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Examining day jobs of local musicians

Examining day jobs of local musicians

For a place like Singapore, the growing sentiment of the country’s cost of living has made itself at home as long as Chicken Rice gets $0.50 more expensive every year. There's the fear of taking an unconventional route for a professional job. There's also the age-old tale of following passion over stability, even though they're not mutually exclusive.

“Overfussy”. Complacent. Entitled. Morose. 

These are some words that Victor Mills, the recently-appointed chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC), used to describe many Singaporeans he's witnessed or interacted with in the workforce. Whether his sentiments hint at a widespread problem that has already manifested itself is debatable, but it's safe to say it hasn't been an easy feat making a living in the country.

Being a musician, in particular, hasn't been exactly the most stable of jobs, as many figureheads lament the “sad” state of the music industry — either through empowered (and even embittered) statements against music streaming or lawsuits countering piracy, for starters. The story of modern musicians taking on day jobs isn't new, but in Singapore, when our scene is only starting to take a great leap forward, in terms of newfound popularity and recognition, how do local musicians deal with the baggage of everyday responsibilities?

We asked six different acts all across the island about the professions they undertake alongside their undying passion of making original music — from the tenacious freelancers to various industry specialists and even a Ph.D student.


Having been in the local music scene for more than a decade, Vanessa Fernandez aka Vandetta has now taken on the role of managing Singapore’s de facto alternative radio station, Lush99.5fm. She’s also actively involved with SGMUSO, a non-profit organization that champions and supports burgeoning local talent.

Has your job interfered with your process of making music?

Not really because I've learned how to manage my time as best I can. I usually take leave to make music and the company is understanding of my music commitments so I don't have too many issues. It means I'm always busy but at least its worth it on both ends.

Have you found the right balance?

When I was younger I didn't know how to juggle both but now that I've managed my own releases I have a better idea what kind of timelines I have to work with. I always make time to relax. It’s important to have patience with the creation process if you work hard at your day job. 

Do you think there's still a stigma surrounding the pursuit of being a full-time musician in Singapore? What do you think we can do to combat it?

I think people don't look down on creative people as much anymore, but it's a romantic idea that if you'll become rich and famous. Even in countries with a developed music industry it can be a struggle. It's important to manage your own expectations and understand why you're doing what you're doing. If it's to "make it" then you must accept you might be disappointed. If it's to conceptualise and create something of truth that reflects your artistic voice at a particular space and time, you'll at least always have that to hold on to.

 

Alt-country band Cheating Sons have just released their self-titled sophomore album, which they took off time from work just to write and record. While the majority of the band declined to elaborate on their day jobs, percussionist/bassist Andy Yang and drummer Andy Liew opened up about their professions — Yang’s a full-time visual artist while Liew is currently undertaking his Ph.D, living off the monthly stipend from his scholarship.

How committed are you to your job?

Andy Liew: Extremely committed. I enjoy what I do, even though sometimes it gets pretty stressful with the infinite list of things to do and the constant pressure to produce good results. If you’re not a committed Ph.D student then you’re probably not a very good Ph.D student.

Andy Yang: I work almost non-stop even when there are no ongoing projects. I am always observing life around me and experimenting with ideas for my next art piece.

Has it interfered with your process of making music? 

AL: Yes, it has. Being a Ph.D student forces you to be meticulous, forward planning, logical, and highly organized; traits that aren’t commonly associated with musicians. Sometimes it can hinder a person’s musicianship. For example, I often focus too much on trying to play a song perfectly and I lose sight of what I’m actually doing (playing music), which has to do predominantly with emotions and feel. In science, there is no room for emotions. I’m learning to switch between modes at will. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna be diagnosed with Jekyll and Hyde syndrome one of these days.

AY: So far my visual arts practice has complemented my music and vice-versa.

Have you found the right balance?

AL: I think I’m doing alright at the moment. Being a graduate student allows for a flexible, self-managed schedule which I love. I chill when I want to chill and I work when I feel like working, as long as I have something to say to my professor at our weekly meetings.

AY: In my humble opinion, there will never be a right balance. I am doing whatever I can to juggle the million and one things to do and to find time to complete them.

Do you think there's still a stigma surrounding the pursuit of being a full-time musician in Singapore? What do you think we can do to combat it?

AL: Of course there is, and there’s a good reason for it. People generally think it’s difficult to get to the point where you can finally live off your music and sell out concert halls, which is undoubtedly true. Most people who fully commit to this pursuit end up “failing” and then turn away from music completely. But if music is truly your passion, then it wouldn’t be that bad even if you “failed”. You can make a living by playing small gigs, or giving music lessons here and there, or getting a part-time job with short working hours just to get by. At least you get to do what you truly love during your free time. Search your soul and figure out if music is truly your passion, or if you’re just seeking that rock-star lifestyle.

AY: There will always be a stigma when it comes to being an artist/musician. There is really nothing to combat. It’s either you do it or you don’t. If you are hungry, you will find a way.

