Final Thoughts On Singapore’s Music Scene

I’m pretty much closed for business in Singapore. Between now and when the removalists come to pack up The Sugar Shack, my studio here, I will only be doing my regular The Society For Film podcasts and finishing off my album, You Can’t Deny What’s Inside.

So, this will be my final post regarding the Singapore music scene. I leave with very mixed feelings about my time here. But, I’m thankful for the opportunity to work in this place, to meet locals artists and managers and to improve my craft, day to day.

A City Of Two Tales

When it comes to music in Singapore I find myself telling two parallel stories. One tale is about the musicians themselves, the other is about the role of the government and the infrastructure of music in this place.

The musicians inspire and surprise me. Singapore has an amazing ability to produce singer-songwriters and a remarkable number of bands. When I first moved here I had my concerns, but I’ve been impressed with how the influence of MusicMatters, the creation of sgmuso and other initiates have helped foster more professional and outward looking attitudes.

But, the story is very different when it comes to the government. The difficult experience I (and others) have had setting up music-related businesses here shows part of the flaw in the current plans to support music. Like other countries, Singapore’s government is trying to provide support. The focus is on music made by locals, which in a subtle but crucial way, is not the same as locally made music.

With Friends Like These

This isn’t just semantics. Funding programmes in other countries, like Australia and Canada, make it easier for people who’ve recently settled, or non-local artists or companies working in close collaboration with locals, to benefit from subsidies and support, or at least not to put at risk the eligibility of locals for support.

And, let’s not forget the organisation behind a lot of the music funding is also the one that recently brought in, sweeping and controversial rules aimed at online media. It’s an alarming contradiction given the need to encourage more, not less online support of an commentary upon music. Consider, for example, these lines from the Australia Councils 2012-14 Music Sector Plan,

“We will support research that increases the skills and capacity of our artists and organisations to engage with online audiences. We will support projects that present music to online audiences in new and innovative ways.”

Personally, I don’t need government support to do my work, but I do need an environment that protects freedom of expression. Music needs to reach online audiences. Music needs innovation, investment and entrepreneurship not just in the delivery of music online, but in helping online audiences discover new music. And, for a country like Singapore, with a tiny domestic market, finding support online for music is essential.

But, if these new rules stifle blogs and news sites and if they breed self-censorship, either in the reporting of music, or the work of the musicians themselves, then it could undermine the whole music industry here and rob artists of their authentic voice.

The Talent Question

I’m always being asked whether I believe the local bands and acts have “talent.” It’s an understandable question given the importance placed on meritocracy in Singapore. But, it’s also a bit of a misguided question.

I remember musicians who were phenomenally talented in their younger years but long ago gave up making music. While some of the folks I know who’ve made a lifelong living at music were nothing special in the latent stakes back in their teens or early 20s.

And, one of the best jazz musicians I know was booed off stage at his first gig!

Talent impresses your friends and family, might help you win competitions or obtain degrees, but it’s the application of talent over a period of time, with intense focus and determination, that will get you somewhere in music, or any other creative field.

Do I have talent is not the most important question. Do I have drive, determination, passion, a willingness to make sacrifices, or be unpopular, or misunderstand, will I stick at it, work hard, put in the hours and keep learning; these are the questions that matter.

And, perhaps the most important question of all is – what makes me unique?

Do It Again?

The most surprising obstacle here hasn’t been the government or the obsession with talent. It’s been the struggle to find collaborators.

My studio here is the best space I’ve ever created for writing and making music. I designed everything with collaboration and songwriting in mind. Everyone who has visited has been really impressed. I’ve created what is easily my best work in years in this space.

But, generating interest, even curiosity in my studio has been tough. I’ve heard it over and over again; it’s hard to gain people’s trust, hard to find collaborators, hard to break through. In some ways that’s kind of true everywhere.

And, yet, the really great music scenes all over the world and throughout history, London, New York, Berlin, Seattle, Nashville, Los Angeles are or have been known for their ability to attract and integrate talented outsiders.

To be honest, I don’t care much for flags, politics or nationalism. I believe in music. I believe in art. I believe in freedom. As long as I can live in peace with my family and be surrounded by creative, passionate, collaborative people, in a vibrant city, it’s all good.

Singapore Music Dialogue

Charlie Lim performing at the Singapore Music Dialogue (sgmuso)

This time last week, I attended a public forum called Singapore Music Dialogue, organised by sgmuso, the Singapore Music Society. I’ve been hesitant to comment, partly because I’m an outsider.

But, I not only live here, I made the decision to move my studio, my business and my musical hopes and dreams to Singapore after five years in Hong Kong. I may be an outsider, but that doesn’t mean I’m not invested in this place.

What Was The Dialogue?

There’s been a bit of comment online since the forum. A critical but positive review on Power of Pop and a somewhat more circumspect review on HYR. The latter drawing attention to the rather bellicose and maudlin comments on the event’s Facebook page.

It was certainly an odd meeting. The afternoon opened with a short performance from Charlie Lim, a performer I highlighted in my MusicMattersLive roundup in May. We also had some encouraging presentations; Graham Perkins, the president of sgmuso described the kinds of (very generous) government support available for music and arts initiatives, Syaheed from Bedsty on the SingTel Amped service and Arica Ng on YouTube’s approach to music partnerships.

