Are Singapore’s live music venues up to scratch?

Live music venues can far too simply be overlooked as the public spaces in which audiences and artists meet — but they are so much more than that.

They are the spaces in which the audience can form opinions, and discern for themselves their own tastes; spaces in which artists are perhaps given the validation or encouragement to continue with their art; spaces in which promoters, students, organizations, can come together in the spirit of collaboration — spaces in which ultimately, commerce can arise from creativity to spark a whole new and sustainable cycle of creativity.

And with a growing furnish of venues in the Lion City, we set out to understand how big of a role they really play in our own slow-burning industry, and the ideas and hopes of members of our own music community.

Joseph Zhang
Owner, Hood Bar and Café
Our aim is to promote original, local music in the hopes that one day we can revive a local music culture reminiscent of the 80s, when local bands were held with the same regard as overseas acts. We hope to offer a space where musicians can showcase their works — but there will always be limitations for live venues.

For example, while almost all genres and acts are welcome, due to the fact that we are located in a shopping mall, the only genre we accept less of is death metal as it gets too loud and would turn a bulk of our customers away.

More venues allowing local bands to perform their originals during ‘prime time’ instead of on the quieter nights would definitely create a more vibrant movement in our music community, similar to the ‘live house’ culture of Japan and Taiwan. Being a live music venue that pays extra attention to hosting local music, our biggest challenge is in enticing a new crowd for our Saturday Originals Session (SOS), especially for the newer bands, so it’s just as important for the crowd to seek out new music as it is for venues to facilitate it.

In terms of numbers, we’ve definitely seen a marked increase in live music venues, but not all of them are quite up to scratch yet. And if you’re talking about the ones supporting original music, that number dwindles significantly.

Programming-wise, we are also seeing a very encouraging increase in the number of performance avenues for original music, from corporate-sponsored platforms such as the Ben Sherman Sessions to the very regular Identite gigs at Home Club to “imported” concepts such as the recently concluded first edition of Sofar Sounds. But there’s something to be said about putting local music in unexpected places like schools, ‘heartlands’, or trailers on TV, and not enough Singaporean artists have experienced the thrill of hearing their music on the radio for the first time.

It is not as much about the number of venues than it is about making local music more prevalent in the average person’s life. Perhaps it is in our Singaporean nature to think that music is not something that we take as seriously or something that we can call ourselves “professionals” at. We don’t seem to be very used to paying for local shows — a fact not lost on certain gig organisers — which ultimately serves to devalue the very bands we claim to support.

On the flip side, even bands that can pull a paying crowd cannot expect to do so week-in-week-out. The market is just too small. That said, if bands do their part in delivering great music, and if venues make sure that there are other draws for customers besides the live music, it just might be possible for everyone to come away happy.

Mae Ng
Founder, Upsurge Productions
The availability of live music venues has a massive impact on our music industry, especially if Singapore wishes to be a core part of the South East Asian touring circuit for international bands.

I think we could do with a bit more variety and open-mindedness in terms of programming, especially when it comes to what some venues have titled the ‘heavy-music’ genre — we’ve been turned down before simply because they were afraid that the music would disturb surrounding residences, and have had to reject some band offers because we could not find the right venue to hold the show in. Ultimately, it’s a real shame for the fans.

More live music venues gives promoters more choices, but it does not necessarily mean growth for the scene in the long-run. Venue owners need to be open to a variety of programmes. Take House of Blues, a premier live music venue that has 13 different chains of live music halls around the US. It may be called ‘House of Blues’, but they often hold shows ranging from pop-punk to hardcore, and have played a huge part in helping many up-and-coming bands succeed.

Music could really be a lucrative industry for the government, especially for tourism. Festivals, like Belgium’s TomorrowLand, that are packaged with flights and hotels, draw a sea of tourists — perhaps Singapore could be the next music mecca destination in Southeast Asia.

Mish’aal Nasar, Box Office and Outreach Executive; and Nur Khairiyah Bin Ramli, Programme Manager
The Substation
MN: Our venues can do a lot more to support local bands by offering more opportunities to perform original material. The Substation has always been open to local bands, whether it’s with our in-house programmes or venue hirers, and we’re always on the lookout for performers who are willing to push the boundaries and create their own material.

It is great to see the government investing more in local music, but what is really needed is the cultivation of an audience that supports the local music scene and some of the more experimental gigs where performers challenge conventional forms of sound. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s something government intervention could have a very big impact on.

NK: Our programming is geared at giving performers an opportunity to try something new. The last thing we want to do is limit artists — we want to encourage new works, new approaches and new sounds. We also try and keep ticketed shows as affordable as possible, for example the Tribal Gathering of Tongue Tasters, a collaborative series curated by our Associate Artist Bani Haykal, is keep it to $10 to $15 a ticket, which seems to have worked well so far.

For other series that tend to be more experimental, venues can try to encourage more people to come along by making the events free.

By Sylvia Koh