Monday, 20 October 2014

“We’ve always been ostracized, but we deem it as a way of life,” says Subash, vocalist and band leader of Truth Be Known, local veteran metal band.

Their live performances are known to be energetic and loud, which led to the moniker of them being “the angriest band in Singapore”. Their lyrics, explicit. If being a local band isn’t easy already, then perhaps being a local metal band would have it much harder.

As Subash of Truth Be Known (TBK) explains, “We tried getting funding from government agencies like NAC for our tours before, but it’s always difficult because of the genre we play. I’m a very vulgar person, and our band is also very vulgar. Our songs are peppered with lots of profanities, so we are definitely not censorship friendly (laughs).”

But even without external support, Subash and his band members soldier on.

“Most of us have given up, so we just fund our own tours. We would look out for air fare promotions, and try to time our gigs around the promotion period if possible. We also can’t do heavy tours. At most it would be three or four days, because of work and family commitments.”
Being honest and true to their music, TBK has not only managed to stay in the scene since 2005, despite the frequent change in their members, but also make a name for themselves. One of their biggest shows was at the “Bang your Head” festival in Semarang, Indonesia in mid 2006, which boasted close to 5,000 in attendance, a big number for the genre.

Subash, vocalist and band leader of Truth Be Known
During the interview, Subash shared many insights and inspiring anecdotes which are probably relevant to bands of any genre:
  1.  The metal genre may be niche, but the community is a close one. It’s because of this close knit community that word of mouth is spread more easily and hence stronger support for the bands. Keeping a close knit culture also encourages collaboration and new opportunities for everyone.
  2.  It’s not about the money. If financial gain had been a priority, then nothing would have been accomplished. The band would not have been able to release their self-funded albums, or go on their regional tours. They may not be making money from their music, but they would still continue to do it.
  3. Being open and flexible makes things work. As band members enter different life stages, they have to juggle family and work commitments, but they still invest time and effort in their music. For TBK, the members simply work around each other schedules to rehearse, jam and tour.  It’s the can-do spirit that has allowed the band to continue even as priorities change.
What was the metal scene in Singapore like in the past?
Subash: The metal scene in Singapore started at around 1989-1990, with bands like Abhorer, a black metal band. In the mid nineties, most of the gigs were mixed gigs. It was a big thing back then. The first in the lineup would always be the indie bands, then punk or skin, followed by the hardcore bands, and lastly the metal bands. They were held in venues like Octagon in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Macpherson ITE and Substation. Some of the big names back then were Rudra, Impiety, ITNOS, Doxomedon, Bastardized, Silent Sorrow, and many others. The community was very close. In the nineties, we used to hang out at Plaza Singapura Forum Gallery. People would come during weekends after work or school to go there chill, play, drink, and some people would catch the last bus by midnight, while others will stay until the next morning. Back then I was around 18, so during school days I couldn’t stay up too late. We would meet on Saturday evenings, and all the bands would hang out there. The Forum was a very important and pivotal place for us in the underground scene. It was where everyone met everyone, and that’s how you knew that there was a gig was coming up soon, and word of mouth would spread. It was also a chance to explore playing with other people.  There were also competitions like Clash of the Bands, which we (Kaliyuga) participated just to try out and see how good we were. It was during then we talked about our music dreams, like where to record our album (i.e. TNT Music). Even now I still record with him and he has never changed, always supportive of the local scene. He’s super ah beng, talks like an ah beng, but a very nice guy.

How did you become a metal head yourself?
Back in 1994-5 I was a closet metal head. I didn’t know anyone. I listened to my own music, I bought my cassettes every week, and I never knew anybody. It was only when I shifted to Teban Gardens then I had a secondary school friend, and we would hang out together. I also met another friend who was also another metal head, and it turned out to be Selvam, who was the guitarist of Rudra. When I met him, I remembered that they were from Marsling, as their address was indicated in their cassettes (back then there was no Internet, email or website). So I thought he was from Marsling too, but it turned out that it was only his vocalist’s address. I was very surprised and impressed to meet a member of the band that I had been listening to. We clicked and hung out together. At that point in time, Rudra had split. The vocalist had a different direction, so he left the band, but the other members still wanted to play. They were looking for another vocalist and asked me if I was keen, and I wanted to try it out. So we started jamming together. I was the youngest member of the band, and they enjoyed my company because I was funny and had no airs. They also liked my singing style. We did covers together. After jamming for some time, we decided to join a band competition, Clash of the Bands, at Fire Disco. I was very nervous. I remember one of the judges was Suhaimi from Stomping Ground, and those guys are also the pioneers of the scene. We didn’t win, mostly because we are a metal band. We have always been ostracized, but we deem it as a way of life. As long as some people like our shit, we would be very happy.

Our first gig (Metal fest) was on 14 July 1997. I remember the date because when we released our album we called it 1407. That gig was very significant to all of us. During the 1990s, gigs were all mixed genres. There was never a pure metal gig. We were the first guys to do it. Everyone contributed. There were five or six bands who came together to do this after some discussion at our usual hangout sessions at Forum. Venue was the hardest thing to get. This gig was held at Bugis, a place called Noah’s Ark. It was run by New Zealand missionaries. They held hardcore gigs because some of the missionaries were hardcore band members too. We approached them to hold a metal-only gig. Initially they were a little hesitant because it was metal, as we would be wearing T-shirts that spouted inappropriate vulgarities. But later, they were cool about it and agreed to provide us the venue. They didn’t expect that it would be a big crowd, thinking that it would be only thirty to fifty people. We started to prepare for the gig. We created our own posters, printed our own ticket stubs. We placed our posters at Roxy Music. If you’ve had your poster there, you would have easily captured fifty people. Some of us placed them at important bus stops outside schools. News was spread by word of mouth and there were no pre-sale of tickets. Tickets were only sold at the door.
In the end, around two hundred people turned up. The venue was too packed and we couldn’t let in any more people. The missionaries were shocked because everyone didn’t expect it. It was a very pivotal moment for us as it was the very first metal-only gig, even before Chaos 99 which was held at Fire Disco.

