The ‘Singapore sound’: Parfum… or deodorant?

Any lover of music dreams of the utopic ideal of a vibrant and authentic local music scene.

An environment within which local musicians can thrive and mature, with both top-down and bottom-up support. One where you can witness at arm’s length the growth of home-grown artists, with a good degree of interactivity and accessibility. One where you can have multiple avenues of experiencing live music without too many financial or logistical restrictions. Spend three years in the music mecca of the United Kingdom, and the comparative paucity of the music scene here is even more apparent.

The recent arrival and growing popularity of festivals like Laneway and Spring Wave in Singapore are indicative of changing habits in music consumption. Increasingly, we are starting to crave more dynamic ways of experiencing music: models we are gleaning from the music scenes abroad. So, what is still lacking and what are we working towards? How do we achieve that elusive milieu of vibrancy, authenticity, and well, awesomeness?

For starters, it’s difficult to replicate the much more established scenes overseas, which are economically and artistically quite different: venues and gigs are diverse, flexible and aplenty, and creativity is mostly allowed to flourish freely and unrestrained by media controls. In the UK, in particular, the thriving music scene is a stream you can easily hop into. Gigs are affordable (mostly under SGD30), artists are accessible, and multiple pockets of independent cultural genesis points (e.g. Rough Trade) exist for you to tap into or join in the conversation.

“It is difficult to take pride in something so young; much less something whose identity we’re still struggling to define.”

Here, limited venues, ticketing monopoly and a slew of other logistical reasons make it really quite expensive to watch an international act. And, as with most art, when music is made elite in any way, it is barred from achieving that essence, that magic – that smell of ‘teen spirit’, perhaps.

It’s arguably one of the reasons why music appreciation here is still comparably perceived as a hobby in two extremes: either the self-indulgent parfum of the elite or the mid-pubescent Impulse deodorant of sweaty youth.

Logistical barriers are one thing; the legitimacy of music-going as a valuable hobby and pastime, for anyone and everyone, can only precipitate when enough interest in the local scene has developed amongst the majority of Singaporeans. It’s not entirely our fault: building this interest and consequently pride in local music is something that has to happen with the maturation and accumulation of music history. It is difficult to take pride in something so young; much less something whose identity we’re still struggling to define.

This might be somewhat idealistic, but the authentic cultivation of cultural heritage has to begin from the ground and under: in independent record stores, underground music venues, back-alley gigs, in bedrooms around a record player, around people who love the difference between an mp3 and a CD and the difference between a CD and a vinyl. These cultural loci are sparse in Singapore as of now; but who’s to say it won’t mushroom in the next few years?

“… as with most art, when music is made elite in any way, it is barred from achieving that essence, that magic…”

Increasingly, the nascent renaissance of artistically-confident musicians as well as performances in free or smaller venues tell us that there’s something growing in the corners of the island – and it’s a heartening sign. Yes, the onus still lies on local artists to up their ante and compete on an equal platform with other music offerings from all over the world in order for us to take notice. And yes, Singaporean culture is so complex, so layered, that it is certainly a Herculean task to begin building a definitive ‘core’ of our music culture. But we’re hoping that very soon, we can proudly tell our friends overseas what ‘the Singapore sound’ means, without resorting to clichés and meaningless words.

It’s pretty defeatist to compare the status quo here, to music scenes elsewhere that have certainly taken time to build. On our parts, we can begin to head in the right direction by having a wee bit more faith in local talent. Sure, it’s going to take a while before we find that teen spirit, that je ne sais quoi. But till then, take a hearty whiff of them armpits and claim ownership over the layers of complexity.

By Zixin Lin