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

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Producer Roland Lim takes part in 3 month NAC-sponsored attachment programme in UK to help local emerging bands and artistes.

The NAC Youth Arts Overseas Attachment Programme is an initiative that is part of the National Arts Council’s on-going efforts to develop youth arts capacities in Singapore, and is managed in collaboration with Artswork – which is UK’s national youth arts development agency with 25 years of experience. The programme offers the opportunity for participants to embark on an immersive learning experience at a mix of established UK youth arts organisations. Upon return, participants are expected to contribute to the youth arts landscape by developing or facilitating opportunities for young people to be engaged in and through the arts.

Through participation in the attachments hosted by relevant and established youth arts organisations in the UK, there will be opportunities to network with international counterparts and learn from first-hand experience. The aim is to facilitate knowledge transfer for the benefit of Singapore’s arts and youth communities, including those marginalised.

This year’s recipient in the music category is Roland Lim, a young producer/ mix engineer who has produced multiple hits in Australia, Singapore and across Asia. At the age of 26, he produced and mixed his first major label album for Australian metal band Make Them Suffer’s #1 charting (iTunes Australia) debut album 'Neverbloom', which also peaked at #12 on the ARIA Australian Charts and #74 in the Billboard 200 and was released under RoadrunnerRecords/Warner Music (Nickelback, Slipknot, Opeth).

His production work has won numerous awards, including Best Instrumental/World Music Award [In Each Hand A Cutlass] at the VIMA Awards 2011, as well as Noise Singapore Song Of The Year Awards in 2009 [For This Cycle] and 2010 [Run Neon Tiger] and most recently four #1 chart hits with Pop rockers The Summer State, Villes, Tujuh and Gentle Bones in 2013.

MBIA spoke to Roland in an exclusive interview to find out more about his intentions on applying for the internship, what he plans to learn from the programme, how it would benefit other emerging musicians in future, and of course, his own journey as a musician.

Roland Lim, recipient of NAC Youth Arts Overseas Attachment Programme 

I started producing music about 10 years ago in Australia. I fell in love with the craft of making records when I stepped into my first recording studio to record my own band. The place was like my church. I really wanted to helm the console, the board, and help bands create an amazing sound. That’s where I started my journey in music. I didn’t study music. I took a Bachelor’s in Marketing and Media, but I was playing in a band, and when it came to our first demo, our drummer had a contact to a very good studio, so when I first entered the studio it was like a life changing experience for me.

Before Australia, I only played piano for a bit. My parents forced me to learn an instrument, and I didn’t like the piano, so I started playing the guitar in a band instead. We were doing okay, and had some good gigs, and playing with some big bands. And because of my first experience in the studio, I thought that I was suited to be in the studio more than playing the guitar on stage.

Back then, I didn’t know what a producer was, and for me I simply started out as a recording engineer. It was only when bands started labeling me as a producer then I started getting more confident as a producer. In those days, there were more internships. I was in a country where internships were encouraged and I could meet people and work for free, and anyone would welcome an extra hand, just to move stuff or even get coffee. I wouldn’t call myself a coffee boy, but I was probably one of the last few batches of those who made coffee that kind of thing. I don’t think it happens as much these days. That culture kind of died. I was lucky to be able to sit in with producers, and sometimes since they are busy with the big stuff, they would ask me if I wanted to work on the single track of a smaller project, and I was happy to be able to receive these opportunities. From there, I could work with different people and practice a lot on my skills. I spent 80% of my time recording at home and only 20% at university, and was very close to failing sometimes. It was sort of a double life: I was going to school from 10am – 6pm in university, and 8pm – 2am at the studio. I was very lucky to have met a friend’s friend who’d just built a studio in a garage himself for ten months, but did not know how to use the software. He offered my friend’s band to record there, and they asked me to record them using this space.

The further I’ve moved into my career, the more focused I’ve become as a producer’s role; I would have other people record for me, and focus on things like sound effects, song writing and arrangement instead.
I started with Metal, because I was in a heavy rock band. At that point in time, I loved listening to metal a lot, as I was an angry young kid who had to be relocated to a new country due to failing in the Singapore system. My prelims were pretty bad, with 28 points, although I did ok for the finals with 12 points. My teacher in Singapore said I had no hope, so I started studying really hard. My parents also suggested that since I was doing so badly in Singapore, and we’ve some inheritance from my grandma who had passed away, we can chip in some money and send you over to Australia. They probably didn’t think that I can cut it out in Singapore.
Picking up the guitar was easy because I had many friends who were great guitarists and were willing to share tips with me.

When did you have your first break?

That was when I was recording a metal band called Dyscord in Perth. That was also the first time I got to use a recording studio. Getting into the industry or finding a place to work up from was really hard. At that time, I really wanted to carve out something in my music career, but coming from a traditional family, it wasn’t something that I could openly reveal to my parents. So I was just working on whatever I could find on the side and see where it takes me. I think this sort of mentality works better for us rather than declare that I wanted to this and that, pin all your hopes and dreams on it, and if you fail you would get all depressed about it. I honestly think it’s a more realistic way of approaching making your hobby as a career. Some people call it the “Two Trains Theory”. You are doing something already, you can’t just jump across because the other train is way behind. You should work on the second train and get it to speed up to match the speed of the first one, then you can cross over. That was what happened for my career. I was juggling my time in university and in the studio, and only when it started working out then I decided to do this for a living.

Did your family support you?

Coming from a traditional Chinese family, they would show their love and support in a different way, like asking if I needed money or help in other things in my life. I didn’t understand their way of love previously, but now that I’m older and maybe not as angry and retarded as I used to be, I’ve really come to appreciate their support, like how they let me use their place to convert into a studio.
I came back in 2007, and experienced quite a bit of a culture shock. I’m pretty sure I rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and pissed off a lot of people in the scene because in Australia, people are really upfront and very blunt. If someone didn’t play well, you’d just tell them it’s pretty bad.
The exposure I had in Australia served as a good base for me, even though I had to start from scratch again in Singapore. People heard my stuff and asked, “Who did this?” I remember posting on S.O.F.T. and the comments asked if this was a local band, so the stuff that I did in Australia helped to convince people of my work.

What are the common issues that new emerging bands and artistes face?

Our local bands don’t do enough to build a fan base from people who are easily impressionable. They try to impress fellow musicians more than potential fans. They must learn to take a step back and see from a consumer’s perspective. For example, some of them may think their one minute guitar part is awesome, but it would be way too long for a normal listener. That’s a classic example of what a producer needs to do. A musician may have a wide range of skills, whether is it playing or programming, but he should not let that overcome the song. All the sounds, instruments and production aspects have to serve the song, which is what a lot of musicians are unable to separate themselves from. One may think his riff is so cool and insists that it must be included in the song, but in fact, it may not be helping the song itself as it is simply making it draggy and boring.

What are the challenges that you face as a producer?

One of the main challenges is to convince bands that production involves a bit of songwriting and arrangement. We also need to convince them that as producers, we can provide musical input that can make the song better. A lot of them may not understand the concept of producing. What I observe is that many of them are worried about being “over-produced”. They think that they need to sound as true to themselves, but the level at which they record that sounds as close to themselves in the jam room does not hold up against a world standard recording. For a long time, I’ve always pondered about this, and finally I realize we always hear comments like “The band sounded great live, but then the recording doesn’t feel as good.” I only cracked it a few months ago to be able to verbalize the reason. When you listen to a band live, the sound is coming to you at a loud volume, it encompasses you into their world and you feel you’re part of the music. When you’re listening to a band on headphones, if you play exactly the same thing and it doesn’t sound phenomenal, it’s because the musician has failed to bring them into their world. So the job of the recording is different from a live set. The recording has to have musical hooks and soundscapes to entice and lure the listener into the musician’s world. When you trap them in there, then they start loving the music.
Similar issues for singer-songwriters. When they play live, they just bring an acoustic guitar or piano with vocal, but the recording will have much fuller arrangement with strings and drums, which may not be possible to recreate during live. The point is, they should not do try to do that. For the same song, there is a radio format, a recording format and a live format, which are all different.  But of course there are artistes who manage to successfully replicate the same thing in the various formats, but musicians need to be aware of the different listening experiences a consumer goes through.
Our bands need to try to reach international standards that, like it or not, are already set by others, and it has to be achieved consistently. So our challenge as a new and growing market is to ensure how our shows and acts are consistently great. That’s how we can build a culture around it – what are the things that can attract people to keep coming back for the experience. The impact is much limited if you only do it once or twice a year.