In early 2000-2003, we released our album under Kaliyuga, a melodic metal band. We played a few gigs in Singapore, and a big one in KL. That was my first overseas gig. We got to know the organizer Fadzil. Under that time we were under Trishul Records which signed Rudra too. They paid for our CD production and took a cut. But to me, it’s never about the money. At that time, metal music was banned in Malaysia. For a good six months to a year, there were no gigs there at all. We were invited to play at the first gig after the ban lift, together with Impiety who were the headliners. We were the only other Singapore band in. We travelled by coach, which we paid ourselves, and everything else they would cover. However, when we reached the hotel, it was the worst place ever, with no air-conditioning, broken windows and cockroaches in the room. Spoilt as we were, we decided not to stay there and paid for our own accommodation as well. When we went for our sound check, we didn’t see the crowd yet. We went back to the hotel to chill until it was our turn to perform, and it was only then that we saw the crowd of over a thousand people. All these Malaysian fans had been starved without music for months, and people from other states travelled all the way to watch this gig. There was some racial bias at first, because we were an all-Indian band. I remember when we went up on stage, there were many people who were mocking us, shouting, “Kopi-O satu! Prata satu!” We wanted to retaliate, but instead we just let our music do the talking. It was a beautiful thing, because within that half-hour set, we changed their perceptions. Everyone started cheering for us. We played our own songs and covers, and they really liked our shit. At the end of the gig, I was totally exhausted because I gave my all out as it was my first overseas gig. After the gig, usually I would stay around the side of the stage after packing up and say hi or thanks to our friends, which is something that I do every time. They came up to me and congratulated us, told us that they loved our music. So it was a very big moment for us.

Unfortunately, we split up after that due to many reasons, and I started to look for a new band to form. That was when Truth be known (TBK) was formed. We started out as a five-piece death metal band in 2005, consisting of John, Anesh, Gene, Arul and myself. Even though we were from different bands with slightly differing music genres, death metal proved to be the common factor for us to start this band. I had to give Arul a lot of respect because he stayed in JB. So whenever we had gigs and jamming sessions, he would travel over. And so, armed with 3 songs and a couple of covers, we played our first gig on 1st October 2005 at the Guinness Theatre, Substation. I couldn’t remember what happened during the gig because I was totally drunk. I was drinking the night before, a few hours before the gig, and even after the gig. We made a few mistakes here and there, but generally we had a good response. This was the only gig with this lineup. In early 2006, Anesh left for Australia to pursue his studies. We decided to enlist the help of another friend from scene, Damien from Bhelliom. With the lineup complete again, we went into full song-writing and touring mode. In the following years, we played numerous shows locally and around the region.
On 8th August, 2008, we launched our debut album “Just Another Lamb” which was well-received by peers and fans alike. After 3 years together however, the individual responsibilities of each member began to take its toll and ultimately led to John and Arul leaving the band to concentrate on their personal lives. We had to take a short hiatus to recuperate. After about a six month break, the remaining members, Damien and Gene and myself picked up where we left off and recruited our good friend, Joshua (who, coincidentally, mixed and mastered “Just Another Lamb”) to play bass.
Gone were the days of the angry. The new Truth Be Known was all about having a good time. Though we’ve dubbed our new style “Fun-core”, the music leans more towards punk and grindcore without forsaking our roots in metal. With this new drive, we went into writing mode and within a few months, we were ready to show the world what Truth Be Known is. We performed at the Soundcrusher gig held at the House of Rock and has been performing quite regularly since then. We also recorded and released a “teaser” EP entitled “Rock ‘N’ Roll Baby”. The feedback was positive and this encouraged us to release another EP called, AsphyxiHate.

How do you promote your band now?
I would say it’s become lazier. Now that there’s Internet, everyone puts up their stuff on a Facebook page. But in this way we’ve also managed to reach out to fans overseas who came over to watch our shows, which is great. We also have our live shows videos on Youtube, which helps to garner more interest. We just completed a new music video too, which was produced with our own budget. I got a few good metal head friends of mine to help with the filming, directing and editing.
But the best form of advertisement is through word of mouth, when your friend asks you to check out this band he found. After the gigs, I will also stay around and say thanks to the people who came all the way down and paid to watch us.
In the past, how metal heads discovered music would be through buying cassettes, sometimes only by looking at the album cover, and if it came with the disclaimer Parental Advisory, it would be even more attractive to them (laughs). Nowadays, people can discover music through Youtube or Spotify to try and listen. I’ve been speaking to my manager to put our music on digital channels too, and we are happy to make our old songs available free for download.
Our manager is Bret from Mourning Sound. He watched a few gigs of ours and was kind of impressed with us so he decided to manage us. Promoters come and go. Not many stay for a long time. Brad plays full manager role, but he promotes the annual gig, Full Battle Order, and he also promotes Taiwanese bands like Anthelion and Solemn. He would go to Taiwan to help them out, and if they are going to release an album or do a tour, he would provide contacts and try to get them to play here. The contacts from Taiwan, Japan and Australia are mostly his. The scene in Taiwan is pretty big and they are very supportive of the local scene. When we played in Taiwan, it was a big surprise. It was a professional venue, the people were all very nice to us, and they were all very appreciative of what we played.
Our new album, By Any Means Necessary, will be released in the later part of 2014. We are hoping to tour with Anthelion who has also just released a new album.

How has the metal scene changed over the years?
I missed the old days. In the past, people were into the music mostly because of the angst. Nowadays, metal has become more like a fashion trend. Some of the bands now are more into the visual side of things, but their music sounds a bit copied and factory-like. When you listen to their music, you’ve heard these rifts before.
On the other hand, we should try to adapt to new trends. Bands and audiences have become more diverse. It used to be dominated by the Malays, but now we have different races joining the scene. Nowadays we even have non-metal heads, being curious and wanting to check things out, coming down to metal gigs, which is a good sign. We would never have that last time. Our fan base has also changed a bit. We have some younger fans in their twenties, and we even have female fans, which is very rare in the past.
Currently, because we have been around for some time, it’s likely that a metal head would know us. But I’ve always made the effort to check out the younger bands too. For all you know, this new young band could have a lot of potential, and become bigger than us in future too. I would try to talk to them, encourage them, or if they are really good, I would offer to rope them in for future gig opportunities. One thing that has not changed all these years is that community is still just as close. It’s a metal thing. When you meet random metal heads wearing a certain T-shirt, you would still give them a nod of recognition and approval. I still get that once in a while too.
In the next five or six years, I would see that if the bands that are starting now can stay together after National Service, they would easily be the headliners of the future. If we want to continue playing into our forties, we have to keep up with the times too. Overall, there will be more sub-genres, which is more exciting for the whole scene.

