What does music journalism in Singapore look like today? A conversation on friendship, community, and solidarity

What does music journalism in Singapore look like today? A conversation on friendship, community, and solidarity

Part 2 of Community Stories: Music Journalism in Asia

The figure of the music critic often conjures an image of a pretentious, usually middle-aged, white man dispensing highfalutin opinions about what’s considered “good” music. But as the first part of Community Stories: Music Journalism in Asia has shown, the music journalist is far from a lone wolf, especially in a small but burgeoning music scene like that of Singapore’s. As a storyteller and community builder, music writers often work together with artists, organisers, fans, and the wider ecosystem in championing local music.  

But how exactly do local music journalists “build community” today, and what new directions can Singaporean music writing move forward in? In this second part of the series, we survey the present-day music media landscape in Singapore, and speak with several writers about their experiences working within the scene.  

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Hear65 (@hear65sg)

Music journalism in Singapore today looks vastly different from the DIY fanzines of the past, as we’ve shown in the first part of the series. For nearly two decades, BigO Magazine was the sole authority on the Singaporean underground, and it served as the epicentre for local music discourse.

However, music discovery and journalism became much more accessible and diversified from the early 2000s, partly due to the advent of the Internet and greater support for local culture in general. Most notably, JUICE Singapore would succeed BigO as the local alternative bible for the next two decades.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by JUICE Singapore (@juicesg)

At the same time, local music journalism was beginning to take shape online. Local music blogs and forums were already crystallising in the pre-social media era, including SOFT, Power of Pop, and Rock In The Fine City, the latter of which still exists on an aptly old-school Blogspot. And of course, who could forget MySpace, the incubator of bands and unpretentious nook for music lovers? (Surprisingly, you can still find an archive of Singaporean bands on MySpace here.)         

Fast forward to the early 2010s, and even more publications had burst onto the scene. Bandwagon was created in 2011 as a gig-finder at a time when homegrown music was starting to gain significant traction, eventually transforming into a full-fledged regional music media company. Similarly, both online and print magazines like PopSpoken, Popwire, and ZIGGY also emerged as players in the ecosystem, further diversifying the space for local music criticism. 

Bandwagon in 2012

For many music journalists today, it was this period that kickstarted their personal journeys into writing about Singaporean music. “Bandwagon took a chance on me ages ago, and I’m still very grateful for it. My contributions to the site began sometime in 2012, months away from being locked down in Tekong, and before that, I practiced writing short music reviews on my silly little WordPress blog,” shares Daniel Peters, a former editor for Bandwagon

Bandwagon was where I started writing professionally. Before that, I was mostly writing album reviews for myself, and when the magazine called out for contributors in around 2011, I jumped on the opportunity,” echoes Ilyas Sholihyn, also a former editor here. 

JUICE Singapore was also the jump-off point for many music writers, including Kevin Ho, founder and editor of Singaporean music magazine Life In Arpeggio. “I was stuck in a soul-destroying loop of ennui trying to finish my degree in law school. So in 2012, I took a leap of faith and emailed JUICE to ask if they were accepting editorial interns; I’d been a staunch follower for years,” he shares.

“Those three months at JUICE turned out to be more meaningful than my four years at law school. It might seem small now, but I do remember that the impact I felt as a starry-eyed music journalist in those formative years was indelible. It just clicked into place. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do. Nine years on, I haven’t looked back since.”

For longtime critic and former Bandwagon editor Hidzir Junaini, JUICE’s impact was undeniable. “I first started as a film and television critic in 2009 at a now-defunct website called inSing.com. In 2011, I decided to switch lanes to music journalism when I heard of an opening at JUICE through a friend who was working there,” says Hidzir. “Growing up in the local music scene, JUICE was one the most respected street publications out there, and it’s always been a dream of mine to write for them since I was such a huge fan of their work. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity when I got the job.”

