Are There Enough Mid-Sized Venues in Singapore?

Three weeks ago, a few of our local brethren played the Esplanade Concert Hall for House of Riot. The night was symbolic for being the last-ever show for the Great Spy Experiment, a fitting closure to the ten years of great music they have lent to the local scene. 

But another new record would be claimed: that this particular Saturday night would be the first for local acts to have headlined at the Esplanade Concert Hall. 

The SG$600m Esplanade Theatres opened in 2002, but have mostly been reserved for international music artistes — with the exception of a few lucky local acts, who would play support as the opening act to warm up the audience, often to mixed results. But the importance/weightiness of this venue is easier demonstrated in comparison; the Esplanade Concert Hall is to Singaporeans as the Madison Square Gardens is to Americans, or the Royal Albert Hall to the Brits. Stunning works filled the side of the Concert Hall, plush seats lined the levels while vibrations off each tweeter in the venue's state-of-the-art speaker system bounced off the cushioned interior. The night ended off with a bang as the House of Riots promised for yet another night like this in the future. 

However, there was another question to look deeper into, one that has lingered around for the longest time. If the Esplanade Concert Hall is the grand stage for most local acts, how do they get there? 

Singaporean post-hardcore band Caracal, who launched their second full-length album Welcome the Ironists at The Substation, an arts venue that can house up to 300 audience members.

Most bands start from simple beginnings, usually at a band member’s make-shift work space in their bedroom or at one of the many pint-sized jamming studios that advertise at $16/hour. As bands clamber up the ladder of ‘Battle of the Band Competitions’ and many ‘Pay-to-play shows’ (shows where bands sell tickets to friends, cousins, great grand-aunts for a slot on the line up), a selected few would emerge and it would only be a matter of time before they earn themselves a following. 

Invitations to play at the bigger stages like the annual IGNITE! Festival, Singapore Night Festival and of course Baybeats Festival pop up every so often if the organisers deem you worthy enough. It's pretty much rinse and repeat till you find yourself having played most of the stages in Singapore except the grand destination.

There is another issue. Between these stages and the Esplanade Concert Hall, there are few places for bands to expand and hone their guitar-playing skills. The learning experience gets more rigid and there is a limit to how much you can learn from playing on makeshift stages. As Isa from Pleasantry lamented with us about the lack of a space quite like (now-defunct) Home Club: where are all the damned mid-sized venues?

Taiwanese math-rock band Elephant Gym performing at BluJaz Cafe's attic. It underwent renovation in recent years to present a grander, more ornate interior.

BluJaz Cafe is one of the few options where a performing space for different forms of art is required — poetry slams, comedy masalas and open mic sessions usually fill the lower floors, but the open space following two flights of stairs is a befitting yet inadequate answer for more mid-sized venues.

Being in attendance for another of Other Sounds’ handiwork, Wilderness from Sweden was in session at BluJaz's exquisitely-designed attic, housed in a bustling string of Haji Lane shophouses on a Saturday night. For one who has yet to grace this marvel, being in the attic with its sloped ceiling presents itself a fascinating experience — the windows are adorned with intricate golden platings that guard the interior of carpets laid on the hollow wooden floor. Tilt your head back and you’ll notice a Basilica-like dome, with beautiful lights cascading from a light instalment that appears to almost represent gothic architecture of a late medieval period. 

Wilderness performing to an attentive crowd at BluJaz.

The Swedish band performed ‘This World Is Not Ours’, a delicate piece with pale streaks of the guitar swashed with the gentle caress of the background vocals. The melodic breeze goes on and stops short only to rectify technical issues with their mix. Apologising for the delay, not a single dash of bother dwelled on their faces. A clump of Finnish fans near the bar engaged in a flowery dance while gesticulating and exclaiming their delight in thick Swedish accents.

You can pick holes at the intimidating art on the toilet walls, the underpowered air-conditioning units or even the shoddy sound monitors, but these holes in the walls have constructed a regular home for live music and the sequential booze-motivated enjoyment that follows.

BluJaz is only one of a few venues where bands with modest to even skimpy followings can be given a shot — proving to the audience present that they themselves are worth a space on a live stage, even if they haven't arrived at that level yet. The importance of having mid-sized venues like BluJaz points to the development of local bands along with the international acts that DIY themselves into Asia as best as they can, spreading their works as far as possible — an endeavour Singaporean bands like Wormrot and The Caulfield Cult have achieved overseas. 

Why can't we provide the same for bands from other countries? We have Aliwal Arts Centre, The Substation, Artistry and Pink Noize but even these venues come with a set of red tape, either altering a gig's regular schedule or preventing it from happening altogether. Either that or their rental rates are too expensive for certain bands. Whatever it is, we deserve a live music venue free from suffocating regulations. 

Veteran US hardcore band Bane stopped by Aliwal Arts Centre as part of their farewell tour

Having a mid-sized venue won't be necessarily profitable for the owner but it would be an incredible injection into Singapore's arts culture, which would allow greater growth for musicians, artists, along with an appreciation by the local public. That's where the meaning for the phrase 'support local' derives from — not supporting local for the sake of it, but supporting them in hopes of growing a wholly organic culture, one that embodies a Singaporean DNA more than anything else, not just necessarily casually flaunting Singlish phrases here and there onstage.

There’s no room for perfunctory nods or limp handshakes. Venue owners need to step it up and we will encourage them by paying for tickets instead of a generic cover charge. Our local community needs our version of the Brooklyn Bowl, Mao Livehouse or KL Live. Let us shower our love on another House of Blues or sweating it out in a moshpit within our own Bowery Ballroom in Tanjong Pagar.

Written by Darren Ng & Daniel Peters