Western pop music in Vietnam: from “social evil” to sign of status
Throaty song-writing legend Bob Dylan and 90s teen favourites the Backstreet Boys might not have much in common as far as most music fans are concerned.
But both are playing big gigs in Vietnam over the next few weeks as music promoters test out the appetite for expensive, international standard entertainment.
Communist Vietnam has opened up rapidly over the last twenty years and Western pop music has been off the list of “social evils” for some time. But the live music market remains relatively undeveloped and only a handful of international artists have played in Vietnam thus far.
In a country where many would count themselves lucky to earn $100 a month, you might wonder who will be willing to pay $50-$120 for a ticket to the Dylan and Backstreet Boys gigs. But that’s well within the reach of status-conscious urbanites, who have been splashing out on iPhones, fancy cars and sleek scooters for a number of years.
Despite soaring inflation and a depreciating currency, more than 150 BMWs and 30 Rolls-Royces have been imported this year, according to a report by the state news agency.
The Backstreet Boys’ local promoters are hoping to sell 55,000 tickets for a series of shows in Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial centre, this week. Dylan, who is much less well known in Vietnam, will play at an 8,000 capacity venue in Ho Chi Minh City on April 10.
The Dylan tickets won’t go on sale until Monday because of delays getting the performance licence but Rod Quinton of Saigon Sound System, which is promoting the concert, says he has already taken deposits for 2,000 tickets.
“That’s a pretty good sign,” he says.
While the music of the Backstreet Boys is often sung at karaoke bars and weddings across Vietnam, Dylan does not have much in the way of a local following and few are aware of his role as an opponent of the American military involvement here.
But Quinton is hoping to attract “a good mix of Vietnamese and foreigners” to the gig.
“The aspirational young Vietnamese would do well to hear something apart from Korean pop,” he says.
Artists can’t make any money selling recorded music in Vietnam, where illegal downloading and pirated CDs and DVDs are the norm. But while there is clearly demand to see big name Western pop stars in Vietnam, challenges remain.
As with all other public performances, Quinton had to provide censors at the culture ministry with officially translated lyrics of the songs Dylan is likely to sing.
He’s also having to import some of the sound equipment as he fears the local gear won’t do justice to Dylan’s gravelly tones.
Quinton says that some Asian promoters have avoided Vietnam after finding it a tough place to do business when the likes of Sting and Bryan Adams played here in the 1990s.
But things have changed since then, he says. “As long as we work with the government, we expect they’ll continue to be supportive of the process. There’s huge potential for international artists here.”
By Ben Bland - The Financial Times - March 23, 2011