What made you apply for the NAC Overseas Youth Arts Attachment Programme?

I was already helping a lot of the young bands with regards to marketing, performance and management. They come to me for help and are very willing to learn. I definitely can understand what they are going through because I was once a band too. What was difficult is that I love producing more than anything, and I think that’s my main key skill. When I help them in other aspects, it’s through advice and experience. It’s not well planned out or properly executed. It’s not a solid marketing plan and it’s not integrated or thoroughly thought out because I don’t have enough time.
So when the opportunity came, I thought, “Hey I’m already doing this in my small capacity, but it’s just that I don’t have the time or resources to do it in a more structured way that is more impactful.” Moreover, one of the main things that attracted to me to apply for this was that it provided the opportunity for me to come back and partner NAC to spearhead programmes that can help these young emerging bands. There are so many different aspects of music that I could move into. The three months will give me some time off from recording work and focus on what I can learn from there. I can’t do everything myself whether is it media grooming or singer production or live stage grooming or marketing and branding. I might be able to cover all aspects, maybe poorly, or I could focus on a few. The ideas are not fixed and I have not decided yet. I may just focus on a few aspects and do them myself, or I may take the whole lot and find people when I’m back to collaborate with. In Singapore, the music industry is rather fragmented, and to pull everyone together will be quite a mammoth task.

We understand that your internship focuses on learning project management and music marketing. What do you hope to achieve from the internship?

Planning is one of the most important things that I’m trying to take back. You know with musicians, no one likes to plan. No one likes to do the paper work or admin work, everyone just wants to have fun and be cool. Planning is not cool. (laughs) But that’s one of our strengths as Singaporeans. We are hardworking, we are studious, we pay attention to details. The trick is whether we can incorporate these strengths into music making. With these strengths, we can create a solid plan, and from there, it’s about collaborating with others and we will definitely have a good chance to succeed.
Most musicians started making music as a hobby, simply because they love music. But if they want to take it to the next level as a professional, that’s where planning and management skills come in. That is also where I want to hone myself. If you want to lead or convince people or influence the scene, then you have to be good at planning, good at managing people, and good at communicating.
The programme hasn’t been planned in concrete yet. It’s still quite flexible. The two main takeaways I want to achieve are project management and music marketing, because that’s what the organization is good at, and it’s also what I lack. But along the way, I would want to also pick up other skills like production and songwriting. I’m supposed to come up with a list of areas that I want to focus on after meeting all the mentors within the first two weeks.

Why music marketing?

That’s what a lot of bands lack. They do not know how to market themselves, because no one is comfortable marketing themselves. But if someone gives you ideas, or gives you concrete imagery to show you how you can brand yourself, and if you’re agreeable with it, then it’s doable. Many bands here when I ask them what they think of themselves, they would hold a self-defeatist attitude and think they are not good enough. But if you can tell them that they have the potential to head in a certain greater direction, like Singapore’s next Jason Mraz or something, at least we can give them some confidence and ideas to work their image towards. It could be something as simple as not wearing that boring T-shirt when performing on stage. Be creative. You’re selling art and entertainment. You’re selling fun. So be fun. Give people a reason to be happy, because making music is making people happy, even if it was metal or angry stuff, because it’s an outlet of expression and to feel good.
Another aspect that I would like to focus on is mentoring. It’s different from a job, where people pay me to push them really hard to deliver a product. Mentoring is about inspiring people and encouraging them. NAC wants me to co-develop a few youth-centric programmes with them. The purpose is to foster the growth of the music scene.

How would you achieve scalability and sustainability?