 

Growing from inhibited alt-rock frontwoman to self-assured singer/songwriter, Inch Chua has toured around the world, released two full-length records and even a book. Inch is actively involved with Invasion Singapore, a venture she co-founded in 2011 with Syed Hyder. With its current project SCAPE Invasion with the local youth organization, it’s bent on bringing original Singaporean music to school assemblies in hopes of inspiring future generations of musicians. Unlike most regular day jobs, she considers Invasion Singapore as a passion project and doesn’t draw income from it, instead relying on her work as an artist.

How committed are you to your job?

Over the years, Invasion has grown and to date, Hyder and I have been pouring every cent made back to making the tour bigger and better. It's funny because Invasion Singapore is my "day job" but it brings me no income. It is my passion project for music. 

Has it interfered with your process of making music?

No, never. Because everything i do is somehow linked in one way or another.

Have you found the right balance?

Some weeks i'm balancing everything perfectly. But if i fall ill, or an unexpected curveball shows up on my schedule, it does take a while to get back into the mode of unstoppable rhythm. The last record I put out was 2013. I'm working on the new one right now and it's taking every other hour i'm not working on Invasion Singapore. I have no fix working hours, and the concept of rest doesn't exist. But it's not a bad thing, i enjoy it. I find structure in chaos. By just being involved in music feeds my soul, who needs rest.

Do you think there's still a stigma surrounding the pursuit of being a full-time musician in Singapore? If yes, what do you think we can do to combat it?

I don't think there's a stigma anymore. i'm not even sure what the stigma is to begin with, haha. If its the money discussion, like it's hard to make money as a musician - that's not a stigma. It's the truth for artists who want to make their own original content! But not for music mercenaries who work in a hit factory.

Even if there is a stigma, I don't care and I don't think anyone should. I'm a happy taxpaying, contributing individual of society, just like everybody else. 

 

 

Extreme metal band Wormrot may just be the Singapore indie music scene’s success story. Having been signed to Earache Records, aka the record label that helped to pioneer extreme metal in the late-80s, they’ve experienced significant recognition and praise from critics worldwide, nurturing a worldwide following eager to hear their next album, which they’re currently recording. Despite their success, members Arif (vocals), Rasyid (guitarist) and new drummer Vijesh have maintained day jobs throughout their venture as global grindcore darlings — Arif is an Operations Executive with a sidejob doing freelance illustration, Rasyid is a delivery driver while Vijesh is a part-time drum teacher, the only one in the group to consider himself as a full-time musician.

How committed are you to your job?

Arif: Not really fond of my day job but it helps in the financial department. In all honesty, I would rather work full time as an illustrator. Busting my ass to get Rotworks (illustration business) up and running once again.

Rasyid: I'm committed to my job in a sense that I do my part and whatever's necessary to get things done, all within my work hours. When the job's done, so am I. So no, I'm not the best employee, but always reliable.

Vijesh: I’m very committed to my job as there is always room to improve and every hour of practice makes me feel more satisfied than the last.

Has it interfered with your process of making music?

A: Not really. We usually rehearse after work. We may be drained by the time we reach the studio but it’s a good break from reality and enjoy blast beats for two hours once every week.

R: I put consideration on my time to write music when I was looking for a job. I needed a job that's more hands-on, because I'd rather use my brains to write than to think of how to keep customers happy. I'll be exhausted physically — and the pay is lower — but writing gives my mind peace and keeps me sane.

V: Nope, not at all. In fact, if anything, it makes my process of making music much easier…haha.

Have you found the right balance?

A: Sadly, I have yet to find the right balance. Being mentally exhausted is way worst than physical exhaustion. Overwhelming responsibilities can be quite a task but my priorities are set straight. It eventually falls into place knowing that I have a wife and a son to support and lookout for. They are above before anything else in my life. So the right balance? It’s getting there.

R: No. Perfect balance is 50% doing the art, 50% thinking of the art, 0% work.

V: I believe so.

Do you think there's still a stigma surrounding the pursuit of being a full-time musician in Singapore? If yes, what do you think we can do to combat it?

A: Maybe, perhaps. If you are referring to our genre as a profession to put food on the table, I don’t think so. It’s tough. We’ve been touring for five years and managed to bring home just enough to last us a week of daily needs.

We don’t earn from tours at all. So if you are talking about living off that only in Singapore? It’s a huge no. Then again, I am not aware of how other genres works in the music industry but I could only say what I have experienced as a full time musician and as a touring band. It requires determination, commitment, sacrifice and perseverance, as most Singaporeans are not up for due to personal reasons or family matters — which is totally understandable.

R: There will always be a stigma because Singaporeans are brought up with repressed freedom of expression, putting focus on more conventional academics and leaving the arts to kids who don’t do well in school. Because who the fuck cares. Now, it's like whatever we do is only because the powers allow it, and when they're doing it, they'll blow the loudest trumpets. The only way to combat is to burn everything to the ground, spit on their ashes and start anew. Things always change, post-apocalypse.

