Ken Lim and The Business of Con-Artistry

Yes, yes, I know, it is a great piece of white paper. I'm expecting people to be picketing Hong Lim park anytime soon.

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.

what i hope to share is a philosophy which seeks to co-exist and not undermine others and ourselves in the process of self-discovery, one which is not tainted by the industry, rather formulating from inherent cultural shifts.

thanks again for writing and reading, this is healthy.
Hi, thanks for the replying. I’ll be addressing some of the points.

I’ve actually answered the question, why do we need a great scene. (see the section “great scene vs great artists”) We don’t. We can keep on sending our guys overseas and hope that we make it there. We can hope that people like Stefanie Sun, Corrine May or Dick Ree show us some of that Singaporean-ness (to a small extent yes but not bloody likely). No – I think in the end if we really want to talk about “Singapore music” it’s down to “what’s a great scene”. I purposely set out to address the “Singapore Scene” because I know it’s a different (and probably smaller) question from “Singapore Music”.

As for what makes a great scene a great scene, one simple question (although not the only one) is “show me what you got”. Therefore suppose somebody were to say “this is not a great scene” you could repudiate it by asking “what do you mean by great”, or “define scene” or “define great”. Doesn’t cut it with me. I want names. That’s the only counterargument that I’ll accept.

The questions you raise about a great scene are relevant. I don’t put everything here to be the definitive answer to everything. What I hope to have shown is that it is further broken down into 12 or more questions that need to be looked at. We don’t just look at Singapore: we look at other places which have great music traditions and we’re actively asking, how are we similar and how are we different.

You don’t really have to accept the judgement of outsiders. But you must accept that you will be judged. Putting your stuff out – it means that you’ll be judged. For me – to the extent that we are talking about more than just background music or muzak – judgement and appreciation of music are inseparable. It cannot possibly be the case that nobody is judging.

Judgement of Singapore music
When I said “Singaporeans have a long way to go” – you could read that again. I was referring to lyric writing. I could think of people like Dylan or Morrissey who have taken lyric writing to another level. Suppose you were to say that judgement of the quality of lyrics is subjective – that’s OK, I will not hide behind that here, I’m the one who’s judging. Yes I said that a certain someone’s not good at lyrics. No, I’m not going to embarrass him by quoting his work at length and trashing it in a public forum. You could champion somebody’s work here, though. Ling86. I think Ling86 can write decent lyrics but not decent tunes.

Regarding what I wrote about original culture, perhaps it’s clearer if I were to split the question up into two. First question: does Singapore have something to offer the world. Yes, definitely yes. We’re at the crossroads of so many major cultures. I’ve mentioned our cultural heritage earlier on. Second question: has Singapore actually offerered anything to the world through music? No. Not much. I have compared Singapore to Jamaica, Mali, South Africa. Case in point – somebody mentioned that Johnny Marr’s guitar work on “This Charming Man” sounds like Timbuktu guitar. Sounds about right. (Listen to “Nothing But Flowers” for more Marr-does-Timbuktu stuff). Chalk that up to music making a real impact in the world. These other places have borrowed much from the rest of the world, put their own spin of things, remixed things and pumped it back out. Reggae is influenced by soul. Fela Kuti is influenced by James Brown. We’re still in the process of grasping music produced by westerners.

I don’t insist that I am right, but remember what I said about counterarguments: name names. In a way, this is good news. It means that there is a long road ahead of us, but we are not in thrall to anybody. Anybody can still do what they want. Anybody from Jamaica will make music in the shadow of Bob Marley. Anybody in Nigeria will make music in the shadow of Fela Kuti. Anybody in Pakistan will be compared to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. We got no shadow. For far too long, in our Confucian mindset, we equate “culture” with something handed down to us. Culture is also about what we are handing over to the next generation. Kuo Pao Kun’s comment about us being “cultural orphans” is correct but not a great deal. Leslie Low named an album “Ghostfather” and I think he’s alluding to the same thing. The ingredients are there, but somebody has to put it together.

Anybody fusing angklong with rock? Anybody putting gamelan with drum and bass? Anybody commissioned a funeral band to play on their indie rock music? Everybody still operating in their own silos, as far as I can see. Everybody wants to play inoffensive soft jazz listening music.

Financial matters
There’s this curious comment: “we should start casting aside the idea of doing music as a hobby or professional” Because to me there are 3 possibilities. 1. Doing music as a professional. 2, doing music as a hobby. 3, not doing music. Everything else is a mix of the three. No, this does not really affect the quality of the work. Yes, this distinction matters.

You can say what you want about lack of money being a cheap excuse to not pursue music making. But I don’t believe it doesn’t have a chilling effect on the scene. I have looked at it from a macro perspective (somebody called this a “white paper”). Why? Because when you look at it from an individual, you could always say “this guy, Mr X is lazy because he could have jumped through this hoop and that hoop but he didn’t”. So I turned the question in another way – suppose we had 5 million people. And you have this hoop and that hoop. How many people are going to jump through all these hoops? And when you are done eliminating all those people, do you still have a scene left?

Ultimately, the question is not so much “can I make a living out of this”. For the most part the answer is no. The real question is “can I do this and still make a living”. The idea is: music is competing with my time for other things. If I can be employed elsewhere doing other things, it will take me away from music. If I cannot afford to be making music, it will take me away from music. You have listed Scandinavia, Canada, Japan as places where indie musicians can thrive. That Scandinavia and Canada are also examples of functioning welfare states – that should tell you something. Finances is not a definitive factor, but it will play a large role.

Take the example of jazz. You realize why the development of jazz stopped somewhere around 1965? That’s around the time when a large part of the audience moved up and went into rock music. CTI got into trouble. Blue Note got into trouble. After 1965, there was fusion, and after that, same shit over and over. To a large extent, the art goes where the money goes.

Audience vs market
OK, let’s for a moment put aside the “importance” of making it big, or having a large market for your music. Let’s pretend for a moment that it isn’t really significant whether or not you’re reaching a large audience. The fact is that all music that is produced is meant for an audience. For me, that is what a “scene” is all about. It is the interaction between the artist and the audience. The audience either being the people who pay for the music, or listen to the music, or slag off their bands. The journalists who help to define and contextualize the music. One half of the Beatles is the Beatles. The other half of the Beatles is everybody around chattering, “what’s this thing all about”. Beatles is not Beatles without the Beatlemania.

What is the name of Bob Marley’s first Island record? “Catch a Fire”. Culture can be thought of as something that has “caught fire”. So it is alright to slag off Ken Lim and his old mass marketing ideas. It is alright to say that having “stars” is unimportant. But at the same time it cannot possibly be that you are making your music for no one. You can turn your back on mass marketing, you can ignore the “market” aspect of your listeners. But you cannot ignore the “audience” part. You can ignore the part of “buzz” which is about racking up a lot of sales. But you cannot ignore the aspect of it which is people getting excited about your music.

If you say that “proximity to market” is unimportant, I’ll say that being able to interact with an audience is the key essence of a scene. That is crucial. “Proximity to market” facilitates this. Doesn’t have to be “angmohs from angmohland listen to this” or “mass market listens to this”. But if nobody listens, you’re kaput.

Regarding my statement on “Singaporeans are adverse to recognizing their own music”, your point is that there is a small number of Singaporeans listening, rather than none. My point is that there is a small number of Singaporeans listening, rather than a larger number. There is not much disagreement here.

Local audience still matters. To counter your example in jazz – yes, a lot of jazz is appreciated in Europe. In fact, jazz borrow so much from Debussy, Stravinsky and a lot of the modernists that there’s no way jazz didn’t catch on in Europe. But the real soul of jazz is the Mississippi. Its birth in New Orleans, in Chicago, St Louis. In jazz clubs like Birdland, Five Spot. If music is a religion, performing venues are the temples. The Apollo. Harlem. Hammersmith. Club 54. CBGB’s. These days it is music festivals: Coachella, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Knebworth, SXSW. Maybe even Baybeats. There is no religion without the laity, and there is no “music scene” without the audience.

I want to say something about “scenes”. In one sense, a “scene” is rooted in a place. In another sense, via the internet, we have transcended “space”. All the “great” “music scenes” I have described were from the pre-internet era. I don’t profess to understand how the internet changes things.
Intellectual freedom in Singapore
Ken Lim – I think it’s alright to have that joker there doing what he wants. But I think it would be even nicer if there were people out there to publicly slag off his guys in public. Recently we had Chris Brown vs Frank Ocean. What do we have? Only thing I can remember is Zoe vs Fann and that was 20 years back. There is Nicole Seah vs Tin Pei Ling but that’s politics. You can say what you want about how we actually do have “intellectual freedom”. Dick Lee made a few infamous comments about the local indie scene a few years back, and I’m sure there are a lot of people lining up to go have a pop at him. Why does everybody want to be so nice?

