By Jocelle Koh
Despite only meeting once in person, I’ve collaborated happily on many occasions with Dr. Chen-Yu Lin. After being invited to contribute a piece to Taiwan Insight during an edition on Taiwanese popular music she was heading up, it was immediately clear we shared many of the same goals, philosophies, and even musical tastes!
A notable academic within the popular music discipline, Lin has found a niche in researching pop music transnational markets, and how this topic extends itself to the Mandarin music industry. In layman’s terms, Chen-Yu researches the very topic we’re so passionate about here at Asian Pop Weekly – how to successfully bring Mandarin music to the world.
Other than being an Assistant Professor of International Business at National Taiwan University and a Research Fellow at Liverpool’s Institute of Popular Music, of late Lin has been working on a project that has piqued my interest greatly. Titled ‘Mapping our popular music @ Taipei‘, the project seeks to provoke deeper discussions on how various industry movers experience the diverse music scene. In essence, it gives value to how each individual experiences cultural spaces in such wildly different ways and creates contemporary snapshots of the Taipei music scene today.
We posed some burning questions to Chen-Yu about her project, which turned into an enlightening discussion centered on empowering these individual stories and unearthing different perspectives on what the contemporary Taiwanese music scene has to offer.
We’ve heard bits and bobs about your music mapping project over the last few months, and are excited to see it finally come to fruition! Can you share in layman’s terms what the project is about?
The pilot project ‘Mapping our popular music @Taipei (城市音樂地圖・台北)’ explores the ways urban spaces in Taipei are utilised by musicians and industry workers by inviting them to draw memory maps. At the same time, we interview them and film their processes. It investigates the micro-histories of people who make music and their relationships to the city. We are a team of three: with myself directing the project, Charlotte Sawyer, my long-time comrade in research filmmaking, who is from Liverpool herself and an experienced documentary filmmaker; and Cathy Cheng, who contributes significantly to the arts and media engagement of the project on Instagram. We have interviewed seven people, including myself— from Hip-hop artist, pop music producer, to music critic— and then produced seven videos of them sharing their stories. The methodologies were inspired by a project led by Professor Sara Cohen at the Institute of Popular Music at Liverpool, where I used to study and work.
I understand that the Taiwan version of the project was inspired by some writings and research on the topic previously done in Dublin and of course in Liverpool where you studied and taught. What is it that draws you to this topic of music mapping in particular?
I was fascinated the first time I learned about the Liverpool project. Two maps were being presented, one drawn by a rock musician, the other by a Hip-Hop artist. The two maps emphasise entirely different parts of Liverpool, and the Hip-hop artist described himself as living in a ‘bubble’ in his area. I am from Taipei and have always had interests to find out more about the city and the music here, so I thought to myself: why not do it in Taipei? In 2019, I luckily received a grant from the National Foundation of Arts and Culture, so I had the chance to realise the project.
Learning about other research projects being done before has genuinely motivated me to raise questions about the narratives of music maps, music heritage and legacies. It made me aware of how parameters such as music genres, age, and gender, influence the ways individuals engage with the urban environment around them. On top of this, I have been employing filmmaking as a key research method for years. This has been an excellent way to engage with the broader public outside of academia, so the project came to shape the way it is now.
In the context of Taiwan, why you think music mapping is so important?
I trust that the readers of APW might already be familiar with the vital roles Taiwan’s recording music industry has played in popular music transnationally. It has had a profound impact on the Sinophone world. To this date, it still provides diverse repertories, and I believe it has a lot to offer. In recent years, I am also aware of how the public sector, including central and local governments and authorities, have been supporting activities in popular music in different ways. One latest example is Taipei Music Centre finally will be open to the public in September 2020. With these mapped out landmarks, I think it is an excellent time for us to reflect on music heritage as a concept. We need to think about how such heritage was constituted, whose histories are written, and whose stories are told in the processes of heritagization. I think memory mapping is a fantastic way to present diverse and personal experiences of a city. It gives people in music a voice to share their own stories. Other than providing a map with the locations I think matter, I am a lot more interested in finding out the relevant spaces – and why – for the individual interviewees. Wherever we are, I think these are always important questions to be asked. Although this is just a small step, I hope the mapping project somehow contributes to the broader conversation.
I saw especially within the Dublin project that the findings from the mapping were also used to provide recommendations on how better to integrate the music scene into tourism and use of public spaces. Could you share some key findings from the Taiwan mapping project?