V: Singapore has always been a safe country with a safe mindset. To take a risk here, some people may call you crazy but it may pay off. One of the biggest reasons I am so happy to be in Wormrot, is that these guys would quit their day jobs every time they tour and just find another once they're back from the tour. This is the kind of mindset I believe a local musician/band needs which shows their commitment to music.


Where electronic, trip-hop and soul collides is where R!ot in Magenta thrives. The newest act out of all musicians featured here, R!ot in Magenta have already impressed audiences with their debut EP Voices. Having opened for Scottish electronic trio CHVRCHES recently, they’re already set for big things — whether that means reaching out to an international audience remains to be seen. Also serving as vocalist for jazz band The Steve McQueens, Eugenia Yip has been working as a music teacher while drummer Ritz Ang has been busy behind the kit full-time.

How committed are you to your job?

Eugenia: I've been doing this for about two years now, and I love it. The hours are good 'cus I'm only working during class time, and I don't really have to think about work, after school

Ritz: It's 24/7 with my music. Even if I'm doing something else during the day, I'm always mentally practicing.

Has your job interfered with your process of making music? If yes, how?

Eugenia: Sometimes it's a little difficult to be getting up in the early morning to get to school, after a long night of writing and rehearsing. Teaching children also takes up a lot of energy which can leave me totally drained by the time I get rehearsals and recordings during an intense week. But apart from that, it's OK. I'm already having it much easier than most people I know.

Ritz: Nope, not one bit.

Have you found the right balance?

Eugenia: I wouldn't call it perfect, but it's OK. This balance works for me. It took me quite a while and quite a number of detours to get here and that makes me more appreciative and conscious of the decisions I've made and will continue to make about running my life.

Ritz: So far, I think it's a good balance. There will be some days where it gets a bit too much for me. And I'll take a break from it for awhile. And then I'll get back into it. I actually prefer it that way. So I'll always approach music with a fresh mind.

Do you think there's still a stigma surrounding the pursuit of being a full-time musician in Singapore? If yes, what do you think we can do to combat it?

Eugenia: I think the stigma surrounding the pursuit of any art form full time is prevalent everywhere — not only in Singapore. I still meet people who think what we do is a waste of time, but that's okay. I'm happy and I'm doing what I believe in. That’s all that matters to me.

I don't really think this stigma is something that can be corrected or combated. It's just the way it is. It teaches you how to appreciate the little things in life. Also, it's the uncertainty and all the emotional roller-coasters that come with the job that makes this beautiful; beautifully broken (and broke) sometimes (most of the time) but still beautiful.

Ritz: Yes, definitely. I think that stigma will always be there. But we can help by making the general public to understand why we do what we do. It's better nowadays, with schools offering art courses as a career path so that helps a lot. They have to see it from our point of view. At the end of the day, it's our job to educate.

They recently tore up the Powerhouse stage at Baybeats and with good reason — their effortless charisma and hefty power chords won over the crowd easily. Having toured as far as Japan, Iman's League speaks the universal language of punk rock while embracing local culture with a fondness for anime. The full-time professions the trio have undertaken are surprisingly divergent — bassist Lal is an oil and gas engineer, drummer Anhar is an AV engineer while vocalist and guitarist Iman is a music instructor.

How committed are you to your jobs?

Like most Singaporeans, we all have to be committed to our jobs as all of us are married and starting up our own family soon. Maybe we’re not 100% committed (hehehe) but we do try to put food on the table and pay the bills every month.

Has it interfered with your process of making music?

Once in a while, yes. As the three of us are working on a five-day work week, it usually doesn’t interfere much as most of our practice time, shows and recording sessions happen during the weekends. It only become a problem when we have invites for shows during the weekdays but most of the time we either take leave or medical slips hahaha. Most of our annual leaves have been mostly used up for our tours every year. We’ve made it a habit since 2012 to go on tour at least twice a year. Each tour would take up at least one week of our annual leave.

Have you found the right balance?

So far, so good. Most importantly, I think if you want to really do music seriously but on a part time basis, you’ll need to have good time management skills. Especially for those who are married. There are lot of local bands with members that are juggling full time jobs, playing in a band, going on tour and are happily married with children. It also requires a lot of understanding between their partners as well as within the band itself. Lots of sacrifice and lots of hard work need to be made.

Do you think there's still a stigma surrounding the pursuit of being a full-time musician in Singapore? If yes, what do you think we can do to combat it?

Our guess is this stigma will always be there no matter where we are from, not only Singapore. The only way to combat this is to educate our society that being a musician does not just mean holding the guitar and singing in front of a crowd. There are lots of other jobs that pays a stable income and it has something to do with music. There’s music production, engineering, composing, arranging, teaching — jobs like these pay well for every project done. Having a stable job doesn't mean that you will always have food on the table. Nothing is permanent or stable in this world, not even our lives. We’ll never know if we will wake up tomorrow. 

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