Supporting Local: The role of the fan in Singapore's music scene


"Support local!" — a simple sentence, depending on the circles you move around in, can become a refrainor, a command.

"Support local lah," the musician onstage says, sheepishly.

"Support local!" the merchandise seller says enthusiastically as you peruse shirts and CDs.

"Support local", reads many a Facebook comment, sometimes with smiley face or victory sign emoji added.


Also, sometimes with a Facebook post brandishing an SG50 sticker.

But what does it actually mean to "support local"? To answer that question, let's first talk about context.

It's fair to say Singapore's indie music scene is thriving in popularity right now. We might even be entering a new golden age, according to Eddino Abdul Hadi of the Straits Times. Hadi, himself a musician and undeniable veteran of the scene, spotlighted in his op-ed the numerous players that are helping Singaporean music go from strength to strength.

Hadi extensively covered the painstaking work of musicians, labels and supporting organizations, but when it came to the fans, Hadi only noted that "fans are turning up in droves at gigs by home-grown indie talents." That isn't untrue, but is that all fans are doing? More importantly, what else can fans do to "support local?".

Let's pre-empt your skepticism: we're taking the time to discuss "fans" because they're an increasingly important subgroup that has long been a cause for anxious fretting among the rest of the scene. What is a musician without an audience? Can local musicians compete with international ones for Singaporeans' eyes and ears? These are perennial questions and worries that now seem to have been answered and assuaged by healthy crowds at gigs, along with encouraging chart showings on iTunes. 

It's undeniable that fans form the backbone of the success of Singaporean bands. But with a music scene that still needs time to develop and grow, how can we be sure that fans can help us reach the next stage?

Support 101: Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Many musicians do what they do for love and art, but at the end of the day, money talks. 

Making an album, buying and maintaining gear and instruments, the manifold expenses of touring — the list of costs goes on and on. Not to mention labels, venues and promoters, whose work also needs and deserves compensation. One of the most straightforward and concrete ways fans can show their support is to pay to the best of their ability.

As Hadi noted, many fans are already doing this (and to you, we sincerely say, good on you!) The line for Gentle Bones' EP release show at TAB last year stretched round the block. Charlie Lim, Inch Chua and The Great Spy Experiment sold out the best music venue in Singapore, the Esplanade Concert Hall.

Gentle Bones, The Sam Willows, The Great Spy Experiment, Take Two and more have all enjoyed success on iTunes charts.

...[fans] can set precedents and help direct our scene towards a culture that is willing to recognise and reward the labour of musicians, venues, promoters and more.

That said, Hadi noted that "the indie scene is still only a scene, not yet an industry." Many musicians have other jobs to pay the bills and it's not uncommon for musicians to walk away completely. Fans should not shoulder the blame for this alone; there are many other reasons why our scene is not as developed as we'd like.

But it's true that as Singaporeans, we have been accustomed to accessing local music for free or for cheap.

You don't have to look hard at all to find a free show. Baybeats, Singapore's most important local indie festival, is a prime example. The catalogues of many Singaporean bands have migrated to streaming services, most of which typically use opaque and stingy payment models.

This isn't solely a fan problem by any means: electronic duo .gif have spoken out on how brands and organizers expect bands to do free shows in exchange for "exposure."

A tale as old as "flexible working hours".

If fans show that they're willing to monetarily support the local music scene (despite the comfortable free systems set in place), they can set precedents and help direct our scene towards a culture that is willing to recognise and reward the labour of musicians, venues, promoters and more. Such a culture can only motivate musicians to put in hard work and also give their fans what they want. Just ask fans of Charlie Lim, who have been clamoring for physical copies of his latest album, Time/Space

Obviously, it's disingenuous to assume that everyone wields the same amount of purchasing power. It would frankly be rude to shame people who take the cheaper route due to tight finances. It would also be exclusionary to price all Singaporean music to the extent that participating in the scene becomes expensive.

But it doesn't hurt to reconsider the ways we pay (or don't pay) for local music, and perhaps buy your favourite band a round of beers after a gig you really enjoyed.

It's not rare to hear the acccusations that Singaporeans value international music more than our home-grown sounds, just because they'll shell out hundreds for international bands' albums and concerts but not extend the same to local ones.

We can talk about how sensible it is to blame that payment asymmetry on the "foreign is better" mentality alone but that doesn't mean that bias doesn't exist. Singaporean airwaves are still dominated by international music. Local bands always open for international headliners, never the other way around — if they ever do at all. It's not uncommon for people to mentally separate international from local and for them to say, "That's my favourite local band!"

"I shall pour Chendol and Hokkien Mee all over myself while listening to my favourite local albums, because support local."

When we urge you to believe that Singaporean music can and should stand alongside, not behind, international music, it goes without saying that this can be difficult mental shift to make. The "foreign is better" mentality extends beyond music to films, fashion, brands, novels, poetry, universities, and political ideologies (but we won't go there). In Singapore, our proud cosmopolitanism can foster an uncritical enthusiasm for foreign culture, which other countries eagerly market to us.

Many of us have grown up in such a worldly Singapore that this bias takes conscious and constant resistance to unravel. Shrink our stage to the indie music scene, which takes inspiration from typically western genres and styles, and you've got foreign-centric attitudes that are difficult to unseat.

As explained above, these attitudes translate into power dynamics within the scene that often put local musicians at a disadvantage.

Undoing the "foreign is better" mentality can help fans support the scene more wholeheartedly because they can more freely champion the bands they feel are genuinely talented.

