Write hit songs, travel the world
Lee Hua Chang, Taiwan
Story by Koh Eng Beng | Photos by Charmaine Wu
He just needs to work for two weeks and is able make enough money for half a year of travel. Meet Lee Hua Chang, a songwriter who has written hit songs for the likes of Coco Lee, Landy Wen and Bii.
Born to Malaysian parents, the 33-year-old Canadian Chinese has stayed in Taiwan, Singapore, Germany, and Japan in the last few years. He travels to meet and write songs with musicians from around the world.
His songs have hit the mandopop charts in Taiwan and China. A recent hit was Coco Lee’s 18 which debuted on Taiwan KKbox chart at 4th position.
He also wrote 毕书尽 Bii’s hit song I know, which hit no. 2 on Taiwan KKbox chart, and a Taiwanese radio chart.
He also wrote Landy Wen’s Fly with me.
But ten years ago, no one would have thought that he would be so wildly successful. He was a young chap, who had dropped out of University of Waterloo, just one semester from graduation. With no contacts, formal music training, and money, it’s hard to imagine he would be able to gain a foothold in the music industry, let alone excel in it.
I met Hua Chang in his apartment in Hongshulin, Taipei, for a two hour interview to find how he made his mark. Those who are familiar with the music industry in Singapore would have heard of him. In fact, many would have been taught by him. He was the instructor and creator of a 300-hour song writing and music production course, supported by the National Arts Council.
When you dropped out of university to do music, your parents were concerned about your future. You had to find ways to make a living, how did you do it?
H: In my earlier years I did the hustle already, so now I don’t have to hustle as much…
I went to a production school for one year, to formalise my knowledge about music production. One of the biggest studios near my house in Canada recorded for Rihanna. Big producers came out from there. They re-mastered one of Michael Jackson’s albums, they’ve done a lot of great work. So I visited the studio and talked to the studio manager. He asked if I was interested in booking a session.
I wasn’t sure if I could but why not. I told the studio manager that I’m producing for a band (one of my school friends was in a band). I asked how much does it cost? I roughly knew because of my time in production school, but I want to confirm how much does a studio of this stature charge. The manager told me, $100 an hour for the studio, plus $50 an hour for the audio engineer.
I told him I was doing it for an independent band. He said, “Well, that’s understandable. But if you want fine dining steak, you don’t pay McDonald prices.” I told him the budget was $1000, and he said okay, he’ll do for $1000, including the fee for an audio engineer.
I realised I just got him a business — I wasn’t making $1000, the studio was making it. I just showed him I was valuable. I knew the studio business wasn’t doing that well so I started getting him more business. I went to people who did not have access to such studios. They didn’t know where to find them because these studios were “hidden”. Big artistes recorded there so they were not publicised. I told these people, I could bring them to the studio. So I started giving them tours to the studio, acting like a sales agent.
But I wasn’t making any money yet. After helping the studio manager to make a few thousand dollars (by bringing in clients), I spoke to him: “I know how to use all these equipment, can I engineer the sessions for the clients that I bring in?”
Instead of spending the extra $50 for the engineer, I can charge my client for that $50. Then I just pay the studio $100 per hour. And I wasn’t charging my clients just $50 per hour, but twice. So I was going to people, telling them I can bring them to the studio and I will engineer the session. Instead of doing three years as an intern, I became an engineer immediately. I was making money and perceived as doing well, fairly quickly. That’s how I started making money. I started making money by making someone else money.
How did you go from music production to songwriting?
H: There was a Canadian Music Week conference where all the big labels and publishers gave talks. I had to pay to get into the conference. It wasn’t cheap for someone who’s starting out, about $1000. But I saw the most important person there that I wanted to meet — Billy Koh.
I was a fan of Chinese pop since I was a kid. To see a Chinese Singaporean producer coming to Canada to give a talk, I told myself I couldn’t miss this opportunity. I would pay $2000 if I had to. I would do whatever I needed to do to get this money because I wanted to talk to this person.
Later, I went to his Facebook and stalked him. I messaged him, telling that I know he will be at this conference and i will be going too… and would love to have a chat with you over dinner or lunch. I didn’t know if he would message back, but when you have nothing to lose, anything is possible. And so he messaged me back, “Hey sure, sounds interesting, let’s meet up!”. It was that easy.
It was interesting talking to him and we stayed in close contact. There were also other music people from Taiwan and China. I could actually talk to these people and meet them. My longest business and industry friendships came from that one conference.
What happened after the meeting with Billy Koh?
H: I started sending him my songs. He replied, “They suck, but you have some good ideas.” He told me to “touch the heart”. Canadians are very good musicians, but maybe they lose the sight of what is the purpose of music, which is to make us feel something.
I think I’d lost it trying to do this fancy chord here and all these crazy stuffs. But Billy told me to stop. Pop music is not complicated, it just touches you. I was doing lyrics and melody at the same time, but Billy said melody is the key to the heart. So I decided to do just that. I started sending him songs with this new direction and he said, “Hey that’s pretty good!”
Later I visited China, Taiwan, Hong kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. I contacted people, like how I did at Canadian Music Week. I got to visit all the Ocean Butterflies Music offices and Universal Music, other music companies, and other music people. I ended up signing a publishing deal in Taiwan, and sold a song 夜 to a TV show. The second song I sold was to Show Luo (羅志祥), 愛入非非. It was for another TV show.
