Unpacking ‘Indie Music As Cool Ambassadors’ – Reflections on Taiwan’s Cultural Export Policies 2010-Present

Written by Jocelle Koh.

Image credit: Chen-Yu Lin

During my time as a university student, what I would have given to have a copy of Routledge’s latest edition to their ‘Made in…’ series, ‘Made in Taiwan’. It would have been handy! As a student doing my thesis on the Taiwanese music industry in a university about as far removed from the topic as you can get, procuring the Taiwanese instalment of this academic series – completely in English and geared towards advanced understandings of Taiwanese popular music – would have saved me a lot of trouble.

Edited by Eva Tsai, Tung-hung Ho and Miaoju Jian, the book attempts, in a collection of 15 parts, to provide readers with a tasting platter of what Taiwanese music has to offer. All the way from reiterating and revamping general histories of Taiwan’s musical narratives for learners—beginner to advanced—to diving deep into events both past and present, which have struck a milestone in the island’s colourful scene.

As an amateur with some understanding of Taiwanese music literature, and as a journalist who has been writing about the scene over the last decade, and in more recent years, a music business professional in the industry, I am honoured to use these varied perspectives to share my thoughts on some pertinent parts of this volume.

Delving in first by reading the foreword and introduction written by the editors themselves, I appreciate the painstaking detail and effort that went into organising the unwieldy topic of Taiwanese music so that readers at all levels could learn something new. Titled ‘Problematizing and Contextualising Taiwanese Popular Music’, this section is a systematic and logical progression that builds one’s understanding step by step, beginning with a definition of ‘popular music’, as used within this book, before going into a history of Taiwanese music, starting with its emergence under Japanese colonial rule in the 1900s, and ending with the present-day politics surrounding Taiwanese music.

This section is not only a valuable and detailed conglomeration of the narratives surrounding Taiwanese music all in one place, but it is also able to clearly and simply introduce readers to a wider, more layered perspective of Taiwanese music; cleverly setting the scene for the following chapters in one way or another. This section is ambitious in what it sets out to achieve: taking readers from the simplest of definitions to touching on the most complex of topics that have arrested the scene in the past century. But what I took the most pleasure in was how the editors paid just as much attention to parts of history and subcultures of Taiwanese music that could have just as easily been glossed over, by using lesser-known perspectives to assign them significance.

In particular, I enjoyed the section on cultural trajectories of popular music under the Cold War, which briefly set up basic narrative lines that are routinely trotted out (transition of musical centres from shanghai to Hong Kong to Taiwan over time, the marginalisation of Taiyu music under martial law, the campus folk movement being a precursor to pop music today) before subsequently highlighting what the authors call “smaller interstitial narratives”, which give the former dominant narratives more perspective. Touching on points such as the relationship between American influenced music and development of Taiwanese tastes on the island, along with the apparent demand for Taiyu ballads during the late 1950s to 1960s despite government intervention, they broaden the definition of Taiwanese music in ways I could never have expected. It’s these little things, such attention to detail that flesh out even the most fervent music guru’s understanding of the Taiwanese music genre; increasing one’s appetite for the colour-filled chapters that lie ahead.

Given that my aforementioned thesis was geared towards analysing the success of the Bureau of Audiovisual and Music Industry Development (BAMID)’s cultural policy towards Taiwanese music from a marketing perspective, it was Chapter 11 titled ‘Indie Music as Cool Ambassadors?’ that caught my eye. As a writer who has used my platform to explore the overseas promotion of Mandarin and Asian music for the better part of the last decade, I have always been interested in the implementation of cultural policy as a first step to bridging cultural gaps.

Authors Yu-Peng Lin and Hui-ju Tsai announced their intention to examine how government resources have been used in relation to the policy and the degree of successful implementation. However, I feel that only the former was fully achieved across the course of this article. The piece did a great job at providing a holistic narrative of cultural policy in all its bits and bobs. Starting from its initial implementation in 2010, before a shift in 2013 from individual subsidies to business subsidies, as well as documenting the relationship between international music festivals and the subsidies from the policy’s inception until the present day.

