Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Behind the Scenes with Kirk Degiorgio (Organized by SGMUSO)

Behind the Scenes with Kirk Degiorgio
Moderator: Cherry Chan (Syndicate)

Kirk Degiorgio (2010). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Full transcript

Kirk: I’m a producer and DJ, and have written articles about Herbie Hancock. I’ve done many things, but everything I do is about music. I started DJ-ing in the early 80s, playing electro when it first came out in 1982. My friends used to breakdance – I couldn’t do that – so I was the DJ. One of my good friends from my hometown, Ipswich, was a professional footballer. Even though the wages weren’t like what they are today, you could still afford to buy two Technics. So we used to go to his house, and he would let us practice, and that’s how we learnt to DJ, with two decks.

Cherry: When did you start getting into producing?
Kirk: The same guy bought a Korg drum machine, and he did not know how to use it, and nor did I. I did not touch any other equipment for seven years, then I was invited by some more people from Ipswich, the Black Dog guys and Plaid, and they were break dancers in my hometown, to play with them. I went to the studio, and they had an 808 drum machine, mixer, sampler, and synthesizers, and that was when I first started trying to learn how to use a sequencer on a computer.

Cherry: As I understand, Plaid themselves can’t read music, and neither did you, so it’s quite interesting especially for those of us here who can’t play the keys. What was the process like for you?
Kirk: Firstly, in electronic music, when the first synthesizers were designed, they were designed without traditional keyboards. They had unusual touch controllers. Not only was it about a new electronic sound, it was also an untraditional way of creating music. So I was able to justify not being able to play an instrument like a traditional keyboard and just use sequences – no shame in that – I also think that it is to the advantage to anyone to learn a bit of music theory. I have taught myself some things on music theory. The biggest thing that I hear people ask me is that they can make a loop, but that’s about it.

Cherry: So when it comes to arrangement?
Kirk: Exactly, and a lot of that is to do with music theory, to expand that loop into a full arrangement and adding other stuff. I think it comes down to knowing a bit about scales and how you can add things that will fit the loop.

Cherry: Since we are talking about music production now, a lot of people when they first start making music, very often they will try to emulate the music that they like. From there, how do you create your own signature sound?
Kirk: I definitely have that process. I began by imitating Detroit techno records, and I think creating your own sound comes naturally. Someone at the Red Bull Music Academy, who is James Brown’s music director, said that the history of innovation in music can be traced down to bad memory. Everybody is trying to emulate somebody that they really like, but they forget or they get it slightly wrong, and that’s how you create your own unique sound.

Cherry: When you write, do you sit down and go like, “Oh today I’m going to write techno.”?
Kirk: Sometimes with techno, I would start with a particular bpm. I never sit down thinking that I’m going to do a melodic track today or I’m going to do a heavy, loopy kind of track. Never. It just goes wherever the music takes me.

Cherry: Once you finish the track, how do you know it’s good? A lot of producers will start on a track, and they might get it down to arrangement, but they keep meddling with it.
Kirk: Again, that is something that is very hard to explain, how you know when a track is finished. For me, it’s usually when I think the track is too busy, and there’s too many things going on and too many distractions so you start stripping it back, and that’s when you say, ok, if you start adding more, it’s too much. Also, when there’s not enough elements, you know that it’s not finished.

Cherry: When you were first starting out, do you send your tracks out to peers or people to get feedback?
Kirk: Yes of course. I didn’t send them to other people, I sent my first tracks straight away to Underground Resistance. I got a fax a week later from Mike Banks saying that they loved my tracks, but Underground Resistance is for Detroit Underground Resistance artistes only, but we passed your tracks to Carl Craig and he would be in touch with you. I didn’t think it would be true, but Carl phoned me and said that he loved the tracks and that was my first release.

Cherry: Since we are talking about getting in touch with labels, for young producers, what are the questions that they should be asking? How should they even be approaching the labels?
Kirk: It’s much more difficult now. There’s almost too many ways that you can approach labels. Obviously, when I did it, Underground Resistance probably had the address on the label itself. These days, you can probably send it to somebody’s Soundcloud. I myself receive so many emails or Facebook messages with download links, and I would say that the best way is maybe to do it yourself, to be honest. Nowadays, it’s so hard. Maybe for the first release, do it yourself or with some friends, because if it’s good, DJs like myself will find it and it’s better when the label approaches the artist rather than the artist going to the label. That was also how I did it. I had more tracks, and thought that I was just going to do it myself. I think that’s the best way.

Cherry: So you had your own label, did your own promotions?
Kirk: We didn’t even do any promotion. During those early days, I didn’t know what promotion was. This was 1991, and all I cared about is making music and put it out. All I needed was money to manufacture, do the artwork, find a distributor, and that was it. No promos, I didn’t even send them to magazines for review. They just bought it and reviewed it anyway.

Cherry: Ok. But since nowadays the market’s quite different. I think with technology as well, we get a lot more music, just like how you receive a lot of download links. What do you look for in track?
Kirk: Again, I have a very individual taste. I’m finding the same for other labels as well. I get asked to do EPs for labels, and they have very particular taste. In the old days, maybe labels will take a lot of my tracks. Now they are like cherry picking instead, they are more particular than before, because there is so much stuff out there, and labels have to have some kind of definite sound, whereas when we started out, we released a whole lot of down tracks, club tracks, home listening tracks, ambient tracks, now the vinyl market, especially for other professional DJs, they are looking for something that they know will keep playing in the clubs.

Cherry: So it’s a good label for producers to have their own little label, and write for certain labels that they want to get onto?
Kirk: I would make that the second stage. The first stage is to try to do it yourself and some friends, and get a buzz going on your label. Then you find that you will be approached. That’s how I found some of them on my label ART, which is mainly to support new artistes. One of them is a new young Dutch producer called Stefan Vincent. He had one release. I really liked it, and contacted him to ask if he had any more tracks, so that’s how it works. We do check things, I do anyway, and I like to work with young guys as well.

Cherry: For many new artistes, they sometimes get caught in a genre or find it hard to switch genre without losing their current fans. I was talking to an artiste the other day, and he basically started out with a lot of love songs, but he really wanted to diversify and experiment with more styles. How would you mange this sort of situation?
Kirk: I’ve done everything from hard techno to pop, and I think it’s because no matter what style I do, I have a sound, and I think it comes across when I DJ as well. I think you can start doing that when you find your definitive sound. You can then apply it. Say the guy with the ballads, if he wants to do more experimental stuff, he could still apply some of the musical techniques used for ballads and incorporate them into more experimental things as well. When I do different styles, it still sounds like me.

Cherry: You have a lot of different names under different projects.
Kirk: Yeah, I’m trying not to anymore. Now I just put it under my own name, for about five or six years now.

Cherry: So that’s not advisable these days?
Kirk: Well, the thing is, we did it in the beginning for legal reasons, because it enables you to release under different names for different labels, because if you do it under one name, you won’t be exclusive. In those days, that was the normal thing. You sign with one label for five albums, and that was it. You couldn’t write for anybody else. So doing things under different names was one way to work, and I think techno and house producers pioneered that approach.

Cherry: Back to the RBMA shows, which spans a huge variety of genres from jazz to Jimmy Hendrix to 70s movie scores  to techno, which is an amazing collection of music. How do you go about manning the shows?
Kirk: Since I was eleven years old, I have been obsessed with music. It’s all up here. It’s all digitized now, it makes it so much easier. I digitized all of my vinyl collection. I just got so many ideas for shows that I can keep going and keep going. The latest one is a two part electric blues. It’s Muddy Waters, Johnny Walker, Howlin’ Wolf, that kind of stuff. It’s never been played on RBMA radio, so I’ve done four hours of this.
Cherry: How long does it take to do this?
Kirk: It takes a long time, so they’d really appreciate this, and I love doing it.

Cherry: So with touring, producing the music, running the label, creating radio shows, what’s your secret to time management? I asked that question because a lot of us here tend to hold a day job, and at night we would do music, and there’s just so many things to do, from promotion, to creation, and networking. How do you decide on your focus?
Kirk: You won’t believe this, but actually I’m quite lazy (laughs). I do all this stuff, but I’m a lazy person. I really don’t know. Working nights?(shrugs) I think it’s attributed to the fact that I do this and nothing else. I’ve done nothing else since 1994, I started making enough money making music to leave my job at a record shop. I was signed with R&S records. My label is doing well, and with DJ-ing…  It’s been quite hard for some other people who I think are very talented, and they say to me, “I never get the time”, but I would say to them, “Do you love the music or not? If you do, leave your job, and just do music.”

Cherry: Is there any particular focus that they should be doing first?
Kirk: The most important thing to survive as an artiste in electronic music now is DJ-ing and performing.  To do that, you have to have some kind of musical profile. I would say, making the music, making a name for yourself, and if you are a good producer, kind of work out how you can transform that from the studio into a good live performance. Only DJ if you are a DJ. There are so many producers and for some of them, it might be impossible for them to do a live performance. Their studio technique might not suit a live performance, so they DJ instead, but everyone is a DJ.

Cherry: Yes. Because what you write in the studio might not work for the floor.
Kirk: Exactly. And there’s equipment. There are some people who have so much equipment that unless you have some kind of touring crew with you, you couldn’t really perform it as it should sound. That’s the most important thing financially for a musician to survive at the moment is the live performance, because there’s not much money in releasing records.

Cherry: What’s the most exciting live performance that you’ve seen recently?
Kirk: It’s a band actually. I don’t know if anyone knows the American band called Midlake. They were amazing. Their music was Americano, in Austin Texas, so they had influences from Joni Mitchell, and maybe Crossby, Stills & Nash, but more up to date. They had synthesizers as well, guitars, drums and harmonies. They were amazing.

Cherry: How about electronic music? ‘Cause it can get quite tricky, when it comes to performing.
Kirk: Moritz von Oswald. I saw the three of them at Fabric. Moritz was nervous. They scheduled him in the middle of the night, and he said, “This isn’t going to work.” It’s quite a deep thing that he was doing, but everyone loved it. It was one of the best things I’ve seen recently, how he managed to pull off quite deep, but not necessarily full on dance music in a club. It was recently he had his illness, a stroke, and he had to sit to perform, but the show was fantastic.

Cherry: You make and play a lot of different types of music, but more for techno. What attracted you to techno?
Kirk: It had an energy, and the links to funk music, which I liked, like Funkadelic, James Brown, those kind of bands, it had that kind of black music element, and my history is black music, funk, soul, electro. One of them is Juan Atkins. I had his Cybotron record as a kid, years before I knew what techno was.

Cherry: Do you have any advice for musicians when dealing with media? Especially when they start putting their music out there, they start to feel vulnerable when they get bad reviews. In your years of experience, how do you deal with this sort of situation?
Kirk: Completely ignore them, whether it’s good or bad. It’s just somebody’s opinion. Never take any notice of them (laughs). Most of the time, they have only probably listened to it once, they have to think of something clever (to write). I have never enjoyed reviews, even if they are really good and they give you five stars – it doesn’t mean anything.

Cherry: What about working with collaborators?
Kirk: It’s not my preferred thing actually, because I’m not a musician, so I have my own weird way of making music and I prefer it if I’m on my own. Doing The Beauty Room was a real learning process. I learnt that it’s more other people’s egos and personalities that are much more difficult to manage than the music side of things. The music, people can understand and it just comes naturally, but you get all kinds of feedback, like “My instrument isn’t loud enough in the mix” or “There’s not enough reverb on my vocals” or something like that. It’s all about egos.

Cherry: But you do have some nice releases which features collabs like The Beauty Room…
Kirk: I think I’m quite tolerant. But I feel more relaxed when I’m on my own. Right now I’m working with another artiste, on her new album, and I’m really doing it the way I prefer, and she takes time in the studio and sends me tracks, and then I work on them and send them back. It kind of nice because I can really take my time, experiment a bit more, and it works well because the technology allows that.

Cherry: A bit about Ableton. You are pretty much one of the first artistes to start using Ableton as your DJ set in 2002?
Kirk: Around that time. I don’t know how many of you remember that the late 90s, maybe a bit earlier, when CDJs first came around – I hated them. You put a CD in, and it would either spit it out because it didn’t recognize the tracks and I couldn’t get off using vinyls after so many years, so I just felt like it was going to run away. So CDJs are not for me, but I wanted to do something different. When Ableton first came out, I was looking to do a live show. It was called Ableton Live, so obviously it was geared towards live performances. I bought the software. The first thing I noticed was that it had a yellow cross fader on the channels. Cross fader is a mixer thing, it’s a DJ thing. And I realized, hang on, this thing recognizes where the beats are. If I put a track here on A, and another one there on B, maybe I can mix and you can switch A on B. I thought, “Oh my god, it works.” I’m not beat matching. This is weird , then I thought “Hang on a minute. Maybe I used the cross fader, I can put a loop on track number three and place it underneath them and mix them like three deck mixing. Or maybe I could filter out the kick drum of that track and put my own kick drum on track four.” And then I knew the future of DJ-ing. It was right there.

I did some practices, and I also took it with vinyl. For the first couple of times, I was mixing vinyl alongside with Ableton, so it did look weird to the crowd. Then, I decided to just take a laptop and nothing else. The only negative comment were from a few other vinyl DJs. The crowd was like “Wow! What’s this? How are you doing this? How are you mixing three or four records? How did you put the melody from one onto another?” They were really open minded. Vinyl DJs were like, “You don’t need headphones? You’re not mixing? That’s cheating.” This was just something different. Some people like Surgeon or Ritchie Hawtin picked it up, but this is my boast. I emailed Ableton saying I don’t know if you meant it for this, but I have been DJ-ing with it. And they said it’s the first time they’ve heard someone just using it for DJ-ing. They said it was truly interesting, and I kept sort of giving them little ideas. The really big acceptance of it came when Sasha started using it as well.

Cherry: So it has become quite common to use it for DJ-ing now.

Kirk: It’s not as common as Serato and Traktor, but yes Surgeon still uses it. What you see now is that a lot of people are using Ableton to do hybrid DJ-ing and live shows as well, whereas I use it solely for DJ-ing.

Floor: How important was the scene and community to the development of your career? Because in Singapore, we tend to have a more limited market. How would you deal with that?
It’s really important actually. The way we got together was in record stores. Obviously that’s disappearing these days, but people now have their equivalent online. I think music forums… I surprised there’ not a more dedicated one. I mean you have Resident Advisor, obviously, but it’s not a tight forum. There used to be a one called Little Detroit I think, but once Facebook came on, it killed all these little ones off. I think social media is the equivalent of how we used to do it. We used to meet at record shops, and just stand at the counter and be the guys talking about every new release, and the guy behind the counter said, “Buy this, buy that.” That’s how we did it. Those days are probably gone.

Floor: Do you have any opinions on the iPad apps scene?
I only use the iPad for controlling. I’ve only tried the Lemur controller, and I’ve messed around with Animoog, which I really love. But I find touch controllers quite difficult. It’s why I prefer to use an APC Akai controller. I like to slam faders and have that kind of tactile thing. I’ve seen live DJs use the original Lemur and they tend to do things very gradually, so I haven’t really used the iPad much. I don’t have a media deck or anything much yet, but it makes sense because they are going to be so powerful. It’s just like having another laptop I guess. So I’m going to watch it, because there are a lot of innovative things that don’t make it to the computer for some reason. Is that something that you’re involved in?

Floor: Yeah, I’m exploring that. I think the current iPad Air is at a performance level that is suitable for live and for studio, with the interapp audio and Audiobus 2, there’s labels that built around iOS music and I think with the multi-touch gestures, it can really expand its potential.

Kirk: With the gestures, I think that could the way to get over the tactile problem. They could become more sensitive and you could do those dramatic gestures when you DJ. You need those things for the crowd. (laughs) Surgeon uses Faderfox. Those little things, they are too small for me. If I did that, it would end up somewhere in the dance floor.

Cherry: One interesting app is Konkreet Peformer: after you load in everything, you can port the screen onto your visuals.
Kirk: One of the things I like about the iPhone, is an app when you have the headphones with a little microphone, and when you play the music, it would change as your environment changes. If you’re running, it would sense your body movement, and the music would get more intense, so it’s really interactive.

Floor: You use Ableton for DJ-ing. Do you use it for production as well? Do you start with the beat first, or a melody first?
I don’t follow a particular rule, but it helps if you start with a certain bpm. I usually start by having a kick drum just as a reference, and then it could be adding more drums and working on drums, or it could be a bass or melody. I don’t have any methods, and I don’t save any of the sounds, because I usually use a modular synth, once you’re on touch the sound is gone anyway. I save the Ableton sessions in case I’m going to take it on the road, I don’t have a library of sounds. If I come up with a bass on Reaktor, I don’t save them. I don’t like saving sounds because I don’t want to use them again and again like a formula where you become lazy and say “Oh yeah, I liked that bass sound that worked in that track, so I would just use that.” That could work for some people. They might have a big hit, and might want to do something similar, but that doesn’t really inspire me musically. I like to come up with new sounds for each track.

Floor: How do you make your live performance physically interesting?
It’s down to visuals at the moment. I can’t see any other way with electronic music. When I saw that Moritz show, the visuals were the only thing to look at, really. I think that’s where new technology would come in and be able to sync visuals with bpm. I’ve used this guy, who doesn’t do visuals now because he’s gone pretty big, signed on to Rush Hour, so now I need to do my own now, as he’s too busy DJ-ing.

Floor: Any favorite program for visuals?
No, I do everything with Final Cut, and you can sync it to Ableton. I would pre-render it, and it would probably be synced somehow. I’ve done TV work, so I know about scoring and having key points. It’s going to be an old school approach.

A brand new SGMUSO initiative, is a series of workshops/talks designed to give members exclusive access to key players in the music industry. Our special guests will provide an insider's perspective with crucial insights on a variety of relevant music industry matters.

A cornerstone of UK techno, Kirk Degiorgio (aka As One) is one of the most sought-after mixer/producer/DJ in today’s eclectic dance music scene and has been tirelessly delivering Detroit’s original message to British crowds for years. Regarded as a heavyweight producer with a unique electronic sound that combines elements of jazz, soul, techno and funk, Kirk’s also lectured extensively at Red Bull Music Academy and is a famed user of Ableton. 

Kirk Degiorgio Red Bull Music Academy lecture: 

A pioneer in the Singapore electronic music scene, Cherry Chan’s accolades includes championing Singapore's first all-girl DJ night- PopMyCherry and co-founding the FFF Girl DJ Bootcamp and Syndicate.SG, In 2010, Cherry was handpicked to attend the exclusive Red Bull Music Academy in London. In that same year, she co-founded Syndicate, Singapore’s first audio-visual label aimed at growing a culture of visual & sound making, encouraging audience exposure to original experimental content.

This session was transcribed by Emily Haw. Reach out to her on Twitter @emilyhaw

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

"It is possible to make a comfortable living being a musician," saysEric Ng, Chinese music industry veteren.

As part of The Insider Series, which comprises of a series of sharing sessions by industry veterens organized by library@esplanade last week, established producer-songwriters-arrangers Eric Ng and Jim Lim shared their journey in the Chinese music industry, their experiences and insights on what it takes to enter, survive, and ultimately, flourish in the music industry today.

Jim Lim (left) and Eric Ng speaking at The Insider Series

If you are an aspiring musician, here are the main takeaways from the two hour session punctuated with jokes and laughter:
  • Be humble and open, and always be willing to learn. As a musician, learning never ends.
  • Be encouraging and helpful to others too. That was the culture that Eric and Jim were exposed to when they first started in Taiwan.
  • Everyone works with a different style: You can choose to do everything yourself, or you can choose to work with others to cover your weaknesses
  • If you are just starting out, find friends who can help you, for example, to sing on your demo.
  • Remember that the music business is, after all, still business. Don’t take things too personally. If you receive constructive feedback to amend your song, change it.
  • Songwriting levels the playing ground for all musicians. If you want to be recognized and valued as a musician, start writing your own songs.
  • If you want to be a hit songwriter, first start by having a mainstream mindset. Write hits that will work commercially, even if they may not be your personal favourite.
  • It is possible to make a comfortable living being a musician.
  • However, being a musician is never a straightforward route. Hence, it’s important to know when to let go, and always have a positive mindset. Manage your own expectations.
  • Learn to sell yourself. Musicians are like door-to-door salesmen. Learn to convince others of your own value.

Want to know the details of the full session? Read on.

Eric: I’m a music producer, music arranger. I started off as a guitarist, I’m also a keyboardist, I also play a bit of drums, bass, and I started this company Funkie Monkies Production together with Jim.

Jim: It’s the same for me. We play a bit of everything. I started off as a sound engineer when I was seventeen.  When I was in Secondary 1, I had a strong feeling to do something in my life. Whenever I watched TV or listened to songs, I was listening to whatever that was going on in the music arrangement. I would hear the drums, the bass, the chords, the vocals, although I did not have any music education at that time. So I thought maybe that was my calling, and what I was good at. I started learning piano in Primary 1, and really loved playing it. So I started with classical music first, and went on to pop music. After that, I started doing music arrangements for my friends during the Xin Yao times. My father bought me my first keyboard, the JV1000 and the MC500, which was an antique music sequencing engine.

Eric: It’s like the abacus of music programming. (Laughs)

Jim: That was how I started. I did lousy music arrangements free-lance, and I didn’t even know how to quantize. Eventually these friends whom I was arranging for joined a record company. One of them asked me if I was keen to continue arranging for them, and that was when I first stepped into a recording studio for tracking. The first commercial arrangement I did was sung by Ann Kok, a song called Nobody Knows. Eventually I started as an apprentice in this company. As an apprentice, we are not considered employees and they don’t really pay us. You could come and learn, but you have to do stuff for us, like buy lunch, buy tea, and observe from a distance away, and you would be scolded if you got close to the board. During those days, they were still using the two inch analog tape. At that time, many people went through the same type of apprenticeship, unlike now where there are much better channels through schools which offer courses that you could learn from.
Life was fun. After school, I would rush to the studio to learn as much as I could.

Eric: I started even being interested in music only when I was seventeen. Before that, I just had no direction in life. I didn’t know what to do, I had no friends. Every day after school, I stayed at home and played computer games. I could press my right fingers quite fast which later actually helped me as a musician because I could play the guitar faster. At the age of seventeen, I saw some cool guys in school playing the guitar, and they were playing Stand By Me. As I watched, I thought it looks pretty easy and I could go back and try that, and from then I wanted to start learn to play the guitar. Of course as with many kids of my generation, my father said, “You cannot learn guitar.” So I went to dig up my savings, and I had savings because I had no life (laughs), and I bought myself a cheap electro guitar. It was fun, because it a passion. When you first start, you don’t think about it. I’m not like most people, like Jim, where he had this vision that this was what he wanted to do. I never had such thoughts, and I didn’t even know that such a thing exists – that you could play and make a living. I never bothered thinking about that. As I started playing, I made many friends, for the first time in my life.

I started jamming. I would walk into a studio and ask if someone needed a drummer, and would play randomly, and that was how my music education started in jamming studios. It was a quick transition. At seventeen, I was jamming, and when I was eighteen, I was starting to do gigs already, and doing them badly and almost for free.

One day, some guy asked me if I wanted to do Chinese music, I was like “Huh? Chinese music ah? Whatever. I’ll just go and play.” I never heard Chinese music before that. After that, I started to play in pubs and that’s where I knew Jim, because he was playing in this pub along Tanjong Pagar called Strings.

Later I went into demo producing, got friends to sing on them because I can’t sing, and we had a lot of fun. None of them asked for money. I also did some demos for them, and it was all a friendly exchange. We didn’t really think about the concept of money when we were twenty years old. Unlike nowadays, even kids who are sixteen would start thinking if they could make a living out of this.

Fortunately I came to know this guy called Steven, who owned a music publishing house, and he was pitching a lot of songs to people like Ah Mei or Jacky Cheung. He heard that I wrote songs, so he asked me to write for him. I gave him seven songs a week, and just focused on writing a lot of content. Along the way, I met a lot of singers, and they asked me, “Why don’t you just come to Taiwan and check it out?” One of them was Ke Yi Min and the other was Peng Jia Hui. At that time, there was a big scene there as it was the pinnacle of Taiwan music because there were no MP3s.