To be clearer about this, I am talking about how artists trash-talking each other in public makes things a little more interesting for the audience. I am not talking about Biggie and Tupac getting murdered.

In fact, since I’m not a member of the “newer generation”, why is everybody in indie music so nice nowadays? Why does everybody want to be friends and get along? What happened to all the celebrity feuds in the past?

Also regarding intellectual freedom in Singapore - where are our political protest singers? Other than Mr Brown? You mentioned community centres. That's all the People's Association. It would be extremely strange to have somebody in there performing anti-govt material, yah?
you wrote it for everyone here
and you played that song again

business as usual

will the thread starter make some noize ?

Why are you bomb the basses? You are not Tim Simonon.

What is "it"? I did not write a song for you.

If you mean by "it" the forum post, yeh I wrote the forum post for everyone. But that's not what I meant when I said "I did not write it for you".
all culturally relevant works of art will be coupled together with a relatively "active" community which respond to the works.

In my earlier post I tried to make the point that the audience is a force that feeds energy back to the performers. I just noticed your comment about an "active" community which responds to the works. So you roughly see what I mean. It's just a matter of who is in this "active community".

Mass market - we agree that this is not strictly necessary. But in certain cases - Beatlemania, T-rextacy - it is definitely a part of the "active community".

Cult following - this is probably true.
Other artists who are influenced by you - this is probably true, and they don't have to be musicians.
Journalists - also true. Also think about Richey Edwards carving out "4 Real" on his arm in front of Steve Lamacq.
Your nemeses / antagonists - Think about Guns n Roses vs Nirvana during that "tell your bitch to shut up" spat. I would argue that during this episode they were part of each other's "active community". I just read an article that Duff McKagan was one of the last people who saw Kurt Cobain alive.

And that's why I say that all of these people are part of a "scene".

The point I'm trying to make is that improving your reach and bringing more people into your orbit is not merely "selling out" but in some cases growing your active community. Furthermore, not having "proximity to markets" will hamper the development of your active community. Think about it - the bands in the USA have a huge huge advantage because anywhere in that great big country are people who can be part of their "active community". Therefore even before they step over an international boundary, they can be freaking huge. For Singaporeans, if you don't go overseas, you're probably finished.

The risk of not reaching this active community is probably even worse than the risk of not making ends meet.

All the points I tried to make about what makes a great scene a great scene are just that. I don't mean to say "Manchester had a lot of jobless people, we should also create a whole community of jobless people on the dole and that will produce a great music scene for Singapore " Or to quote a Massive Attack lyric, "Midnight rockers city slickers / Gunmen and maniacs" we need these people in Singapore. But at least we should have a clear idea of what makes a great music scene great.

Risk Taking Culture - there was this hardcore / thrash band in Singapore many years back that was formed around the time of operation Spectrum. They called themselves "Opposition Party" I felt that that took balls. I can't think of anybody else doing something equally brave / stupid today.

Patronage - OK, there is some patronage in Singapore. Still that caters mainly to a certain segment of artists, and it still means that the government holds the purse strings. On a related note, I used to wonder why classical music sounds so much like people sucking balls and kissing ass. (I am saying this as a holder of an ABRSM grade 8). When I realised how much everything depended on you being funded by members of the nobility, I started to understand. The way that patronage works in Singapore - you can forget about this money going to protest singers, or anybody saying anything antithetical to corporate interests in Singapore.

For a very brief period of time, during the age of alternative and punk, the patronage system behaved differently. Record companies for a short period of time were willing to take a big punt on edgy and dangerous acts. But my reading is that that state of affairs no longer exists.
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COS 2013 Debates: MCI – Sustaining Singaporean creative musicians (MP Sylvia Lim)

By MP for Aljunied GRC, Sylvia Lim
[Delivered in Committee of Supply on 8 March 2013]

An integral part of evolving Singapore’s identity must include encouraging the creation and promotion of local music. Original music tells the world about local rhythms and sounds. When words are put to music, the lyrics paint a picture about Singapore, Singaporeans, our relationships and our way of life. These are powerful anchors for Singaporeans as well, unifying us in ways which words alone cannot. Local songs are part of our unique legacy.

Local songwriters, however, cannot live on love and fresh air. The viability of their careers hinges on how much they can earn from their work, and how wide a reach they have.

