Music journalism in Asia: (re)thinking representation, diversity, and community

Music journalism in Asia: (re)thinking representation, diversity, and community

Part 3 of Community Stories: Music Journalism in Asia

With the meteoric rise of Asian music in the last decade, it’s no surprise that the music press has significantly increased its coverage of Asian acts. These days, it’s common to see Pitchfork or NME throwing in a K-pop review—something that would have been unthinkable for staunch purists five years ago. 

And as with any cultural phenomenon, there’s now an endless barrage of op-eds trying to dissect what this all means for the industry. From BTSdominance on the Billboard charts to 88rising’s impact on Asian hip hop, the think pieces just keep coming.

Yet, despite this unprecedented attention, one can’t help but notice that Western music media still falls back on Orientalist tropes, where Asian artists are often—unintentionally or otherwise—evaluated against Eurocentric standards. They're also seen as a novel Other to unpack, or even a threat to the Western-dominated pop establishment

There’s also the problem of addressing Asian music as a monolith, typified by a few genres or countries. K-pop and J-pop tend to receive the bulk of coverage, while acts that fall outside of these categories rarely get their share of the spotlight.

Although it’s true that it’s also a matter of demand, it’s certainly unhelpful that many Western publications—who are still regarded as the authority on pop in general—fail to meaningfully engage with the diverse array of Asian music that’s out there. That’s where Asian publications come into the picture: by pushing for specialised music journalism in the region, and in doing so centering the voices of Asian artists themselves.

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In this light, we investigate: what does music journalism in Asia look like? Who are the individuals or publications championing Asian music, and what potentials or challenges lie ahead in this nascent field? To shed light on these questions, Bandwagon spoke to seven writers based in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and more about their experiences.  

Clockwise: Ian Martin, Mầm, Luthfi Suryanda, Adan Kohnhorst, Khôi Phạm, Jocelle Koh, MC Galang


To begin, music journalism in Asia can be divided into two camps: the regional editions of established music bibles—usually supported by corporate backing from larger media conglomerates—and homegrown indie publications.

The former includes the likes of Billboard Japan, Rolling Stone Korea, and NME Asia, while the latter has circulated sporadically since the ’70s and ’80s—take the influential Filipino music publication Jingle Magazine and Singapore’s BigO, just to name a few. 

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The death of print from the late 2010s onwards would see digital publications assuming the mantle of independent music journalism in the region. For example, Bandwagon was founded in 2011—originally as a gig-finder—to meet the burgeoning demand for stories on music in Asia.

Subsequently, it established Bandwagon Philippines and the Singapore-centric microsite Hear65, expanding its reach in Southeast Asia. Around the same time, a myriad of indie music blogs and zines burst onto the scene, including Thailand’s Fungjai, the Philippines’ Vandals On The Wall, and Indonesia’s CreativeDisc.  

 
 
 
 
 
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In the case of Asian Pop Weekly, it was created explicitly to address genre-specific gaps in coverage. Formed in 2010 by Singaporean writer Jocelle Koh, the online magazine is one of the few English-language platforms dedicated to covering C-pop. Since its inception, it regularly churns out interviews, reviews, and op-eds about music from the Greater China region. 

“Writing about C-pop began out of what I felt was a necessity. I had just moved back to Australia again after spending a year in Singapore, and I was looking for a way to stay connected with my roots,” shares Koh. “I found that connection through C-pop, but due to my poor Mandarin skills, it was difficult to find more information as most articles were written in Chinese.” 

 
 
 
 
 
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“I started Asian Pop Weekly as a way of processing my thoughts on a genre I loved, and to improve my Mandarin in a fun and meaningful way,” she continues. “I was also motivated to create a community where I could interact with like-minded individuals since it was hard to find people who shared my passion.”

New media publication RADII was also born from a similar vision: to bridge what was seen as a lack of understanding about contemporary China. Established in 2017, the independent platform highlights the undiscovered sides of Chinese youth culture, with a focus on music, art, and lifestyle. 

“When I moved back to China, I knew I was looking to tell stories and bring people closer together. That attitude attracted some kindred spirits, and we founded RADII with the mission to connect people across boundaries of culture,” shares Adan Kohnhorst, a founding editor at RADII and globally-based creator covering alternative culture. 

“Music is a universal language and a personal love of mine, so it made sense to wade into those scenes. People around the world lead different lives, driven by different things, and sharing those stories feels like one of the most valuable things I can do,” he adds. 

 
 
 
 
 
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In countries where local music sectors were starting to find their footing, the demand for good criticism and reporting naturally followed. As a result, music journalism was also beginning to crystallise into a discipline on its own.

