That’s a common adage perhaps but something that never came to mind during that honeymoon period of first discovery. Chances are most of us were teenagers when we, the PoP Faithful, were infected with an obsession that still keeps our attention decades later.
Attended the inaugural session of Spotify Talks, where a panel consisting of Calvin Wong (Warner Music), Tan Chee Meng (Spotify), Sunita Kaur (Spotify), Linying (Artist) and, Kevin Foo (Foundation Music) discussed the topic “Looking Beyond the Music”.
As we sat listening attentively to the thoughts and opinions of the panellists, we were struck by a couple of points.
This article is meant to be read together with this one.
Folks in Singapore love music. Just not music made in Singapore.
According to the findings of PWC’s latest Global Entertainment and Media Outlook, Singapore’s music market was worth US$73m in 2016, up 3.1% from the previous year. Not only that, a buzzing live music business should boost total music revenue to US$89m in 2021!
2016 is almost done with. And what have we learnt from modern pop culture? That rock ’n’ roll is dead? That nostalgia & fan service in movies trumps originality? That real life is slowly but surely upstaging science fiction for sheer bizarreness?
I have been listening to rock music since I was an early teen. Back then, my access to rock music was via vinyl, cassette and 8-track mainly. This access was limited by one thing – money. In order to get access to the music, you had to pay for it! And that meant that you had to budget for the music you wanted to buy. Of course, there were ways of circumventing this limitation and expanding the amount of music you could listen to.
Pirated records was the main avenue – whether it was by purchasing pirated records (which were cheaper) or getting a friend to reproduce the record of your choice on cassette. If you were desperate enough, you could even try to record songs off the radio onto cassettes. Money was the problem and ways and means were devised to ensure that you would get maximum bang for your buck, so to speak.
This paradigm shifted with the development of digital music & the mp3. No longer did you need to purchase vinyl or cassette (8-track had gone the way of the dinosaur already) but mp3s allowed a music fan to listen to music on the computer or dedicated mp3 players. In 1999, with the arrival of Napster — a pioneering peer-to-peer file sharing Internet service that emphasised sharing audio mp3 files — the door was opened that led to a seismic shift in how music could be listened to, which signalled the end of the music industry that had enjoyed commercial success for decades (especially with the introduction of Compact Disc technology).
Imagine pirated music on a scale never before imaginable – the music industry basically crashed with sales dropping year to year at an alarming rate. This decline was partially arrested when Apple entered into the music industry with iTunes – initially resisted by the record labels and still rather reluctantly embraced.
In the decade following the launch of Napster, both MusicNet and Pandora were established in an attempt to monetise the new ways in which technology allowed fans to consume music. However, the main hinderance was that music piracy had ruined audiences to such an extent that fans were no longer willing to pay for digital music.
This is where Spotify and the concept of freemium took hold – allowing its members to have unlimited access to its music streaming catalogue for free but with advertising. Premium membership, of course, dispensed with the advertising for a monthly fee. This has caught on with fans with other services sprouting soon after (Rdio and Deezer). However, labels and artists remained less than enthused as the revenues were relatively modest compared to the heyday of the compact disc. Other streaming services like Tidal and Apple Music soon appeared as well – with a firm commitment to paid services although the jury is well and truly out on whether fans are willing to pay for music streaming.
Whichever way the streaming wars pan out and even if ultimately, the majority of fans are convinced to pay ten bucks a month – the future of the music industry will be in the hands of the streaming companies and not the record labels. It is hard to imagine consumers wanting to return to physical copies — even if vinyl has gone through a revival of sorts.
And what does that mean for bands and artists? Well, forget about music ever providing the golden ticket anymore (not that it truly did before but that’s another story) — the sheer size of the catalogue at these streaming services means that the competition is immense. Why would anyone listen to my music when they can access some of the best music ever made in the last 50 – 60 years?!? There is no longer the budgetary concerns anymore. As a music fan myself, I can spend hours at a streaming service listening to virtually all the 70s progressive rock or say, all the 90s UK techno (or whatever else) that has been recorded.
It’s not impossible to carve a niche for oneself as a recording artist but that’s all it will ever be – a niche. Which means that expectations need to be toned down and a means to have time and money to write and record music become a premium. If this is not the attitude of young musicians, then they will be in for a rude shock.
