Life in Singapore’s Music Industry - Tips from Industry Experts

Life in Singapore’s Music Industry - Tips from Industry Experts

Presented by lyf

Bandwagon kicked off the month of August with our second industry panel at lyf at SMU Labs. 

With the intention of providing more avenues for dialogue engagement for those interested in Singapore's music industry, the talk, titled: lyf in Singapore's Music Industry – Behind the Scenes and How to Get In, featured an esteemed panel with representatives from government, media, label, and artist. 

Supported by lyf, a new co-living brand by The Ascott Limited, the fully subscribed session hosted a mix of aspiring musicians, marketing hopefuls and industry guests. In this instance, the partnership between Bandwagon and lyf prove to be a fruitful meeting of minds. Determined to fly the flag for the Singapore story, under the banner #lyfgoesLOCAL, lyf has broadened its focus to encompass supporting local music and its various communities. More than just a space, lyf hopes to be a pivotal part of the ecosystem of Singaporean music by serving as a platform for artists to jumpstart their careers in music. 

The panel was made up of Andrea Khoo (Assistant Director, National Arts Council), Erina Cook (Assistant Lead, Mediacorp Radio), Kevin Foo (Co-founder, Umami Records/Foundation Music) and Stephanie Lim (Singer, HubbaBubbas), and moderated by Bandwagon founder, Clarence Chan.

Erina Cook (Assistant Lead, Mediacorp Radio)

I started in radio a long time ago when I was 21, fresh out of school. I was a part of the team that built Class95 to become Singapore's number 1 English radio station. A typical day, for me, is filled with so many different things; that's what makes radio so exciting for us. No two days are the same. It can range from meeting artists and celebrities. It can also include music testing, where we sample music to audiences and get their gauge on what kind of music they like to hear on the radio. It's really varied and we have a team of super passionate people that make up radio.

Andrea Khoo (Assistant Director, National Arts Council)

I joined the National Arts Council way back, when I first graduated. That was kind of my first full time job. I left for a bit to complete my Master's degree. I was teaching music in between. I was a music director, and I returned to join the council in 2012. I've been in the music sector development team since then, and what we've been doing, really, is try and support musicians and what they're doing in the scene. The scene has grown so much just in the last seven years that I've been a part of NAC, so it's been a real privilege to watch that growth take place right in front of my eyes.

I think a typical day for us is very much like Erina's. We spend a lot of our time pouring through grant assessments, talking to artists on their latest projects, what they're doing, what their upcoming plans are so we can understand what we can do to help them. The team has grown quite a bit. When I first joined, the team had maybe three managers, but it's doubled in size since. A lot of people think NAC only supports classical music, that's not true. Since I joined, we've been growing our support for independent musicians. For a lot of the indie music that's coming out, it's been our pleasure to work alongside those artists and try to boost that.

Kevin Foo (Co-founder, Umami Records/Foundation Music)

I started in the industry in the late '90s, when I was in a band. It wasn't really an industry then. There was this notion that, if you could do music full time without having a day job, that was the endgame. When I was in university, I was under the tutelage of Dr. Sydney Tan, who still produces till this day. He's done many National Day parades and themes, he's done the SEA games and all of that. Through him, I was given the opportunity to try my hand at production and fell in love with it. In 2004, my best friends and I started a studio and went into production, and began working with the people around us. We never gave much thought to it. We just wanted to produce good music. Good music will naturally sell itself. We carried on that way until the 2010s.

That's when we realised that Singaporean music was on par with the global standard, but something was not in place for the music to be heard beyond the confines of the country. In 2013, we started our own label, Umami Records. We made a lot of mistakes along the way. We began dealing with distribution. We started working with artists that couldn't get major record deals, a couple of them eventually did, but because we started working with them at an early stage, we kind of moved from early distribution, into working with them on a management level.

My typical day, therefore, would be talking to new artists, seeing how we can help each other. We also spend a large amount of time looking at overseas distribution. I think it's great that half of Singapore's population now have subscriptions to streaming services, but if we're being honest, 3 million is a really small market. NAC has been really supportive in our fight to get our musicians more listeners overseas. 

Stephanie Lim (Singer, HubbaBubbas)

I'm from the HubbaBubbas, there are three of us in the band. We started about seven years ago as buskers along Tampines. We started out by playing covers because we were so bored of the Top 40s, and we wanted to see how we could re-imagine those songs. Eventually, there was this programme called the Noise Mentorship that was headed by the NAC. So we joined the mentorship programme and our mentor was Sarah Wee, so she helped us in our songwriting, and that was actually a direction that we didn't think we could go in. Once we started writing under her mentorship, it really helped so much. Our days are also pretty varied. Things are never the same, especially since we're usually booked on a project basis. Sometimes we're doing shows the whole day, or we're just sitting in front of a computer editing videos and trying to come up with lyrics, or a melody.