What kind of challenges is the local scene facing now?
At a local gig, you may have 10 or 15 bands, and the ticket price would be around $20, which is fair. Local bands would have their own regular followers, and everyone knows each other. But when you attend a gig of a foreign band, you’d see all these new faces, and you wonder if they came and paid a high ticket price only because it was a band from overseas. Our local musicians are quality musicians too, yet we do not see their support for our own gigs.
In the ’60s and ‘70s, the radio stations would play local music, and we would listen to local music first. It was until the ‘80s and ‘90s then it stopped happening. Now it would be even worse. People hardly listen to local music. Yet, the musicianship from the ‘60s till now has always been fantastic. It would be great if there was more support from local fans and radio stations. As of now, the only person who supports airplay for local metal or hardcore bands is Borhan from RIA 89.7FM. He used to play in a band called Manifest and Urban Karma and now he’s a DJ, playing metal songs on Sundays for an hour or two.
For some promoters who support local music, when they bring in a foreign band, they would ensure that the opening band is a local one, which is a very good way to expose local bands to local fans.
Venue remains a major challenge. There’s the usual Substation, Aliwal Arts Centre, Blackhole. But many of the smaller venues have closed down. These days, the organizers all the more have to be very creative and resourceful, and we’ve performed at the most unexpected places like the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
How can local bands find gigs overseas?
Many of our bands go on the Internet to search for local promoters, chat with them, send them their profile and music links, and try to get a gig. Another way is through friends who are in bands that are already playing in the gig. Then you can ask the organizer if they could take in another Singapore band, and if they are ok, then you’re good to go. Transport is covered by the band; accommodation and sometimes food are covered by the organizers. Sometimes the organizers would also give a token fee to the bands playing. But we don’t care about the money at all. When we play a gig, we take it as a holiday. If we can make a bit of money from merchandise, that would be a bonus. We wouldn’t count on CDs either. In fact, for the new album, we will be only printing a few hundred copies and we plan to sell most of our stuff online. The CDs are more for promoters and media. T-shirts, badges and stickers sell best. We don’t mind spending a bit, just to let more people know and listen to us.
Currently, Indonesia is a very big market. Any metal band has to play in Indonesia at least once. The first time I played there I was overwhelmed as well, because there were at least one thousand people there. The atmosphere in Indonesia is great, the people are very supportive, but they generally are not very rich. You cannot sell your stuff at the normal price or at a profit. You may not be able to sell CDs, but you can sell smaller items like badges, T-shirts, wristbands, which they will buy.

Where else have you toured?
We have also played with Japanese bands like Hydrophobia, Defiled, GSD (God Send Death). They messaged Bret saying that they are doing a tour in Southeast Asia, and they are looking for a spot in Singapore, so what Bret did was to get a few local bands to play with the foreign bands. We toured Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. In Taiwan, they have bigger festivals like Spring Scream, and some of our local bands have also played there.

Other than Taiwan, we have also toured Malaysia and Indonesia. We were supposed to play in India and Sri Lanka as well, but at that point in time, some of the band members couldn’t make it. But we will definitely try to make it for the next festival in Sri Lanka. We make it a point to tour at least once a year, but in my band, almost all of us are married. Everyone has commitments, and family comes first, so we can’t be so hardcore already (laughs).

Monday, 23 June 2014

Digital Music in Japan: A Threat to the Lucrative Physical Format

During last month’s Music Matters in Singapore, Universal Music Group International chairman-CEO Max Hole highlighted in his keynote speech on how Japan, the largest music market in Asia, is “unique and remarkable in many ways”, including innovations of the 360-model, and its ability to maintain high fixed prices on CDs.

Indeed, Japan is reportedly catching up with the US and possibly even surpassing it as the world’s most valuable music market, with strong growth in the physical format; yet, it faces its own set of challenges when it comes to fully embracing the digital revolution, including music streaming.

To understand more, MBIA spoke to Mikiro Enomoto, lead writer of “Music of Our Times”, published in WIRED Japan and author of “Music Takes Us to The Future”, a special series on musicman-net.

Mikiro Enomoto

He explains, “Downloads have never worked, and there are no ad-revenue models in Japan. The market leaders in Japan are Sony Music and Avex. Those two companies dislike ‘free music’.” This means that third party apps that are not owned by the leaders will probably continue to struggle to find attractive content on their platforms.

“KDDI, the second biggest career bought KKBox 2 years ago, and KKBox launched in Japan, too. But it lacked the freemium model because of the denial by Sony Music and Avex. Also, it lacks brand-new J-pop songs. How can you win without weapons?”

Enomoto, who is also the strategy consultant for music service for the Avex Group and Sony Computer Entertainment, also shared on the history of music streaming in Japan, its various business models, and his take on the trends of music streaming in the near future.

Could you provide a brief history of music streaming and their respective business models in Japan? Which models have worked, and which have failed?

The first music streaming business was in 1998 by Motoharu Sano, the pioneer of J-Rock, who held a live-streaming event. In 2000, Spaceshower TV (the top music TV station in Japan) launched, which held a special live program of major artists on a weekly-basis. The goal of Beatrip was to offer a VEVO-like service, but the advertising model couldn't support the music web service.

Sony's Music Unlimited made the second wave of music streaming services in 2010, a paid-subscription service like Rhapsody. 

Then, the mobile carriers entered the music subscription business. Their idea was, when you subscribe to the cell phone line, if you subscribed to their music service at the same time, you could buy a brand-new cell phone at a discount. That was how D-hits, the music streaming service of NTT DoCoMo (the top carrier in Japan) got more than a million paid-subscribers in less than a year.

What kind of challenges did app developers face in bringing content onto their platforms? How did they convince Japanese record labels who are well-known to be very protective of their content to place their catalogs with them?

The digital music revenues have continued to decrease since 2008, the year of iPhone 3G. Before the coming of iPhone 3G, Japan's music industry saw considerable success in Chaku-Uta, the music download service available only on cell-phones. The success was huge enough that iTunes failed in Japan, and that made Jobs consider if Apple should launch its cell phone business, i.e. the iPhone.

