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Blog // Artistry // Sounds
June 12, 2013

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 […]

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.

Archie 11 years ago

some really interesting points that you raise, particularly given that we are both outsiders trying to create in a foreign land.

For me, the greatest problem with Singapore (as in China) is a genuine lack of precedent. It’s hard for parents to be supportive when there aren’t obvious careers to be had in music. Add to this the rigidity of the education system (I’m talking China here rather than Singapore, but I imagine that it is similar), and the conservative and risk averse nature of youth, and you have a recipe for a lack of creativity (and the desire to do something different).

In Singapore’s case, there is also (in my limited experience) a set of circumstances that take away further from a desire to get into music: the government has made sure everyone is moderately comfortable and somewhat middle class. Booze is expensive, illicit substances are very very illegal and there are very few places for young people to hang out and just be. Music needs subcultures, subcultures need rebellion, rebellion needs overt anger. With a government that seeks to suppress this at every turn, what hope the fringe?

Finally, leading on from the last point, I’ve seen quite clearly this crazy Asian phenomenon of valuing style over substance – there is no support for the emerging artist. Singaporeans, and Chinese for that matter, seem to only be interested in success, in fame. Until there is a real understanding that in the main, people need to struggle for years to achieve success and that they need support in this struggle, then we will never see new and indigenous music take off.

I believe truly that this is a generational phenom. The kids that have grown up in a Singapore and a China with options, with external influences, have also grown up in a world of the birth of the internet, with the instant success stories of Idol, the Voice, etc. Why struggle when you can get on a talent show and get famous in a month? Getting famous is the end goal anyway, right?

I think that the next generation, who will grow up in less aspirational and more realistic times, where there are protests and a sense of reality that government cannot provide everyone with everything, we will see music explode.

sad you are leaving man, good luck in Tokyo………

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