Ken Lim and The Business of Con-Artistry


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Ken Lim and The Business of Con-Artistry

"My intention is not purely for ratings, or to compete or to try to come up with a format that can sell. It's to establish and support the local entertainment industry. I want to establish a top local name."
- Ken Lim (from "Hype honcho Ken Lim prepares for The Final 1," published on Today, written by Farah Daley)

Hady Mirza won Asian Idol. "Angkasa", his first Malay single, was top on the local radio station (RIA) charts for 11 weeks plus. He is signed to Hype Records and Ken Lim is his General Manager.

Hady isn't the only artiste on Lim's roster. Among others are, according to Hype Record's website, Taufik Batisah, Jonathan Leong, Rui En and Stella Chang. Interestingly enough, Tabitha Nauser isn't listed on the website. Strange, considering a quick check on Tabitha's and Hype's Facebook page, reveals Lim as the General Manager. One might wonder when was the last time Hype Records updated their website, or the artiste, whichever is more relevant to recent developments.

As someone who intends to establish and support the local entertainment industry, one of their main store front, in this case their official website, does not provide users or clients with up to date information. In fact, Hady's profile on Facebook states that, "His first Malay single "Angkasa" had top the local radio station RIA charts for the 11th week running." Aside from wondering how well his artistes are consistently updating their profiles, I question the sincerity of Lim's objective in establishing a top local name in this instant.

Singapore Idol might be both an international and national joke, considering the punchline usually ends up with Lim being compared to Simon Cowell. Perhaps his intention to start The Final 1 is a means for him to step away from that comparison. Not build and mould a singing role-model from pre-existing programmes or simply by adopting a franchise, but to create an entirely "new" idea which will work for the local industry. For The Final 1, in Lim's statement, the judges will be "participating as well and helping out in whatever capacity that they can to guide the contestants. The objective here is to get whatever input possible from the judges for every single contestant to help them grow."

So technically, all the work that hired mentors in the Idol series were doing are now placed back in hands of the judges. Somehow, this does not remind me at all of The X Factor, where it starts with a Producer's audition followed by Judge's auditions which then brings them to a bootcamp and being in the Judge's houses, where the contestants are mentored by the judges. However, as the programme hasn't started yet, I'll leave the comparison on that note and see what the show has to offer.

And so, Simon Cowell created The X Factor. Ken Lim started The Final 1. All of a sudden, I'm starting to see another formula unfold. The X Factor, where "X", despite the "X" representing "it" (as in to "have it" in show business), also represents the number 10 in Roman numerals. I speculate that subconsciously, Lim replaced X for 1 and Factor for Final. The template's all there. But I digress and withdraw my speculation as something completely arbitrary and a rhetoric.

In an article published in The Straits Times by Charlene Chua, Lim said, "It's all about finding someone who is likable." Adding further that, "I'm looking for an artiste that we can take global."

What is it that artistes like Taufik, Hady, Rui En, Tabitha does not have that this new hopeful from The Final 1 could offer? Hady volunteered during the Padang earthquake, Tabitha is dubbed as "the complete package" (I highlight this to argue Lim's statement that The Final 1 is seeking for "the entire package"), Taufik was the ambassador for 7-11 Stores, how are these guys, despite being under Lim's belt, nothing like The Final 1?

I apologize for taking a jibe at Taufik's list of accolades. Taufik has won the Top Local Malay Pop Song at the 14th COMPASS Awards Singapore, under Singapore category won both MTV Asia's Favourite Artist and Mnet Asia Music Awards for Best Asian Artist, and also has won, in 3 consecutive years, Most Popular Artiste at Anugerah Planet Muzik. Yes, all but local / regional awards. All this after having been with Lim for over 7 years. Bruno Mars, despite his going nowhere phase with Motown, made a mark in the industry in a significantly shorter amount of time.

However, in an article published by Yahoo! News by Shah Salimat, Lim asserts that Taufik was the last biggest star Singapore produced. He continues by saying, "After that, no more artistes seemed credible enough to take his place." So as a General Manager for the rest of the singers, how does that entirely reflect on his position and aim in reviving the so called "verge of extinction" industry?

It seems like Lim is throwing out a bunch of statements which he has no real understanding of or worst, no conviction for. Has he decided that Taufik and gang are now has-beens? If he proudly talks about grooming and helping contestants to grow, are we to believe his group of singers have already matured? Why keep looking for another if the ones under his belt are, to his standards, worthy of being stars?

Lim, however, has this to say. "There must always be a consistent flow or else, we will just be churning out scholars and academics. I don't think that balances off the creative industries because that part is very important in any society." I reckon in his last sentence of this hasty and clumsily put-together statement, "that" refers to the creative artistes. His critical perspectives, articulation and knowledge of the music scene in general is shallow and mediocre at best. How are we educating or nurturing society in general if we have ignoramuses like Lim running the business?

Before ending my argument I'd like to point out two more statements which Lim was quoted saying, both from Shah Salimat's article. "My only motive is to assist the contestants, not to make myself likable - I don't give a damn about it. I want to let people see matters for what they are. It doesn't bother me how you feel because I know I am saying the truth." Truth? In what context and regards? It is merely truth as perceived by himself and not by anyone else unless shared through reasoning. His failure to identify truth from opinion is hugely problematic and a logical fallacy.

Secondly, and perhaps this can be attributed to Shah's bad writing, but if it isn't, I would like to argue Lim's point that, "Everybody can be a composer but not everybody can be in the business," as a shallow and confusing statement. He goes on by saying, "This is something that our Singapore infant industry doesn't quite get yet. These musicians are so full of themselves and think they can make it but they actually have to develop their skills and have to understand the concept of how the business works." So is he then suggesting that every other musician out there, after stopping from being "full of themselves", in his theory, can be in the business after all?

Music business is for people who can't make music. It's for people who have the ability to sell it. For as long as musicians who strive to be part of the marketplace, as a goal in their music career, keep having the mentality that the industry is the only place that their work can breathe, we should collectively stop calling them musicians and start calling them music salesmen instead. Lim, being a stellar example.

I write this with the intent of addressing every music loving human to exercise consciousness and re-evaluate the value of music and the function of the artist away from the industry. Away from businessmen willing to make a quick dollar because they honed their messiah complex and network in the industry, claiming to the world that they have the power to make you who you want to become. Convenience or a quick pass exist, but they exist on strings and conditions. Many industry experts kill creative content and individualism, instead manufacture products for consumption, tailoring a product for a market.

If hopefuls are forever indebted to a system which supports their "career", the art which they believe they create have no true cultural relevance to society and therefore cease to hold meaning or value to anyone. If this is a compromise hopefuls are willing to endure for fame and fortune, then Lim and other individuals and corporations will continue to harvest the nature that makes us human, for profit.

How do we experience music? What does it mean to experience organized sounds? Lim, like many other personalities interested in the exchange of that experience for power, dilutes the power of music from the get go, advocating passivity in listening to music. I challenge the musicians in Singapore to rethink the function of their work, to rethink the environment we are in and respond to it as opposed to merely reflecting life's choices and ideals. As artists, our work acts as a pivot to future thought.

To manufacture another product will only mean adding another tool with an expiration date that will exist on the shelf. Lim is just attempting to extend his before retirement.


If hopefuls are forever indebted to a system which supports their "career", the art which they believe they create have no true cultural relevance to society and therefore cease to hold meaning or value to anyone.

Thank you for your note.

I couldn't agree more. If the music is not representative of our own culture and people, how else can we expect anyone from Singapore to bother with it?

There is no point listening to a Singaporean band trying to sound like someone else, when it is now so easy to listen to the "real deal"- big acts come by all the time and the internet connects us to all kinds of music. But if there is music that Singaporeans can relate to- thats when it might mean something to them. A "Singaporean soundscape".

Its a bit like ah boys to men- critics all over can lambast Jack Neo for poor graphics/ production/ storyline, but ultimately it is something everyone relates to, and it has certainly touched more than one Singaporean's heart.

Of course these are generalisations- there are many bands/ musicians out there who have come and gone, who have created music that has influenced the next generation of musicians, whose sound has defined (to me), the "singapore sound". Names like the suns, the obs, oddfellows, b quartet, cheating sons, etc etc are "household names" to many who peruse this forum.

Sadly, I believe most of those who do not peruse this forum would not even be aware of the current musicians making waves in Singapore, be it Inch Chua, Charlie Lim, GSE... sure, they might have heard of the bands, but chances are they have not listened to the music.

Which brings us back to the fundamental problem of a lack of support for local musicians/ music. All our best artists (especially in the chinese pop industry) made it big overseas. The comment of "sounds local" is still considered an insult, and conversely "I cant tell its made in Singapore" is considered a compliment.. Is this merely a reflection of our people's insecurities?

And while the discussion on "what is art" could never come to a conclusion- art has to be appreciated before it has any use.. If the music that sounds local is not even heard, for what purpose is its creation? And if Ken produces a generic pop star that amuses the nation with a song that has little cultural relevance, at least the nation listens to that one song that has at the minimal, a "little" cultural relevance. Could that be the beginning of an appreciation of a soundscape that is truly Singaporean? Or would it just be a reinforcement of our insecurities and idolisation of the western sound?

But maybe I should focus on writing and producing more music, than lament the state of the scene in Singapore. But who will make a change, and how can we do it?
thank you for replying, it's good to engage in dialogues.

"And while the discussion on "what is art" could never come to a conclusion- art has to be appreciated before it has any use.. If the music that sounds local is not even heard, for what purpose is its creation? And if Ken produces a generic pop star that amuses the nation with a song that has little cultural relevance, at least the nation listens to that one song that has at the minimal, a "little" cultural relevance. Could that be the beginning of an appreciation of a soundscape that is truly Singaporean? Or would it just be a reinforcement of our insecurities and idolisation of the western sound?"

National Day songs are great examples of products which have little cultural relevance. without doing a search online, list 3 choruses from NDP songs between 2000 - 2010. or better yet, till 2012. what is the point of pumping in so much money to create these songs when no one really cares about them until it's NDP? worst, when no one cares for them after. there's a high chance we'd recall songs from the 80s and 90s more than we would of recent years.

look to the etymology of this so called "industry" everyone speaks of. it's practically the manufacturing of products. it's very strange and enlightening when artistes who want to be seen as unique and individualistic about their ideals are hoping to be products fitted into a mould meant for consumption. if you're meant and bred for everyone's tastes, you're not unique or special, you're mediocre at best. your work, your art suffers because it's tailored to appeal. the industry feeds off templates in order to produce. it's very rare that great artists emerge from the industry.

"But who will make a change, and how can we do it?"

it doesn't matter and in fact it should not matter at all. the problem is there's too much people claiming to be a prophet in this supposedly impending disaster or whatever nonsense they speak of. we don't need a prophet. we need a million artists to have more balls and belief in their work and their ideals.

it's good that folks like Ken Lim is around. it reminds us that we need mediocrity to counter-balance or contrast good work.
I had a good laugh when I read the article. Seriously, can't wait to see another superstar in the rise under Ken's supervision. Maybe another ambassador for Sheng Siong?
I can't stand reading long post. I got a friend trying to promote in Singapore. It is darm hard if you are nobody. My friend go Malaysia to promote first. At least Malaysia media are interested to my friend debut and put my friend in newspaper, radio and a show.
I can't stand reading long post. I got a friend trying to promote in Singapore. It is darm hard if you are nobody. My friend go Malaysia to promote first. At least Malaysia media are interested to my friend debut and put my friend in newspaper, radio and a show.

Kit Chan made it in Taiwan, then got accepted in Singapore
and the same to the rest of our local artistes.

This is globalization, no recognition in the international market;
Singaporeans would not bother about anyone.
i honestly think the best way for a sg artist to promote their music is to abroad even though it might be super challenging, i think the lack of land in SG do matter for us musician, band here cannot be possibly go on tour unlike in MY or ID, i think the term successful musician in SG is very diff than in our neighbouring country, you got a regular bar gig every weekend is already a great achievement in SG.
hello everyone,

i appreciate you guys taking time to read the original post. thank you.

i'd like to share and dialogue further on an issue regarding promotion and marketing.

it's important, but it's not remotely as important as your work in the first place. everyone in the industry is fighting to see who's got the flashiest and loudest name card. but the problem begins when more emphasis is placed on marketing than the music itself. there are tons of bands making music which sounds similar to each other, so much so, templates are a commonplace in music business. my perspective is that folks doing music should refrain from being too involved or too worried about getting their work validated by the industry. because the more we wish for it to be accepted, the more we're willing to compromise on what should and shouldn't be. the bottom line is, a lot of artistes / bands are hoping, and can, mimic templates of what sells in the industry, when the reality is that it has absolutely no relevance to the work they do. it's a chockfull of accessorizing and beautifying an ideal which then dilutes the truth which is represented in the art. i stress that bands / singers should stop being overly concerned about how they appear and appeal to the masses, and keep working on their identity and function as artists working with music and sound as a medium. the more we keep harping on the industry, the more we feel inadequate of our craft, seeing it receives no validation from producers who know nothing about music in the first place.

keep creating good work and share it.

there's a statement from Kierkegaard where he wrote, "How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech."
I think the question of “why is there not a great music scene in Singapore” is something that comes up quite often in this forum. It is especially unforgivable when you consider how common it is for kids to receive a formal musical education.

Personally I started listening to music a lot around the time when Nirvana’s “Nevermind” hit it huge. It was around that time when “alternative music” was the new thing, and it amazed me that there was a whole substratum of music out there not reaching the top of the charts. Right from the beginning I was schooled in the idea that the quality of music did not equal commercial success. In retrospect, that was the first of two big shocks to hit the music industry. (It is the second big shock if you count the CD). Between the time of the Beatles and the early 90s, the music industry was pretty much the same: you had big recording companies and star making machinery behind it. The record company executives picked the winners, and pumped the radio stations with the hits, and the songs they pumped inevitably became hits.

Alternative music changed that. There were left field bands in the 60s like the Velvet Underground and the Mothers who did not conform to the big rock band model, but the big thing was punk. It was the very powerful idea that four nattily dressed people could stand on a stage, play loud and fast, and still produce great records. (Unfortunately only a small minority of punk records are good or even great.) The 80s were a time when alternative music started bubbling under. A lot of the strands that made up the “underground” scene started bubbling in the cauldron: disco, reggae, punk, post-punk, new wave, indie. The breakthrough was in the 90s and those people who were teenagers at that time like me would remember, that was a time of great creative fertility.

The second big shock also happened during the 90s. It was the rise of the internet and MP3s. It was the time when the pirates won the war over the record companies. It felt like a good thing back then but it isn’t really a good thing. The music scene has completely changed. Think of the big names in music – Radiohead, REM, U2. All of them made their name in the pre-MP3 age. This era has been one where it is relatively easy to get a band up and running, but it is extremely difficult for any one band to dominate the scene the way we had relatively few rock superstars in the pre-internet age. I still remember when “alternative music” still meant something. These days, there’s almost no such thing as a mainstream band. Bands used to be able to rely on a sizeable budget with which to make their music. Now the recording companies can’t afford that anymore. Nowadays DIY also means you need to stump up your own money. There was this comment on a music blog that so many people in indie bands these days are rich kids with trust funds – no wonder the quality of music has dropped so much. Music used to be by everybody. Now all the musicians are drawn from a much smaller pool of talent.

What does this mean for Singapore? First, the above context is for western music. Admittedly I am not familiar with the Chinese music scene or Malaysia / Indonesia music scene, so I can’t comment.

1. The first thing is that the ability to make great music is not the same as the ability to sell your records.

The story of Nick Drake should be familiar to many fans of indie music. He made 3 albums in his lifetime, that are considered to be some of the finest works of folk rock. They sold poorly in his lifetime. He overdosed on anti-depressants and died before he was 30.

When I was younger, I used to think about this as “it’s not fair, why are there people who produce great music, and their records don’t sell, and others who produce crap, and they’re #1”? Well things have changed somewhat. First, I remembered that Nick Drake records sell pretty well today. If music is that good, it will not be a secret forever. A lot of so-called “ahead of their time” people end up selling pretty OK when their music has gained recognition – Velvet Underground as well.

There’s actually not a great problem with “commercial music”. I used to have a problem with Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Michael Jackson back in the day but looking back I can say they made great music – tailored for the masses, no doubt, but some of their records were great. There’s no problem with going to the opposite extreme and making Metal Machine Music or (more recently) Lulu. But you got to know what you’re doing and you got to do it well.
People who become famous become famous because they have a talent for marketing, and because it takes a lot of skill and hard work to make somebody famous. David Bowie had that skill – he could become famous even though he was an ah-kua from outer space. REM relied a lot on hard work – they spent 10 years going from city to city in a shitty van and sleeping in other peoples’ places before they made it. There’s no such thing as you deserve to be famous just because your music is fabulous and has great artistic merit. Music making is music making and marketing is marketing and they both have to be considered separately.

2. Singaporeans are adverse to recognizing their own music.

There was somebody on this forum who challenged me to name one great album produced by a Singapore band. I told him to go and listen to the first two records by Humpback Oak. It is a reality of life: you can produce great stuff and people – singaporeans especially - don’t give a shit. They’re not going to care that Singaporeans wrote some of Jackie Cheung’s greatest hits, or that Dick Lee made it big in Japan. Or that Corrine May – even though I personally don’t care for her music – is doing pretty alright. It’s going to take a lot more than real achievement for people to recognize great Singaporean artists. (And for some reason, Singaporeans have been more successful in the songwriting department than the performing artist department.)

The Beatles became a popular band in Hamburg, not their native Liverpool. Jimi Hendrix made it big in London, not Seattle. For some time, Duran Duran was bigger in the US than the UK.

3. Great artists vs a great scene.

So it seems that when we want to talk about “Singapore music”, we actually have to distinguish – I suppose if you are a great artist, you can make it anywhere. If you don’t like it in Singapore, just go overseas and try your luck. I’m going to shift the discussion to how we can make Singapore a great scene. And to do that, let’s look at places which have produced a lot of great bands.

Detroit. This is the home of Motown. It was the greatest center of car manufacturing in the world before it became the picture of urban decay. There were a lot of black factory workers and somehow it blossomed into a great scene. There’s something about America – just throw in a big urban center and put a lot of black people there and magically you will have a great music scene. I don’t know why. Motown had at least three great songwriting teams. The Holland Dozier Holland axis, Norman Whitfield and Smokey Robinson. (And I haven’t even mentioned Stevie Wonder).

There were riots in the late 60s that spelt the beginning of the end for Detroit. But even then there were the Stooges and the MC5 whose brand of raucous hard rock was practically the blueprint for punk.
And even as the city decayed, the city produced its third great gift to the world of music. Techno (and its darker twins – ecstasy and rave culture). Massive clubs were born in abandoned warehouses.

Manchester. Home of the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, the Smiths, Stone Roses, Oasis, Magazine, 808 state, Chemical Brothers, Happy Mondays. Even during the 80s, when it was a decaying manufacturing center and unemployment was really high, there were so much great music coming out of that place. The archetypal Manchester band was the Stone Roses, who fused dance and rock. That place seems to have the same DNA as Detroit – urban decay, lots of unemployed youth, bitter cold winters.

Bristol. Home of trip hop. A place with many immigrants. (Sounds familiar) Public housing. (Sounds familiar?) Port city. (Sounds familiar?) produced Tricky, Portishead and most importantly Massive Attack during the 90s.

There are a lot of biographies of bands out there and you can go and read them, read about the music scene which gave rise to great bands, and think: what do these places have that Singapore does not have? I get extremely embarrassed when bands like Tame Impala can come out of an ulu place like Perth.
OK that was part one. Now I will analyse for you what makes a great music scene. What are the ingredients and to what extent Singapore has or does not have them.

1. Instrument talent.

I think Singapore is OK with this. Maybe not so many kids these days go to music lessons as 20 years ago, but that stereotype of “all Asian kids play piano” is still to some extent true. However a lot of them during my time were classically trained. Classical training is good for its rigour and explaining to you the basic principles of music. It is not so fantastic when it comes to nurturing creativity.

2. Songwriting talent. Lyric writing talent.

Less so than instrument talent. But since songwriting talent is pretty independent of the music scene, inevitably it’s the area when Singaporeans have succeeded the most. Yes, there really isn’t such a thing as a “Singaporean sound”. Our songwriters will write in styles that originate from other places. That is inevitable. But we aren’t really that short of songwriters, although I won’t really be able to name a good Singaporean writer who’s come up in the last 10 years. Maybe somebody can give me some suggestions.

Lyric wise, Singaporeans have a long way to go. Even somebody like Leslie Low – no matter how much I appreciate his ability to write music, I wish he left the writing of lyrics to somebody else. This is a comment on his Humpback Oak stuff – not able to comment on his Observatory stuff.

3. Performing venues

This is where Singapore really really falls short. In order for there to be a scene, you must have performing venues – most preferably informal performing venues. Not grand glitzy places like the Esplanade where if you don’t draw a certain audience you’ll be out. Not expensive places where you are not allowed to take artistic risks. We like to pay lip service to “little bohemias” like Holland Village or Siglap or Serangoon Gardens. But do you really think that these places nurture bands? The closest thing that we have is the substation, but since the demolition of the National Library and the closing down of MPH I think the buzz in that place has died down.

Great culture is born in the streets. What Singapore is great at is hawker food – and that was born on the streets. These days, all the great music is born in the streets. DJ culture was born when somebody brought a bunch of speakers to a car park and played it at loud volume. Reggae was nurtured in the dance halls. Rap was born in poetry slams. Informal performing venues are crucial to the birth and development of cultural movements.

We do have community centres all over the island, but they are all under the control of the People’s Association. Make of that what you will. We also expect the situation to worsen when Singapore has 6.9 million people.

4. Intellectual freedom

Another place where Singapore falls short. You can’t say shit and you can’t say fuck on stage. For that matter, you can’t even say those things in this forum. Enough said. People can take away your performing permits at the drop of a hat. True, not all music has to be subversive, but the ability of the authorities to take away your right to perform will produce a chilling effect on the local scene.

And the result of the “culture” we had in Singapore in the 70s and the 80s – those old enough to remember will know that in the bad old days the authorities were openly hostile to singers who had long hair, and that to them, all rock musicians were drug abusers. We had some semblance of a music scene in the 60s, but it was more or less destroyed in the two decades that followed, and it has never recovered.

5. Risk taking culture

If the risk taking cultures in Singapore are bad 10-20 years ago, today it is in some respects worse. The cost of living is so high that unless you are sitting on a mountain of money, you probably won’t be able to feed yourself by going into music full time. I have more or less given up the idea of being a professional musician. For me, it will only be a hobby. In the earlier post, I had mentioned Manchester as a place which produced a lot of great bands. Well I’ll mention now that a lot of these musicians were on social welfare. Whatever else you think about welfare, and I know that we are openly hostile towards it, that scene could not have succeeded if many of those guys weren’t able to keep themselves alive on unemployment benefits.

6. Proximity to other markets

This is a mixed bag. Unfortunately this isn’t America, where every major city is a goldmine when it comes to performance. But our Chinese artistes have access to the China / Greater China market. If there is a burgeoning Indonesia / Malaysia market, then we should also try to exploit that. But I suppose this would be a new phenomenon.

7. Original culture

Does Singapore have anything unique to offer the world? Unfortunately in this respect, we are even further behind many third world countries. Africa, for all its problems, has a great music culture. They have Fela Kuti from Nigeria, great guitar music from Mali, the Soweto compilations from South Africa and even war ravaged places like Congo have a healthy music culture to shout about. Jamaica may not have a great government but they gave the world Reggae.

This shouldn’t be the case. Singapore has access to plenty of music from our own culture. We have Teochew opera, Wayang Kulit, Dikir Barat, Indian classical music. We are close by to the great Gamelan traditions of Bali. It is shameful that we are not on the world music map. Now where we are able to value add is if we were to fuse this stuff with rock music, or jazz, or whatever. For whatever reason, this has not been attempted by many.

We don’t really have a lot of confidence in an indigenous culture. We are right in the middle of a great culture war, what with the talk about the population white paper, that hoo hah over Bukit Brown. What is this “Singaporean-ness” that we are trying to defend? We haven’t really developed it and it could be too late to start.

I will echo some of what emphibian says: it’s a shame that Singaporean bands always imitate what is done everywhere else. But I will also add a qualifier – all culture in Singapore comes from everywhere else. What is truly unique about Singapore is the way the foreign influences are combined together. I think that Humpback Oak would be a good example. A lot of their music is quintessentially Singaporean: the anxiety about having an identity, being inarticulate, feeling trapped. When I listen to “Pained Stained Morning” or “Ghostfather” I think, no band in the US or the UK could have made this. But at the same time their music has so much influence from REM and Mark Eitzel that my private nickname for them was “Singapore Music Club”. But it’s OK. I think what we must aim for is that we absorb foreign influences but put our own spin on them.

When I see band photos, it’s usually with a tinge of disappointment. The bands of the 90s weren’t afraid to be themselves: casual attire and all that. These days I see people dressed to the nines in tropical Singapore, and I’m like, “you got to be crazy”. Bands like Madness, the Clash, Oasis weren’t afraid to sing in their own accents. One day I hope to see an album cover of a band just being themselves, regular Singaporean dudes chilling out at a hawker centre, dressed in t shirt and shorts.

Singapore is cosmopolitan and more profoundly so than most places. We never have a debate like in the US where some people are openly questioning whether foreign culture has a place in the university. Nobody ever questions that we are multi-cultural. Yet foreign culture has such a tight grip on us that we can hardly breathe. We think that all great art must be foreign, and no local art can be great art. We don’t really know how to chill out and be ourselves. We are accustomed to think of “the arts” as something foreign, or mysterious, or only for the well to do.
Great art is only possible when you speak from the heart, and speaking from the heart is only possible if you’re willing to be yourself.
8. Willingness of talent

Over here, this describes the extent to which talented musicians in Singapore are willing to pursue a musical career. It’s not good, for the reasons I mentioned earlier – limited economic opportunities, and the difficulty of being able to get gigs.

Culturally, Singapore is in a paradoxical situation. We are a society who’s happy to boast that your kids have a Grade 8, but if he became a musician, you would probably have to run and hide about it. It might be a little different if you’re Malay, though. The two places I mentioned – Detroit and Manchester paradoxically benefit from the high unemployment rate. It seems that economies which are doing badly actually have a small advantage because it does encourage people to think of music as a career option.

9. Patronage

We don’t really have a patron system. It’s not customary for rich people to donate generously to art centers, or support the local culture. The old recording industry used to be a little of a patron system, where recording artists were given “advances”, and the company took care of the logistics, the management and the marketing. Now this system, which never really existed in Singapore in the first place, is actually pretty kaput in other countries. Everybody is DIY. These days, you actually have to not only be a good artist, but also a good entrepreneur. This raises the barrier to admission.

If we use this context to judge what Ken Lim is saying – it does sound like he’s a little desperate to show that he matters. He wouldn’t have to keep on harping on how it was oh so important for the record company to nurture stars in Singapore if his thing were doing such a great job in the first place. The fact is, he’s not. Record companies were pretty reviled in the old days because they used to screw recording artists out of a fair share of the profits, but we can now see that if they functioned properly, they did enable great records to be made. We all can think about the six digit sum of money required to record My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” as proof of this.

However I see what’s gone on in the 21th century – all that “American Idol” and reality TV crap – as one of the worst things to happen to popular culture. It’s like rock bands can’t be themselves anymore, like they’re only allowed to take directions from industry moguls whose taste in music have on many occasions (think about Decca rejecting the Beatles) turned out to be pretty flawed. The idea that you have to take your artistic direction from either the audience or some self-appointed judge is pretty repugnant to me.

What’s the solution? There is no solution. If you want to make music, and you believe strongly enough in it, just do it. But don’t do it in the expectation that you will receive the required support, that you will find a record company who will believe in your original vision, that you will become popular. What do I think about what Ken Lim thinks? Well if you want to go with a record company, that’s your choice, then you have to think about what he thinks. Personally, I’m either going to not do music, or do it my way. Therefore I don’t think that his opinion is of any great importance.

It’s also true that the government is pumping some money into promoting Singapore culture. But that stream of external funding is tenuous. And if you’re being funded by them I wouldn’t think that you have 100% artistic freedom.

10. Reception of audience

I won’t further elaborate on this since I’ve said this before: about how Singaporeans don’t hold Singaporean bands in high esteem, about the lack of performing venues, about the lack of confidence in our own culture. This has economic consequences, since so much of what makes a musical career viable these days is your ability to perform in front of a live audience.

11. Access to equipment and recording equipment

This is average. I think that people are willing to invest in equipment and we have a few art schools willing to teach people to be recording engineers. But at the same time, Singapore does not have garages, and therefore they don’t have a lot of garage bands. Our HDB apartments are too small to have people accumulate a lot of their recording stuff.

The good news is that more and more people these days can become bedroom musicians, and I think this will be the way forward from now on. I think that Singapore will have to move forward on these lines. Yes, this term is derogatory in certain quarters, but the whole genre of “DJ as auteurs” sample-based music is something you can assemble by yourself. There are masterpieces like DJ Shadow’s Entroducing, or the Go! Team’s “Thunder Lightning Strike”, or “Since I Left You” by the Avalanches or any of the rap masterpieces by Public Enemy or the Wu Tang collective to serve as examples.

12. Journalism

We do have a few music blogs. I used to read BigO a lot. You can say all those clichés about rock criticism, but there are a lot of rock stars out there who are pretty savvy about it. Johnny Marr knew his stuff. Peter Buck used to read music magazines all the time. Good music journalism makes you think more deeply about the music. Even makes you think more deeply about the business. It’s a sort of ongoing discussion between the audience and the makers of the music. It is almost a part of the process by which the artist defines his art.

Sure, you can find all the hyping tiresome and you shouldn’t take your directions from the critics about how to make your art. But you can’t totally ignore the music press. And it is a mechanism by which we bring good music to the attention to the wider audience.

