Friday, 21 September 2012

Singapore's market may be small, but they don't hate this place

Prudent is how one could describe Singapore-based synth pop band, I Hate This Place (IHTP). Not artistically, but financially. The band is self-proficient in producing its albums and chooses to focus its resources on funding tours and raising awareness instead. 

"When carefully planned and executed, these things end up paying for themselves also. So in that sense, yeah the project is sustainable. Let's also not forget that time working on music is money not spent on partying, which can be a substantial savings in and of itself :)" says Sean Nerny, who is the creator and soul of the band.

In 2007, IHTP entered into an agreement with Tokyo-based XTAL Records to distribute the music in Japan. Three dedicated Japanese editions of IHTP music have now been released and IHTP has toured extensively across the Land of the Rising Sun.

We spoke to them about the challenges of gigging in Singapore as compared to other countries. But even as Sean admitted that it is a small and developing one, he is hopeful that with the right attitude and mindset, the little red dot still has the potential to create world-class acts.

Q: How do you find the gigging industry in Singapore as compared to other countries that you have toured i.e. Japan, US and Philippines?

Singapore is an interesting place to play, and it does have some things going for it - you'll never have to travel far to get to a show, most of the live spaces are fairly well equipped, and the number of venues I feel is growing. That said, at this point in time, I think that the music scene here is still developing and the market is also very small -- this can make it challenging for a niche group like IHTP to build a sustainable local fan base. I don't think that there is a great deal of value placed on supporting local music on a large scale, and while it would be great to see any band from Singapore get known on a global level, my sense is that is a little while off.

Q: Describe your relationship with XTAL and how it has worked for you. What matters to you most when you go into a deal with a distributor or a touring agent?

XTAL has been great because they were able to get us connected with Japanese fans. Working across languages can be challenging so it was really nice to have that help. In terms of what to look for when agreeing to any sort of deal with anyone, I think the main thing is to make sure that expectations on both sides are clearly set. I would also recommend that the agreement be reviewed by someone with a legal/entertainment background so that you have a clear understanding about what you are committing to.
Q: Digital vs physical copies: what's your take and which works better for your band? How about streaming (e.g. Spotify) vs downloads (iTunes, CDBaby)? Which gives you better awareness and income?
At this point in time, for IHTP digital really makes the most sense and comprises the majority of sales, and we are fans of both streaming and downloads. The band's fans are in many different countries, CDs are expensive to manufacture and ship, and our target audience lives firmly in an iPhone world. We do have limited runs of discs that we sell at gigs and occasionally on line, but at this point it seems easier for everyone to do things digitally.

Q: How big is your fan base? Where do your fans come from geographically? Other than gigging, what are some of the efforts have you done to attract new fans and keep current ones interested?
IHTP is not world famous, but we do have friends all across the world! The majority of the band's fans are in the US, Japan, and the Philippines. Because of this, social media plays a big part in keeping in touch and getting the word out about the latest developments. The availability of the tracks online has also made it really easy for people just to stumble across the music by chance or listen if a friends recommends it.

Q: How do you think you can manage and make better use of that mailing list?
IHTP doesn't actually maintain a mailing list. There's so much email out there - I'd prefer that people keep in touch of their own accord. Anyway, it's the people that actively search you out and maintain contact that are most likely to positively impact your musical endeavors.

Q: Any future plans? New album, collaborations, distribution points, gigging lineup?
We've got a new EP in the works and a gig on 22 Sept (Saturday)! You can always find the latest news via our Facebook ( and Twitter (@ihatethisplace)
Q: What do you think would be the future of music industry be like in Singapore and in Asia?
Certainly Asia has scenes both local and international that can rival what you would find in the US or Europe. As for Singapore, though developing the market will continue to take time, if everyone stays focused I don't see why this place couldn't create a reputation for being a place to find successful, high quality music and musicians.

About I Hate This Place

I Hate This Place is a pop/electronic project that was created by Singapore-born Filipino/American Sean Nerney in 2004. Drawing inspiration from the likes of The Postal Service, The Album Leaf, as well as some of Sean’s favorite 80s synthpop groups, I Hate This Place’s music has a distinct pop appeal that is still sensitive, deep, and thoughtful. Fans of Owl City, Lights, Shiny Toy Guns, and Swimming With Dolphins will feel right at home in IHTP’s world.

Though traditionally a solo project, in recent years I Hate This Place has been fortunate to have several talented co-conspirators. Since relocating to Singapore, Sean has teamed up with Singapore Idol finalist and The Kitchen Musical singer/actress Gayle Nerva, former Firebrands guitarist Roman Tarassov, and Bostonbased bassist Dave D’aranjo. The latest album, Shiny One, was released in September 2011. IHTP’s seven album discography is available online via CD Baby and iTunes. I Hate This Place plays live often, having completed a successful five city tour of Japan in February 2012 in addition to previous shows in the US, Singapore, Japan and the Philippines.
On the web:
@ihatethisplace (Twitter)

Saturday, 1 September 2012

"Musicians must be paid and paid on time. It's a form of respect to their craft and their occupation." ~ Peng Chi Sheng, Promising SME 500 Award recipient

It is never easy earning a living in the music industry. Many musicians have day jobs, and even if they are working full-time in the music industry, they have to wear many hats as writers, performers, sessionists, educators, artiste managers, publishing managers and many more. When Chi Sheng started out as a student and music enthusiast in a local music school, he never dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur. But fate has it when he eventually established his own outfit, Intune Music School, with a fellow ex-colleague, and struggled with the steep learning curve of turning from employee to employer. Yet, he has come a long way, and the business has since then not only stabilized, but also been recognized by various institutions, including the Small Medium Business Enterprise Association of Singapore, which presented them the recent Promising SME 500 Award 2012.