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As we’ve explored in Part 2 of Community Stories: Music Journalism In Asia, a new wave of publications emerged in Singapore alongside the explosion of local music throughout the 2010s, of which Bandwagon and Hear65 are also a part. The same can be said for Vietnam, where homegrown genres like V-pop and Vietnamese hip hop have been undergoing a renaissance of sorts over the last decade or so.  

“It has been an exciting time for music fans in Vietnam as the local scene enters a transitory period into an industry of sorts,” shares Khôi Phạm, a deputy editor at Vietnamese culture magazine Saigoneer.

“We’re not quite there yet in terms of scale or bankability, but the growth of the scene has created more room for more musical personalities, more experimentation, and simply more good music. For writers, there are now more opportunities to tell stories about said music.”

 
 
 
 
 
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He adds, “In my personal assessment, the cultural discourse surrounding music criticism in Vietnam is still in its adolescent stage. This is logical because for music journalism to develop, there first needs to be a large enough demographic of music consumers who’s mature, sensible, and eager to engage in discussion.”

“There are more such music fans now compared to before, thanks to the rise of platforms like Facebook and the arrival of global streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. Can you believe that Spotify only launched in Vietnam in 2018?” he muses. 

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Billboard Vietnam also started offering Vietnamese-language charts and news coverage—probably the closest thing we have to a mainstream, formal music publication—though decent music critique is usually more prevalent on personal blogs like Vietnam’s Next Top Bitches instead of traditional publications,” reveals Phạm.

 
 
 
 
 
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A particular trajectory can also be observed in some countries, where publications and writers shift away from the tabloid-oriented angles to stories that offer specialised reporting and criticism.

“Music journalism has existed in local [Vietnamese] publications for decades, but under the umbrella of entertainment or culture sections, because at times magazines and news sources find it easier to attract audiences via the fame and celebrity aspect of musicians,” says Phạm. 

“But good music writing and reviews aren’t difficult to find in Vietnamese publications; there just aren’t many platforms that make music the focal point to the calibre of Pitchfork or Rolling Stone. Like I said before, the appearance of Billboard Vietnam recently changed that landscape.”

 
 
 
 
 
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Luthfi Suryanda, a longtime journalist for CreativeDisc, echoed a similar sentiment. “Right now, there aren’t many music publications in Indonesia because local media tends to focus on gossip about artists’ personal lives, rather than critical perspectives about their work. Even if there’s quality music reporting, they tend to be parked with lifestyle content, as opposed to existing wholly on its own,” he shares. 

CreativeDisc is one of the few publications that seeks to address the lack of quality music journalism in Indonesia. Since 2004, it has served as the go-to hub for music fans, covering local and international artists in Bahasa Indonesia. Unlike lifestyle or entertainment publications, CreativeDisc centres the music itself, focusing on news, interviews, and reviews.

“In Indonesia, Whiteboard Journal is also one of the few bilingual publications that provide in-depth analysis and perspectives about music instead of sensationalism, which still remains at the forefront of local media,” says Suryanda.

 
 
 
 
 
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Speaking of languages, the multilingual nature of music journalism in the region also warrants our attention. The sheer linguistic diversity of Asian music often informs the work of music journalists, and their stories take on a different subjectivity when translation and interpretation are woven into the creative process. In this way, music writing in Asia can open up the space for intercultural dialogue in ways that Western publications might not be able to do so.

 
 
 
 
 
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Asian Pop Weekly exemplifies this potential for cross-cultural connection. “We started [the publication] with the simple notion of making Chinese music accessible for Western listeners, but over the years I’ve realised that our goal is so much more than just being a translation device,” says Koh.

“I have a pretty different perspective on the Chinese music industry because I grew up in Australia and chose to have an interest in this genre. So the way I perceive the music is very different from someone who grew up speaking Mandarin and listening to Mandopop.” 

 
 
 
 
 
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“This perspective actually resonates a lot with overseas readers. The aim is no longer to be just a mouthpiece for the Asian music industry, but to help readers along on their journey to engage with the topic, and to see the value in understanding music—and people—from different cultures,” adds Koh.

On the other hand, it’s precisely because of the region’s inherent linguistic complexities that music journalism has remained a fragmented niche in some countries.

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When asked if non-English music publications exist in the Philippines, The Rest Is Noise co-founder MC Galang had this to say: “I honestly don’t know. Even the earlier generations of music magazines that I’ve seen are all in English. I think that’s another legitimate reason why the industry isn’t as thriving locally if you live in a country with hundreds of languages.”