I believe that for those who create original work, especially songs, the government could take a simple measure to boost the sustainability of their careers. This move will ensure that local music is played constantly and consistently, which will provide sustenance for the song creators to take their careers further, even internationally.

Currently, songwriters receive royalties when their songs are played in public, whether the songs are played in CD form or are played live. All organizations playing music or songs in public as part of their business or ambience must pay the song-music owners through COMPASS or the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore. When foreign works are played, the royalty money flows out of Singapore. To channel more royalties to flow to Singaporeans, the government can take the lead to encourage consistent and significant playing of local music.

Currently, the government plays music in its building lobbies, phone systems, and at events and occasions. At all these occasions, the government can direct its organisations to routinely include local works as often as possible. This will not increase costs for the government, as it would have had to pay royalties for music played anyway. However, this move will ensure that our local songs / music account for a good share of the royalties paid. This will also increase their public following, with more members of the public recognizing and appreciating local songs.

I believe such a simple move can be documented easily to ensure that our local songwriters get the royalty payments due to them. I urge the government to consider this suggestion to give our creative musicians a leg up.
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Well first time in goodness knows how long you have actually put out something useful and guess what – it’s not your own words. So your username is fake, your links are fake and your content is fake.

But nevertheless you (or rather, Sylvia Lim) have raised an interesting and useful point. Do you think that the govt should be actively promoting local talent by buying up their music for use?

(Now, I have to clarify that I'm switching gears. Earlier on I agreed that industry / making commercial music is not important. But now I'm going to talk about how to promote local music. )

Yes, I think it will be useful. Yes, it’s been done before. I remember when I was a teen there were radio stations which tried to play more Singapore alternative music. Chris Ho had radio programs. The govt was funding the arts. Well, the govt is still funding the arts. Here and there. It’s just a matter of how much.

That being said, it was pretty shameful that - you know "Stand Up for Singapore" was a song written by ang mohs. And these sneaky angmohs wrote up a set of lyrics where every single line could be interpreted as a sexual innuendo. It is a little funny if you're in the right mood, but also quite sad.

The downside of concentrating on royalties is that – as I said in my earlier entry, post 12 of this thread, royalties for recorded music is a dwindling resource. Nowadays, people earn their money from live performing to a larger extent than ever before. So the emphasis is on the Singapore govt to sort out the performing venues issue. Or at least do not make life hell for people who want to provide performing venues for their music.

That's why in my analysis of what makes a music scene I've concentrated on music as a grassroots movement. Music is of the people, by the people and for the people. It is not of the govt, by the govt and for the govt. The govt can do more to help make musicians stay alive, but the making, the promotion has to be by the Singaporeans. Singaporeans need to be a little less ashamed to tell each other, "hey there's this great local band, I really like them. Let's go and watch them." There's nothing the govt can do to promote this.

I’ve been of the opinion that music in the last 10 years has been crap. Three reasons. First is that the music industry has been decimated and that music making is increasingly the sole provenance of people with a lot of money. Second is that technological advances that drive forward the innovation of music have stopped. The last 2 significant ones – sampling and globalization – took place in the 90s. Third is that I’m not a teenager anymore. Any music sounds great when you are a teenager. 10-20 years down the road you morph into a cranky old fart who keeps on insisting that everything was better when you were young. Unfortunately all these things not only apply to western pop music, it also applies to Singapore music – which wasn’t very great to begin with.

BTW I don’t know if you’ve realised by now, I don’t get mad at people who got nothing better to do than slag me off. In fact I try to nudge them into saying something stupid – I can’t believe how easy it is. The soft administrators have deleted away your dumbest comments, and you better get on your knees and thank them for being merciful.
I see you very talkative, wonder how is your music ?

any music link to your music ? any myspace link ?

from your music can determine how good you are

talk and talk and talk ... ... aiyo
I see you very talkative, wonder how is your music ?

any music link to your music ? any myspace link ?

from your music can determine how good you are

talk and talk and talk ... ... aiyo

I'm going to be frank with you.

Last few exchanges, it wasn't really about the snide remarks per se. It's not the fact that you're putting down my writing. It's because I know why you're putting it down, and I don't like that reason.

People in Singapore, musicians or not, have a very anti-intellectual attitude. There is a great distrust towards people who do a lot of talking. To me it is a fucked up attitude, and it is this fucked up attitude, rather than anything else, that I cannot stand. I'm half expecting that when you talk a lot, somebody's not going to stand it, and he's going to take you down. Well I owe it to myself and anybody who's wondering "what's the right approach to music and thinking" to smack you down first. I'm not going to let you win. Emphibian thinks this is healthy, you don't, so fuck you.

