Singapore: No country for music?

Earlier this week, Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh called on the Singapore government to do three things to strengthen the local music industry:

(i) establish a broadcast quota for Singaporean music on local radio;
(ii) develop a strong export strategy for Singaporean music; and
(iii) develop a single vision for the music industry here, championed by a single agency which will work directly with industry professionals.

She was speaking at the Ministry of Communications and Information’s Committee of Supply (COS) debate. (For those unfamiliar with Singapore’s legislative process, COS is basically Parliament’s annual debate on each ministry’s proposed budget for the following financial year).

Naturally, her speech has been well-received by music practitioners here. The call for a broadcast quota is not new, but it is a sensible and feasible way of addressing the seemingly intractable problem of unreceptive local audiences.

The issue of an ‘export strategy’, however, is more debatable. Koh drew comparisons with South Korea’s government support for K-pop, and the UK government’s support for its creative industries. There’s no question that the interventions in those countries made a decisive difference. But they probably did because the products were highly exportable to begin with — K-pop is an assembly-line of identikit acts, primed for mass consumption; and UK music has a global brand name dating back to The Beatles. Singaporean music, however, is a hodgepodge of styles and identities, done mostly on the side by people who have day jobs.

Nick Chan (of MUON and Heizenberg) summed it up brilliantly when he once said in an interview that “this ‘music industry’ of ours isn’t an industry at all. It’s a scene, and that’s it”.

“It’s a vicious circle, because musicians will never level up without professional management and business opportunities.”

Of course, we can’t blame Koh for using the word “export”, or taking a business-centric perspective for the arts. She was after all standing in Parliament, speaking to the lawmakers of a country whose fortunes have been built on exports; the administrators of a country with the highest trade-to-GDP ratio in the world. She can’t tell a government assailed by demographic challenges and growing income disparity that more money needs to be spent on hobbyists — it just wouldn’t fly.

But ‘hobbyists’ is exactly what the scene here is comprised of, harsh as the assessment may be. The high cost of living in Singapore, and the lack of legitimation for music writing/production/performance as a profession, means that most musicians have day jobs in other fields. This in turn means that they don’t have the time to hone their craft to an international standard, whether as individuals or with bands. And ironically, their daytime income removes the drive for them to do so.

Even if they do hit that international benchmark — as some acts here have done — these musicians are unlikely to sustain it for the long haul. And those few who take the plunge and play music full time? Chances are, you’ll find them in a nightspot playing covers, because ‘that’s where the money is’.

This is why an industry hasn’t organically arisen to support original Singaporean music. It makes no commercial sense to invest in artists who can’t commit 24/7, and are likely to quit once the pressures of schooling, employment and/or raising a family take their toll. But it’s a vicious circle, because musicians will never level up without professional management and business opportunities.

“Is it inherently impossible for tiny Singapore to have a strong music industry, especially for music in English?”

Granted, many would recoil at the idea of their craft being reduced to dollars and cents, but the truth is that every international act that makes it to our shores for a gig, however ‘DIY’ their image, is being supported by a corporate machinery far more elaborate and well-oiled than anything available to local artists. This machinery encompasses recording, production, contracts, licensing, publishing, publicity, design, distribution, artist management, tour management, venue management, intellectual property management and more. This is the ‘industry’.

The industry can’t be built overnight, but this is where Koh’s third suggestion — a single agency working directly with stakeholders — comes in; the key is cooperation between both sides of the house.

Singaporean music won’t go far with the usual state-sponsored cultural exchanges (such as our agreement with France), or Singapore Day showcases overseas, or grants for bands to perform at South By Southwest (SXSW) and other festivals — these are isolated measures that look pretty on a CV and sound good in a speech, but have no lasting impact. The long-term goal should be to establish distribution channels.

Distribution is the reason why Singaporeans even know about obscure international acts, and distribution will be the reason why international audiences will know about Singaporean music. But distribution is something that needs to be led by the private sector, not the public. This is why cooperation is so important.

“Musicians, producers and promoters need to get organised and mobilised, draw up a roadmap detailing what they can do, and identify the tipping points where targeted government intervention is needed.”