How can fans begin this (life)long process of mental reform? Well, you don't have to disown your favourite international bands. But it's important to understand that their popularity or influence is often shaped by robust foreign industries and media with sway that their local equivalents don't necessarily have. The hype, the rank, and ultimately the canon, are all artificial. Statements like "The Beatles are legends" are accepted as universal truth, when they ought to be qualified with additions like "according to the music presses and industries of the United Kingdom and the United States" and "but not necessarily for people on the other end of the world who don't even listen to The Beatles." 

But to be fair, The Beatles are pretty great.

Debunking the notion that international music is of inherently higher value is liberating. There's nothing stopping you from setting local bands on the same level as international ones. "Your favourite local band" could translate more easily to "your favourite band" period. Obviously this doesn’t mean that fans should be uncritical in their appreciation for local music – you're allowed to like what you like and dislike what you dislike.

Undoing the "foreign is better" mentality can help fans support the scene more wholeheartedly because they can more freely champion the bands they feel are genuinely talented. Putting aside soft power and artificial hype leaves factors like talent and emotion, which are truly universal.

What are musical genres? A simple answer is that genres are different styles of music. But considering how genres function in today's music landscape, the real answer is that genres are easy ways to tell other people (or music streaming services) what your music taste is like. Many a writer has argued that genres don't matter, especially in this day and age where listeners and musicians pride themselves on wide-ranging, omnivorous musical tastes and techniques.

But genres still exist today, and unfortunately, listeners still allow themselves to be pigeonholed by their constraints.

Keeping an open mind and ear to new, unknown genres and types of music can only help a scene. It's natural to only support the bands you enjoy listening to, but a few favoured bands do not make up a scene. Especially when the scene is so dynamic and varied, with new bands forming and musicians collaborating all the time.  We don't know about you, but we find the deeper you dig into Singapore's music scene, the more you realize how little you knew about it.

Especially when you find out about a Singaporean band like Tantra, a band that performs one of the most genuinely fascinating brands of extreme metal out there.

Genre divisions unfortunately play a pretty big part in segregating a scene. The musicians playing heavier and noisier music typically get shunted into the underground, despite the fact that they inspire devotion from diehards both local and international (Wormrot, anybody?).

...pushing past your own biases can help you better survey and support the scene in all its diversity.

The sheer volume of their music and the potential destruction to property that comes with moshing and slam-dancing means that friendly venues are few and far between: just ask Pink Noize, which recently announced its closure due to a revoked license.

Singapore is also known in the region for fostering some bitchin' post-rock bands, but you wouldn't know that if you didn't dig deeper into local bands' takes on the genre. On the flipside, anyone who turns their nose up at mainstream pop acts such as The Sam Willows and Gentle Bones is only deliberately ignoring the current success stories of our scene.

All this goes to show that pushing past your own biases can help you better survey and support the scene in all its diversity.

How does one get acquainted with music they're not familiar with? Local music festivals are a good place to start. 100+50 Festival was the most comprehensive festival the local scene had going for it this year, and Baybeats goes to great lengths to make sure harder and heavier acts get the recognition they deserve, while still showcasing softer acoustic acts.

Besides multigenre festivals, there are also Spotify playlists, the local music press, and local labels to check out. It's a big leap from your comfortably curated iTunes library to the great unknown, but take baby steps. You might even discover something new that tickles your musical fancy. Who knows?

It only makes sense that if we urge greater open-mindedness in your music listening, we also urge you to voice your opinions when you have them.

And don't be afraid to take issue with bands you love. In modern fandom, people have trouble grasping the fact that you can be a fan and still dislike certain aspects of an album, when in fact blind worship is the last thing any kind of art needs to improve. 

That's not to say the Singapore music scene isn't a self-aware and self-critical one. Talk to any musician in the local scene: as players with a stake in the health and vibrancy of a scene, most if not all will have something to say about how it can be better. Commentators and writers will have their op-eds (like Hadi's, or this one).

The voices of fans, however, are far less audible in this equation, when they really shouldn't be, given the power of social media to spread thoughts and initiate conversations.

Our music scene is established enough to have institutions, which are always up for criticism no matter how beloved and sacred.

Besides the quality of the work and performances musicians in our scene put out, there's much to critique. The Singapore scene, like any other, is susceptible to trends, some more beneficial than others. We can talk about the diversity of our scene (think gender, race, socio-economic class) and how it affects the way we make and listen to music in this country.

Our music scene is established enough to have institutions, which are always up for criticism no matter how beloved and sacred. Even though we have much to thank the Esplanade for, it's not perfect, because nothing is.

When we speak of genres and scenes, there are two that loom large in the history of modern music: punk and riot grrrl. One reason why these two related scenes hold special places in American and British hearts is their non-existent barriers to entry.

If you could do three chord melodies and get together a bunch of friends who had at least a vague grasp of their instruments, the world was your oyster. This extended beyond music – zines, labels, promoters were all self-starters and autodidacts. This is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of these genres: the single, exciting philosophy that you can do it too.

This holds the same for our scene. There’s a myriad of ways in which you can channel your own talents and interests into our scene, if you so choose. Whether it's volunteering at a music festival, making tribute art, trying your hand at gig photography or booking local bands for your own show, the possibilities are endless. 

Clearly, different people have different levels of time and energy they can invest in the music scene. But if standing in an audience or listening through your earphones is no longer enough for you, know that you can always take that first step.