Singapore music - I see a lot of hard work, but not very much thinking. You're just going to put out the same shit over and over. You're going to continue being in thrall to record producers who dictate to you what you can or cannot do. I am sick and tired of seeing a lot of imitating, and little that is original.

Maybe I'll produce my music and put it online, and maybe I won't. But I also consider myself a journalist and critic and that's going to continue whether you like it or not.
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I see a lot of hard work,
but not very much thinking
... you think too much,
that's your big problem

... I'm not going to let you win.
you lose already when
you lose your cool

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Sorry hor. I was about to patiently explain to you why you're wrong when I remembered "this is a person who has problems stringing two sentences together. This is a person who can talk so much cock it gets deleted, and still say that other people are losing their cool". So sorry hor. Limpeh just wasting his time on you.
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the almighty thinks highly of himself

as the sugar daddy again ?

daddy cool not so cool after losing his cool.

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hello all,

sorry i have to be really quick because i have not found the time to do a proper follow up on this thread, which @centralcatchment, i still think is healthy and i enjoy our dialogue very much. it's invigorating (at least personally) and much needed.

i'd just like to bring up 1 point.

it's not as if this isn't a serious discussion, personally i'm taking it seriously considering the fact that as a practitioner of music, we have a responsibility over our work as to whom we share it with and why. it's a complex matter which involves more than just the producing of works. hence, dialogues are important.

if anyone does not have anything constructive to share, you are not asked to leave, rather it would be great and i'd appreciate if we could restrain posting information which might not be entirely relevant and to refrain from personal attacks. trolling is just not a good thing.

@centralcatchment, i'll follow up on your posts soon, have been very busy, not enough time to reflect and respond.

thanks again.
Hi thanks for the follow up.

I see you've been busy with the Tribal gathering thing. Good luck in what you're doing. I'm not in Singapore now so I can't do very much.

There's not much wrong with disagreeing with a person or maybe even a little name calling here and there. But this is really about people coming up and saying "eh your bloody essay is too long" or "talk so much cock for what" and killing off whatever people want to say about the general state of affairs in this place. This is about that attitude that intellectual, high-falutin ideas have no place in the Singapore music scene, an attitude which is distressingly common.

I just think this attitude needs to be -met head on, if it involves tearing people a new one, getting mad, some old fashioned punch up, a little nastiness - so be it. You want to get the space to do what you want to do, and therefore you do what you need to do in order to get that space.

But I want to apologise to people out there if there were some comments that upset people - earlier on I implied that there's a general lack of creativity in the Singapore music scene, but over the last week I'd been looking around on blogs and websites and found that the situation was not as bad as I had feared. I'm a supporter of local music and on this particular point I'm pretty happy to be proven wrong. Music has been hentak kaki for quite some time all over the world, not just Singapore.
Watched the Final One and Ken Lim does seem to be the best judge and knows this stuff. Not sure why all these posting against someone who has achieved so much more than most of us
Ken Lim - I'm not that critical of him as the thread starter is.

I know that music is something which is very subjective. Not that there is totally no accounting for taste, but certain people like certain sorts of music and never other sorts. It's an inborn thing so just because I don't like something it doesn't mean that it's bad or nobody else will like it.

If he wants to promote Singapore music his own way then he's welcome to do it, I'm not going to do anything to stop him. If I get the chance I'll do things my own way and I don't really expect him to have much to say about it. I will never be on Singapore Idol to hear him talk shit about me.

His philosophy in music is just not something that I agree with, and it's also true that he hasn't produced anything I find worth listening to.

There's an article that I was reading - the Clash are one of my favourite bands of all time - you can be fooled by how simple their music is but songwriting wise they are one of the best. They were interviewed after being inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame, and asked about their legacy.

" To make it in the culture, that's where you should make it. If you're going to make it anywhere, don't matter about the money, it don't matter about the fame really. But to make it in the culture is the thing. We were about where we came from, we're here, we're still here. Not much has changed on those levels. We helped it move forward, that's all. "
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new with forums...really learn a lot from all the much as it can be heated at times, which is exactly what exchange should be and lacking in our life these days, thank you for all who contributed positively...not trying to suck up anybody...truly from bottom of my heart.
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.

Oops.. pertaining to.. diz is very true..