Chi Sheng (centre) and his partner, Aaron Lim (left) receiving the Promising SME 500 Award

Q: How did you get started out in the music industry?

I started out as a student at Lee Wei Song School of Music (LWSM) when I was 21, and was quite fortunate to be one of the last batch of students taught by Lee Wei Song himself. During those days, I started performing at Music Dreamer Café (爱情海民歌餐厅). The owner of the café, Sally, was also my music teacher. She saw the potential in me and gave me the opportunity to go on stage for a regular gig, and within half a year, I was able to perform on the popular slots on Fridays with local artiste Cai Li Lian and former lead singer of ‘Dreamz FM’ Ric Low. The weekly gigs were a motivation to hone my playing skills. Although we were only paid a transport allowance, the exposure was good and it served as an opportunity for me to jam with other musicians. Later I became a music instructor teaching music theory, but continued composing. We wrote songs every week as homework submissions, and one of my songs was selected for Tony Leung (梁朝伟). Lee Wei Song helped refine the song, so the final version was co-written by both of us.

I was a teacher at LWSM for 6 years, and was a publishing manager for the last 2 years there. My job was to look out for writers who have potential and ensure that the group of writers under me submitted good quality demos. I also formed the writers’ club, organizing monthly meetups for writers to showcase their demos, usually attended by one of the Lee brothers. The group of writers consisted of both current writers and those who were selected from the pool of students upon graduation. I had about 15 writers under me, and published about 10 songs over the period of 2 years. The biggest challenge for being a publishing manager is to ensure good quality demos, because most of the time, demos are rejected because the singer was not suitable, or the arrangement was not good enough. But once the demo is right, pushing the song to the sub-publisher will be much easier.

After 6 years at LWSM, a few of us left, and Aaron and I set up Intune Music School.

Q: So you went from being a writer/teacher to a publishing manager and finally an owner of a music school. What were some of the challenges you faced?

We set up Intune by circumstance, but I never regretted the decision because I have definitely learnt a lot throughout the years. I’m very fortunate to have Aaron take care of the school’s administration, finances, accounting and business development, so I can focus on the classes, PR, and the artistic development of our students. Running a business is never easy; it is always a challenge to maintain profitability. However, our principle is to never default on payment to musicians and music teachers. Musicians must be paid and paid on time; it’s a form of respect to their craft and their occupation.

Q: Tell us more about Intune Music School. Who are your customers? What are your strategies to attract new students and retain current ones? Has the strategy changed or evolved over time?

Running a school is running a business, so the decisions and strategies that we undertake are commercially driven. Our school is unique because we offer many different types of courses, including vocal classes in classical broadway and ukelele courses. Our customers are aged from 13-35, and about 30% of them are international students. We are seen more as a bilingual music school, unlike from other music schools which may focus on Chinese pop. We are also the official examination centre for the London College of Music Examinations since 2007.

To attract new students, our marketing is done purely online, so most of our students find us through our website. We also conduct live performances to increase general awareness.

Intune’s main revenue stream stems from our in-house classes. However, we also conduct music classes in various Primary and Secondary Schools, which is a growing market, as many schools celebrate an annual two-week festival promoting mother tongue by bringing in various vendors to expose students various fun and interesting ways to learn the language. There are also schools that engage us on a longer stint to conduct 8-week music classes for their students.

The courses and activities we conduct in schools vary from iPad Music Making, Vocal Placement, Chinese Lyrics writing to song writing competitions such as the NEA Eco Music Challenge.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

Now that the school’s operations have stabilized, we have just set up our own publishing arm and are planning to work with a sub-publisher in the near future. The timing is right, because we now have a stable of writers and are able to create a consistent flow of good quality demos. We will start small, with 5 writers under the publishing wing. It will be an exciting new phase for us.

About Peng Chi Sheng

Chi Sheng is one of the directors of InTune Music School, and has 10 years of music teaching experience in Singapore. He specializes in pop songwriting and sing-and-play courses, and has achieved Honours for the London College of Music Pop Vocals Grade 8 Examinations, as well as a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Recording Arts from Middlesex University, in partnership with the School of Audio Engineering (SAE) Institute, Singapore.

As a songwriter, Chi Sheng has published a number of songs for various artistes, including Kasih Indah (Love is Beautiful) for the NTUC 'U Care' compilation album in 2009 and 《这次是真的》 for Hong Kong Artiste Tony Leung Chiu Wai.