When I went there, it was really an eye opener, because you can feel a very strong culture there. Don’t talk about Taiwan, I just came back from Phuket yesterday, and when I was in Thai pub, the crowd went crazy with every song and they were singing along to all the songs. Does that happen in Singapore? (Silence)

Jim: I think it’s because of the language. In Thailand, everyone speaks Thai. I just came back from Japan too, and over there, you can see many musicians basking along the streets, and there would be people crowding around watching them perform. In Japan, everyone speaks Japanese, but in Singapore, we have English, Chinese, Malay, etc, so the attention is pretty much divided.

Eric: Yes, but that is also our strength, because Singaporeans are exposed to a mixture of cultures all blended together, and this is reflected in our sound. So back in Taiwan, I saw that everyone was enjoying Taiwan music, and it was a very friendly environment to work in because everyone respects everybody, even if they don’t mean it, but they treat you very nicely (laughs). Even if the song sucks, they will say it’s still ok. That was the culture that I was exposed to, and it really encourages you, because if everyone were to tell you straight that your stuff sucks and you should just quit, which was exactly what my teacher told me – to quit school because I did not do well in school – it really makes you feel lousy. If somebody gives you encouragement, then it will spur you on. When I first went to Taiwan, all my songs were really horrible, but because through my demos they could hear that I had some sense of arrangement, so that was when they started asking me to be a music arranger. For those who do not know what a music arranger is, an arranger creates a structure around the main melody that he is given, and adds on instruments that will bring out the flavor of the song.

When I came back to Singapore, Steven said that there were a few Taiwanese producers coming to Singapore, and he would introduce me to them. Amongst those I had met were Benjamin Lim and Michael Au, both of them were the reason why Jacky Cheung became so famous. When I met them, there was no agenda, because they didn’t know what I did, but they were very willing to help me and gave me advice. Benjamin started listening to my songs and told Steven to get me to do some “stuff” for him. He wanted me to listen to a certain melody and asked me to make a demo out of it. At that time, I didn’t know what music arrangement was, so I thought, “Is it because I can play guitar on this recording?” He said, “Yes, yes, just do it.” So I went to program the drums, bass and played guitar on it, and I was quite happy with it. After he heard it, he told me it was not bad, and told me which parts to change, and I did.  He then told me to come to the studio the next day to do tracking. I didn’t know what tracking was, but I just went anyway. It was a beautiful studio that is no longer in existence. The studio was designed and built by the team that built one of the Abby Road studios.

I used my keyboard to program the instruments, and that was when I met this guy called Terence Teo, who was still using the MC500, and he’s a very famous arranger who has done works for FIR, Stefanie Sun and many others. He told me that I had to guide the drummer and bassist. I was surprised because I thought I was just there to record my guitar. But he told me, “No, you have to do it, that’s your job!” So I did. I went into the studio, and there was this drummer called Gary, and he plays wonderful drums. He’s like a machine with feel. So Steven told me to guide him, so I told him basically what to do and we finished the track. After that there was a bassist called Andy Peterson, and all of them are really top musicians. After I guided him as well, we were done with the drums and bass, and I was getting excited because I thought finally it was my turn to record my guitar. Then Steven told me to sit at the board because he was getting another guy to play the guitar for me. That was when my world crumbled down. (laughs) In my mind, I thought, “Steven you idiot, asked me to do so many things and you’re not letting me play my guitar?” He told me to just sit there, watch, and learn something.

Then I saw this guitarist called Jonathan Xu Hua Qiang, who wrote many great songs like Ah Mei’s Jie Tuo (解脱) and is a very good guitarist. He was of course much better than me, especially his tone. And that was also the first thing that I learnt about showbusiness from Jonathan. You can play one chord like that (demonstrates with little movement with his hand), and you can play the same chord like this (dramatic action with hands playing the guitar). It’s the same thing, but it looks so much better. He makes it look so stylo, and makes people think that it’s very difficult to play, but actually it’s very simple.

A few weeks later, I received $600 cash from Steven. I asked him what was it for, and he explained to me that was for my arrangement fees. I was so amazed and happy because I made $600 for a few days of work and all I wanted during that time was to make $800 in a month! Furthermore, the song turned out to be the first single of an artist called Zhong Jian Fen Zi. It felt really great, because you’re walking on the streets and you hear a piece of music made by you. That was when I decided that this is really something I want to do, and I started noticing that there were many avenues that I could go into, from songwriting, I could move into arrangement, production, playing the guitar and touring with artists.

Jim: I think for Eric, you’re very lucky because you met a lot of Gui Ren (贵人) who have helped you a lot along the way. For my case, I didn’t have any help. After army, I was employed formally by this company as an in-house producer. At that time, I didn’t know what was producing. All I knew was recording and buying lunch and tea, and making basic arrangements. Producing is very important, and a lot of people actually do not know what producing entails. As a producer, you need to oversee a certain project, which is not easy. You need to understand every single step, starting from songwriting. A producer may not know how to write songs, but he will know how to judge what is a commercial song, and which song will suit which artiste. Producing also includes vocal recording, recording the singer, the backup vocals, mixing and so on. So the producer has to guide all these people along the way, so that the song turns out the way that he wants.

There are many producers in Singapore who do everything themselves. At that time, I was an aspiring producer who wanted to do everything myself, because I was a control freak and the song can only sound like the way I wanted. If it was done by anyone else, I would think that it’s not nice and I would want to do it myself. Step by step, I learnt the different aspects of producing, and it was a lot of fun during that time. I had just finished army, and the pay was more than army, so I was happy already. The good thing about this studio was that it was an in-house studio, and I could use it as much as I wanted to. I could camp overnight in the studio and live there, which I did, just to learn or figure a small little detail. During that time, it really wasn’t about money making, but about the passion and interest. The whole recording thing was new to me. I learnt piano and the guitar and knew what was arrangement, but recording and mixing was a whole new ballgame to me. I was enjoying myself so much with all the equipment provided to me.

Halfway through, I realized that I wasn’t recognized at all. In order for people to recognize my effort, I have to have a value. Most of the time, you would see the credits for the songwriter and lyricist, hardly the arranger or mixer, so that was when I decided it’s time to write songs. I started quite late writing songs, at the age of around 23, and through writing songs, people see your name keep appearing, and they assume that you did everything.

