In the second part of the roundtable talks, we sat down with three artists from the Musicity project and discussed about the prospects of Singapore’s music down the road. Mei Wong aka The Analog Girl, frontman Nick Chan from MUON and I Am David Sparkle’s guitarist, Djohan Johari joined the conversation. While most of them agree that the pitfalls of our homegrown music circuit is not limited to our shores and that there’s no real “industry” to begin with, the three artists have differing opinions to the types of obstacles they presents itself throughout their long musical careers. Read on to find out more what the future of Singapore’s music might hold. When you first started out in music was there a professional goal that you wanted to reach? Mei Wong (MW): Yes. I wanted to be a pop star like Madonna. Nick Chan (NC): Like most people, I hoped to enjoy the process of work and making rent. Music was something I loved, so it was natural to envision making a living from it, despite the difficulty. To me, ‘professional’ means spending most of my time and energy, deriving most of my income, and developing myself along the axis of a certain something. So I guess my professional goal was to be a professional in something musical. I hardly think of things in professional terms, and in the same inverse vein, we hardly come across people describing themselves as ‘serious hobbyist musician’. When you do it, you just do it. And if you manage to keep doing it without going hungry, you’re already a professional whether you realize it or not. I’d be surprised if I found out that any of my favorite artists or writers had won awards with an intention to do so. We know the only places you chase after awards are at the Olympics and in advertising. Most of the time, being a professional in some art and craft implies that a balance, usually Faustian, has been reached between the survival aspect and the craft and creation aspect of things. The challenge then, becomes one of maintaining authenticity, validity or wider relevance in one’s work. Then again, if those considerations even arise, you should count yourself lucky as it means that you’re surviving well enough to even be considering them, which is probably rare. Djohan Johari (DJ): Not really. We just wanted to make music we liked to listen to. We think that it'd be really nice to make a living from touring, writing music, et cetera, but to make it work we'd have to commit 110% of our time. But realistically we have responsibilities and commitments outside the band that we have to take care of. Through the times, did this goal, a greater vision of yourself, changed? What happened? MW: When I was in my early teens, I brought my Casiotone synthesizer to the Warner Music offices in Singapore requesting for an audition in the hopes that my childhood dream of getting signed by a major label would come true, just like in the fairy tales I read in popular music magazines. I think the receptionist politely informed me that they did not have an A&R department in Singapore. I never gave up my dream and kept on sending demo tapes to record labels. This goal has never changed but my approach has. I now marry the experimental with the pop so as to carve a niche, and also reach out to listeners directly through social media. I run my own show. NC: I wouldn’t say it changed so much as it evolved and broadened in scope, and more importantly, I along with it. In a nutshell, the seemingly nebulous desire to pursue music turned out to be a multi-faceted journey that equipped me with various skill-sets, lessons and experiences, relationships, et cetera, some of which had little to do with music. When I reflect on how these things made their appearance in my life, I’m always able to trace them back to an initial musical desire. When I decided to pursue music, I did not have clear statements like ‘I want to be a this-and-that’ or ‘I want to make electronic music’. Mangling and creating sound was something that I derived a lot of personal meaning from. Following through with that, I inadvertently got into things like running an indie label, organizing gigs, setting up and running a studio, releasing records for myself and others, et cetera. None of these were goals in themselves, but just what felt most right at a given time. DJ: While on tour, we had talks amongst ourselves about how we could get used to being on the road. Being used to getting up and writing songs and play shows. It was really fun despite the logistical headache, which we have our guitarist, Amran Khamis and the folks from KittyWu Records to thank for sorting that all out. As mentioned before, we do not mind doing this full time, and we are still very much idealistic on how far we could go, because first and foremost, Singapore musicians need stop having negative connotations about being a musician from Singapore, about how little opportunities there are. I think that's rather self-defeating and really rubbish. Our peers and ourselves, we're just music-making folks like how anyone is elsewhere in the world and we don't think opportunities are necessarily bounded by our geographical coordinates. It's just that for us, we are a bit more pragmatic about the responsibilities we have individually. Do you think the platform, or the lack of, provided in Singapore was a kind of reality check? MW: It made me look at the world and to produce material of international standards and appeal. That said, I don't think musicians in any other country have it that much easier than us, so we should never use this as an excuse to not try harder. Musicians around the world have to face their own issues too. We are like athletes, we need to endure any injuries and push on. NC: Not really. I harbored no illusions as to how things were around me, and my feet were firmly planted in the clouds. I suppose what matters is whether you choose to do something, anything, or do nothing. I believe it was Gandhi who said something like “Be the change you want to see in the world.” That resonates with how I feel as far as Singapore lacking certain things goes. I do agree it’s really tough doing music in Singapore though. DJ: We started the band without having thoughts about how there is a lack of platform, coverage or support and we don't see a reason why that is even a point for contention in the creative road we take. Sure, there is a huge differential in comparison to the 'bigger markets' out there and maybe we could benefit if we're immersed in an environment as such, but so what, you know? We just have to concentrate on our craft and we'll take it from there. To be fair, the music