Ocean Butterflies Music later decided to hire me to start a business. That’s how I ended up in Singapore. I was hired in Singapore to start a library music of background music you hear in TV and video games. It’s just pre-made music and licensed for video games, movies, TV, commercials and all that stuff like that. My job was to sign a bunch of foreigners’ catalogue to Touch Music regionally in Asia, to represent, sell and license.
I understand you are travelling around the world to write new music with different people. This is a dream lifestyle. How did you do it?
H: Honestly, it’s not easy. I don’t have a stable income. There are times when I don’t know if the money is going to come in, and I worry. But magically, somewhere along the line, every single time, something comes in along the way. And usually it will pay for maybe half of my yearly expense.
So it’s not like, every month there is work. There will be something that comes in or overall royalty that comes in pretty good, and I’ll be, “Oh wow, I don’t have to work if I don’t want to for half a year.”
I kind of get lucky. At the same time it’s not pure luck because I’m actually doing work when I’m not earning. These songs would eventually earn me money later on. For example, it could be a song that I wrote two years ago, someone wants to sing it now and they’ll be, “Ok, I want you to produce it”, or “I want you to arrange it”.
What’s your daily routine like?
H: I wake up, looking forward to coffee, wanting coffee and I make the coffee! I have eggs for breakfast, check my email, see what everyone wants from me. Then I think about what I need to do for that day, and try to remember what things I have scheduled, and then I just get to it. That’s the daily schedule. Usually if there’s cartoon or something that just came out and I need to watch it, like a new Dragon Ball episode, or something on Netflix that I need to watch, I’d do that. Everyday is different actually. I don’t have a daily schedule that I stick to all the time.
Where do you get your inspiration to produce your music?
H: I just take my real life stories and experiences and I put them into a song. Now I have 33 years worth of shit to talk about. My life is the resource that I use to do my work. That’s why when I chose to do music for a living, it was based on a habit that I did. I didn’t do music for passion. I didn’t do music because I want to be famous, or want to have famous friends. I did it because I don’t do anything else as a habit.
How did you find your passion? What was the most difficult challenge when you first started out?
H: Getting my dad to stop telling me to get a job. ”Why are you on the computer everyday?”, “How much are you going to make this month of next month?”, “What’s your plan?”, “I don’t wanna hear your plan, just show me the money”. My dad was always on my ass, but my mum was supportive. “You know when you were a baby, you’ll be singing to me.” But sometimes she would say, “Son, I worry about your future”.
I was 22 or 23 years old when I just left university to do music. I felt that I needed to do it or the next semester I would just kill myself. I was not happy in university… There were basically 3 things I could do. Music because I’ve always been doing it since I was a kid, I could go into building computers because I love building computers, or I could do art.
As Asians, our parents want us to settle down, get married, have kids. Going forward, what are your plans?
H: Just keep writing songs. Believe in the force, trust in the force. It’s kind of like Star Wars, just have faith. Even when things get tough, I know I’m not in that much of trouble. Worse comes to worst, I might just post (an ad) somewhere, “Hey, I’m having this deal for any aspiring musicians, $100 bucks for whatever.” I can do those things. If really push comes to shove, I can go out there and make some money. It’s not like my experience has made me non-employable. I can always go back to work or work for another music company. It’s not a problem. I’m not worried I won’t have anything to eat. I’m worried that I won’t get that hit song!
Any advice for aspiring young musicians who want to enter the industry?
H: You really have to not give a shit about anything and really be stubborn that you want to have this life — but not lazy, stubborn like, “I want to do this, but I don’t want to do everything else.” If I want to do this, and I know that I need to do certain things in order to get there – be stubborn about that and not let other people tell you what to do.
But I won’t listen to my dad. No offence to my dad or my friends. Here’s a good example, if you’re going into war, are you going to listen to an accountant for war tactics or are you going to listen to the general? It’s your life on the line, and my decisions are my life, I’m not going to listen to somebody just giving whatever advice that we see on Facebook. I’m going to listen to someone who has done it before.
Oh, I do have one more piece of advice for young people. Do it based on your habit. So many times, people come and they say, “I want to be a songwriter”. I ask, “How many songs have you written?”
“Well, then you don’t want to be a songwriter.
Or “I want to be an artist!”
“How much have you drawn?”
“I haven’t really drawn yet”.
So it’s about an honest reflection about yourself.
That’s what happens to many people who want to do arts for a living. They want it because they don’t have it.
I can’t tell you how many times I want to not do music for a living anymore. But I do it because it’s natural and it’s a habit. And why not make a living out of something you just do everyday? I’ve wanted to quit so many times, but imagine if I didn’t have it as a habit, I would have quit a long time ago.
When the gun is pointed up your ass, and the guy is telling you to do something else, if you’re not stubborn enough, you will do something else. The person would have persuaded you. But if someone puts a gun to your head and says, “I want you to change”, you go, “fuck you, kill me”. Some people are stubborn, and they are successful. It’s just takes times, not everyone gets success in their 20s, some people get success in the 60s or 70s. But it’s because they are stubborn as hell that they get there.