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Shaping the sound of Hong Kong nights

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Soundscapes - Quinary cocktail bar Hong Kong industrial design

In a highly evolved, fiercely competitive entertainment arena like Hong Kong, only the strongest food and drink concepts survive. That, of course, means they need a clear, compelling and coherent identity; every facet of the space – design, menu, sound, view, ethos – has to come together and make a targeted statement to a distinct audience group. That’s hard enough to do for one venue to worry about, but when you have five to consider, it’s a much more daunting challenge…

Creating a distinctive sound for an established hotel group with a well-rooted brand identity is a challenge in itself, but using music to build a new brand from scratch is a different story altogether. As anyone who works in the creative sector will know, constraints and ground rules can make the job easier. But working to an open brief, with no established route to follow, can be like climbing a mountain without a rope: a little intimidating and a bit risky, but hugely exciting and more than worth it when you reach the top.

Given such a dynamic market and audience, the triumph of Tastings Group, a family of five independent bar and restaurant venues in Hong Kong, is all the more impressive. Over the last eight years, the group has launched a steady stream of hits – each of them entirely distinct from their siblings. As a restaurant group, Tastings has more identities than Bowie.

About 18 months ago, the group contacted the Music Concierge team in Hong Kong to request our help in streamlining the soundscapes in four of their venues, beginning with one of the World’s 50 Best Bars – the HK icon that is Quinary – and later extending the project to include the lounge element of Michelin-starred VEA Restaurant, the colonially inspired bar The Envoy, and the hugely popular gin joint Origin.

Despite their family connection, each of these is founded on a clear concept and had the design credentials to back it up. Quinary is the sophisticated industrial-style cocktail bar where those in the know go for experimental cocktails and sensory spectacle. The Envoy takes its guests back the bygone era of British colonialism in Asia, fusing both culinary and decorative traditions with playful contemporary quirk. VEA’s skyline bar is the cocktails and small plates counterpart to the destination restaurant next door. Origin is the gin-loving speakeasy on Hong Kong’s hottest nightlife strip Lan Kwai Fong. Our challenge was to underline and enhance those identities through sound. In the cases of the first three, it made most sense for our approach to be led by the concept – to create playlists that harmonised perfectly with the visual design and food-and-drink philosophy.

For Quinary, this meant supporting the elegant contemporary-industrial aesthetic and future-focused mixology with fresh, unexpected and compelling new music that heightens the sheer sensory immersion that its cocktails provide. At The Envoy, we sidestepped the potential pitfalls of the colonial theme – it would have been all to easy to resort to retro clichés – and blended together contemporary tracks with samples of period jazz and a playful touch of 1950s American exotica. The result, like The Envoy in general, was sophisticated and historically inspired, but without taking itself too seriously.

When we got to Tasting Group’s newest enterprise, VEA Lounge, the existing deep house soundtrack matched the mood of the space – where guests would gather for pre-dinner cocktails before taking their tables in the restaurant, or while away the whole evening – but the playlist leaned towards the linear. Being solely genre-led, it lacked contrast and storytelling, and was difficult to engage with as a result. We took a more thoughtful approach, building on a contemporary jazz base and introducing intriguing juxtapositions – keeping it interesting without losing VEA’s atmosphere of refinement.

Origin required a different approach. Given the bar’s location amid a high density of bars and dining venues in one of the most vibrant nightlife strips in Central, a solely concept-led approach to the music would risk losing footfall to the neighbours. In this instance, the Music Concierge team had to carefully balance the commercial demands of the site with the integrity of the Origin brand, using music to create a fun, energetic and youthful atmosphere that was accessible to the Lan Kwai Fong crowd, but tempered with a sophisticated leftfield note – a case of fitting in but standing out.