When I was 24, my boss asked me if I wanted to be a singer. I told him no, because I wanted to be a producer. But he told me that the easiest way for others to recognize my name was for me to be a singer. He had signed two male artistes who were my friends, and due to some contractual issues, he decided to cut costs and cut an album for us as a group. Back then, there were many two-guy groups like Zhong Jian Fen Zi, Shan Feng Dian Guo, Guang Liang Pin Guan, so my boss thought that maybe we should do a three-man group.

Although I didn’t like to be on the front, I thought that I should give it a try if it could make me more credible and get me more jobs. That was how Dreamz FM was formed. It was a great experience, as I had the opportunity to go Taiwan. I stayed there for a year to learn about production and know people there. The people I met weren’t as helpful, but the overall culture was great. I got myself attached to this producer named Jerry Huang Shu Jun as his assistant, and I learnt a lot from him. I learnt that music production is very much about entertainment. During those days, you had to learn how to entertain people, learn how to drink with them, and from there I got to know and work with very good singers like Ah Mei, who also helped me a lot, asking me to write and vocal produce for her.

When I came back to Singapore, I was much more equipped with knowledge as a producer. I started to source and groom my own artists, produced the whole album and provided a singular direction for them. Even up till today, I am pretty proud of one of the projects that I did, which involved this artiste Shi Kang Jun. I found him singing at a karaoke, and he had a very good voice, so I asked him if he was interested to go for an audition. He decided to sign with us, and I produced a pseudo-British band sounding album with him from beginning to the end.

After all these experiences, I left shortly and joined Eric with his Funkie Monkies. I realized that getting to know the right people who recognized your value is very important. At that time, I didn’t care about money, I just wanted to learn and do. After I left the company, I realized something was wrong. Firstly, my pay could have been better, because my other producer friends were getting around two to three thousand per month. Another lesson I learnt was that, with regards to songwriting, when you are signed to a publishing house who will help you do all the admin and sell your songs, they will have to take a commission from the amount that is quoted to the client. For a beginner, the industry rate was that the writer will get fifty percent of royalty. As you establish yourself as a writer, then you can negotiate for a better rate. Be mindful of what publishers offer you before you sign that contract. It’s important that you know where your value is, and it’s not only about passion.

Eric: Arrangement provided a regular income for me, but I also started to think about how I could step out and go beyond being just arranger. I also noticed the same thing. Everybody only bothers about the songwriter and lyricist, so I continued to keep writing songs. As I was arranging a lot of mainstream material, it started to rub on me on what the industry wanted, and I started to sell some of my own songs. The first song I sold was to an old timer called Yang Ling, and my first single was performed by Cass Phang. As I had come from a not-so-mainstream background, I was still struggling to strike a balance in writing so that my songs that were not too mainstream.

Later I got to know to know this guy called Jonathan Lee, and he liked my stuff because they were not so mainstream. He started getting me on board on many other projects, and one of them was for Karen Mok. Her first and third single were my songs. Then he also asked me if I was interested to co-write with his then-wife, Sandy Lam, who was working on her own album. I flew to Shanghai and we wrote really fast. Up till today, I don’t spend more than 30 minutes writing a song, and she is also the efficient type, and in one week, we wrote seventeen songs, and one of them was called Zhi Fei Ji (Paper Aeroplane), and it was written during the time when we were supposed to take a break. I was playing the guitar, and we started piecing together this song. That song turned out to be my first hit song. A lot of people knew it, and because of that, Sandy also asked me to join her for a tour, which included China, Japan and Malaysia. That was when I saw the difference between writing a song for your own creative purposes, and writing a song for mainstream appeal where I could see thirty, forty, fifty thousand people screaming this song back at you when you are on stage. Of course, later I also discovered that the royalties are also much nicer. That was the point I decided, ok, I want to sell out, which is not a bad thing. I want to write songs for that Ah Beng in the KTV. I want him to enjoy singing my song. I started shifting my song direction. If you tune into any mainstream radio, most of them are slow songs, and so that’s where I am going to concentrate on, and that was where more of my songs started moving. I started working with Liang Jing Ru, Tanya Chua and Stefanie Sun, and it all started with having this mainstream mindset. At that time I also realized that I cannot be the world’s best guitarist, nor the world’s best arranger or producer, because there is always somebody better than you technically. But when you write songs, you can never guarantee if the next song can be equally good or be better. There is no standard for writing songs. It’s like abstract art, picking elements from all over and making it simple so that the world will sing together with you. So I focused on songwriting, because songwriting puts you up there with everybody else. I was Eric Ng, right at the bottom, and there was Jonathan Lee, right at the top, and these two worlds wouldn’t have collided if not for songwriting. Songwriting is a way where it really levels out the playing ground for everybody. Like how Jim shared, there are people who can write a song but can’t even play an arrangement, it really comes out of nowhere.

But I also notice that there are trends, and there are actually shapes and structures, or formulas in that sense, that you can make a song memorable and catchy, even if the melody is not nice.
I decided that I was not going to write songs for myself, but for others. So I had an agenda where I would write five commercial songs and five songs for whatever else, and I did that for many years. Of course, the commercial ones would get the furthest, but as a musician, you also feel great when a song that is totally out of this world and is non-commercial gets into an album and gives you that kick. One of these was picked up by Ah Mei, which was a heavy rock song, and it was even used as a single, and I got some royalties out of it. That was when I discovered the power of songwriting. Everything revolves around it. Through our songs, people looked for our arrangement or production, and if you look around in the Chinese scene, 90% of producers are songwriters, because the Asian music scene is very melody-driven, and if the guy understands this, they assume that the guy can take charge of the whole song.

How did you continue to hone your craft, after you did Dreamz FM?

Jim: Life will be super boring if there wasn’t anything to learn. I’m glad that in this music line, it’s a never ending journey to learn. There are so many things to learn, discover and better yourself at. Currently, I’m trying to hone my mixing. There was a period of time I was into arranging deep house dance music, then I shifted to a more band-sound arrangement. I just keep doing different things, including vocal production, which is my forte. Vocal production is like 40% music and 60% psychology, handling the artiste in the studio, which can be a very pressurizing feel for them because they are not used to hearing themselves through the headphones. Vocal production is something that I keep trying to improve myself on. Sometimes it can be very aggravating, because you know how exactly how the song is supposed to sound like, but the singer is unable to deliver it, so you will need to find a point between your expectation and the singer’s natural ability. I find it very challenging, to bring the best out of the singer, and not to make him sound like you. Same for backing vocals, and I would try different styles, sometimes spacing them far apart, or sometimes putting them close to each other for a different effect. There’s a lot to hone in this industry, and every day I’m learning something new.

