disc with one song on each side) sold for six shillings and eight pence in the United Kingdom, and the equivalent in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The profit was 14 pennies. Of those, the English rock band the Beatles would get one penny – to share between the four of them.
Even when they sold enough singles to make a fortune, 19 shillings out of 20 went to the exchequer. Which is why one of the Beatles’ songs is called “Taxman” and the lyrics go: “There’s one for you, 19 for me.”
Things improved for British pop bands in the following years.
A Hong Kong music industry friend told me that things had gone in the opposite direction here. Rock stars used to earn a lot, but their earnings shrank every decade.
When Sam Hui pretty much invented Canto-pop in the 1970s, he was the only game in town – but there were soon many earning big bucks, from Anita Mui in the 1980s to the Four Heavenly Kings in the 1990s, and to Nicholas Tse, the classic good-looking “bad boy” singer in 2000.
Then came disaster, as sales crashed. Problems were evident in 2008 when the Hong Kong branch of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry said that the requirement for a platinum album would be dropped from 50,000 “estimated” sales to 30,000.
In recent years, income dropped below starvation rates. Hong Kong musician Wallace Kwok told the South China Morning Post in 2016: “We have seen too many independent musicians who had to make a living by teaching piano because they could not break even.”
Others adapted in different ways. Nicholas Tse is now back on TV screens, but has lost his bad boy image: he’s now a wholesome TV chef.
And that’s the challenge. Accountants are not magicians who can predict the future (except maybe for the top people in the Big Four). Neither are financial journalists.
The best we can do is make educated guesses. My wife thinks my daughter’s childhood art could be worth millions one day. Readers: you can get in early by having a piece for just HK$100,000. Or HK$10,000? Or HK$1,000?
Or maybe I’ll pay you HK$500 a month for a small space in which I can store them.
Finally I see you nod.
Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices