Is the Singapore indie music scene worth saving?
More than a couple of years ago, I wrote a series of articles for the now defunct Audioload site entitled ‘Saving the Singapore Music Scene’. If you’re reading this and rolling your eyes, it’s probably because broaching this topic is akin to flogging a dead horse. And I totally agree with that sentiment. It’s getting rather tedious to even talk about the Singapore Music Scene. Taking a step back and looking at this issue objectively, quite obviously, I personally have a vested stake in the development of the Singapore Music Scene. So naturally the success (or failure) of the Singapore Music Scene has a significant impact on me. Obviously then, it’s hard not to be emotional and subjective about the subject. But lately, certain encounters have narrowed my perspective somewhat on this issue such that I am even asking the question – is the Singapore indie music scene worth saving?
Before, we move any further, let’s have some clarity about what I’m talking about. For our purposes, the Singapore indie scene comprises of bands/artists writing, recording and performing original English language pop and rock music, independent of any major label support. Thus, this definition excludes the Singapore Idols (who are signed to Universal Music) and bands who play only cover music (like the Goodfellas). Anyone familiar with the Singapore music would then realize that this definition would include almost every Singapore band/artist out there playing English language pop-rock music. Sounds like this would be a rather massive grouping, right? But it isn’t at all. Relatively speaking, the numbers would be quite small. Maybe slightly more than a hundred active bands/artists? By ‘active’, I mean gigging on a regular basis and releasing recorded original material (either for sale or for free). Assuming that Singapore’s population is currently about 5 million people, then the ratio of band to persons is about 1: 50,000. Staggering, isn’t it?
However, out of the 5 million people that make up Singapore, the maximum number of people who would pay to watch a Singapore indie band play, will not be much more than 250-300 people! And the same numbers also apply to number of persons actually purchasing Singapore indie CDs! So… the audience that exists to patronize Singapore indie music is less than 300 people. This is 0.006% of the population of Singapore! Sad and depressing but true.
But… should it matter to anyone other than Singapore indie musicians? I’d like to say that it should and trot out all the usual cultural reasons and compare us to this country and that country but then I come to my senses. After all, this is a country of people that by and large do not understand pop culture or appreciate pop & rock music. Sure, we now host the F1 Grand Prix, rock festivals, two casinos, theme parks and so on BUT this is purely appreciated from a functional & economic value standpoint. Typically Singaporean, isn’t it? Almost nobody appreciates pop culture here on an aesthetic level – it’s purely a numbers game. e.g. number of Grammys/Oscars won, number of albums and concert tickets sold etc.
Thus, purely on this numbers game, Singapore indie musicians are losers and failures. Glorified hobbyists who should not be tolerated or given the time of day. Singapore indie musicians are no better than panhandlers and freeloaders expecting their family and friends to support their hobby. Singapore indie musicians should in fact get a proper job so that nobody else should be put out of pocket and they should be obliged then to give their music away and play gigs all for free. I mean, other ordinary Singaporeans do not expect their family and friends (and even strangers) to fund their hobbies so why should Singapore indie musicians?
This perspective has been formed by decades of social engineering, mind you, so it’s not surprising. After all, no Singaporean raises violent objection (or eyebrows) that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra consists of full-time classical musicians whose salaries are paid for by fundraising activities. You never hear any Singaporeans crying out – ‘get a proper job’ to SSO musicians, do you? But that’s because in the true Singaporean mindset, the thinking will be that these classical musicians actually have proper qualifications as they have obtained a degree in their (classical) instrument in this or that prestigious foreign university so they have the right to be professional musicians.
Therefore, as far as the public consciousness is concerned, the authorities have half succeeded in their determined quest to eradicate rock music from the local culture, which they pursued with vigor in the 70s and 80s. So even if they have recanted previous position based purely on economic grounds, at least they can savor the victory of turning Singaporeans against rock music created by Singaporeans, which is surely half the battle! Yes, let the foreigners make rock music and let our businesses benefit by charging people (Singaporean or otherwise) to watch these foreign rock bands but by no means, let a Singaporean rock band be able to do the same thing. No, that would be wrong… and which would send a dangerous message to our youth that rock music is a viable career option.
So if the authorities deem it as such, it’s no wonder that our sheep-like populace should entertain such mindsets, it’s so logical and ultimately understandable. So any question about educating the general public about music and so on is a losing proposition. After all the powers-that-be do not want such a scenario to materialize. Why else would the Media Development Authority in a fake attempt to explore the possibilities of aiding the Singapore indie music industry commission a foreign accounting agency (who have absolutely no clue about Singapore indie music) to conduct a study into this issue. A study that to date, there is no news whatsoever about. Why else would MDA also sponsor a Mediacorp TV program – Live and Loaded – which sole purpose was to present Singapore indie music in the worst possible light? There cannot be any other reason why the producers of Live and Loaded chose to showcase mediocre bands (including school bands!) on national TV. At least, both MDA and Mediacorp can now declare to the general public that they tried to support the Singapore indie music scene in this manner but found the ground to be less than accepting and thus any further requests to support the Singapore indie music scene can be justifiably denied! A brilliant strategy!
So where does that leave my original query? Is the Singapore indie music scene worth saving? My answer would be no. But that’s because it does not need to be saved and we should not look to anyone to save it! I have said this before and I’ll say it again – if Singapore indie music is important to you, kind reader, then support it… if it isn’t, then FUCK OFF! This entire issue has nothing to do with you then and nobody is interested in your opinion.
I feel exactly the way I felt back in 1998, after the Asian Financial Crisis brought our economy to its knees. if Singaporeans are not willing to listen to my music then I will look for non-Singaporeans who are interested (which is why I worked hard to secure US distribution for the two Popland albums and did not bother with Singapore). Now, in a perverse way, the highly popular immigration policy of Singapore has actually brought many foreigners (not pathologically prejudiced against Singapore music) onto our shores. This is the demographic Singapore indie musicians should target and aggressively as well. Also, look for fans overseas, find the opportunity to gig outside Singapore to find the fans who will appreciate your music (and not care what nationality you are). Start regionally – population numbers in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines are huge and they will listen to your music without prejudice – and then move beyond South-East Asia to Japan, China, Australia, UK, Europe and the USA. Singapore bands have done this before – metal bands like Rudra, Wormrot, Meltgsnow and indie bands like Electrico, Great Spy Experiment, I Am David Sparkle, Stellarium, Etc and Caracal likewise. There’s a whole wide world of unprejudiced non-Singaporeans out there to listen to your music.
So what are you waiting for?