Later, however, the combination of iPhone and the YouTube app destroyed the Chaku-Uta business, and so the industry in Japan desperately needed an alternative plan. They chose the paid-subscription model. The revenue of paid-subscription model rose quickly. The growth-rate in 2013 was over 500%.

But I must say paid-subscription service is still niche here, especially since most of younger generation don't even know of their existence, because they are mad about free music streaming on YouTube and Nico-Nico, which is even more popular than YouTube.

Another reason is that you can't find brand-new J-pop songs on paid-subscription services, because major labels are afraid of the possibility that people won't buy CDs if they supply new J-pop songs via streaming. The market share of CDs in Japan is over 80 percent, and the average price of the CD is over JPY2,200 (USD22). The average revenue per capita is over JPY3,000 (USD30), which is #1 in the world. So they feel that subscription fees (JPY980 monthly) can't compensate it. The bad thing is, this calculation is true.

What is your take on why peer to peer sharing of music has never really taken off in Japan? After all, it was the revolution of Napster that forced the music industry to change itself outside of Japan. 

There are issues of illegal P2P usage in Japan too. But it has made less impact in comparison with the rest of the world. In 2002 when Napster and Kazaar boomed, only 6.4 percent of people used P2P in Japan. 

It is mostly because the post-pc era had already occurred in Japan since 1998. i-Mode is 9 years earlier than iPhone. If you asked the young why they didn't use PC at that time, they must have said, "PC is not cool, it is for business use." 

The young became huge fans of the cell phone in late 90's. They started to enjoy downloading music via cell phone since when Chaku-Uta service launched in 2002. Then P2P started in Japan. As it were, the solution came first and the problem came next.

Amongst the different apps, which of them has a focus more on indie artists and smaller labels?

The structure of music industries in Japan is very unique. There are over 30 "major" labels in Japan, most of them are in fact indie labels on the global basis. So every service is full of indie labels' music in Japan, compared with the global market.

Name top 3 trends on the future of music streaming in Japan that you'd expect to see over the next five years.

The first one is Life's Radio. It is the Pandora equivalent in Japan. Like the Music Genome Project of Pandora, Life's Radio gathered over 50 musicians to build up its music recommendation engine for years. The quality of the engine is as excellent as Pandora, but it lacks the ad-model for same reason I explained above. When the time comes, it is planned to expand other Asia markets with the engine, which works best with J-pop & K-pop.

The second is the possibility of the combination of hi-resolution downloads with on-demand streaming. Recently Hi resolution Walkman has been a hit in Japan. They topped instead of iPod and the like for months. It resulted a great growth of Mora, Sony's music download service, whereas the global sales of iTunes music have decreased. And as I said, the huge growth of subscription services includes Sony's Music Unlimited. Guess you can buy hi-resolution music at a discount if you are the subscriber of Music Unlimited.

The third point is Spotify's coming into Japan. It means the acceptance of freemium model, which I believe the most critical point for the popularization of music streaming service. But JPY980 (USD10) monthly won't work here, because it will mean another crash of the highest revenue per capita. So Spotify will need some big change of its pricing model if they get the permission from Sony Music etc. It is very difficult for Daniel Ek, I guess.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

“Respect your manager, just as he respects you, because he takes on the same risks as you do,” says Syaheed of Bedsty Artist Management.

Whether you are an established act or an upcoming artist, engaging a good manager is probably one of the most important things you need to consider in building your musical career. Certainly, while hiring a manager doesn’t equate success, a great manager knows when to play different roles at different stages of your career, including opening doors, pushing you to level up your game while giving you a reality check.

But what should artists consider before hiring a manager? As Syaheed of Bedsty Artist Management explains, “Make sure they understand you, and make sure they understand what you need to do. It’s a two way street. The manager is only as good as the artist. If the artist sucks, even if the manager has all the contacts in the world, he’s not going to be able to do much. You must have a manager that respects you, but you must also respect the manager, because we partake in the same risks as you. We are not going to get on the train with you if we don’t like where the train is headed. Of course, there are many types of managers, so pick one that understands you, your music and your vision.”

Syaheed, Director, Bedsty Management

With four unique acts Sheikh Haikel, Wicked Aura, Sezairi, and Kevin Lester (now known as THELIONCITYBOY) under his care, Syaheed is a partner, visionary, mentor, parent and strategist all rolled into one.

This year, some of his biggest achievements include signing a major label record deal for Sezairi on the back of producing RoomToBreathe series on his YouTube; signing a landmark development deal for THELIONCITYBOY with's BMBX; turning Wicked Aura around financially to make possible their next record; and having Sheikh Haikel re-enter the Malaysian market, appearing on Maharaja Lawak Mega - with a weekly viewership of 1.5 million viewers.

He added, “A manager only truly becomes a manager when he has things to manage. At the very early start, the manager is a promoter and talent developer, but a manager also has all these other little functions and roles too. Once the artist becomes slightly more successful and in demand with more clients seeking for him, then the true manager roles starts to come in; because you’re managing the information in and out, delegating where necessary, and finding the partnerships where necessary.

So at the start, you will probably need a person who is more promoter and talent developer more than a manager, but of course unless he’s a friend, you’re probably seen as a commodity with so many other artists out there, and you probably need to pay a bit of money or cut him in. Meanwhile, if you have a best friend-type of guy who has ideas and can help you out, rope him in!”

MBIA interviewed Syaheed to share his thoughts on what makes a great artist manager, his relationship with his artists, his marketing strategies, and in particular, the long and hard efforts put behind THELIONCITYBOY which eventually caught the eyes of’s team and offered him a label deal.

How did you get started as an artist manager?

I stumbled into it. I really wanted to get involved with the band SIXX that Kevin Lester had started. Back then, I was producing Hip Hop & R&B music and was pretty successful at it. But handling live production for a band was not my immediate strength. I really wanted to see this band make it because they were so good, so I literally willed myself into their fold by making myself very useful by utilizing the relationships I had already in Malaysia and Singapore to get them seen. I landed them a spot on Sunburst KL Festival. From then on, it evolved.

I then realised I was pretty good at it. I felt I was adding even more value as a manager then I would as a producer. I had learnt a lot hanging around established Malaysian artists and their managers and that was my education, a class I am still attending

Describe what kind of manager you are. Are you a promoter like Simon Fuller? A mentor like Jon Landau (managing Bruce Springsteen)? A partner like Albert Grossman (with Bob Dylan)? Or an autocrat like Tom Parker (like how he visioned and shaped Elvis)?

I'd imagine I'm a hybrid of all four - playing different roles to the needs of my artist. If I had to pick one, I would believe I am a partner in their development, a part of the process. But one thing is consistent is that I always let my artist have their creative freedom, giving my two cents when needed, but they would have control of that. I just lay the facts and manage the expectations.

How do you manage their expectations?

Every artist has this dilemma. They want to do their art, but they also need money to survive and hopefully excel. They expect to make money from doing what they want to do. So managing expectations would be in the form of pointing out the bigger challenges and opportunities on a short and long term basis, and weighing for them the consequences of putting out music that would only serve themselves emotionally but not necessarily connect with the audience.

Do you face this problem with your own artists?

All the time, and it’s fair, because music is such an emotional product, especially to its creator, but there are artists that are slightly more business savvy and pragmatic and know how to balance that. But it gets a bit more dangerous if the artist does a certain type of music and expects to do really well when in truth the music may in fact be very difficult to sell. So that’s when I need to manage expectations, so that they don’t get completely let down. It’s also partly why we are still quite broke (laughs), but we’ve come to a consensus on what they are comfortable with. After all, I’m not managing a K-pop group where we have to stick to a certain formula. I believe my artists are talented. Maybe they would be more respected when they are dead and gone than when they are alive, like Van Gough.

It’s like a parent-child relationship, where you are constantly shifting and adjusting, and getting them out of their comfort zone to try new things and evolve. Some artists are open to adjusting but some are stubborn. But it goes both ways. I’m not always right, because if I was, I would be more successful than what I am now. I learn more from every mistake than from my good fortune.

Are you a road manager? Business manager? Legal advisor? Or all of the above?

Again, a hybrid of all three. I've played all three in different stages of my career. I needed to, because I had to learn it - from scratch. You could say I believe in starting by washing the dishes, or in the mailroom, and earning my place and proving my worth. I have to add I am not legally trained – I just read the fine print, and understand it enough to break it down in layman terms.

These days, I have a great friend and partner in Aboo, who is basically our Bedsty Artists' road manager. He is fantastic at what he does so I know our guys are well taken care of when they're on the road.

What is your biggest achievement as an artist manager?

For me personally, it’s being sustainable while doing it. We could do with some growth so I can build a bigger team to amplify what we want to do even further, and that’s the goal now. But to be at it year in and year out is pretty dope.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an artist manager?

Resources: Time & money. We never have enough of either.
As an artist manager, I've focused entirely on the development of Singapore artists, original Singapore music artists. And that also means breaking stereotypes on how dope they truly are. It’s the mindset that "local" is not good enough that is my biggest barrier. So to overcome that, I find every opportunity possible to get my artists outside of Singapore.

On hiring interns 
Very often, these interns whom I work with want to be artists and musicians themselves. But I don’t have the heart to tell them that, “no, your talent is here” instead. Every person deserves to sail their own ship, and if they do find that their path is in management, it’s a bonus. Just like me, I started out as a music producer, stumbled into artist management, and only decided later that I wanted to focus my efforts here.

What makes a good artist manager?

I had a discussion with Denis Ladegaillerie, CEO of Believe Digital on this actually. He told me that the role of the artist manager is the most complex role in the entire music ecosystem... you need to have an appreciation for talent, be able to spot it well and help the artist develop, be informed of new opportunities and technology, be a risk taker as you are dependent on the success of your artist, understand legal intricacies that affects the artist and the deals that come, have business acumen and manage resources to make it profitable for your artist and you.. you name it, it goes on. And obviously, I agree.

Any difference between managing a band versus an individual artist?

Definitely. With a band, there are more personalities to deal with. Income wise, there will be more mouths to feed, but fund raising is also slightly easier. If I need ten thousand dollars to be raised, I can ask ten band members to reach out to their network of family and friends for a thousand each, which on the other hand can be much more daunting to a single artist to get that same amount.

The four acts under my care have very different directions, deliberately too, because I don’t want one act to cannibalize another when it comes to opportunities. There’s also egos to manage, because they are all competitive, and they all want to succeed, which is a good thing. But I don’t want them to feel like my capacity has been compromised because I favor one over another, because I don’t. I have a professional relationship with all four of them, and we have a friendship just as much, and we take care of each other’s families.

What do you look out for when signing an act?

My baseline is that they have to be able to do fantastic live shows. If they can’t do great recordings at the moment, never mind, but you really have to be entertaining when you’re on stage. All my acts can achieve that.

Sheikh Haikel

Sheikh Haikel educates me on that as he’s a top notch live performer. His presence is second to none. Wicked Aura – a no brainer. It’s such a shame folks haven’t yet come around to experience their full band shows as much. Sezairi – I hope after Music Matters, everybody who came to watch went away just mind blown because he just raised the bar, and he’s only just getting started.

Why I got involved with SIXX was also because they’re an energetic and infectious band. They have to sound and look tight. Now, even as a soloist, when THELIONCITYBOY goes overseas to perform, he would see some of the very best acts there and think, “How do I compete on this level?”
So pushing him out of his comfort zone was part of the process. He is a really hungry guy, and if something went wrong during the show, he gets more upset than anyone else, and he would be the hardest person on himself, and I would be the one instead to ask him to chill. I guess it makes it easier for me as a manager, because he’s extremely self-driven. On the flipside, if I need to give him feedback, he would listen, and it would be up to him to digest that process. But with all the artists to a certain degree, they appreciate what I say or don’t say, and we have a mutual understanding.

Do you wear different hats for different artists?

Yes. With Kevin it has always been partnership role, because when we started on the journey, we were really insignificant, and we evolved and grew together. With Sezairi, it’s more of strategy and positioning him differently. I would like to think I have come to a point that I fully understand his musical sense to know where he would like to go with his journey. With Haikel it’s very interesting because I’ve learnt a lot from him, just as much as he has entrusted in me in shaping things for him these last 4 years. He would share how he would do things, his preference, his set and sequence, and so on, and at the same time he would turn to me and ask, “So what is your take?” He would consult me on his ideas, and for someone as senior as that, he’s mentoring me as much as I’m giving back to him. He has plenty of ideas, and from my end it would be, “Which of these ideas make most business sense?”

With Wicked Aura, creatively they are pretty much set, but it was a matter of reviving them financially. So it was cut, cut, cut, let’s not have this and that, let’s do this instead, and put them back together again, so that they can carry forward and work on the project that they have been planning on for the longest time. And I’ve heard the raw recordings and it is amazing!

Wicked Aura

How do your artists remain financially sustainable?

Our paychecks come in spikes: there are months when we make money, and there are months that we don’t, but as long as they are continuously producing good music and great performances, we can definitely expect that we can keep growing. When we are in production mode, it’s a challenge to find funding, so we need to work out how we can spread out our resources evenly.

Make no mistake. All four of them – they are the best in what they do, but our economic situation means that even at that level, they all struggle financially. Wicked Aura is healthy, but I cannot get all thirteen members to commit full time to it, so they have other jobs, because there’s simply not enough money for each person to earn a decent salary for them to commit 100% full time. So there’s a dedicated structure and understanding that if we need to activate Wicked Aura, there’s a priority for everyone to come together.

Sheikh Haikel is a different case. He has regular gigs, he’s on Okto, he has started a wonderful school at Balmoral Plaza called School of Music, and we would try to find ways to fund his next album. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. We want to commit more time, but hey, where are we going to find the money?

There are government grants that can help. But we look at it as help rather than the first place to go to, because from my point of view, if at anytime they decide to switch that off, and we are only reliant on one source of funding, then we would be in deep trouble.

Wicked Aura already has a model that was generating some cash, but not in a way that I wanted them to, because they were not playing as a full band, but as a percussion troupe. Now we are in the midst of transitioning them into a full band, but they could still make money performing at corporate events. After all, they were the ones to make Batucada performances popular during corporate events, but with so many similar acts coming up - and these are the same acts which they helped to mentor and grow - they are now competing for the same business, and Wicked Aura will need to do something different. And because Wicked Aura is at this level, we will not reduce our price, even if it means accepting fewer shows, so everyone needs to bite the bullet.

I suppose this ties back with how you build them as a brand.

Yes, in the performance space, your value is measured by how much entertainment you can bring. Usually it’s by word of mouth – that you guys are the best – and also pitching them actively to event organizers. I may not have the time to put in as much effort as I want to, but to overcome that, we work with various booking agents to refer them back to us. Every single live show is advertisement for the next gig. In Singapore, it’s all about how entertaining you are. There are times when we turn an event down because we can’t reasonably achieve a good sound from that show, so we had to respectfully decline. If we are going to do a gig that doesn’t sound good, that’s going to do us more disservice than anything. So maintaining that kind of standard would help us get the next gig or show. Very often, our potential clients see us on YouTube or live and then decided to hire us.
On Sezairi
When Sezairi first came to me, I told him that unlike with his previous arrangement, there is no safety net. There is no magical funding machine behind me. We had to start from scratch. After considering carefully, he took the leap with me. Sezairi is now on a completely different path. It doesn’t matter that he was a Singapore Idol any more. Sezairi has proven that he has the talent, capacity, charm, stage presence and creativity. If we open the right doors, I truly believe that he will be something legendary. He is not an artist that can be easily copied. He’s not just a musician, he’s not just a singer. He is an artist. He’s got a wonderful voice. His tone and style is unique. He can straddle between the English, Malay and Indonesian markets really well. He has the ability to appeal to the mainstream market, yet he also has an edge that the indie folks should appreciate as well. He’s got it in all these different areas, the challenge now is to take those ingredients and make it seen to his current fans, so that they love him more, and also to a new audience so that they can discover him.

What is your marketing strategy?

Our strategy is to refocus on the fans, using every opportunity to engage them and reach out to new audiences, getting them excited and to support us. For example, for Sezairi, the priority is to change people’s mindsets of him. He had an idea to take his music to really interesting locations and spaces, and we did it with this in mind: refocus on fan engagement and have them subscribe to him on his YouTube channel so that any future material that he’s putting out, people can engage with him. We wondered why is it that although he’s on TV half the time, he’s only had two hundred subscribers when we started his YouTube channel. This means that even if he were to put out any video, there won’t be much impact. So we had to start from scratch, pull his audiences back to his own spaces. It gave him the ability to present himself in his natural environment (as opposed to what people only see him as on TV), and also engage his fans on a closer, more personal level.

We produced our pilot with the help of No Average Joe, the one where he was playing in the living room of his grandmother’s house. We did a total of four episodes last year. In order to encourage people to subscribe to his channel, we did teasers, created a hashtag to engage them, and gave viewers goals to hit, like setting a target of 500 subscribers and promised to release a new video immediately. 

That was what we did for THELIONCITYBOY too recently. We started with about 300 subscribers during Music Matters week, and we put a goalpost of 800 for JAMA. Never mind if we don’t hit the target, we would release it on 1st June. But if we do, we will release it earlier and reward those people who have subscribed. After that campaign we shot up to 560 subscribers. Not so bad for one week’s work. For THELIONCITYBOY’s channel, every week since last month, we dropped a new song. Sometimes it comes with a video. It may not be a full length music video, just a teaser or jif image for fun, so that they could be shared.

Currently we are shifting away from Facebook. Instagram is still very strong, but Instagram is quite hard to grow because it’s not an immediate sharing type of platform. What we try to do is to build a central point, which is the artist’s website that will aggregate content from YouTube, Instagram and Tumblr, which are our points of creation that feeds and populates the website. Twitter and Facebook are outpoints for communication and sharing. If folks follow us on YouTube and Instagram, technically they get the best of everything. We are also trying to build our mailing list. That takes a bit more thought, because we want to give more value to the user rather than just sending them updates.

Who manages the social media?

Some of the artists are more hands on in execution, but I think a lot about the strategy usually. The whole point of social media for us is to create and facilitate conversations. You want people to not only converse with us, but also to each other. That’s the ultimate goal – for fans to talk to each other and doing things for us, with us. That’s what they do for the very popular artists. Currently, it’s still heavily driven by us, pushing out content consistently. Sezairi is very good at it, THELIONCITYBOY content keeps getting better, Sheikh Haikel is always on Instagram.

Our current project is for Wicked Aura to synergize everyone. Individually they use these social media points, but they all don’t post to Wicked Aura’s accounts for now. They thought that the Wicked Aura account must only have official Wicked Aura stuff. I said, “No, no. Whatever rubbish and nonsense that you’re doing on your own, throw it into the Wicked Aura account too because it is who you are.”

Do you practice putting a budget to promote your campaigns? How do you decide when to spend and how much to spend?

It depends. I decide by looking at how much impact it can make; if that campaign can potentially reach out to 10,000 more people than we could before. For example, if Sezairi or THELIONCITYBOY is going to be on TV, or Haikel is going to drop something out; if there is attention on the project like if there’s a picture of them with another famous artist, so you can target not only your fans but also the fans of the other artist. It’s not about hijacking, but about creating conversations. Why were they pictured together – get fans to talk about that. Then it makes our artists and our pages more socially relevant in whatever algorithm that exists in the underbelly of these social networks, so you can come up more in search in future. Rather than posting for the sake of getting 1000 likes, which is not the goal, we want to seed the conversation, to share that moment with more people and fans so that he gets more exposed. Even if you were to get a question like “Who’s this guy?” That’s good enough, because he took notice, and hopefully he’s inquisitive enough to find out more.
On maximizing resources 
I have this theory which I share with everyone: because we have so little resources, we really have to maximize its impact. If I had $50,000 to buy a billboard ad, I wouldn’t choose to spend it on placing my ad on Ion in Orchard Road. I would choose to spend it on a billboard in the middle of Times Square, New York city where I can gain more eyeballs, and even take a photograph of that and send it back to the media press in Singapore and create a buzz on its own.

Could you share with us Kevin Lester's journey to being signed to BMBX and what role did you play in this whole journey?

It’s never a single moment that results in outcomes like this. It’s the 6 years we've put in together, investing in the music we create, the journeys and tours we broke the bank on to get overseas, to get better that gets you noticed, and respected, and worth other people investment in you, with their time, with their money, with their support.

Kevin Lester, now known as THELIONCITYBOY
At each of his live performance, his fans would be there, but about 80% of the crowd has not seen him before. Regardless of that statistic, every time he performs, the crowd just goes bananas and it becomes a party at the end of the day, so there’s always that impact. He may not be part of the current Indie Rock trend, but the indie kids still like him. And they follow him on his socials thereafter.

I already have heard of BMBX previously because when they were working on a charity project for Typhoon Haiyan victims, they worked with JD from Pop Shuvit, whom I knew. Then I got a call a few months ago. They told me that they saw Kevin’s stuff, and have been sharing it with the whole team and everyone loves what they have been seeing. This was just after Overdrive had been released. They said the feedback for Overdrive was very positive.

THELIONCITYBOY has been to the US four to five times already. The first time was April 2012. We managed to get a couple of small shows linked up from a friend, Fiona Bloom, and that was his first couple of performances in New York. Subsequently, he performed at A3C (All 3 Coasts), a top hip hop festival in Atlanta, and moved on to CMJ (College Music Festival) in New York, and things were picking up. In 2013, we went SXSW (South by Southwest, Austin) and CMW (Canadian Music Week, Toronto), took a break, and this year he went back again.

As they say, and especially in the music industry, it’s very important that first, you show up. The more you’re there, the more people take notice. Showing up was half the job, and he was showing up at all these different places. He was doing very good shows, and had this little thing going on. We escalated our efforts with his EP Everything You Love, You Hate, released in April 2013 via Vertusent Music Group/Sony RED. By May, he had his new track called PYCO (Put Your City On), which he wrote and produced out of his love for the football team, the Lions XII, just before they won the Malaysian Cup. He first performed it at Music Matters in 2013. It generated some buzz and later in January, when it was used in the promo video for the football team, it won many people over.

With each solid song created and produced, there would be a strong idea or visual concept behind it, and each song would be released as a single about every 4-6 weeks, shared on YouTube, topping Deezer Singapore charts, shared on Spotify and other channels. The idea was to create so much content consistently that more fans will start to take notice.

I believe, that was also how BMBX got interested. They looked at the content, the music, the videos of him performing live, and they saw the potential he had. They wanted to invest in South East Asian artists, and we were in the right place, in the right time, doing the right things. And now the goal is to take it further, by developing him as a regional force. This includes putting resources behind him, getting interesting producers that we probably not have access to, to work with him, and this will help him expand creatively as an artist.

Ultimately, THELIONCITYBOY was engaged in the deal right from the start, because this is his life. My role was to make sure that we cross all the “t”s and dots all the “i”s when the deal seals. He has to look at it from “Hey this is my life, is this right for me? Do these people have the same vibe as me?” Ultimately it was his decision. Even if I were to convince him night and day to do it, at the end of the day, I would still hand the case over to him to make the final decision. Going back to the first point, and that’s why it’s a partnership between us.

The way I see my artists is that they are the value creators. They are the reason why all of us have jobs, right? And there’s a difference between if you’re an artist versus a musician. If you’re a musician, you’d still have to rely on the artist to make sure that you have a job, because it’s the artist that create the value, the fan following who would pay tickets to come through the doors. That’s why artists need to have that high level of control over their destiny. But the best artists would also know that there are some technical and legal burdensome things they would rather let folks like us handle.
On staying independent 
Even after signing the (BMBX) deal, we still hold a mindset that we should never depend solely on one party for support. There must be a way which we are working and giving just as much as we are receiving. It’s in everybody’s interest to make Kevin succeed. If I find funding sources to support this, I would bring it to the table too. It’s a two-way contribution.

About Syaheed
Syaheed is a central figure in the entertainment ecosystem in South East Asia. He has produced award-winning music, launched long running event franchises, and grown the careers of artists like Sezairi and THELIONCITYBOY.