community here and the general response over the years have been positive. More venues to play shows, some coverage here and there, there's definitely some positives to take from. But even without it, we should take this opportunity to take the initiative and be a bit more pro-active and at times be the media and reach out. It can be tiring, but you got to do what you got to do. With that said, would it be fair to assume that this reality check is only limited to our home soil? MW: No. We caught each other's drift. NC: No, I think there’d be reality checks everywhere you go, that’s why the grass is always greener. As a nation and culture, we’ve ‘progressed’ at quite a disorienting pace. Perhaps we’ve failed to realize that the cognitive software we run is largely Western Consumer Capitalism 5.0, and as such we forget to take into account the cultural relativity. I once was in Sweden and stayed with friends who were all musicians by profession, some of whom were conservative right-wing types. It was the eve of their election day, and I got into a debate with some of them who were speaking negatively of Singapore. Thing is, they were echoing my own sentiments, speaking against things that I myself felt strongly about. I had to agree with them, but yet, I found myself defending Singapore. Not so much because I disagreed with them, but because their gripes were so divorced from the reality of how things got to be like that in the first place. In a similar vein, I think we often look abroad, pick out certain things that we find agreeable or not, and then question why things aren’t like that back home. In my opinion, to think that this reality check is limited to our home soil is a further extension of that myopic view many of us would otherwise claim to disavow. DJ: The reality is, there are tonnes of bands out there in the world, which are exceptionally talented and still without the fabled coverage and platform. We do not think this is a 'problem' limited to home. You've played overseas. Comparatively, what's one aspect that Singapore's music industry is lacking? MW: I think whatever we've previously lacked, we are fast catching up on. I just played at CMJ Music Marathon in New York City and a festival like that is a great breaking ground for new artists as it is very targeted at industry professionals and journalists who are on to the next big things. We have something similar perhaps like Music Matters in Asia. We just need more to drum up a bigger scene. NC: It’s most definitely lacking any sort of ‘industry’ in the proper sense of the word. At best, it’s a cottage industry. I don’t mean to boil things down to economic factors, but you know, this ‘music industry’ of ours isn’t an industry at all. It’s a scene, and that’s it. Having an industry should imply an infrastructure that ultimately supports the movement of money through the exchange of various goods, services and information pertaining to that industry. When that’s in place, there would be such things as jobs and careers in the ‘industry’. People would not have to be divisive about things and questions such as “What’s your day-job?” would not be asked because it’d already be a given. Yes, we do have a ‘nightlife industry’ which is doing pretty well and pays the salaries of various resident DJs and in-house bands and entertainment, but let’s not get that mixed up with a ‘music industry’. DJ: We might not be the right people to comment on what the Singapore music industry is lacking, but honestly, we don't think we're that affected as it has never been in our agenda when we started out. We are more concerned with building a community with the friends we have here, the friends we made overseas and with the supporters we have. Having said that, how major is this stumbling block? MW: Without effective exposure, an artist cannot move forward so this stumbling block is pretty major. NC: It’s pretty major since it implies that people’s involvement in it can only ever go so far. It’s extremely difficult to build an interdependent ecosystem that involves music and its auxiliary industries. Aspiring musicians would not be able to have role models or examples of success to aim for, and thus few would take the plunge. Also, no one would stay in music long enough to ride out the ups and downs and as a result, we pay the price which is a lack of depth and lack of continuity between phases of growth. If one were to observe things as they happen and have happened in our music scene, it seems that growth comes in fits and spurts and is largely defined by punctuated equilibrium. It presents as big a stumbling block as not having a national language to serve as a cultural glue. And no, English is not our national language. It’s a language of convenience borne out of economic necessity. Perhaps in a few generations English will serve the purpose of a national language. DJ: No stumbling block whatsoever. But it is rather annoying when a bunch of people gets together and talk about the 'music scene'. Because as most talks are, they're just that, talks. Do you think Singapore media is getting more or less behind its homegrown artists? Does it matter? MW: There is growing support from Singapore media and it matters. What artists need to do is to be able to draw up a proper press calendar months ahead of any release or concert so that media coverage leading up to the event is strategized and rolled out in full force - and not just sporadically. NC: I’d say the media is a bit more impartial now, in the sense that in the past, homegrown stuff carried a negative or inferior connotation, whereas now it’s seen as something that used to seem inferior. In terms of mainstream traditional media like newspapers it’s business as usual with more or less the same things said in the same way. Despite what I read as a positive sort of ‘generavity’, what’s written often has the depth and scope of a Sumiko Tan editorial. That can’t be helped though, and all in all, it does matter as most of us, myself included, still have an ‘as featured in the Straits Times’ mindset, or we feel that it has currency, so it matters. In print media like magazines and such, there are a few voices within a few publications that seem to make a good difference to things homegrown. There is a feeling of community, involvement and levelness with the way things are represented. At the same time, some of it borders on an elitism of the shallow sort. But I guess that’s always the danger when anything attempts to be an arbiter of taste. Certain other magazines will have the odd article here and there that sometimes gives a good angle and spin on