So wake up. Technology now allows us recording artists to make music cheaply, but that also applies to everyone else and — in addition — access to recorded music has been at its highest level ever in the history of music. This present reality is what bands & artists need to assimilate and exploit in order to continue to have music making a satisfying proposition.
There are only 12 notes in the chromatic scale. So, how original can a pop song truly be? Recently, Sam Smith got into legal trouble for his hit song “Stay With Me” (co-written by Smith, James Napier and William Phillips) for its similarities with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” (co-written by Petty and Jeff Lynne).
I am often asked about how the current Singapore indie music scene compares to what we had in the past. It’s a valid question, of course. Since the 90s revival and subsequent economic depression, the scene has been growing at a steady pace in the last decade or so.
To assess how far we’ve come, we need only look at two factors. First, the improvement of the technical abilities, musicianship and songwriting capabilities of our artists/bands and second, the expansion of the fan base – the increase of awareness, acceptance and approval amongst Singaporeans for local indie music.
As important as the first factor is – aided by the number of music schools that have proliferated across the island – the challenge has always to build up a fan base at home for homegrown music. Whilst still not ideal, there has been a marked improvement in that area.
Back in 2010, I recall kids rushing to the stage when Inch Chua opened at SingFest but then walking away when they realized that she was ‘local’. Contrast that to the generous reception of local bands at music festivals today, where bands like The Sam Willows (above), Gentle Bones and others have the acceptance of the audience. Not only that but many artists/bands have rapturous EP/album launches where pundits actually fork out cash to watch their local heroes.
And what about Inch? She has gone from strength to strength – chasing her dreams in the USA (see above) and elsewhere, and those kids in 2010 are probably cheering her on, whenever she does play back in her hometown.
There is much to be optimistic about but we must not rest on our laurels. We still do not have enough opportunities for indie bands/artists to play on a regular basis.
My wish list for 2015 and beyond?
(1) Venues to have residencies for our bands to develop their own music.
(2) More local bands opening for foreign bands.
(3) A regional touring circuit be established for our bands.
(4) Local bands breaking into overseas markets.
(5) Original music no longer a dirty word to Singaporeans.
There is so much work to be done but these are exciting times for the Singapore indie music scene.
It does seem that in order to succeed in pop music in 2014, one really needs to ramp up one’s sex appeal. Especially if you are a woman, of course. I’m no prude (far from it!) but it is a lil disappointing to think that a female artiste has to present herself in such a crass manner to win over the contemporary pop music fan. Don’t believe me? Well, take a look…
Back in the 70s, the Government conducted a smear campaign against rock n roll and labeled it as ‘yellow culture’ meaning it was decadent and unsuitable for nation building blah blah fucking blah. But to be fair, many countries worldwide were unable to accept the hippie generation (including its originator, the USA) – it’s just that it was possible in Singapore to utterly destroy the thriving local music scene in order to stamp out this undesirable phenomenon. Which they duly did.
Being involved in the music scene in Singapore is all about what one makes of the situation. Compared to a mere five years ago, there are many opportunities to fill your time with life-enriching activities. You just know where to look…
On Thursday (21st August) I met up and interview Julie Edwards (above, left) and Lindsey Troy of LA-based blues-rockers Deap Vally and found them to be intelligent, beautiful women who knew exactly what they wanted out of life. Mightily impressed with them in that short space of time we chatted.
Copyright piracy is not new. Back in the 60s and 70s, this was rampant in Singapore. We had pirated LPs and cassettes selling at a fraction of what the original releases cost. Also, pirates were able to compile hit songs across various record labels – something the labels could not compete with. Also, many record stores would offer copying services to their customers, providing mixtapes at an affordable cost.
Back in 1965, a band called The Canadian Squires released a single called “Leave Me Alone”. That was a big mistake. In the mid-60s, Canadians did not appreciate music made-in-Canada. According to writer Ritchie Yorke, the question on the lips of most Canadian radio programmers was – “What’s the use of growing your own tomatoes if you can buy them inexpensively at the nearest supermarket?” Indeed, why support Canadian artists when American artists are so much better?
Who were the Canadian Squires? They would later move permanently to the USA, back a well-known folk singer called Bob Dylan and eventually become critically acclaimed artists in their own right as The Band. This was a familiar story in the 60s for Canadian artists as the likes of Paul Anka, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell had to go south to fulfill their musical dreams.
So what did Canada do about this problem? I quote this excerpt from Canadas Talent‘s A Brief Walk Through Canada’s Music History.
“The Canadian government eventually passed content legislation to support Canadian artists. Beginning in January 1971, AM radio stations were required to devote 30 per cent of their musical selections to Canadian content. It was a controversial move, but one that helped highlight Canada’s music culture and establish a “pop star” industry of its own. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the exploding youth culture helped change the face of Canada’s music industry.”
The Canadian government would also institutionalize various funding initiatives to support Canadian music. The Canada Music Fund is one such example. This Fund provides for the financial support of producing and promoting recordings, educational development of the music industry, aid to record labels and music entrepreneurs “to become increasingly competitive nationally and internationally and to play a leading role in the global digital economy”.
This proactive stance has proved very fruitful over the years. Think of the multitudes of successful Canadian artists in the last four decades – perhaps without these initiatives, you might have never heard of Rush, Barenaked Ladies, Drake or even Arcade Fire.
Canada’s success has been replicated in other countries like Australia and Sweden and is an excellent model for any country facing the same dilemma as Canada did in the 1960s regarding their music industry.
So, what is your response to the question I posed in my title?
By the way, this is the single that got zero airplay on Canadian radio in 1965 by The Canadian Squires…
(Thanks to Barney Hoskyns‘ brilliant bio of The Band – Across the Great Divide – which where I got the historical information from re: The Canadian Squires)
A good friend recently suggested that I should emulate the renowned music critic Bob Lefsetz and cut loose on music and bands that I did not like – the proverbial ‘take no prisoners’ kind of commentary. Not that I haven’t done this in the 20 odd years that I have been writing about music and pop culture. And this includes telling the ‘truth’ about the music of local bands and artists as well. However, I find that it does not serve any purpose and often the targets of the criticism are not able to benefit from those remarks – so why bother?
I love music of all kinds and generally dislike attempts at pigeon-holing. But of course, when you are trying to write about music it often becomes impossible to talk about ‘genres’. Since 80s “indie pop” has been treated as the artistic superior of pop-rock (which originated in the 70s and included the likes of Styx, ELO and REO Speedwagon – all of which were detested by the snobbish indie pop pundits) with its pioneers including bands like Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, Felt, early Primal Scream and of course, The Smiths. By the late 80s, it was fairly agreed that the defining conventions of “indie pop” was jangling guitars, a love of ’60s pop, and melodic power pop song structures” and pop historian Jon Savage traced the origins back to the 60s (of course!) and to the eponymous third album of The Velvet Underground.
I am a people pleaser. Chronically so, in fact. Sometimes it hurts so much to realize that another human being actually hates me that I lose all rationality and respond in the wrong manner. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But in the final analysis, I’ve come to understand that you just can’t please everyone, no matter how you try.
My inherent inferiority complex and low self-esteem have been the bane of my existence but one truth I’ve learnt is that I can never control the way another person thinks or feels, I can only control my own response to this person’s opinion. Of course, there have been challenging negative experiences that have tested this principle to the hilt and whilst it has always been difficult to navigate those stormy seas, I think I arrive home, safe and sound at the end of each voyage.
The S-ROCK scene is nascent but growing. There are many players who are doing their part in their own way to improve the scene for musicians. The authorities are also involved in this process. It isn’t easy by any means – so much emotional and historical baggage to overcome but nothing worth fighting for ever comes easy. Scour through social media and you will, of course, find the ‘haters’ – folks who post potentially libelous statements against these players (yours truly, included) making accusations that are plainly inaccurate and unwarranted. Conduct a simple online search and you will discover these defamatory posts easily.
What can we do? Do we resort to legal means to protect our hard-earned reputations? Certainly, we would be legally entitled to do so but what good would that do, ultimately? Do we fight fire with fire – by posting similarly hateful statements targeted at these ‘haters’ – to name and shame them?
No, we take the higher ground – we simply ignore them. Not entirely of course – which is the whole point of this op/ed. If you’re reading this, dear ‘haters’, I would humbly ask that you would consider spending your energies in more productive activities and stop your futile personal attacks, especially if you truly love the S-ROCK scene. No good can ever come out of this course you are taking. Of course, this is a ‘free’ country and whilst you are entitled to your opinion, at least show respect to a fellow human being, if nothing else. Let’s agree to disagree but kindly stop the personal attacks. Thank you very much.