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Blog // Sounds
January 13, 2012

A Better Music Scene In Singapore?

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a music industry forum here in Singapore. It’s exactly the kind of thing I swore I wouldn’t be doing this year. I’m going out of respect for the organisers, the speakers and because I actually believe it could be the start of something good for the local music scene. But, with […]

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a music industry forum here in Singapore. It’s exactly the kind of thing I swore I wouldn’t be doing this year. I’m going out of respect for the organisers, the speakers and because I actually believe it could be the start of something good for the local music scene.

But, with the six month anniversary of my move to Singapore coming up, I did find myself wondering what could be done to help the Singapore music scene grow. A lot of my ideas for developing and marketing local music were captured in last year’s posts on developing a better jazz scene in Hong Kong and my presentation on social media for musicians.

Things That Could Be Done

Structurally, there are some big things that could happen. With MusicMatters’ relocation from Hong Kong, Singapore already has the premier regional music conference. Singapore could attract a major international music college, like Berklee, to set up a campus here. It would also be beneficial to develop an inclusive trade body focussed on developing and exporting talent and musical enterprises, as SoundsAustralia (check out their awesome Generate 2012 initiative) and the Canadian Independent Music Association do so well.

I’m still collecting my thoughts on the local scene. There does seem to be a lot of kids playing with lots of gear available locally and opportunities for music education. There are good musicians here, venues with potential and a ready stream of touring acts.

I do see a need for more good quality music journalism and blogging. SonicScoop is a fantastic example of a local music industry blog, covering studio openings, recording sessions and music tech stories in New York. Singapore could do with something similar.

But, there’s one big issue that I feel needs to be addressed. As a way of talking about that issue, let’s look at another well known city.

From The Outside In

When people think of the US music scene, they focus on LA and New York. But, in recent years Nashville, has risen to prominence. Formerly known as the home of country music, Nashville is now a music industry powerhouse. As Sociologist Richard Florida writes in The Changing Geography of Pop Music,

“Over the past several decades, Nashville transformed itself from a rather narrow country music outpost in the 1960s and 1970s into a major center for commercial music. By the mid-2000s, only New York and Los Angeles housed more musicians. Nashville’s rise is even more impressive when you look at its ratio of musicians to total population. In 1970, Nashville wasn’t even one of the top five regions by this measure. By 2004, it was the national leader, with nearly four times the U.S. average. Today, it  is home to over 180 recording studios, 130 music publishers, 100 live music clubs, and 80 record labels.”

Few better represent the modern face of Nashville than Keith Urban. But, here’s the thing. Urban is not a Nashville native. He’s not even an American. Urban is New Zealand born and grew up in Australia, where he started his recording career. And, he’s certainly not the only one to move from Down Under to a successful music industry career in Nashville.

Florida’s point is not about making simple comparisons; this city is better than that sort of stuff. Rather, he is trying to spot trends that drive the growth of a music scene. As he said in another article, back in 2009,

“This is not about comparing New York and Nashville in particular. My point is more general: we need to think not only about music industries, but also about music scenes as a factor in attracting musicians to cities and sustaining their creativity once they’re in place.”

For example, Florida mentions some factors that have led to the growth of Montreal’s music scene,

“Though Montreal may not have the commercial punch of Nashville, its musical assets extend far beyond Arcade Fire. In a study of Montreal’s creative economy I conducted with Stolarick and consultant Lou Musante in the early-2000s, we found musicians from around North America relocating there to take advantage of the city’s historic and cultural heritage, openness, and affordable real estate.”

To summarise the point, here’s one final quote from Florida, again discussing Nashville,

“…Nashville has begun to suck in talent from the rest of the country and the world.”

What Needs To Happen

Of course, Nashville is just one example and it may well be an impossible example to replicate. But, the story holds for the growth of other great musical capitals in history – they sucked in talent.

A great contemporary music scene is always porous. It will attract musicians from elsewhere. In many ways the idea of a “local” music scene is kind of misleading. When I was growing up there was lots of great live music in Sydney. But the scene was made up not only of “locals,” but also musicians who had moved from other Australian cities, from New Zealand, from the Pacific Islands, from the UK, from Europe and from North and South America.

Every generation of musicians dreams of moving to the big cultural sponge. When I was young, it was New York, London, Boston and LA. This wasn’t the stuff of fantasy. I know people who did it. Some never came back. Every few years the cities change, but the dynamics stay the same.

This is the big challenge – can Singapore continue to develop an inclusive music scene that attracts musicians and music entrepreneurs to come and live here, developing new music and musical ventures with local and regional talent?

What People Don’t Care About

Over the Christmas break we had some guests stop by, on their way to Europe from Australia. The teenage son noticed, amongst the screensaver images playing through our Apple TV, some shots of Canadian band Simple Plan.

He asked me if I had met the band. I mentioned that they had been at last year’s MusicMatters, that I had met some of the band members and had really enjoyed the set I photographed in Clarke Quay. I then went on to talk about the band’s management and the support acts get in Canada. But, I could see his eyes starting to glaze over. Clearly this kid from Australia didn’t give a hoot that Simple Plan came from Canada, or the Canadian industry that supported them. So I changed tack.

“You should have seen the crowd reaction when they came on stage to play their free set,” I said. “It was awesome; they are a great band.”

“Yeah, they rock,” he replied.

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