However, the discussion sections of the afternoon, which really accounted for most of the meeting, were surprisingly negative, lurching all the way from self-pity to self-aggrandising disparagement. I lost count of the number of times “you,” “they,” “should” and “try” were thrown around.

And, of course, there was plenty of talk about what the government ought to do. To be frank, nothing tires me more, than talking about the government. Not to say education and opportunities don’t matter, because they do. I wouldn’t be where I am without venues to play in, space to rehearse and learn, lessons and studios to record in. They made me the musician I am. Of course, in my case, none of them were supported or created by government money.

If you are an artist, be it a musician, photographer, painter, writer or whatever, you live with a fundamental problem – what is my art and how will I realise it? The answer to that question does not start with “the government should…” it always starts with “I will.”

To be fair, seeing government as the answer is not specifically a Singaporean problem. I remember attending a Hong Kong focussed panel at the 2011 Semi-Permanent conference that was constrained by the same kind of rhetoric. As I wrote at the time “… the discussion never got past the old cliches about the government not doing enough, Hong Kongers still suffering from colonialism and the pervasiveness of market capitalism.”

Where’s The Beef?

I feel like we needed more conversation about making music. There’s initiatives to get more locally produced music out through SingTel Amped and maybe on local radio, but many of the celebrated local acts have small catalogues of recorded music. It’s great to have the MusicMattersLive showcase on our doorstep, but they don’t usually play the same acts more than once, so we need new performers to fill those slots by May 2013.

Which is another way of saying we need more new music.

The dialogue that really interests me is centred around writing new music, creating new bands and collaborations, recording new music, finding new artists and encouraging new work and new musical directions. That’s what I did, in a small way, with the SoundCloud meetup in May & of course, others are doing similar things all the time.

The dialogue that interests me is also full of passion, optimism and enthusiasm. It’s full of the values I mentioned yesterday. It’s full of hope.

The Future Is Now

I’ll admit last week’s event shook me – I’ve had some sleepless nights since then. But, upon reflection, my hopes for music in Singapore remain and my desire to continue recording and creating here is strong. There’s still a few months left in my big adventure for 2012 and I promise you music plays an important role in what you’ll be seeing from me in the coming months.


Since the meeting I’ve had a number of people reach out to me to express everything from concern to dissapointed resignation over the tone of the meeting. Also, in a curious turn, this post dropped completely off Goggle’s radar on the 19th of September, now matter how you search for this page, it won’t appear on a Google search. But, search for Singapore Music Dialogue on Yahoo and it’s there at the top of the results.

I’m taking both these as omens.

Musician’s Guide To Networking

Like a lot of musicians, I seem to have a quirk in my personality. Ask me to perform (or speak) in front of a thousand people, and I am fine with it. But, ask me to go up to one stranger at an event and “network” while exchanging business cards and I shrivel up.

With AsiaMatters and MusicMatters happening next week (the closest we have in Asia to SXSW), I thought it was time to take a look at networking, from a musician’s perspective. I’ve outlined what I do to prepare for a conference and also sought out some expert advice on networking from Jasper Donat, the President of MusicMatters.

Be Prepared

The idea of going on stage doesn’t daunt most musicians because we (should) know how to prepare for a gig (and most of us have played some pretty weird gigs). Networking has its own set of preparation skills. Here’s my pre-conference check-list,

1. Check out who’s going – read through the speaker lists, check out the band websites, investigate the sponsors and use the conference networking tool. Also, look people up on Twitter and LinkedIn.

2. Get some business cards – the only thing worse than having cards with out of date contact info or employment details is having no cards at all.

3. Update the website – I’m rolling out a new website design this weekend. It will be minor changes, but the site will support the message I’ll be giving at the conference.

4. Kick Twitter into gear – there is no better social media tool for conferences than Twitter. Create lists for people attending the conference and artists performing in the showcase. Create saved searches for the three conference hashtags (#dm12, #mm12, #mml12).

5. Practice the pitch – OK, I don’t really have anything to sell this year. But, it still helps to ready to tell my story and answer the obvious questions about background, experience, plans, dreams, etc.

6. Reach out – set up some meetings and try to connect with people who could be interesting to talk to. The more you talk, the more you get to talk and the more you get introduced to people you want to talk to.

7. Hit inbox zero – it’s hard to be responsive and focussed when your email inbox is full of clutter, junk and other commitments. Clear out the emails so you can respond to conference related communications as they come in.

An Expert’s View Of The Conference

Of course, that’s just the preparation. To understand better how to make the most of a conference like MusicMatters, I decided to go straight to the top and ask the Jasper Donat, the president of President Music Matters and Digital Matters and also Co-Founder & CEO Branded, for his insights into networking at a major conference.

Jasper’s Key Points

What’s your pitch?
What’s your desired outcome?
Take it to the man
Biz cards
How can you achieve this in 20-30 seconds?
Help each other
Follow up is the real work

One Final Thought

If you haven’t already done so, take a look at my piece 7 Kinds Of People You Need In Your Creative Universe. There are all sort of ways the people you meet might be able to help you towards your dreams.