So where do we go from here? Musicians, producers and promoters need to get organised and mobilised, draw up a roadmap detailing what they can do, and identify the tipping points where targeted government intervention is needed. A vision needs to be proposed — a comprehensive one that speaks not only of our homegrown talent, but also addresses Singapore’s burgeoning reputation as a destination for international acts. This can be ammunition for Koh to take Parliament, and guarantee that what she says achieves more than a few hundred Facebook ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, and a “thank you” from the Minister in charge.

At this juncture, one could reasonably ask the question: if the problem with local music is that the musicianship isn’t ‘good enough’, the production isn’t ‘good enough’, and the distribution non-existent, why bother? Are we barking up the wrong tree? Is it inherently impossible for tiny Singapore to have a strong music industry, especially for music in English?

To answer this, we need look no further than places like Ireland and Scotland, which have smaller populations than Singapore’s, but also strong distribution channels to the UK and beyond. Or Sweden, which is slightly bigger, and Iceland, which is much smaller.

We don’t even have to look beyond our own shores. In 1964, The Quests’ ‘Shanty‘ knocked The Beatles’ ‘I Should Have Known Better’ off the top spot in Singapore’s charts, and the band had a successful tour in the region. This was, of course, before a series of government policies effectively neutered the local music industry (and yes, there was an industry back then).

Fifty years on, in 2014, there is no less talent or interest among our musicians. There are only fewer big opportunities, and less validation. So let’s do something about this. Because the last thing any of us want is to have a foreign friend ask us why a Singaporean band they like gave up, and for us to reply, “Because they were born in the wrong country”.

By Don Shiau

Click here to read NMP Janice Koh’s full speech titled ‘Developing a Strong Singapore Music Industry’.

Blue Hour Sessions: HEIZENBERG is here to stay

OS: Hi guys! Let’s start off with names. That’s a real interesting band name there, Heizenberg. Is it safe to say that you two are huge Breaking Bad fans?
HEIZENBERG: Not really. We just liked the ring to it and what it seemed to connote, from the scientific principle to the television character and more. That said, we have clocked in our hours watching the show, though not religiously.

Heizenberg is a relative newcomer to the music scene. Were both of you involved in any projects or bands before this?
H: We’ve been involved in various projects, notably Syai was in Monster Cat previously and Nick in MUON.

How would you compare the local electronic music scene to other countries? What would you like to see more of?
H: We can’t say we know much beyond the ideas of a tourist what it’s like elsewhere. The scene here has certainly come into its own but there’s always room for expansion. It’s great to have different people into the things they do, creating little pockets of interest and experience, whether it’s in the form of collectives or communities.

Beyond new stuff, we’d like to see more continuity within stuff that’s been around.

We’ve heard the mix presented for the Good Times party. It’s got a real edgy vibe to it — almost an ethereal version of Death Grips. Are the vocals sampled?
H: Yeah, certain bits of vocals were our own and some sampled. We try to fit in stuff that we’d want to hear more of ourselves.

There’s an album in the works at the moment. Can you tell us a little about it?
H: We’re currently in the final stages of mixing for the album. It’s a collection of songs from a certain period and reflects a particular sonic approach and style — electronic and beat-driven with a focus on very simple and tangible arrangements.

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By Evan Woon

Lomography Blue Hour Sessions
with HEIZENBERG, Intriguant, and Marcel Thee (ID)
Home Club
Friday, 24 January
8pm
$12 at the door

Lomography’s Blue Hour Sessions to put spotlight on Singapore music and art scene

Lomography Singapore has just announced the Blue Hour Sessions, a 6-part series featuring collaborations with local bands and graphic artists with an aim to document ground-breaking work in the local music scene.

Drawn from the French expression l’heure bleue, ‘The Blue Hour’ refers to the time before nightfall when the sun slips from sight and the sky falls into a deep blue – traditionally, this hour of day is seen to hold special significance because of the possibilities for unexpected collisions, liaisons and delirium.

From 13 November to 14 April, the Blue Hour Sessions will take place on the last Saturday of the month, with each session turning the spotlight on collaborative efforts between some of the most exciting bands and graphic artists of our generation.

Expect live sets with visual and audio installations, as well as the launch of special edition EPs (limited to a first-run of 36 copies) featuring rough cuts, unreleased demos, analogue prints, and zine artwork by the bands and graphic artists themselves.

Other Sounds is proud to be official online media partner of the the Blue Hour Sessions as it aims to put the spotlight back on local bands and graphic artists.