Eric: Somewhere along the way, I noticed that you can actually make a comfortable living out of being a musician. What is considered comfortable, is of course defined differently for different people, but I realized that you don’t need to be struggling to be a professional musician, earning a comfortable pay not much less than your friend who is drawing a salary from a nine-to-five job.
I started thinking, how I could work with people who could cover my weaknesses. I started to seek out all the top musicians I know. When I did my arrangements or productions, I engaged all these top musicians who are better than me to play on them, and if others heard that this piece of music was top grade, it’s my credit. (Laughs) It was an evil plan, and even today I work with them, including this top string arranger Bang Wen Fu, who has done a lot of musicals. Unlike Jim, I don’t think I have so much time to learn every part of production, but I want to focus on the things that I think I can do well in, and just outsource the rest to the best.

As musicians, whether you are a gigging musician in a pub, or a songwriter, I realize that we are just door to door salesmen. We have to let people know this is what we are worth, and there are a lot of creative people who cannot detach themselves away from the fact that this is actually business. When you can’t do that, you will get hurt for all the wrong reasons. For example, after your client pays you, but later remarks that it is not very good, and you totally blow up on him, it’s your loss, because you may never ever get him again. Why would you want to burn your bridges if he already paid you for your services? After all, I learnt something out of it, and I wouldn’t have gotten the job if I had laid out all my strict rules from the beginning. The balance is when it’s time for us to take action, and when should you allow yourself to made use of and let go. When I submit my songs, most of the time, the arrangement is 80% done, and it almost sounds like the final product. There were so many times that I heard that they found another arranger or producer, but when the song is released, I heard that the final song sounds exactly the same as my demo. It happened a few times, but any sensible person in the record company would have easily noticed that this was happening, sooner or later, they would recognize you and wish to pay you.

After one or two years of receiving $600 for an arrangement, I decided to put my foot down and started to charge more. This whole business of being able to raise your own value is a difficult balance. That was why I bought a lot of books to read to learn how to present yourself and convince other people of your value. Like what Jim said, it’s not just about the production. The whole business is about the psychology as well. If you can convince a person that you’re worth something, maybe you may fail with one person, but at the end of the day, if you really persist, I think people will recognize you for it. For me, to hone my craft, I still only focus on songwriting, because it still holds true to me the fact that I will not be the world’s best whatever, but my songs have a place. I’m also always trying to find out more ways to help people monetize from this business. That’s why I set up Funkie Monkies, because I wanted to be my old boss, Steven, someone who could bring about many people and form an army or team to have more leverage or bargaining power. I set up Funkie Monkies so that I could also hone that part of the brain, which was my business sense.

How did we continue to move on in this industry?

Eric: Stay humble, stay open. Anyone could walk up to me or Jim to ask how to do this or achieve this effect, and I will definitely help you. This was the culture that I was open to in Taiwan, unlike in Singapore. Nowadays, there’s nothing to hide. There’s Youtube, you could find basically any information you want on the Internet. Sharing also helps us to understand more about ourselves. We have already completed six seven batches of song writing students, and we learnt a lot from them too.

What is your biggest setback?

Jim: There is no one thing, but there was a situation back in my old company that when people wanted to buy your songs, they would give you a lump sum of money and give them the whole song. The song belongs to them, and they will not pay you any more royalties. There was once I wrote a pretty huge hit song during the late 90s, and when the credits were out, it was under the artiste’s own name, but the truth is that it was written by me, but I couldn’t say anything because I already agreed to sell the whole song to them. I nearly cried when I heard the song on the radio and the DJ mentioned that the song was written by him. Furthermore, the song was also covered by another artiste, so it was not a setback, but I felt really sad. From then, I told myself that I would never agree to such terms again.

Eric: When you want to make your passion a career, it’s not a straightforward thing. When you ask most people out there, they would think, “How is it possible?” Especially in Singapore.
So in the first place, if you want to do this, you have to manage your expectations. If I wanted to be a doctor, I know I would have to go to doctor school, graduate and become a doctor working in a hospital or clinic. It’s a very straightforward route. It’s a difficult one, but a straightforward path. But as a musician, there were many things which we didn’t know or are unacceptable, but at the end of the day, as long as you learn something from it, that is the greatest thing that you can receive from any setback. If you want to do this as a career, you have to wire yourself positively and move on. We have many emotional musician friends, and because they were unwilling to let it go, they waste one or two years of their lives just dwelling on it, or trying to take action, and in the end, nobody gains from this.

Jim: Yes, I totally agree. It’s important to have a very positive mindset, and always be humble.

Eric: On the things we wish we knew when we first started out – the answer will be in line with what we will be doing for the next 9 months. Recently, the government has started to be quite supportive towards the music industry. We are working with MDA to train up a new batch of songwriters. We started the first batch already, and it was very successful. MDA funds up to 90% of the school fees. When we first started out, we would die to have this chance. First of all, we don’t know where to go, we don’t know how to do it, so it’s cool to see MDA, WDA and NAC coming in to give grants, because it’s all musicians who are benefiting  from this. That was the only thing I wished existed.
Jim: I feel very happy that nowadays a lot of things are more accessible and simpler for musicians, not only because of the government’s support, but the scene is more vibrant because now there’s a lot of things that you can do at home. You can record at home, you can do music arrangement at home, you can mix at home. You will need to invest, not it’s not much for a basic set up. During our time, it was so expensive.

Eric: Now everyone says that the music industry is doomed. But actually if I’m looking for something positive out of the whole situation, I would say the playing ground for musicians has been leveled, because you can just go on Youtube to reach out to an audience. Of course, there are so many other people doing the same thing, but there are many stories and successful cases of musicians making a success from non-traditional platforms. Of course, during the good times during the 90s, there were the hit bands or artistes, just as there were so many other bands that didn’t make it, and the situation is pretty much the same now. It just makes the strongest more prominent.