Other than his role as Director at Bedsty Artist Management, Syaheed is also Country Manager & Trade Marketing Manager for Believe Digital and Vice President, SGMUSO Council for The Music Society, Singapore.
For more information on Bedsty’s artists, please visit

This interview was conducted by Emily Haw. Reach out to her on Twitter @emilyhaw

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Speech by NMP Janice Koh at Music Matters 2014

ON THURS 22 MAY 2014

1.             Distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman, a good morning to all of you. May I first take this opportunity to give a special welcome to all our friends who are visiting Singapore. It’s really wonderful to see so many music artists, producers, managers and thought leaders from the industry, both from here and abroad, at Music Matters today.

2.             Thank you, Jasper, for the introduction, and the invitation to make this welcome address. It is indeed a great pleasure to be part of this prestigious event.

3.             I have spent a good part of the last two years or more as a Nominated Member of Parliament, representing Culture and the Arts in Singapore. As an actor and arts practitioner for over two decades, working in theatre, television and film, it is a privilege to play this role in helping to shape the development of Singapore’s art scene. But today, I’m going to talk about Singapore music, and in particular, Singapore English-language music. I’m not from the music scene, yet I feel I have journeyed a little with the music industry over the last two years.

4.             This journey began in January 2012, interestingly enough, at the old Parliamentary Chamber, which had been converted into a performing venue at The Arts House. I was at a forum attended by a house full of freelance music artists, promoters and producers. They had gathered to discuss the state of the music industry in Singapore and the need to speak with one collective voice. I was probably the only non-musician in the whole room. That many talented Singapore musicians and indie bands were still largely invisible in mainstream media simply floored me. How do we even begin to talk about a sustainable music industry when there is so little awareness of homegrown music amongst Singaporeans themselves?

5.             Barely a few months after, at the 2012 Budget Debate, I gave one of my first speeches in Parliament about the need for a broadcast quota in Singapore. It was the first of many speeches and parliamentary questions raised on the issue of music development, and while the journey towards change has not been easy over the last two years, I can safely say that as a result of deeper consultation with government and advocacy on the part of industry, a significant amount of effort and attention is being placed on music development in Singapore today.
6.             Government has played no small part in this process by promoting dialogue between music makers, broadcasters as well as other industry partners, and there have been encouraging signs that some positive changes are beginning to take place.

7.             First. Radio has stepped up and listened. In this age of Youtube, social media and new digital technologies, I believe radio is still important. Culminating from meetings that were catalysed by Music Matters, Mediacorp radio stations have been playing 1 song per hour on English radio, and re-launched Lush 99.5 as an indie station, dedicated to supporting this cause with its “Lush loves local” hashtag and with regular programming of Singapore-made music. It may not be enough. But for now, it’s a good start, and we hope more radio stations will come on board.

8.             Second. We have been asking for greater consolidation within government agencies and a strong vision that would take a holistic view of the music industries’ needs. I believe they are listening, with recent news that the National Arts Council may transition to become the central agency to administer all music grants.

9.             Third, on copyright protection. Increasing online piracy is a global problem, which adversely affects the creative sector. In response, the Government is intending to amend Singapore's Copyright Act to enable rights holders to protect their rights more effectively against websites whose primary purpose is to offer infringing content. Alongside this, efforts will be made to reinforce the public's understanding of and respect for copyright in general, and to promote better availability of legitimate content. The music industry in Singapore has shown strong support for these objectives.

10.        Finally, music export has continued to be an intrinsic part for industry development due to the relatively small size of Singapore’s market. We welcome back Deon, Caracal and Kevin Lester from their recent shows at Canadian Music Week (CMW). Canadian Music Week is an important platform for us in the music event calendar, and with many Singapore artists regularly being invited to perform there highlights the ongoing interest in our talent.

11.        We’re also beginning to see industry success for Singapore artists. Sony Music Singapore has recently signed three acts - Sezairi, Trick and Gentle Bones, whom, I understand, will be making their appearance in the programme later. Cosmic Armchair was recently signed to Belgian EDM (Electronic Dance Music) label Alfa Matrix; Wormrot was recognised as one of Grindcore’s Top 10 bands worldwide by OC Weekly; MonsterCat’s debut album ‘The Violet Hour’ reached Number 1 on iTunes, and local labels such as Darker Than Wax are building a strong presence internationally.

12.        Many of these developments would not have been possible without the music industry coming together to speak with one voice. This happened two years ago, when the Music Society, Singapore or SGMUSO was born on this very platform at Music Matters. We know that industry associations have always played a big part in promoting music development in countries like Canada, Australia, the UK and the US, and it is no different here in Singapore. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of the founding members of SGMUSO and its current team, including Graham Perkins, Syaheed, Mike See, Danny Loong, Kevin Matthews and Sarah Sim, and all its 820 members, who have come together, and put their vested interests aside to tirelessly push for the promotion and advancement of Singapore-made music.

This week, over 100 members of SGMUSO have been given free access to participate in the Music Matters conference and the exclusive Music Matters Academy that begins tomorrow. This year, the Academy has been expanded to include all artists performing at Music Matters Live, which will enable a greater opportunity for learning and collaboration. For this, I’d like to thank Jasper and HP for their kind support.

14.        The Singapore music industry has made some good strides, but I believe we still have a long journey ahead of us. Deeper, more sustainable efforts are needed if we want to transform what is now just a Singapore music scene into a Singapore music industry. This can only be achieved if key stakeholders play a part to ensure the wider accessibility of Singapore-made music. For a start, I’m proposing three ideas: First, a radio broadcast quota to help build an audience and jumpstart the demand for homegrown music. Second, a strong export strategy that can tap into the commercial and soft power potential of our music talent in international markets. Third, a central agency to promote excellence, support the needs of the music industry and develop a strong vision for everyone to work towards. Hopefully, as I mentioned earlier, one of them is being looked into right now – so, one down, two to go!

15.        The government has said that it cannot do this alone. Well, I have no doubt that with sustained efforts from industry professionals and associations like SGMUSO, to promote and advocate for Singapore music, we will get there in good time. Singapore is young. But I believe we can make our music a part of the lives and memories - not only of Singaporeans but music listeners worldwide - and that, one day, like many countries all over the world, we too will have a strong music heritage to look back upon, and be proud of.

16. On that note, I wish each and every one of you a wonderful and productive time at the conference. Thank you!

Published with permission