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: MUON — Always pushing the boundaries which push back

OS: MUON has been around for about fourteen years, with a constantly changing line-up over time. Were these deliberate or unavoidable moves?
Nick Chan: Both/And, not Either/Or. They were as deliberate and unavoidable as the small ‘deliberate’ choices one makes in life only to realise later that they changed everything, like a fork in the road of fate (unavoidable). Only responsibility, not credit, can be claimed for such actions.

Fourteen years is a long time for a band, especially relative to the life experience of a teenager. MUON was always more of an idea and system of values than a band. The Blue Hour Sessions itself had its genesis through this system of values, of which I shan’t say more.

I have never made the distinction between being a producer, engineer, band member, whatever, it was all MUON. This has been the case regardless of whether I was producing/playing for I Am David SparkleAstreal. If you were to hear songs from those particular albums, you’d be able to identify that they are interchangeable and belong in any MUON album — but the inverse cannot be said, which has resulted in much confusion and stigma at times.

Have the changes been beneficial to the general creative process, allowing for a larger variety of experimentation of sounds?
All I can say is that works have been created and events crystalized and that they exist. The creative process itself is a participatory one of co-creation between artist and Other, rather than the traditional monotheistic notion of “Look Ma, I created something via a process! And it’s deep!”.

It wasn’t experimentation that resulted in the myriad textures our sound contains — plug-ins and gear were responsible for that. In MUON, ‘experimental’ has more to do with ‘unlearning’ than ‘reinvention’. I approximate ‘reinvention’ with throwing shit against the wall and hoping it will stick on the 7th throw, rather than the 10th. ‘Unlearning’ would be to ask, “Why am I throwing shit against the wall?”

Thus, much energy was put not towards unusual things, but rather towards really difficult stuff, such as, “Mr. Drummer, please do not crash on the 1, or after any roll,” or questions like, “Does laughter have an opposite?” Much easier said than done.

Too often, many try to push the boundaries, without realizing that the boundaries also push back. The less one is aware of this, the more likely the work ends up as experimental drivel that most people have to pretend to understand.

Collaborating with visual artists isn’t anything new to you, you’ve previously worked with Brandon Tay of Syndicate. Is it difficult balancing the two creative visions on two quite different mediums?
Not at all. If affinity is shared, then it’s ONE creative vision, involving TWO individuals from different milieus. Last I checked, Brandon and I weigh about the same.

What are your thoughts on collaborating with William Chan of TMRRW this time round?
William is a total ideas guy who has an impeccable sweet-spot between the special and mundane, the sacred and profane, the simple and the simpler. I feel that working with him this time round has been a well-rounded experience.

If you could compose or recreate the perfect film soundtrack, which film would you choose? Would you choose to collaborate with any other bands?
I would collaborate with Jordan Chia of Pixel Apartment and the film would be Cinema Paradiso.

Lastly, please describe what you hope the audience will feel after your show this weekend. Looking forward to it!
Well, I hope they feel great — that’d be enough. But on a more idealistic front, I hope they feel that in between the grind of daily life and the chasing of representations of things, that the usual BS we hear, that ‘life is beautiful’, ‘nature is alive’, ‘abundance trumps scarcity’, that all of that is true.

By Maria Clare Khoo

Lomography Blue Hour Sessions
with MUON and Dream State Vision
Home Club
Friday, 27 November