“But at the same time, I find it hard to write about music in Filipino, too. It’s an extremely different way of writing compared to English; personally, I think it’s a Catch-22. I do hope to see it change, though,” she adds.

 
 
 
 
 
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In the Japanese music scene, English-language publications are also few and far between. “I’m in a niche within a niche here, because I’m an English speaking writer in a country that’s overwhelmingly non-English speaking,” says Tokyo-based music journalist Ian Martin.

“English-language media here is a very small scene, and everyone seems to know each other—certainly the music writers do. There aren’t really any English language music publications here beyond the personal blogs or feeds of specific writers like me,” shares the music columnist for The Japan Times

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“One UK-based writer recently started a site called The Glow, which seems to be aiming for something a bit more comprehensive with an emphasis on local Japanese voices, but it’s too early to predict where that will go. In terms of good-quality writers, I feel like everyone has their own specialist areas that they’re the person best suited to write on,” he remarks.


The notion of “local voices” is significant, because music journalism in Asia can get tricky when it comes to who gets to tell the stories. If the goal is a meaningful representation for Asian music, then writing from within—where stories should only be told by members of in-groups—might be the most suitable, especially when Anti-Asian racism still permeates the music industry today

 
 
 
 
 
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But reality requires much more nuance, and it’s unproductive to mandate that only Asian writers can write about Asian music. Given the diverse backgrounds of music journalists—some of whom are also immigrants or expats—and the heterogeneous nature of Asian music itself, gatekeeping along nativist lines is unnecessary and potentially harmful. However, music journalists should minimally have an awareness of one’s position in relation to others, especially when telling stories about communities we don’t belong to.

“As a foreigner, it’s a privilege for me to amplify the stories of others. I will never truly understand things like a Chinese person, so it’s important to listen to local voices,” says Kohnhorst. “It’s important to get things right, and not take the easy way out; the truth is always more complex than an easy-to-digest headline.”

A particularly significant story for Kohnhorst was one that touched on music and disability. “I produced a documentary with Zhang Zheyuan, a violin prodigy from Yunnan who’s been blind since birth,” he shares.

Teaching Zhang how to use a record player. Courtesy of Adan Kohnorst.

“We spent a full week together filming and chatting between scenes, which turned out to be one the most eye-opening experiences of my life. It’s really an example of music and journalism taking you somewhere completely unexpected.”

For Martin, writing about Japanese music as a British immigrant also entails being conscious of target audiences’ cultural contexts. “My position as a foreigner probably affects my writing in all sorts of ways, simply from having spent the first 23 years of my life in a different culture, a different musical frame of reference, and a different tradition of music criticism,” he reflects. 

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“When writing about British music, living [in Japan] has helped me gain a sense of what Japanese readers might already bring to the topic, and what they might need to be explained or contextualised more. Obviously, when writing in English about Japanese music, the reverse is true, and I’ve also picked up some awareness of the pitfalls of writing about Asian cultures in Western media.”

On the other hand, writing local is an explicitly political project for the folks at The Rest Is Noise. Established in 2015 as a music curator and gig organiser, the collective launched an online publication last year, featuring essays, interviews, playlists, and more. Since then, they’ve dived deep into LGBTQ+ narratives in Filipino music, protest anthems as resistance, and anti-racist politics in the Philippines, just to name a few.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by The Rest Is Noise PH (@therestisnoiseph) 

When asked about a particularly significant story she’d like to highlight, Galang responded: “It’s really hard to pick one because we try to write about things that we strongly feel about. Right now, I consider my interview with [protest band] The Axel Pinpin Propaganda Machine to be enduring. What we spoke about the state of the country still haunts today—just worse, I think.”

 
 
 
 
 
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For other writers, simply allowing local artists to be heard front and centre is a fulfilling endeavour in and of itself. “For the past two years, I have been compiling a roundup of the best Vietnamese music that came out in the year for Saigoneer, accompanied by an assessment of how the local soundscape has developed in the past 12 months,” Phạm reveals. 

“The first roundup was in 2019. It was an incredible year, with some really pronounced trends and solid records demonstrating local artists’ clever integration of Vietnamese traditional folk music and aesthetics into their works,” he shares.

“The picks were really just based on the songs and albums that I personally couldn’t stop listening to and nothing too analytical, but it was surprisingly well-received by readers and some of the featured artists. It’s really one of the best feelings a writer can feel—when your writing resonates with people.”