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by JUICE Singapore (@juicesg)

While JUICE’s eventual closure in 2018 might have signalled the decline of music journalism in Singapore, that’s far from the truth. The late 2010s saw a myriad of online-only publications that have stepped up to further push local music coverage, including Bandwagon’s Singapore-centric offshoot, Hear65. Other fresh faces included Life In Arpeggio, independent fanzine Big Duck Music—fronted by Isaac Chiew and JX Soo—and Nevermind Magazine, which is run by former Bandwagon editor Indran Paramasivam and DJ Adrian Wee.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Hear65 (@hear65sg)

Although Ho had been an active music writer for a while now, Life In Arpeggio is a relatively new addition to the music media landscape. Founded in 2018, the magazine explicitly positions itself as a platform for music journalism in Singapore, and focuses on long-form content as opposed to churning out music news on the regular. 

“As someone who grew up chasing the sparks of the scene, I believe in keeping that torch burning for future generations, and I hope to do that with the power of storytelling. With the shrinking of Singapore’s publishing industry as a whole, the niche nook of music journalism is only going to get smaller. Music journalism is a specialised discipline that requires a certain amount of knowledge and form of expression; I think it’s crucial to preserve that,” he says.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Life In Arpeggio (@lifeinarpeggio)

“On top of that, I wanted a platform that advocates the essence of long-form content. Attention spans are waning in today’s distracted digital age, and I’ve seen this affect the quality of journalism across all beats.”

“I don’t disagree with the merits of tapered content in the right circumstances, but I firmly stand for engaging storytelling by using a tailored balance of pace, colour, tone, and facts to capture audiences. The majority of the content on Life In Arpeggio is dedicated to this, which is why I don’t believe in excessive cutting or sticking to a specified word count. If the story’s good, let it breathe.”

Another champion for long-form stories would be Big Duck Music, which was borne from a collective of gig organisers previously known as Naybeats in 2019. A tongue-in-cheek jab at Singapore’s largest alternative festival Baybeats, the group decided to pivot to editorial during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, with a focus on independent music in Southeast Asia. Specifically, providing constructive and good-quality criticism—something that they felt was lacking in the local and regional scenes—forms one of the central tenets of Big Duck’s creative mission.   

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Big Duck Music (@bigduckpteltd)

“For music journalism, colour is important, but it’s not the most important thing in my opinion. I think it’s more important to have a stance, and to have range. To me, in Singapore, it’s more important to have range, because your job as a journalist is to find stories to tell, and there’s no point in writing about a press cycle that’s just going around constantly,” says Soo. 

Interestingly, critical writing on Singaporean music post-BigO has made its way to informal platforms outside of traditional websites. Over the past few years, there has been a growing micro-community of music reviewers on Instagram and the newsletter platform Substack, including @katongkei, @critqideh, and @culturecockster. “These days, you don’t even need to write for an existing publication. There are so many online avenues to put up your work for the world to see,” says Ilyas.

 
 
 
 
 
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And this phenomenon isn’t purely straddled along generational lines; even former BigO contributor Redmund Law has also migrated to Instagram, sharing vinyl reviews every other day with over 5,000 followers. “Writing on Instagram came by accident. It began as an experiment to understand the psychology of Instagram out of curiosity, and it grew into this effort to see whether I could use it as a writing platform to engage people both visually and through my writing,” he shares. 

 
 
 
 
 
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“It was a challenge to see if I could connect with people in some way, and when the account grew organically over a period of time, I realised that despite what everyone says about Instagram being a visual platform, there were many who wanted to go beyond the visual element—even if that is what had caught their eye.”

For Law, it’s precisely the spirit of community cultivated through social media interactions that motivates him to write. “I used to feel blogging was narcissistic and was never really comfortable with it. I know it’s ironic, given how much more Instagram feeds into narcissism, but it was after I had started writing my little reviews that drew positive comments that I decided to keep doing it. Simply put, I had an audience who appreciated what I wrote, and that kept me going,” he adds.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Red (@redrimbaud)

“The whole reason I do what I do is the community of friends I have made over the last five years on Instagram. I am quite specific in what I post: music, records, and CDs. There is a surprisingly active community of people who interact over such things. I never really fully understood how Instagram could reach out and connect people until I started this,” says the former zine maker. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Culture Cockster (@culturecockster)

In a similar way, the folks at Big Duck affirmed that kickstarting conversations about music is also vital to the community-building enterprise. “What I respected about Bandwagon was that there were op-eds that were digging into specific things or being critical about things that were coming out fresh,” shares Soo. 