some homegrown artist, and that’s always encouraging. TV is dead by and large, but the news channels do cover homegrown artists once in a while. The exciting area is in music websites, video channels, blogs and even apps that are increasing and becoming a new force of media that works by different rules. Often, these are created as a labor of love and cover different aspects of our local culture. I feel they reflect true opinion from the ground up. Unfortunately, the fact that they’re a labor of love often means they have a fixed lifespan. But I guess more will give rise to more, so it’s all very encouraging. I think the avenues of media and the way people consume information has redefined things such that traditional media has much less of a leading role in defining the cultural climate. DJ: The Singapore media has definitely been getting more behind our homegrown artists, which is good. It somewhat matters, because for the musicians, it's a great avenue to get their craft known outside their immediate circle and supporters. In terms of quality, support and reach, how different was Singapore's music circuit back then compared to now? MW: The biggest change I have seen for myself in the past 10 to 15 years is big brands like Fred Perry and Singtel coming forward to engage local music acts to launch their products and drive their marketing campaigns. This elevates the status of an artist and puts them on a different level. And this in turn aspires younger bands to continue pushing the standards of their craft towards achieving this attainable goal. NC: I think it has improved on all fronts. Right now there seems to be some kind of a mini-renaissance which is very encouraging. There are gigs and events of all sorts going on and you can sometimes even be spoilt for choice. Foreign acts see Singapore as a capital city in Asia and many of them include it in their tour schedule. The audience in general, especially the younger ones, doesn’t carry the same baggage as the previous not-too-distant generation, and that’s such a breath of fresh air. I feel they’re more open-minded, malleable and well-fed. There are more and more collectives and labels popping up, more bands doing their own stuff, organizing their own overseas tours to surrounding countries and the like. Increasingly we’ve been making headway into being part of a global culture. However, in terms of quality, it’s a bit different. While everything has improved, it’s been more of a horizontal proliferation, with more choices, more mass, broader reach. But quality is one of those things that usually comes as a result of practicing a craft long enough, or sticking through the curve and coming out the other side. And because it’s still difficult to be a content creator by profession in our culture, it shows up in the quality of our output. Sure, more and more people are making music, but that’s a function of improved access rather than a function of improved artistry. DJ: We think that quality is very much subjective so we'd leave it as that. Support and reach would have probably grown. We have more people doing shows, we have more avenues for bands to play and we have people releasing Singapore music, so it's a really cool thing. In addition, we've gotten much support from Singapore International Foundation and the National Arts Council, and it's nice that there are organizations that are willing to support us. The amount of experiences you've amassed from gigs to releases, what's the biggest take-away you've gotten out of it? MW: That we as musicians are here to push an art form. And the most important thing is for everyone to have fun --artists, audience and promoters alike. NC: The sheer fun and privilege of having experienced it on its own terms, the many wonderful people I’ve met and the things I’ve learnt, and the memories of all of them. DJ: The opportunity to be humbled by it all. Where do you think Singapore's music industry will be heading in 10 years’ time? What's you ideal vision of it, and how will we get there? MW: Right now it seems to be heading in the right direction but it's hard to tell what the world would be like in 10 years’ time and that will certainly affect our music industry. I wish for stronger infrastructure, network and economics surrounding the industry, that it is established enough to sustain and promote the careers of our local musicians. To get there, we need live music portals like Bandwagon, press media like JUICE and industry-targeted festivals like Music Matters to continue shining the beam on bands that are worth the spotlight. NC: My ideal vision involves a future where everyone is a stakeholder, playing their own part in the creation and consumption of music. The consummate music artist will be someone who strides the balance between being an artist and a hacker. Someone involved in the aesthetic side of manipulating information. Consumers of music will be able to do more than simply listen, as the musical experience becomes more stratified and interactive. Developments in technology and software are making available to the layman things and processes that were once esoteric or in the domain of a committed handful. Some people whose livelihoods or craft might have depended on these things are generally bemoaning the fact that what they do can be replicated by a 15-year-old with an iPad. I’m a bit more anarchistic when it comes to these things, so I don’t bemoan them. The way I see it, people are being forced to evolve, or become sidelined. That said, if there’s one thing I’ve realized, it’s that such scenarios of the future cannot be extrapolated by looking at the recent past or even the present. I think it’s hard enough to get a realistic view of the present, let alone the near future. Furthermore, change nowadays is often defined by convergence and non-locality, so it’s hard to speak of Singapore as detached from what’s happening around. DJ: We are not too sure where the industry will be heading in 10 years’ time, but hopefully it isn't limited to something like Baybeats. It would be nice that musicians here would be given enough credit and respect as much as their overseas counterparts do, but in order to achieve that, we ourselves have to step our game up. It is also important to support the independent folks who are making it work, via the shows they organize or via the albums they release. These folks aren't making huge profits or even any at all, and sometimes they don't even cover their own costs. With much diligence and support, this might form the core of this elusive 'Singapore music industry' we've been talking about all this while.