Here is a round up of major takeaways from the industry talk:

How do NAC and Mediacorp Radio play a part in the promotion of music, especially from local talents?

Andrea: "With the NAC, our support ranges quite a bit. The most recent new initiative that we have is called Hear65, we're working with Bandwagon on that. We're trying to address the audience support, to try to grow awareness and support for local music. Underlining that is also our support through funding for artists. We have many schemes available for artists in terms of whether they want to put out an EP, or an album, or if they're looking at tours etc. There are a lot of things that we cover with various schemes, but fundamentally, we're trying to support the artist as well as the audience."

Erina: "For my part, it's quite simple. Promoting local artists comes in many forms, like airplay through official tracks, they can come in and perform on air. I think the endgame is getting their songs on our playlists. When you're featured, we put out videos on our socials as well, so it's creating that ecosystem in which we welcome and push upcoming local artists. A lot of our radio DJs are super passionate about music and about promoting our talents overseas, so that's how we show our support."

With so much talent in Singapore, how do you identify the artists to work with?

Kevin: "There are a few things that factor into that. Firstly, it's not about genre, but if it's soulful, whether the music can elicit that emotional response that was originally intended. I love production, but sometimes, there's an undeniable energy and feel to a raw song that just doesn't sound the same when it's produced and everything's perfect. That's when you know that the production is wrong for the song. The production can be great, and technically flawless, but it's not the right fit for the song, because it can't express what it was meant to.

That's what draws us in, because we want to solve that challenge of finding that sweet spot between great production, and still having the raw emotion come through. Apart from that, we also do things like distribution and management, so we look at artists and see what point of their careers they're at. If they're just looking to get music out there, we'll help them distribute the songs. If they are dedicated to doing this as a career and really want to do this beyond that, then we'll work with them on a management level, but of course that's only if everyone involved is on the same page. To sum up, it's the music first, then the talent, and if they're in this for the long haul, or if it's just a side gig."

What the highs and lows of being an independent artist in Singapore. 

Stephanie: "One of the greatest things you'll ever experience as a musician is having people sing your lyrics. But at the same time, there are a lot of stressful periods. When a song gets released, you can breathe a sigh of relief but the build up to that is very stressful. We're three different people with three different opinions, so we have to find a compromise that everyone's happy with, then there's the promotion and you're worried if the song will be well-received or not. I think we had a period where we had a low for two years before we released 'Sunset in my Pocket'. Before that, we put out our first EP, Amy(gdala). For the next two years, we didn't release anything because we didn't know what to do. We planned so hard for the first EP, that we never really thought about what would happen after that, so make sure that you always plan for the future."

Is it viable to be an artist in Singapore?

Kevin: "Of course. I think being realistic and managing expectations play a large role in that. We've had examples of artists that are doing music full time. The HubbaBubbas, of course, the Steve McQueens, Charlie Lim, Linying. Granted some of them teach music but they're still within the confines of music. I think only a few artists have been able to break into that sense of super stardom that everyone's chasing; people like JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun. A lot of musicians get dejected and disheartened when that doesn't happen for them, so I think it has a lot to do with managing your expectations."

Besides being an artist, what are some of the roles that people can play if they want to be part of the industry?

Erina: "For Mediacorp Radio, I think that there are so many roles that people don't know about. There's an entire team that goes behind radio broadcasting, so if you're really passionate about music, you could become a music director of a radio station. That's a pretty powerful role because you'll get to determine what everybody else listens to. It's not your own playlist but of course, it's catered to the mass audience. Obviously there's talent involved as well, that's where the radio personalities and DJs come in. Let's take Joakim [Gomez] for example. He's been an artist and he's now behind the mic, bringing music to the masses through the radio. There's a lot of backend stuff as well; people who do the promotions and marketing. I think it's safe to say that there are a lot of opportunities within the industry, if you're open to just being in the industry and going through the creative process of creating content."

Andrea: "There are a lot of points of entry in the NAC. We have teams that focus on different art forms, so you the music team, the theatre team, and so forth. If you have a very specific inclination to a specific art form and that's what you want to work in, the NAC would be the perfect place for you because of the sector development. We also have teams that look at arts education and works closely with MOE. There's a whole host of roles available."

Is a degree or diploma in media and communications necessary?