But beyond storytelling, writers in the region are also invested in the long-term development of local scenes that they’re based in. Especially in countries where music sectors are still relatively underdeveloped and resources for cultural workers remain inadequate, community building is an imperative task at hand.

Martin is an example of someone wearing multiple hats. Beyond writing, he heads the Tokyo-based independent label Call And Response Records, which houses both Japanese and international acts including Filipino indie cult favourites The Buildings.

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Similarly, Galang—alongside fellow The Rest Is Noise co-founder Ian Urrutia—is one of the masterminds behind the ASEAN Music Showcase Festival, a virtual event spotlighting Southeast Asian musicians in these pandemic times.  

For Galang, her grassroots involvement has profoundly shaped the way she writes about music. “Oh, [working on the ground] definitely changed it completely. I was horrible in those early years, trying to copy other writers’ voices, their style, and attempting to write about the technical side of it,” she remarks. 

All Of The Noise 2018 with Elephant Gym. Courtesy of Jeremy Caisip.

“I think experiencing music in different ways is not just a sensual thing where you get to feel it differently, but it’s also the opportunity to connect with yourself and other people, which institutes something more genuine and empowering. It humanised the way I write, and every time I try to consider it as a chance of being and doing better. It’s an ongoing process.”

 
 
 
 
 
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 On the other hand, Koh utilises Asian Pop Weekly as an informal space for mentoring aspiring Mandopop writers. “We are also dedicated to building the next generation of ethical and talented journalists within this niche, and we do so by working with our contributors via informal mentoring, step-by-step guides on writing articles in various formats, and practical experience,” she shares.

 
 
 
 
 
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But that’s not all: last year, Asian Pop Weekly ventured into podcasts with the Level Up series, which aimed to provide independent artists with the know-how of navigating the Asian music industry.

However, it seems that there generally remains a paucity of targeted resources and institutional support for music journalists in Asia. Other than self-teaching, most writers currently rely on informal networks from social media or personal contacts, and one would be hard-pressed to find guilds or associations that specifically serve music journalists. 

“I haven’t found or joined any networks for music writers so far. We have lots of groups and pages for music lovers in Vietnam, but rarely for music journalists,” shares Mầm, a music columnist at Saigoneer.

“I think it’s great to build a community with other music writers, but it’s not an easy game as most of us in Vietnam are now working independently. But I hope to see and be a part of this community in the near future. Who knows, maybe I'll try to start one when I progress further in this industry,” she quips.  

“Aside from reading international publications, music journalism is something that’s self-taught for me,” says Suryanda. “In the past, when mainstream physical music publications like Trax Magazine and Rolling Stone Indonesia were still around, there were so many workshops for music journalism. But because these print magazines have died out, those workshops are very rare and hard to find these days.”

Trax Magazine. Courtesy of Luthfi Suryanda.

“There are very few [organisations] that specifically serve music writers in Asia, but I use Australia’s Media, Entertainment, & Arts Alliance (MEAA) as a standard resource for anything journalism and ethics related. They also have a rate sheet for freelancers doing writing gigs, which is a good reference,” shares Koh. 

“Facebook groups can also be a good resource. I follow Young Australian Writers and Asian Creative Network, which have allowed me to explore different options for my writing. Gig Life Pro is also a good platform for Asian music industry movers in general,” she adds.

 
 
 
 
 
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At the same time, despite the dearth of specialised resources and mentorship opportunities, arts and educational institutions in the region have been tailoring initiatives to better cater to the growing pool of music writers out there.

 
 
 
 
 
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“When I was starting out, I was self-taught. But now, universities have been offering the occasional music writing workshop or seminar. It’s encouraging to see these little steps, and I hope we get to do more of these,” shares Galang. And she’s right—Ateneo de Manila University now offers a Minor in Music Literature, which explicitly aims to prime the next generation of music critics in the Philippines.

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For other writers, tapping on existing avenues and translating music-related knowledge into their own practices can also be helpful. These include basics in journalism, as well as resources on music history and theory in general. 

“I haven’t come across too many specific courses for music journalists, but I know there are a heap of resources for journalism online that are accessible for anyone. For me, when I was in university, I took a course in music communications, which was very valuable for me,” says Koh. 

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“An elective that was particularly useful for my understanding of Taiwanese music was one that I did while on exchange in National Taiwan University about the history of sound recordings in Taiwan. It really helped me to contextualise the place of Taiwanese music in history and in Mandopop today.” 

“It’s then a matter of applying your understanding of music to journalistic principles, becoming an expert on the music scene, and writing as many pieces as you possibly can. And I’m sure this is the case for many fellow music journalists out there too,” she continues.