I am especially happy about the results, given that our videos have presented the different cultural lives and spaces in Taipei. Each of our interviewees has provided a very different view of the city. Indeed, some of the views are genre-specific. For instance, Li Li-chin (李俐錦) is a sheng player and composer who has been actively involved in many cross-over art projects. Furthermore, Charis Chua (蔡佳靈) is a pop musician who has multiple roles in the industry. For their work, they both travel internationally, but the locations and venues identified by them differ.
Across genres, I do find that the importance of home studio has been emphasised. A producer we interviewed, T-Pan (潘偉凡), has pointed out that much of his work is online. Thus, for him, other than a physical space, the virtual space online is perhaps even more significant.
When it comes to live-music venues—especially pop and rock musicians—many music venues mentioned by interviewees are based in South Taipei, namely Da-an District, Gu-ting and Gong-guan. Discussions about urbanisation and gentrification can undoubtedly be extended from here.
While the Dublin mapping project seemed like quite a literal map, for the Taiwan project, it was more of an abstract map created by each of the interviewees to demonstrate their perspectives. Why was this method chosen in particular to demonstrate the project aims?
The Dublin project was funded by Fáilte Ireland and St. Patricks College, Dublin, City University and led by two researchers I very much respect, Dr Áine Mangaoang and Dr John O’Flynn. Fáilte Ireland is the National Tourism Development Authority, hence its role, naturally, is to support the Irish tourism industry. One of the significant outputs of their work was the physical map which was distributed widely in tourist attractions. However, to produce this map, the researchers had included more than 500 primary sources, including hand-drawn maps, e-surveys and interviews. There was a mix of methods which allow popular music in Dublin to be understood from various perspectives— including those of citizens, tourists, musicians, and music industry workers. It was, indeed, ambitious and excellent research.
There are already a few different book or map projects completed to highlight the place of music in Taipei. For instance, the book 台北祕密音樂場所：有音樂，我就能在這城市生存 by 李明璁, and Taipei Music Map in Japanese, which was recently published by Taiwan Beats. Concerning my own work, what was different from these projects—and also the Dublin one—is that I wanted to focus on musicians’ perspectives and industry workers. I also wanted to conduct a more in-depth interview with each of them. Additionally, I have incorporated filmmaking as a way of engaging with interviewees. Furthermore, my videos can be seen as a form of dissemination. I am an academic who is also a filmmaker! I can’t stop combining the two.
Due to the island’s positive handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and while Taiwan’s music mapping may not be as affected as other countries,’ do you see any other potential changes to the industry as a result of the virus?
There has certainly been an impact on the live music sectors when many shows were cancelled, and international travels were limited. We also see a prevalence of live-streamed performances being staged, which has been a global trend. Although we are now able to enjoy live performances, the industry still faces the challenges as touring internationally is not an option. It is perhaps a bit too early to tell what fundamental and long-lasting changes will be. Still, the pandemic will, indeed, re-shape the industry in various ways.
While Taiwan is undoubtedly doing a gold star job at tackling the current situation, I am concerned that from a music industry perspective—and while other countries are exploring the possibilities of collaborating online and interacting with other creatives during this time—the Taiwanese scene might become even further insulated from these trends due to a live scene comeback. What do you think of these sentiments, and do you have any other insights on the topic?
The rest of the world is undoubtedly exploring different ways of monetising music performances online. It is also trying to create a sense of community while people are socially distancing. I think we definitely do have interesting projects here in Taiwan. This can be seen in the upcoming Cook the Vibe shows presented by KAO! Inc., which I certainly have my eye on now. It is never easy to get viewers to pay for content. Indeed, there are a lot of free videos they can watch on the Internet. I think the key is to always surprise the audience and to create unique value for the paid-for content. This can be achieved through real-time interactions with musicians or exclusive access to merch or extra content.
Constantly pioneering new perspectives around the Taiwanese music scene, Chen-Yu’s research gives the Taiwanese music industry and individual actors a voice and a seat at the table; whilst also bridging the gaps between industry, academia, and music lovers. A skilful mediator of cultural differences in her varying projects, Lin is an important ally in Taiwan’s campaign to reach international audiences. We very much look forward to seeing the different ways in which she’ll continue to raise Taiwanese music’s profile in the future!