Q: How has Singapore contributed to the Asian music industry?
Jim: Singaporean musicians are very different due to their influences. They have a very distinct sound or style, and that’s why Taiwanese artistes like to employ Singaporean bands to tour with them rather than hire from their own country. This is something I’m very proud of. They recognize that we are able to do certain things in a different way. We have a more western sound which they like. We are a very small country. We do not have our own market to support our musicians, but we are able to export our talents.

Eric: Our export culture for musicians is actually very strong, which is one of the reasons why MDA, WDA and NAC always come in to support this area. If you ask any person in China on the street if they knew who was JJ Lin or Sun Yan Zi or Ah Do, they will probably know them. I would say in the top ten of the more successful artistes in Asia, especially China, Singaporeans probably can make up two to three of them, and for such a small population of Singapore, that is really insane. At the back stage, a lot of hit songs are written by Singaporeans too. They do notice that we have something special. Turns out that our disadvantage in the local music scene because of language and the mixture of cultures has also become our advantage.

Q: With the advent of MP3s, how have your royalties been affected?
Eric: Yes, MP3s have affected the music industry drastically, but then again, it’s still more than $800 (laughs) and there are many other avenues in the music industry. For example, karaoke is a big culture in Chinese music. So even though people are not buying our songs, they are still always dedicating the songs on karaoke. When it is released on karaoke or on radio, it’s called public performance, and we get royalties from that. Every year, we would receive a thick file from the society who helps to collect our royalties on our behalf, and I could receive something like $30,000 in accumulated royalties for a big hit song that I wrote 11 years ago that I wrote in half an hour while I was cycling. If that song was sung by someone like Jacky Cheung, maybe I could have been getting $100,000 or $200,000 in the golden period of the Taiwan music scene before there were mp3s. But like what we said, we are not doing this entirely for money. As long as we can survive, we are happy.
Jim: A lot of musicians are feeling insecure during this period of time because we are not earning as much money as we did before when it was just CD sales. To me, I do not believe that music will die. CD will die, but music will not die. It will just become something else, and I’m just waiting eagerly what it will be next.  When vinyl first came out, live performers were afraid that they would be replaced, but apparently it became a positive effect instead, because with vinyls, their music reached out to even more people and as a result, people from all over the world came to watch them live. I believe it would turn out to be a good thing, but I just don’t know what form will it take, whether is it iTunes or Spotify, I’m not sure.

Q: Taiwan’s music industry seems to be going downhill. How would this affect you?
Eric: Last year I did a project, recording twelve of China’s craziest vocalists, from The Voice of China. As soon as I was in the studio and started recording, it was totally insane because the quality of what Mainland China’s music has become, whether it is the singing or the songs, I wondered what Taiwan was going to do now. But the way I see it is that, it will only make everyone stronger, including Singapore. Nowadays, if you want to be a Singapore singer, you just have to go watch the Voice of China and you know you have to work your ass off. Of course, pop music is not just about technical ability, but this would generally raise the level of the entire music industry. For Taiwan, yes, their incomes and budgets are all dropping, but I see that they are also going to turn into like Singapore, which is export-related. They are aggressively trying to push their artistes to China as well. If they were to only circle themselves around Taiwan, then it would not be as comfortable as it used to be, but now they are combating it by exporting.

Q: How to sell my songs?
A publisher is like an agent or manager for a songwriter, because if your songs get played on radio for example, someone has to collect the money for you. That’s the role of the publisher’s job. The second is that the publisher is able to inform you what songs are needed for which singers or artistes, so that you are able to cultivate or improve your songs. There are three main publishers in Singapore. One is Universal, one is Ocean Butterflies, and one is Funkie Monkies. If you are interested, you can send in your stuff, and we will see how we can help you. How it works for us is that we don’t sign a whole big group of writers like how some publishers do. For us, when a writer approaches us, we first analyze if 70-80 percent of the songs are marketable. I’m not talking about arrangement quality or the production, but whether this song is good enough to be pitched out. With that in mind, we will consider signing the writer under our publishing department. But if we find that this person still needs grooming, that’s where the school comes in, where we teach them to better their melodies and more complete that people would enjoy.

About the Speakers
Eric Ng
Songwriter, Arranger, Producer, Music Director
A highly sought-after Songwriter/Arranger/Producer, Eric has stamped an indelible imprint on the Asian pop scene since the late ‘90s. He has created career-defining hits for artists such as A*Mei, Sandy Lam, Tanya Chua, Jaycee Chan, and Ming Bridges. He has also performed extensively as a session guitarist for artists such as Sandy Lam and Emil Chau, staging shows all over the world from Taiwan, China, Japan, Malaysia, to London, America, and Canada.

As an entrepreneur, Eric founded Funkie Monkies Productions, a music production house that aims to groom the next generation of artists. Never resting on his laurels, he moved into movies and musicals, and he was the composer/music director for productions such as “The Voice of China” film , Singapore hit movie <881>, and Lao Jiu the Musical. Amidst his many commitments, Eric teaches songwriting at FM Pop Music School in hopes of helping aspiring musicians take a step closer to their dreams.

Jim Lim
Singer, Songwriter, Arranger, Producer
A multi-hyphenate in the Mandarin Pop industry, Jim’s career began in 1992 as a studio engineer. Equipped with a range of instrumental skills, he quickly became a self-sufficient musician who wrote, arranged, mixed, and produced his own songs. In 1999, he formed the band 梦飞船, Dreamz FM, and produced and co-wrote all 3 albums of Dreamz FM. The band attained recognition not just in Singapore and Malaysia, but also in Taiwan and China.

In 1999, he co-produced the National Day theme song “Together” sung by Dreamz FM and Evelyn Tan. The following year, he was commissioned to write the National Day theme song, “Shine on me”, which was performed by Jai Wahab and Mavis Wee. In 2004, he joined Funkie Monkies Productions, and has since written and produced for many A-list artists including Stephanie Sun, Fish Leong, A*Mei, Nicholas Teo, Jacky Cheung, and Show Luo. He has also toured with Wang Leehom, JJ Lin, A-Do, and A*Mei as a backup vocalist. Jim is an ardent supporter of local independent artists/bands, having produced albums for Serene Koong, Jones, and Rui En. He currently heads the Vocal Recording department of FM Pop Music School.

This session was transcribed by Emily Haw. Reach out to her on Twitter @emilyhaw