“There’s a heart to it. I remember in early Bandwagon, there was a piece about the lack of mid-sized venues in Singapore. That was great. I learnt so much,” adds Chiew. “That’s one of the many pieces where I actually stopped to think, and it also created discourse among my friends in the scene. I think that’s what I would count as good music journalism in Singapore; it’s something that can spark discussions and get people invested in the state of the music scene here.”

Are There Enough Mid-Sized Venues in Singapore?

But more than the creation of discourse, Big Duck believes that efforts to build community should not come at the expense of good criticism, which can be a tricky balancing act. For them, honest music journalism is integral to the community, because constructive feedback is important for the scene to grow—even if it might draw the ire of some. 

“It’s important to manage people’s expectations and be very clear when you’re communicating with artists,” says Chiew. “We do critical reviews, so not every review is going to be good. Something that we’ve learnt is to avoid getting artists’ hopes up before we write a negative review. No one’s happy when that happens. We’re just trying to keep it real on Big Duck, so knowing how to manage expectations is something that the team had to learn. That’s why we have a disclaimer on our website now,” he chuckles.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Big Duck Music (@bigduckpteltd)

For others in the scene, community can be something as simple—but no less profound—as friendship. Beyond just chasing press cycles and typing words behind a laptop, music journalism can and should create the space for connection, mentorship, and solidarity. Just like how BigO helped to establish lifelong friendships among older generations of music fans, today’s local music publications serve as a gathering hub not just for artists and fans, but also writers and other creatives themselves.

Delfina Utomo, a former editor at Bandwagon, can probably attest to this. “I’m grateful that I’m still friends with most of the writers here! I even married one of them. Shout-out to Ilyas Sholihyn,” she quips.

“Going back to my internship days at JUICE, I’d have to give a massive shout-out to my mentor, Hidzir Junaini. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading his material, you’d know he’s a genius with words with razor-sharp opinions and wit,” says Ho. “He steered JUICE’s music content direction for years, helping to define the publication within the local scene. I’ll always be grateful to him for paving the way and refining my processes, and more importantly, for showing me how to be a genuine champion of the scene,” shares the Life In Arpeggio founder. 

“I’m proud to call many of my local inspirations in music writing my good friends. Daniel Peters was an editor at Bandwagon in 2015 and let me contribute to the site then, which was an important stepping stone for me as a music writer—something I’ll always be grateful to him for,” says Karen Gwee, a former editor for Bandwagon. “I’m consistently in awe of the extent of his knowledge and taste in music, as well as how versatile he is across various media, from writing to audio and video. We work together on a regular basis for NME Asia, and I can’t express how lucky we are to have him on board as a contributor.”

Of course, a conversation about “community” in music journalism would be incomplete without the stories themselves, which form the bedrock of the music writer’s craft. Especially in an ongoing pandemic that has decimated the local arts and culture sectors, centring the voices of musicians and creatives feels imperative now more than ever. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Life In Arpeggio (@lifeinarpeggio)

“Back in April, I wrote an op-ed in Life In Arpeggio about the double standards issued by the government regarding the stunted reopening of the nightlife industry. I compared this with the fortunate developments enjoyed by the live music sector: are two people at a DJ set riskier than 750 attendees at a live gig? I shed light on the problematic perceptions the authorities had with the party community, and that it wasn’t reasonable to paint this presumption with broad strokes,” shares Ho. 

“While I’m most certainly glad that live gigs have witnessed some sense of normalcy, parties in Singapore have been largely crippled, destroying businesses, livelihoods and culture. This piece addressed this gaping inconsistency, and I was pleased that it was well-received amongst the party community here.”

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Life In Arpeggio (@lifeinarpeggio)

On the other hand, stories that dive deep into the nooks and crannies of the Singaporean music often feel the most significant, as they uncover previously unknown subcultures and traditions that deserve greater awareness and celebration. In a time when the music press as a whole can get caught up with inane news cycles and endless PR, it’s stories like these that truly serve the community. 

