Whatever happened to my Rock n Roll?

By Sean Campbell   December 18, 2016 | 09:40 am PT
Whatever happened to my Rock n Roll?
Local progressive punk band James and the Van Der Beeks playing at Cargo in Ho Chi Minh City's District 4. Photo courtesy of Lee Starnes.
Saigon’s only decent indoor live music venue's been shut, so has one in Hanoi. 

A dilapidated warehouse in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 4 currently keeps motorbikes dry for a weekend flea market. Wooden pallets still cling to its walls and abandoned couches block off most of the entryways.

At the far end of the building, you can almost make out the ghosts of an audience of hundreds writhing to the furious chorus of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Whatever happened to my Rock n Roll?”

This parking lot was Cargo Bar.

“There’s a huge void in the music scene since Cargo closed,” said Damian Kilroy, the brains behind music promoters Loud Minority. Three years ago, Kilroy, who earns his living teaching, teamed up with Rod Quinton to begin bringing overseas acts to Saigon.

Quinton and his company, Saigon Sound System, had secured a lease with the municipal port authority to transform an abandoned warehouse into a concert venue they dubbed Cargo.

For the duration of its existence, it would provide the only venue big enough to draw touring bands to this steamy corner of Southeast Asia.

The high water mark

Kilroy and Quinton dreamed of offering shows that would draw local and foreign crowds. They went some way to fulfilling their vision in June 2015 when Viet-American alt-rockers Thao and the Get Down Stay Down filled the cavernous converted warehouse with young, hip locals.

It felt like Saigon’s music scene was on the cusp of exploding.

San Francisco-based Black Rebel Motorcycle Club played here along with big acts like The Vaccines, The Cribs, Jagwar Ma and Little Barrie. Irishmen And So I Watch You From Afar almost blew the roof off with their brand of screeching alt-rock.

This is where acclaimed hip-hop artist Oddisee showcased his album The Good Fight. It was right here that thousands of fans thought, for just a day, they would witness electronic legends The Prodigy.

Con-man and convicted puppy abuser Vince Chin briefly convinced the world that he would bring the act to Saigon, only to disappear with the money after the contracts were signed.

Cargo survived the scam, but was swallowed months later: yet another victim of the race for real estate in Vietnam.

Mourners took solace in one final, emotional night of music at the end of May, when a coterie of locally-based acts took to the stage and didn’t back down until the early hours of Monday morning.

Make no mistake, Cargo went down swinging.

Quinton doesn’t know for sure what the property will become, but he’s not happy they can no longer use the space.

“Am I disappointed that absolutely nothing has happened to Cargo since we got kicked out in April? Yes, I am very disappointed,” he wrote in an email. “We could have still been there today (under our valid lease) and it would have had zero impact to date on their plans. I guess you can't stand in the way of progress.”

Bwani Junction performing live at Cargo Bar in Ho Chi Minh City on November 10, 2012. Photo by Hoang Anh Tuan/CC BY-ND 2.0

Bwani Junction performing live at Cargo Bar in Ho Chi Minh City on November 10, 2012. Photo by Hoang Anh Tuan/CC BY-ND 2.0

Where do we go from here?

Saigon’s music scene isn’t dead by any stretch of the imagination.

We still have a number of outdoor venues; the recent "Saigonella" and "Escape" festivals were testament to this, while larger EDM shows are drawing big name sponsors.

“But,” says Quinton, “to get them to spend on building something new is not at all easy.”

Saigon now lacks a viable indoor venue capable of drawing big talent.

Bangkok recently hosted Morrissey and Damien Rice played Singapore, but Saigon was never in play.

“There is no indoor space that can host 300-1,000 capacity shows and cater to international artists, which is frustrating as we have more and more artists wanting to come here,” said Kiroy. “It's heartbreaking to have to turn away some amazing acts because we don't have a venue to host them.”

“I know Rod has looked for other spaces but getting somewhere fairly central, of any decent size, is now very expensive and the numbers generated by a live music venue just don't stack up against the costs.”

The biggest challenge

Quinton warned that real estate vultures and strict regulations on public gatherings aren’t music’s biggest enemies -- we are.

“The biggest problem here is getting people to come to shows and pay for tickets,” he wrote. “For the local punters there are many issues such as a lack of exposure to the international artist scene, a lack of familiarity with live gigs and economic difficulties that make it hard for them to afford to buy a ticket. On the expat side of things there is this bizarre sense of entitlement shown by many. They will look you in the eye and tell you that ticket prices should be cheaper because it’s Vietnam. Of course that is counter-intuitive as the artists still charge the same fees and transportation costs can be much higher getting them here.”

Quinton admits, however, that a better job could have been done from a promotional standpoint.

“We have to shoulder some of the blame for not marketing these events better, but never underestimate the apathy of the people either,” he said.

Quinton’ssentiments are shared 2,000 kilometres north in Hanoi, by Giles Cooper, the man behind the recently closed CAMA ATK music venue, which in Cooper’s own words had been “At the coalface of ‘smaller indie gigs’” for five years.

CAMA lobbied the U.S. State Department to bring Thao & the Get Down Stay Down to Hanoi for the outdoor ASEAN Pride Music Festival last year.

Cooper didn’t point to any boogeyman for his early closure, only an expired lease, not to be renewed, due in no small part to apathy.

“There are many [challenges] but the single biggest one is probably being able to motivate Hanoians to get out and make it viable to host international talent (and by that I mean pay money),” he said. “This has to be on a regular basis and not just the odd occasion when a name they recognise comes through town.”

Therein lies the rub: A music scene is not just created, it is grown and nurtured. We, the customers, are every bit as responsible for it as the promoters. Sure, the demise of the international music scene can still be blamed to some extent on big business and excessive red tape, but we aren’t without fault ourselves.

So… whatever happened to our Rock n Roll? Maybe we did.

A gig at CAMA ATK in Hanoi on May 8, 2010. Photo by haithanh/CC BY 2.0

A gig at CAMA ATK in Hanoi on May 8, 2010. Photo by haithanh/CC BY 2.0

Shoots of hope?

Even without a venue to call home, CAMA, Saigon Sound System and Loud Minority have not given up hope. Kilroy and Quinton flew to Hanoi last month to attend a number of meetings.

“We’re working with some clever people and hope we can make something stick soon,” he wrote.

Cooper says Hanoi’s young scenesters have made business easier.

“There's more general awareness of live music venues and a broader acceptance among locals of paying to see talent,” he said. “There's also a bigger and more diverse local music scene than ever before.”

Certain parts of the capital can now officially stay open until 2 a.m. and enforcement has relaxed in other areas, he noted.

The same could be said of Saigon, where bands like James and the Van Der Beeks are building a loyal following.

Quality live music, ranging from Hip-Hop to Funk n’ Soul, is now a regular fixture at the likes of small venues like Piu Piu and La Fenetre Soleil.

But it doesn’t look as though we’ll be visited by big name bands any time soon.

“There's still not enough people willing to put their money where their mouth is in terms of taking the upfront risk on bringing international talent to town,” said Cooper.

I can’t say I’m surprised. Culture rarely pays the rent.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VnExpress International or VnExpress.

More on Vietnam's music scenes:

In Hanoi, sounds of the past resonate amid noises of vulgar age

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