However, as someone who has pored through such policy documents (most of which are publicly available), I was hoping for a little more of a critical voice coming through in the article, rather than a compilation of already existing facts. Although making this information accessible in English for wider audiences is already a huge step forward, I just wish that the authors would have used this opportunity to go one step further, and surprised me with lesser-known, well-informed takes that could broaden the reader’s interest in the subject, and gear them towards understanding why this topic is of vital importance for the global promotion of Taiwanese music.

Going back to basics, if I understood correctly, the article aimed to examine cultural export policy and critique its success, and that their hypothesis was independent music culture might have suffered more than benefitted from the policies due to neoliberal policy-making processes. This was not particularly clear to me, as nowhere in the piece does it state in certain, succinct terms that this was the authors’ point of view. While they did touch on how neoliberal policy processes, along with the alliance between public and private sectors, has significantly impacted the direction of export policy in a particularly refreshing perspective, I wish the piece could have been curated more tightly to build a more convincing argument from the information at hand that the policy was detrimental to independent music culture in Taiwan.

I would also have appreciated a little more context on BAMID’s cultural policy at large and the differentiation between indie and pop music as supported in the policy. While the authors stake the claim that the government uses Taiwanese indie music to propagate an image of ‘Cool Taiwan’, I’m not sure where in the policies it was clearly stated that certain subsidies would be allocated to ‘indie’ as opposed to ‘pop’ bands and artists, and thus brings up the question of the basis on which the authors are making this distinction.

Subsequently, this renders the basis of the authors’ initial argument shaky. To me, this distinction and intention on the government’s part were not clear to begin with, and the authors should have further clarified whether it was their interpretation of the policies or the government’s marked intention for these cultural export policies. The fact that the term ‘cool’ is used to describe Taiwanese music culture further confuses me regarding the indie/pop distinction, as ‘Cool Britannia’—the original policy Taiwan’s export policy was influenced by—was specifically geared at promoting pop music, as were its more recent counterparts: Cool Japan (J-pop culture) and Hallyu (K-pop).

Although statistics were used at some points throughout the article to illustrate where subsidies were going and how much, I still felt overall that the piece relied a little too much on hearsay and anecdotal evidence than I would have liked, rather than rigorous and meticulous examination. This was especially clear in the section on Taiwan Beats, where the authors mention that the SNS brand was finally able to achieve integrated marketing of Taiwan’s brand to promote their image as ‘Cool’, and later in the conclusion, where they tentatively labelled the project ‘ostensibly successful’.

As someone who has been involved with contributions to Taiwan Beats since its conception (some articles I’ve contributed are in fact appended in the screenshot of the article), although it has made some progress in creating a more curated brand image for Taiwanese music, its success is debatable, especially when you take into account the fact that the main metric for marketing success is whether or not the project has truly reached and engaged the right audiences (in this case, overseas ones). While it might be my own subjective opinion that Taiwan Beats’ success as a policy initiative is questionable, I nevertheless feel that not enough evidence (such as monthly views, demographics, questionnaires) has been provided to describe it as successful, and thus makes me wonder about the credibility of some of the authors’ other claims throughout the piece as well.

While there are moments throughout the article that hold merit (I especially appreciated the neoliberal take on analysing success), overall a lack of rigorous argumentation and systematic signposting left me not totally convinced about the validity of arguments made. Nevertheless, for myself, the fact that this article is in English and now accessible for overseas audiences is already winning half the battle. Nevertheless, it is necessary for more overseas literature on Taiwan’s cultural export policy to come to the fore so that more debates, perspectives and exchanges of ideas can come to light and intrigue others enough to join the conversation. After all, isn’t that what cultural export is all about?

Jocelle Koh is an all-around media creative who dedicates her efforts to understanding Mandarin pop music and its importance as a tool for bridging cultural gaps. She runs her own platform Asian Pop Weekly dedicated specifically to this.

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