Blue Hour Sessions schedule

23 November
Tiramisu x fFurious
.gif x M-D-R-N
7nightsatsea x Heider of SSYSTM x Allison Marie Low

21 December
MUON x William Chan of TMRRW
Bani Haykal x Kristal Melson x SUSEJ

18 January
HEIZENBERG x Brandon Tay of Syndicate
Dream State Vision x StudioKALEIDO

22 February
sub:shaman x Marc Gabriel Loh
Space Days x Afiq Omar of Syndicate

29 March
Pleasantry x FROMPAMM
ANECHOIS x Izyanti Asa’ari x Wu Jun Han
Ellipsis x Ban-Fam

3 May
Astreal x MAKE
MONSTER CAT x DO NOT DESIGN x Afiq Omar of Syndicate
Chöd x Philipp Aldrup
Zirconia (feat. X’ho + Yeow of Zircon Lounge) x WHITELABEL x Lasse Marhaug

Update (17/12/13):

The Blue Hour Sessions exhibition and live showcases will now be held at Home Club:

27 December
MUON x William Chan of TMRRW
Dream State Vision x StudioKALEIDO

17 January
HEIZENBERG x Brandon Tay of Syndicate
Bani Haykal x  Kristal Melson

21 February
sub:shaman x Marc Gabriel Loh
Space Days x Afiq Omar of Syndicate

28 March
Pleasantry x FROMPAMM
ANECHOIS x Izyanti Asa’ari x Wu Jun Han
Ellipsis x Ban-Fam

2 May
Astreal x MAKE
MONSTER CAT x DO NOT DESIGN x Afiq Omar of Syndicate
Chöd x Philipp Aldrup

*Dates and line-ups are subject to change

By Katherine Pollock

Red Bull Music Academy & Home Club present Syndicate feat. Africa Hitech

Audio visual collective Syndicate will return to Home Club on 5 October with a Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) special event featuring renowned electronic act, Africa Hitech.

Consisting of long-time electronic dance music fixtures Mark Pritchard (Harmonic 313, Global Communications, Jedi Knights) and Steve Spacek, the duo are best known for their contributions to the vast borderlands of hip hop and ambitious electronic music. Having met over a decade ago, they quickly began to collaborate sporadically, before finally starting Africa Hitech in 2007. Since then, they’ve dipped their toes in everything from grime, UK funky and juke, to field recordings and jazz.

Joining Africa Hitech and making his debut on the Syndicate stage will be local emcee/producer Mean from The .XS Collective. Fresh from dropping the In Flight EP earlier this year, the versatile artist generates his own distinct brand of hazy hip-hop with both ethereal beats and rhymes.

And, completing the line-up for the night will be residents from the Syndicate stable Max Lane and Kiat, who will be playing a special set with Vandetta he collective’s visual specialist, Brandon Tay, will pilot the visuals throughout the night.

The Beat Invitational showcase is also set to take place on the same night, warming the crowd up with their discoveries of local nuggets and gems. Covering a wide spectrum of sounds, the showcase will feature Heizenberg, .gif, FuturaHelvetica, Mont Berg Kingsmen and Vandetta, who will be playing tracks from her upcoming self-titled EP.

Red Bull Music Academy & Home Club present: Syndicate feat. Africa HiTech
with Africa Hitech (WARP), Mean (The.XS Collective), Kiat ft. Vandetta, and Max Lane

The Beat Invitational showcase
with Heizenberg, .gif, FuturaHelvetica, Mont Berg Kingsmen, and Vandetta

Visuals by Brandon Tay

Home Club
Saturday, 5 October 2013
11pm – 4am
$20 (including 1 drink)

Prior to kicking off the party, Africa Hitech will speak to 40 members of Singapore’s music scene at an exclusive RBMA info session, whose past speakers have incuded Shabazz Palaces and Pharoahe Monch. The duo will share insights from their dynamic musical careers, from their formation of their ground-breaking partnership, to their tenure at Warp Records.

Red Bull Music Academy info session
with Africa HiTech, facilitated by Vandetta

Admission to RBMA info session is free, but spots are limited. Interested parties are encouraged to register here.

Successful applicants will be notified by email no later than 30 September 2013. Info session attendees will gain free entry to main event. Club rules apply.

By Cindy Tan