 
 
 
 
 
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At the end of the day, while formalised structures and greater professional support are undoubtedly beneficial for music writers, the willingness to put yourself out there is just as crucial. “Classes and workshops can be helpful, but the biggest teacher is experience,” says Kohnhorst.

“Find someone who will publish your writing, even if it's just a friend’s blog. Then pitch something, deliver on it, and keep doing it a little bigger each time. You’ll find out what editors want, and what makes a good story. There’s no deeper secret,” he remarks.


Yet, if there’s anything that the pandemic has shown us, it’s that cultural workers’ livelihoods are more precarious than ever, and the music ecosystem has been disrupted indelibly with the loss of live music.

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Operating in isolation and self-reliance—which writing is particularly susceptible to due to its largely solitary nature—may have served us in the past, but the ongoing crisis has demonstrated the urgency for community building to sustain music workers amid an uncertain climate. 

What, then, could community building look like for music journalists? For starters, it’s important for writers themselves to acknowledge the need for collective organising, and to shift towards a collaborative spirit grounded in mutual learning and support.

 
 
 
 
 
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“[This pandemic] really showed how disastrous it is not to have safeguards for writers and other arts and gig workers in the country,” says Galang of The Rest Is Noise. “I think we have a way of finding each other, but it’s just all very informal right now. To foster a stronger community, it has to begin here first, locally.” 

“Organise, create a guild, and try to make this something that shouldn’t always be solely touted as a ‘music is my passion’ thing. It has to serve a collective interest so that we can continue doing this,” she adds.

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Koh believes that it’s a matter of leveraging existing networks and providing opportunities for music writers to connect. “I think we can start by turning the more informal communities we already have into slightly more formal ones—such as creating a Facebook group—and getting key stakeholders involved to spread the word,” she opines.

“Then at least there’s this pool of people who are facing similar issues, or have similar needs, and they have a space to air their thoughts. From there, we’ll best know how we as a community can support each other and grow, be it through webinars for younger music journalists, or providing mentorship, or maybe something bigger,” says the Asian Pop Weekly founder.

Admittedly, it’s not the responsibility of music journalists to overhaul the systemic issues that have perennially plagued cultural industries: low wages, unpaid work, and the “non-essential” label, just to name a few. However, it’s also vital that writers continuously engage with both music industry stakeholders and policymakers—formally or informally—to ensure the viability of creative labour and better livelihoods for music workers as a whole.

“It would be great if we could help music writers feel more valued, since they play an important but underrated role in the music industry,” shares Mầm. “Building a community is one thing, but sustaining and keeping it active is another story.” 

 
 
 
 
 
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Moreover, it’s also a meaningful endeavour—albeit the more difficult one—to move beyond the local and interrogate how “community” can transcend genres, geography or nationality. After all, envisioning the potential of music journalism in Asia is an exercise in seeking common ground among writers and creating spaces for shared knowledge—even if we’re operating in different cultural contexts within our respective scenes.   

“I really resonate with the idea of being a bridge between cultures and disciplines, so the idea of community is also really important to me too. We need to support each other, learn from each other’s experiences, and share resources so that the next generation of writers don’t have to start from scratch,” says Koh.

 
 
 
 
 
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“We need to focus on growing together, so that we can increase the quality of music journalism in Asia, because this reflects directly on how we support local music scenes, and how good we are at communicating their importance to overseas audiences,” concludes the C-pop writer. 

And what better time to embark on community building than now, when we’re experiencing unprecedented levels of virtual connectivity in the era of Zoom? “We should start with online gatherings! I really want to know more about music media in other parts of Asia and their development,” enthuses Suryanda.

“I would love to speak with other music journalists in Southeast Asia, because we all have different norms and approaches to covering our own music scenes. If there are any online initiatives like this, I’d like to be a part of it.”


Imagining the possibilities of music journalism in Asia can be a daunting task, especially when it’s entangled with complex issues of representation, sustainability, and a general sense of fragmentation across the region.

But it doesn’t have to be an impossible feat; neither is it mere abstraction. After all, we’ve somehow always managed to find one another through a shared love language: music. Our community may have reckoned with devastating loss over the past year, but if there’s one thing that the pandemic can’t kill—it’s the stories that we find solace in. Maybe they’re all we have for now.


This is Part 3of the Community Stories: Music Journalism In Asia series that celebrates Bandwagon’s 10th anniversary and showcases local and regional music media championing music by Asian artists. Check out Part 2: What does music journalism in Singapore look like today? A conversation on friendship, community, and solidarity here.


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