Erina: "Definitely not. I don't have a background in Mass Comm, myself. I came from the Business route, so it can be anyone with the passion and drive in creating content and being a part of the whole team and ecosystem within the music industry."

Andrea: "You don't need qualifications related to music to join the music team, no. We do have music graduates joining us, but it's not a necessity and we're very welcoming of non-music grads. Sometimes it's good to have people from different backgrounds because they can offer you different viewpoints on things. The most essential thing will always be a strong interest in the arts.

What are you looking for in a candidate?

Erina: "To be honest, I look for people that can connect with my team and I. It has to be the right fit. The person has to be really vocal, expressive, confident, passionate, but also to have good EQ. I think it's really important in this industry to know how to talk to people from all walks of life in a way that doesn't offend anyone. Usually within the first 15 to 20 minutes of an interview, we'll know if someone is the right fit for the team."

Do artists necessarily need to work with a label, or have a manager? If so, at what point should they get one? 

Kevin: "When you first start out, you don't need a manager. Nowadays, it's so easy to put out music, with SoundCloud and YouTube. What's even more interesting to me is that, social media is really changing the game, in terms of promotions, especially TikTok. Looking at that, and how things can go viral on a global level now in a matter of hours is really exciting. Look at what Lil Nas X did with 'Old Town Road'. He released it on social media platforms, and it's evolved into this whole phenomenon, to the point that BTS remixed it. And the song brings in actual money, with over millions of dollars in streams a day. That was done through a very unique game plan and promotion outlook, that I think will be very interesting to decipher.

When to work with a label? I think while you can easily release music entirely independently, the labels are still connected within the industry in a way that benefits everyone. They have teams who will focus on figuring out how to push a song to make it as big as it can be, and how to best further your career.

As for a manager, it's not entirely essential that you need it early on, but somewhere along the line, when you're becoming more serious about music as a career, a manager would be very helpful. A manager has to be someone who truly believes in the product, which is you, and is willing to push the product to become the biggest it can be. The manager also acts as the buffer between promoters and the musician, so the manager is the one who can argue if the team feels like an artist isn't being paid enough. That way, the musician doesn't have to feel awkward."

One thing that excites artists is the thought of touring. HubbaBubbas just got back from a tour in Korea. Tell us a bit about how this tour came to be, and what you learned from it.

Stephanie: "Two years ago, we were involved in the first collaborative album between Singapore and Korea, and we made a few friends from Korea who had invited us to go down and visit them, so that's essentially how the tour started. We built the performances around our own trip, and we got the best of both worlds. The trip was mostly a songwriting trip with a Korean producer, rather than anything else, but since we were going there, we figured why not just play a few gigs as well to keep us sharp.

We tried writing a song in Korean and English as well, to draw in the crowd since we were foreign. It's entirely different performing overseas than it is in your country. We couldn't speak a word of Korean, but the beautiful thing about music is that it transcends all languages. It was also really interesting to see how the Korean producer that we were working with thought, and how he had everything mapped out in his head. He knew exactly when the listeners would get excited, and what they'd be excited about. He also made a point to establish when Mervin joins the song and so forth. It was a very different recording process, and it's really cool to see things from the perspective of fans from overseas with different listening habits."

Is it necessary to produce original music before submitting to record labels, or are there instances where covers are all you need to hear? 

Kevin: "I can't speak for other labels, but for ourselves, we look for original music. Of course, that's not to say that there aren't extremely successful covers. There are a lot of new labels that aren't as traditional as the major labels that sign YouTube acts and develop them. With covers, you can showcase your talents and abilities to perform, but it does nothing to show that you're a good songwriter and that you're creative. So I would definitely recommend having at least one or two originals ready."

I don't know much about distribution, but I know that it's an important part of the industry. How important is it to engage a distributor?

Kevin: "At Umami Records, we work with Believe. I don't know if you know the stats, but every day, over 20 thousand songs get uploaded all around the world on Spotify. If you include YouTube, SoundCloud and other platforms, it amounts to way more.

Thanks to Hear65, I'm discovering acts that are off my radar. I used to think I knew about every musician in the local scene, but there's so much content coming through that it's also difficult for everyone to stand out. As a label and distributor, we reach out to a ton of platforms to push our artists, and get them on the New Music Friday Spotify Singapore playlists, which gets more eyes than any other playlist in Singapore.

If you can garner attention from platforms and you can figure out all the paperwork on your own, then by all means, you don't need a distributor, but I think it would be safer to have one."

Stay tuned to Bandwagon for more news on the next industry panel discussion. In the meantime, check out our photo gallery of the night here