To be honest, those are questions that I don’t have good answers to now. I would have to think hard about these two issues. Sustainability is always hard. Everyone has their own way of achieving sustainability. Like how Eric Ng was saying, you can make a sustainable career in music, but you might have to be prepared to do this and that. And that’s how I would probably approach it too. If you want to make it sustainable, then you have to factor all these things. You must be prepared to work with other people, to be an artist to sell your music. As for scalability, it involves many other organizations such as SGMUSO, or even the labels, to see if we can have more dialogue and discussion with them.

What’s the first thing you need to do after your UK stint?

The first thing I need to do when I’m back is to meet up with NAC and share with them my findings, and discuss with them what is the best steps forward. If all else fails, I’m also prepared to do this on my own anyway. I hope to spend some time to hold talks and master classes to help these artistes, with the help of experts in the industry. Getting this grant is like a statement of intent, so that people know that I have managed to convince NAC to provide some support, so there is some backing or elevation of what I hope to do.
Also, it goes back to planning. You can have the best intentions but if there’s no proper structure or framework to follow, the results will be limited. So creating a framework will help to fasten the process to avoid past mistakes or pitfalls that earlier generations face.

So are there any existing bands that you want to help immediately?

There’s definitely some conflict of interest  as there are bands that I manage personally and I would need to sit down with NAC to work that out. But of course, it’s not just helping the bands that I’m handling, which will be too myopic, but to be able to reach out and encourage more young people to learn the skills faster. When they learn these skills at a younger age, they would have more confidence to stick to it longer.

Do you think we have enough good potential artistes out there?

There is talent in Singapore, but the problem is craft. A mastery of craft takes at least ten years of your work. So even if an artiste is talented, you must keep perfecting your craft to apply your talent. What makes me sad is when I see talent unfulfilled as well. Like you said, scalability and sustainability is important, so the job is to provide these emerging artistes ample opportunities for them to maximize their talents.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that new artistes face?

I would think the biggest challenge would be to convince their target audience to support them.  To achieve this, it’s all about craft. Craft in presenting yourself, craft in songwriting - writing songs that are relatable. I’m not a talented person myself, but I work a lot on tweaking everything to get it right. I usually only start at 60-70% and I tweak a lot to get to 80-90%, and it’s a painful process. But there’s a saying, hard work will always be talent when talent doesn’t work hard. The day that I don’t work hard and start lazing off, I would start feeling the pressure knowing that someone is going to beat me. This sort of unnecessary pressure works for me, and for some artistes, they will need to feel this way too to continually push themselves and their craft.

Do they not work hard enough?

It’s not only about working hard, but also working smart. Some people work really hard, but they don’t understand the craft, and it’s no point. They also need to understand the market by conducting market research. Google is a good starting place. Building a fan base is another. Asking your friends. Asking third parties. Working with a producer helps. Working with a manager or publicist helps.

Are you confident of getting people to join you on a long term basis?

Whether it’s long term depends on NAC’s funding and support as well. So one thing is to learn how to write self-evaluation reports, so that you can convince the funding to continue. These are the skills that musicians lack in general. I’ve already spoken to a lot of people, and the response that I got when I announced the internship was quite good. The people I meet at gigs have been very encouraging, and people from SGMUSO are also doing very good things on their own.

It’s great that NAC is willing to support programmes like that. But how do you think that eventually these initiatives could be self-sustaining?

I think once you groom up a good amount of talent, you form templates. The key thing to make it sustainable is to build future stars who will understand the skill sets and they go places, and they can help bring up the next generation of talent. Just like how Usher discovered Justin Beiber. I hope the people like your Sun Yan Zis and JJ Lins and Tanya Chuas who are doing well out of the country – when they have some time, they can share their experience or groom the next generation. We do need more financially sustainable stars, then we can study how they did it and try to replicate that. What we always lack is some form of guidance. We have phenomenal talents like Charlie Lim, Inch Chua, Monstercat, Caracal, Great Spy Experiment, and many others, they still have their day jobs or they do not have the time or skill sets to pass down yet. But their time will come, and I hope they all do well. We also have mentors like those from Noise Singapore. It is happening already, but from what I notice is that there is a gap to fill in from one generation to another.  The infrastructure is there, but if each generation can help support the next, then the impact can be self-sustaining and extended.

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