Jam Hsiao Ching-Teng on Going Rogue in the Data Age: Do Fans ‘Really Like What the Algorithms Think They Should Like?’

There are many singers with golden voices, but a select few who sing with real passion. Jam Hsiao Ching-Teng has been beloved by audiences for over a decade due to his willingness to put himself out in the open and share his life experiences freely.

After a conversation with Hsiao, Billboard China came to the conclusion that his innate enthusiasm derives from his voice, his passion, and his clear and precise understanding of the music and entertainment industry, as well as the evolution of media itself. All of these facets have helped give his seemingly wild growth a sense of direction to concentrate upon.

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Different Colors in the Era of Big Data

Nowadays, hit songs, including those by Hsiao, often undergo a kind of transformation when uploaded to Internet platforms. He admitted that he had mixed feelings when he first heard the DJ dance version of “A-Fei’s Butterflies” on the street. On one hand, he was happy that such an old song was still being sung. On the other hand, he was frustrated that all of the rich emotions conveyed in this dense piece of music were being “dumbed down” in order to fit into a formulaic musical genre.

“Data has gotten a stranglehold over us in recent years,” Hsiao says. “Tens of millions of pieces of music by different musicians have been molded into the same generic shape in order to conform to whatever is en vogue at the time in order to guarantee as many views as possible. How can quality work be heard when any trace of personality is hidden? It’s like putting the same exact frame over every single painting. For music, it’s incredibly important to have some different colors in the mix.”

Looking at his career, it is clear he has put a lot of effort into pursuing these “different colors,” and equally clear that he has occasionally paid the price.

When Hsiao made his debut, he was considered a strong vocal performer. He embarked on a world tour after just two albums. Refusing to be just a pop star, Hsiao quickly mastered different styles, including Western jazz and “one take.” Eventually, he decided to start a band, where his love for rock music led to him playing the role of both lyricist and composer. Meanwhile, his talent agency positioned him as a “singer who occasionally writes songs.” Later, it became evident that the era of rock ‘n’ roll has come and gone.

Set in his ways, Hsiao’s music has become more uniquely his with every subsequent album over the past two years, culminating in last year’s Quarantine Hotel Room 2827. Featuring minimalist compositions that utilize a combination of synth-pop and retro elements, this album may have had a divisive reception from Hsiao’s fanbase, but it quenched a desire that was residing in Hsiao’s heart at the time.

He wrote, composed, sang and recorded the entire album. An unprecedented creative experience for him, this allowed him to create an auditory and visual feast infused with his own personal stamp. Speaking on the album, Hsiao states, “What can you do? Perhaps Quarantine Hotel Room 2827 really was a failed attempt at something. The creative process for it was far from painless. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to give up on the ideas that I had, even if they wouldn’t be received warmly by audiences, because I found them to be a source of personal catharsis. I regard life as a process of constant self-discovery.”

By his own admission, Hsiao is a bit “crazy.” He refuses to remain stationary and yield to the overwhelming force that is the data age, even though he knows very well that his love songs would be popular with the public. The most tangible manifestation of this outlook is his paucity of hit songs in recent years.

If you ask Hsiao, however, this is the wrong takeaway. He is merely being honest with himself, refusing to blindly pursue any so-called experiments in a half-hearted way. He proclaims, “How can we present something to the public when we’re not satisfied with it ourselves? I’ll always stand behind any new song that I release, but at the end of the day, you can never tell what will or won’t be welcomed by the public and become a hit.”

One song on the album he is particularly satisfied with is “Nowhere to Hide.” His eyes light up when the song is mentioned. After a moment’s pause, however, he goes on to say, “In this age of data, I’m sure it’s not anyone’s favorite. I doubt it’s been heard by that many people.”

Musical variety shows should be fun.

With the previous generation of singers, Taiwan’s well-established record industry was the “midstream pillar” of Chinese music circles. Even during Jam Hsiao’s time, his style and voice were often covered and imitated by many China singers. However, not long into Hsiao’s career, things began to shift focus, and the entertainment industry continued moving northward. Nowadays, the only way musicians from Hong Kong and Taiwan can ensure long-term popularity is by securing a spot on a variety show in China. An extensive knowledge into the workings of Chinese television channels and Internet platforms is a must. For them, this is both the trend and a trial to overcome.

With solid singing skills and an endearing personality, Hsiao has been making waves on various variety shows, making him an outstanding musician among his peers who is “moving northward.” Hsiao even has a say in how musical variety shows in China are put on, as he has participated in them almost every year for the past decade.

As a singer who got his start from musical variety shows, he does not feel that coming on these shows is a sign of “going downhill,” as these shows have been a major influence in the pop music industry going all the way back to Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. While the number of musical variety shows produced in the past two years is not large, there has always been a steady demand for them among music fans. Thanks to a more powerful online entertainment system and more efficient resource mobilization, the quality of musical variety shows in China will only continue to improve.

As an artist, Hsiao has pondered this topic in some detail. Certain directors will alter the structure, schedule, and program of the show according to Hsiao’s personal suggestions based on what he experiences, sees and hears. This often results in singers having an increased sense of “performance” during the show. Nothing is more frustrating for singers than when a director has the song selection and arrangement perfectly lined up in advance in order to avoid copyright concerns and chase after whatever the latest hits are.

Hsiao said, “Sometimes I’m also confused. Do users really like what the algorithms think they should like? Can we really predict what will become the next big hit? The entertainment industry is supposed to be a place full of joy and surprises. I think we should keep things light and carefree and stay true to ourselves. That way, we can create more natural, innovative products that have a different flavor to them, and finally give the audience the right to choose.”