Perhaps Utomo sums it up the best: “It really goes both ways. I agree that we should give the audiences what they want to read. But I also think that as writers, it’s our responsibility to repackage the story in a way that benefits both the writer and the audience, so that it’s not another boring story that the writer has to file for the day, but rather an article that genuinely informs and interests the audience. Music journalism isn’t just about bands, interviews and reviews.”

So, what kinds of histories and artefacts have been documented thus far? “If I had to pick, my most significant story would have to be my piece on Noisey about the history of Singapore’s drum and bass scene,” says Hidzir. “I co-wrote this with my good friend Nyshka Chandran aka Nisa Kreems, and we spent a couple of months interviewing a plethora of local DJs, producers, and promoters.” He adds, “The article remains close to my heart, because I was glad that we could spotlight a vibrant yet hidden music subculture in Singapore to a wider global audience.”

For Gwee, the story of Fluxus remains close to the heart. “In 2019, I wrote a feature for Bandcamp Daily about the short-lived CD shop Fluxus that helped, for a time, incubate Singapore’s experimental music scene,” she shares. “Besides the fact that I think it’s some of my best writing to date, it’s also significant for me because I was able to help document a period of time in Singapore music history that hadn’t really had its story told in a cohesive, comprehensive way—and for a publication with a global audience, at that.”

In praise of FluxUs and friendship: Yuen Chee Wai on the now-defunct Singapore experimental music store and his 2018 album with Lasse Marhaug

Yet, the discussion on community building—not just for local music journalism, but the Singaporean music scene in general—ultimately falls flat if it doesn’t address the importance of infrastructural support. After all, a sustainable community can’t be solely built on kumbaya moments and shout-outs.

While greater structural support does not necessarily equate to moving towards hard professionalisation, it would certainly benefit writers to have better wages, more targeted mentorship frameworks, and more sustained efforts to ensure the viability of creative labour as a whole. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Hear65 (@hear65sg)

“The thing about community—especially in a small country like Singapore, and within its even smaller creative community—is that the relationships that constitute it must be premised on, at the very least, mutual respect for the other person as both a writer and an individual,” shares Gwee. “You can’t force that, or at least I can’t force it. So I don’t want to insist on it for myself, let alone other people.”

“I think the answer depends on the question: what is ‘community’ among music writers important for? If it’s cultivating music writing as a practice or profession in Singapore, then I think there are structural factors that are more crucial to developing that than a widespread, nebulous sense of ‘community’,” she continues.

The Problem of Politics in Singapore's Growing Music Scene

“For example, a wider variety of publications that can give writers—both beginners and seasoned freelancers—paid opportunities; sustainable mentorship and considered editing so that writers can learn and improve; a more nuanced understanding of and respect for music writing from other stakeholders in the local industry, so that writers aren’t subject to expectations they shouldn’t have to bear in the first place.”

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Hear65 (@hear65sg)

Peters echoes a similar sentiment. When it comes to pushing the potential of local music journalism, he had this to say: “Better pay would be a good start. But there are wider issues plaguing Singaporean music that require thoughtful, long-term solutions that I haven’t seen addressed aside from charitable grants, which only a few would end up having access to, anyway.”

“This is not unique to the pandemic. Even if our quality of music journalism increases, it becomes futile if artists aren’t first afforded a secure and stable environment. Financial instability and clumsy bureaucratic attitudes have butchered so many creative spirits in Singapore that our collective cultural consciousness continues to be inhospitable for newer ones. No short-term financial aid can fix that,” he remarks. 

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While it’s certainly not all about the money, financial viability is clearly important in the long run, especially for full-time music journalists. “If the money’s attractive enough, quality writers will come and stick around. If not, music journalism could just remain in the realm of hobbyists and enthusiasts,” says Ilyas. “I might be wrong. I suppose having a vibrant, sustainable music ecosystem in Singapore will help push music journalism forward too.”