There is a disturbing trend these days for all indie musicians to want to get along and be nice. I’m not sure it’s a good thing. I used to think about the days when Blur and Oasis were bitching about each other every week. I thought that the Nirvana – Guns n Roses feud made them more interesting. Even the Beatles and the Rolling Stones pretended to be rivals, even though they got along OK in real life. There’s just no tension going around, there’s no drama without tension, and without the tension we are poorer for it.

OK, I’ve written a great deal. This may be seen as a laundry list of complaints about the Singapore scene but I hope that by breaking it down and pinpointing the specific components that makes it a little clearer about what is to be done. I’m not going to directly offer solutions, but it is implicit from this what some of the solutions are going to be like. The question is whether we have the resources, the ability or the willingness to solve these problems.
Yes, yes, I know, it is a great piece of white paper. I'm expecting people to be picketing Hong Lim park anytime soon.

And while the discussion on "what is art" could never come to a conclusion- art has to be appreciated before it has any use.. If the music that sounds local is not even heard, for what purpose is its creation? And if Ken produces a generic pop star that amuses the nation with a song that has little cultural relevance, at least the nation listens to that one song that has at the minimal, a "little" cultural relevance. Could that be the beginning of an appreciation of a soundscape that is truly Singaporean? Or would it just be a reinforcement of our insecurities and idolisation of the western sound?

But maybe I should focus on writing and producing more music, than lament the state of the scene in Singapore. But who will make a change, and how can we do it?

OK, part of this question is "how to produce a music scene in Singapore" which is answered at (fairly considerable) length earlier. As for your remark that "art has to be appreciated before it has any use" something just came to mind.

Suppose a certain person were to come up with a nice little ditty. First thought is, "holy crap, I'm a songwriter!" Second thought is, "shall I produce it, perform it, cut it, etc etc." Then the doubts creep in. Where's my audience? How can I get a band up and running? I have so many things going on in my life. Who will listen?

We have these talented people in Singapore. Maybe a few hundred of them, a few thousand. This will be going on in their minds. Should I give a shit or not? Is that song good? Well I know how to listen to it, and while it is not "Waterloo Sunset" it's pretty OK. Does it have relevance? Well I'm a Singaporean, and that song is about a part of my life, so I guess so.

So this guy just writes down the notes, and then files it away. If he wants to listen to it again, he'll dig it up. Maybe he enjoys it. Nobody else will get to listen to it. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn't matter. It's similar to that old philosophical question: if a tree falls down in the middle of a forest, does it make a sound? Similarly - does that song actually exist? I get reminded of the REM song "Letter Never Sent".

It's not only the problem of the artists. You could also point a finger at the audience. I've been a believer that by and large, the audience gets the music they deserve. If you reward people for coming up with great, innovative music that has relevance in your local context, you will in turn be rewarded with more of the same. If you don't give a shit, neither will the artists. If you demand innovative genre-pushing work like the audiences of the 60s and the 90s, you will get it. If you're happy with conservative shit, you can listen to the old stuff over and over again.
I didn't write it for you:
it's not your business anyway!

you wrote it for everyone here
and you played that song again


business as usual

will the thread starter make some noize ?
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hello again,

centralcatchment, thank you for your time and effort in writing such a thoughtful response, i very much appreciate it.

i'd like to point out that the perspective i hope to share and discuss further is that there needs to be a much wider form of societal consciousness in the process of art making, in this case, music. because we can discuss about theories and case studies pertaining to scenes which already exist, but all culturally relevant works of art will be coupled together with a relatively "active" community which respond to the works.

if we look closer at the question of "why isn't there a great music scene in Singapore", i think some important questions to ask pertaining to that thought are, what makes a scene great, to what standards do we, or is there a need to, define the idea of greatness and is it important that it's great?

i don't believe that producing or the act of it is important because that has a very top down approach in suggesting what makes a scene "great" or healthy for that matter, rather it's about treading a very fine line between cultivating practitioners without the pretense of industry talk, and, pushing cultural boundaries, questioning and redefining the landscapes; political, social, environmental, etc. ignore the business aspects of it because that has little importance in the formation of a music culture here. or at least one which regards the art existing purely through a need to express without turning it into a statistic.

your last statement in #1 of part 1 in your writing, that being, "music making is music making and marketing is marketing." is absolutely true. and it is this very reason, that artists shouldn't bother about marketing. stop bothering about reach or audience. it is irrelevant.

in your statement about Singaporeans being adverse to recognizing their own music, i must disagree. because we should recognize, however small a community, for as long as we have listeners attending performances, these listeners, do not support the fact that Singaporeans are adverse. and this is an argument which i'd like to highlight, that even if you have a small group of listeners attending gigs, they still count as listeners, Singaporeans, who enjoy the music made. to state that Singaporeans are adverse, i'd like to supplement that you should also state that generally, there seems to be an adversity towards locally made works the world over. jazz musicians from America as another example, some gained acceptance in Europe than they did in the States. in fact, your last statement in that point supports the fact that it's not just an occurrence in Singapore.

your third point is interesting, and to answer your question pertaining to the music in America, this goes back to cultural relevance and the expression which represents it. it's significantly synonymous to the culture that exists, the music made is an expression and an extension of culture. in turn, a scene, let alone a "genre", will develop as it's the uniqueness of this cultural expression that sets it apart and what locals would call their own. this could also be seen as a form of folk music, much like slave song, its formation, influence and not forgetting, the content which encircles the form. it all comes back down to cultural shifts and formation which supports some of the greatest musics every created in history. it is based on this very reason which i feel it is, again, not important for artists to be concerned with how to get their material out to an audience, because the focus shouldn't be about selling, it's about making.

the 2nd part of your post, you seek to analyze the ingredients. i will respect your perspective on it, however i disagree with many of the points you have touched on. continued in next post.