Among all of the musical variety shows he has participated in, Duets (aka The Most Beautiful Harmonies) impressed him the most, and he has played the role of a “mentor” on the show for three seasons With this show, Hsiao has full autonomy in regard to the music selection, and also has a say in how the stage is set up, including lighting and positions. It is a lot of work, but he has never been anything but pleased when a performance goes off.

“Do you know what I am most proud of? I made a lot of bold choices on this show, really out-there stuff, and not only did the audience accept it, they liked it. They’ve got great taste. Why can’t we make these shows more fun when it’s now possible for us to reconcile the exploration of commercial value and artistic pursuits in a better way?” In Hsiao’s eyes, fun is one of the words most closely connected with music. He is always on the lookout for more fun-filled stages.

He also hopes that musical variety shows can “look at the big picture and be more detailed.” During his time in Las Vegas, Hsiao was astonished by the O and KÀ shows put on by Cirque du Soleil. He had never imagined that the stage could be used in such a splendid fashion. Using what was on hand, he began to explore how to alter his concerts in a way that would provide the optimal marriage between visuals and music.

Nowadays, musical variety shows are usually quite ornate and visually striking, but the entire production team must first consider whether such visual splendor is a good fit for the spirit of the song being performed, and whether the stage space is being utilized to its fullest extent.

Hsiao feels that cover songs are just as legitimate as the original. For him, there is no golden rule dictating which will garner more praise in the competition, and exquisitely crafted vertical programs can be more “universal” than universal ones. The key is that all musical productions should be meticulously refined. Previous experience and vision are the most important traits to possess, as no ready-made model can serve as the key to universal success, especially when modern audiences are arguably more experienced and knowledgeable than industry insider.

So long as we are alive, we need to fight for ourselves.

As an Aries, Hsiao possesses an innate enthusiasm and stellar work ethic.

Hsiao is the self-proclaimed “King of Self-study.” He taught himself magic tricks when performing with Jay Chou in Paris, learned sophisticated calligraphy that earned him praise from professional calligraphers, and has paintings on exhibit in Shibuya. Most of his musical skills are even self-taught.

Inspired by the Bon Jovi album Crush as well as other artists such as Mr. Big, Skid Row, Prince, and Michael Jackson, Hsiao first embarked on his musical journey as a rebellious teenager. To realize his rock dream, he learned to play keyboard and jazz drums so well that he was capable of teaching others.

As a guitar aficionado, he has become exceptionally proficient over the past two or three years. Once he sets his mind to something, he will not rest until he reaches a level that he is satisfied with.

When asked why he still wanted to learn guitar in his thirties, he responds, “I just couldn’t resist the allure of mastering the guitar, as it’s an instrument I’ve loved for so many years. It can also help broaden my horizons by providing me with an additional musical tool to use whenever I hit a creative roadblock.”

Before challenging other stars in One Million Star, he was a resident singer in restaurants. It was a gig that he relished, as it allowed him to be around music all day. When a colleague signed him up for the singing competition and he was “forced” into the spotlight, his ambition took over automatically, and he found himself gunning for first place.

As someone reluctant to change, Hsiao found the music industry baffling long after he had entered it and started releasing albums. Despite this, he put on a brave face and was a consummate professional in his work, learning various non-singing related skills in order to open up new prospects in his life. Going from the camera-shy person he was in the beginning of his career to the gregarious, effervescent, and effortlessly cool presence he gives off now was a long and painful psychological process. “I always say that I have two faces. Sometimes I can be very quiet. For newcomers, they may find it difficult to act animated in front of people, even though they know it’s necessary.” He said.

Hsiao still maintains the momentum of someone new to the business, even though some would say he has had a wildly successful career after ten years of endeavors. He professes, “Perhaps not too many people understand this, but I think that so long as we’re alive, we should always work hard and fight for ourselves. Having a job, especially at the moment, is a cause for celebration, so I can’t slack off.”

Not long ago, he announced that he would temporarily relocate to Chengdu due to the pandemic. At first he was just quarantined in a hotel in Chengdu for seven days in accordance with regulations. During this period, he fell in love with the cityscape, the food, and the climate of Chengdu and decided to reside there for some time.

In terms of music, Hsiao has more bold ideas that he has yet to act on. As his Beijing opera-inspired song in Wu Jia Po 2021 was extremely popular on the Internet, we asked Hsiao whether he was interested in further integrating classical and popular musical art forms in the future.

He said that he has tried many times to achieve this integration of musical styles, and that he wanted to further explore this relationship in order to create more unique musical combinations, “The works of Yngwie Malmsteen, my favorite guitarist, combines a lot of classical music elements. His songs are remarkable, as they are these intricate compositions embodying the elegance, order, and sense of ritual behind classical music, yet at the same time also feature dynamic metal progressions. So I am particularly looking forward to exploring this intermingling dynamic further.”

He also checks Billboard every week to learn about the latest trends in the international music scene trends of international music circles, something which he considers “homework” for singers.

He is very familiar with chart-topping songs from Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Drake, and other musicians. He also knows the individual evolutions international celebrities have undergone with their musical images and styles. He said, “How is it that, in the international music scene, both newcomers and industry veterans always manage to come up with songs that leave an impression? By comparison, our music circle is a bit dull. What is the problem? I know we have a bright future ahead of us, but as for now, I am eager to work with my peers to make our music environment better.”

As a “music player” who has earned his spot in pop music circles through ten years of hard work, Hsiao said that he will never give up his appetite for music, and that he will continue to better himself in the pursuit of what he loves. This does not mean that he feels he should rush forward blindly in the days to come. Instead, he wishes to spend more energy listening, “For me, it’s important to figure out how my fans and the general public perceives me, as well as all the expectations they have for me.”

Jam Hsiao, Billboard China
Jam Hsiao, Billboard China

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