At the end of the day, it’s ongoing practices of solidarity that exemplify what “community” can look like in the niche but the ever-growing field of music journalism. While it’s easy for writers to operate in isolation, the individuals we spoke to are intentional about carving out shared spaces in the scene that are grounded in mutual respect and learning. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Hear65 (@hear65sg)

Mentorship is one of the ways that Big Duck tries to build solidarity within the music scene. As a more experienced writer, Soo serves as an informal mentor to their team, some of whom were entirely new to the realm of music journalism. The magazine also encourages pitches from contributors of all experience levels, and Soo sees the editorial process as a space for both coaching and learning from budding music journalists. 

For Hidzir, mentorship is key in pushing the quality of local music writing. “Perhaps the biggest thing is the training of younger writers. I would urge editors and senior writers to lend their experience to help junior writers or interns as much as they can,” he shares.

“Teach them the dos and don’ts, check their work, offer feedback, encourage them when they feel burnt out, and be receptive to their ideas in turn. I think writers by nature are independent and solitary creatures who live in their own heads, but perhaps the best way to nurture the potential of Singaporean music journalism is to help each other.” 

 
 
 
 
 
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For Life In Arpeggio, solidarity means acknowledging that the scene has room for different kinds of stories to coexist in harmony, and it doesn’t always have to be a competition where each publication tries to become the loudest voice. “I believe that we all have the same shared vision in mind—to help promote a scene that we love dearly—so there is no room for ego or animosity,” says Ho. 

“I believe that every publication should have its chance to excel and reap the rewards of its hard work. In fact, I recently proposed an arrangement with a fellow music journalist where we coordinate our interview features to prevent any overlap or dilution of page views. One might think that it goes against the nature of competitiveness, but I don’t think that has a place in our community,” adds the former Baybeats Budding Writers mentor. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Baybeats (@baybeats)

And lastly, what would mentorship and solidarity be without a few words of advice for the aspiring music journalist who’s reading this? “Keep an open mind; always be willing to listen or try new genres and things. Curiosity is a good trait to have if you’re a writer,” shares Utomo. 

“Never fear rejection. Pitch stories to your favourite publications, think outside the box when pitching ideas at editorial meetings, slide into DMs to request interviews—but be professional and respectful! Try requesting passes to your dream gig; you’ll meet rejection in this career, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end,” she says. 

“Read far more than you write, and read widely. Try everything, but find what you’re specifically interested in, and then lean into it. Whether it’s the topic—metal, Thai music, club culture—or the format, be it reviews or even podcasts,” Gwee remarks. 

“Find journalists whose work you admire, and figure out why you admire their work. Imitate them, but don’t plagiarise. Then write as much as you can, and don’t ignore that deep feeling in your gut that tells you when something you’re working on is important,” she adds.

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“It’s always best to learn about the fundamentals of journalism first. Read as much as you can, listen to a wide variety of music, and learn about topics or genres you’re unfamiliar with. Don’t just spend a couple of months on it: learning the craft and technicalities of journalism is a years-long endeavour,” shares Hidzir. “Never be afraid to admit that you don’t know something, and never be afraid to ask for help. If you can’t find a job at a publication, start your own! It could be a website, a blog or even a vlog on YouTube—just put yourself out there.”

Ultimately, for a field that remains niche and less understood, local music journalism occupies a crucial role in documenting the development of a bona fide Singaporean music landscape that’s thriving more than ever. While it’s by no means a recent phenomenon—as the fanzines of the ’80s and ’90s have shown—music writing continues to evolve in form and content, taking on the mantle of spiritual predecessors to foster greater solidarity and connection in uncertain times ahead.

The rich narratives and conversations that we encounter serve as a reminder of why we’re even music fans in the first place. And while we yearn for the return of the next live gig, perhaps we can seek comfort in one another’s stories, just like how we always did.


This is part of the Community Stories: Music Journalism In Asia series that celebrates Bandwagon’s 10th anniversary and showcases local and regional music media championing Asian music. Check out Part 1: How music journalism in Singapore came to be: zines, the DIY spirit, and community building here.