- - - Updated - - -

1. Instrument talent.
i think it's not important. because we're again basing our standards on the fact that we need to match up or be as competent with some form of standard which already exist. why? why is that important? if musicians become more aware that instrumentalism can be seen from an alternative perspective, where, there are more ways to approach an instrument and create music out of it, why wouldn't and shouldn't that be encouraged? why adhere to standards just because? to be a technically proficient instrumentalist can be a good thing, but to quote the late Harry Partch in his book, Genesis of a Music, "Under the pressures of study these are unconsciously and all too easily absorbed. The extent to which an individual can resist being blindly led by tradition is a good measure of his vitality."

2. Songwriting
to what standards do you compare it to when you say "Singaporeans have a long way to go?" because, again, i emphasize that it is not about comparing or aligning ourselves to a particular standard, rather being able to communicate without being seen inferior or superior. the more we feel we need to measure up to any other practitioners, the more inadequate we'd always feel towards the value of our work. at the same time, we're dealing with a very subjective topic. so what makes one standard better than the other?

3. Performing Venues
firstly, i agree with the need of informal performing venues. when venues like Post-Museum, Pigeonhole, Blackhole were around, there were alternative spaces. Substation is still around and presenting gigs and works on a consistent basis, but i cannot agree when you say the buzz has died down, not because i feel the buzz is in any way higher or lower, but because the idea of buzz itself is irrelevant. it doesn't make a venue any less functional if there is no buzz. the space is still alive, therefore, every chance given to create work in that space should be taken.

secondly, you are right to say great culture is born in the streets. however, the National Arts Council's regulation on busking in Singapore is hugely problematic of this argument. because by regulating, not just performers but spaces, this stifles development further by limiting what should or shouldn't exist in public spaces. this is such a top-down approach in "producing" a scene, one which i personally find hugely problematic.

thirdly, i agree with the fact that space is what the artists makes it to be, community centers should be re-imagined as a space which could be converted into a performance venue of various forms. in fact, i believe Thomson Community Center had a healthy scene promoting gigs. it's all about perception when it comes to space.

4. Intellectual Freedom
by right, perhaps we can't. by left, we can. i believe we don't have to speculate about such matters. for as long as artists have content they'd want to share, work your way around it without compromising. subscribing to the idea that external factors would cripple your art is depriving yourself of your personal freedom.

i'm also quite sure now that they've cooled on those matters (long hair etc) it's all about moving forward.

5. Risk taking culture
how do you define worst? in what aspect, financially speaking aside? i believe that taking risk is more than just about putting food on the table. it is in many ways, but risk taking is also about other adversities; time, psychological, political, cultural, social etc. i feel we should start casting aside the idea of doing music as a hobby or professional because it is highly problematic when we start thinking that music should be an occupation. it can be, but it shouldn't. music has nothing to do with making money. like you said, music making is music making. from personal experience, i know several musicians who are actively promoting performances, playing and composing new works, who are in fact doing it not as a "full-time" thing. they have day jobs (some of which are not related to music) yet are still able to function as musicians. it doesn't make them any less a musician or any less serious a practitioner of music. and these aren't just musicians who work in Singapore, these are in fact musicians from across the world. i'm sorry, but lack of money is a cheap excuse to not want to pursue music making.

6. Proximity to other markets
unimportant. as mentioned a few paragraphs above about relevance of the work.

7. Original Culture
you ask, does Singapore have anything unique to offer the world? how would you define us by being further behind? not that we are any greater or lesser than any country, but consider the background and the history of which Singapore bears. you talk about Africa, but they are made up of many ethnicities, in Singapore we have several races and within that, numerous ethnicities. that in itself, can be considered unique.

the late Kuo Pao Kun has eloquently summed us as "cultural orphans". and i think that in itself has a lot of truth and a point of identity we can hope to self-discover.

original culture will form on its own. there is no need to ask and ponder. as a natural occurrence, let it take its time. as artists, we facilitate the dialogue pertaining to this formation and as a society, push forward.

8. Willingness of talent
i think you're over-generalizing here again. firstly, take money out of the equation.

secondly, you say, "it seems that economies which are doing badly actually have a small advantage because it does encourage people to think of music as a career option." what about countries like Norway (in fact, Scandinavia), Japan and Canada?

9. Patronage
actually, we do. there was a report on this, maybe a year or two back, figures such as William S. W. Lim and others (i have forgotten the other people in the report, my apologies) have contributed to artists.

for a comprehensive list:

12. Journalism
i agree, we need serious writers. there are some good ones in Singapore, but more writers is necessary in the scene.