Whose Fault: Singaporeans only Care about Artists Who've Made It Overseas

A version of this article was originally published on YP.SG

The Great SIngapore Replay - The Fandom Menace Cover Image

It’s very often you hear a starving artist at an art fair in Singapore bleat about how local audiences only pay attention to local art after the creator has ‘made it’ overseas. And maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. 

As the artist drones on about how Singaporean audiences are generally apathetic to art, you’re impatiently pondering your Singaporean presence at this art fair. At this point, you’ve heard this trash-talk so many times that an inherent silent thought has anchored itself to the back of your mind: maybe this person’s work just isn’t cut out for the mass market?

After all, you love local art, and you know a tonne of people on Instagram who’re more than willing to abuse the tag #supportlocal for 0 social returns. 

If you’re speaking with–specifically–a musician, you’re probably also thinking about all the people who listen to the “Top Hits Singapore” playlist on Spotify. Like, plenty, right? So where exactly is the local audience that’s actively unappreciative and apathetic toward Singapore’s art, music, media, and everything else artsy? Who’s to blame for this and, in fact, is this even actually a problem

Top Hits Singapore features artists Yung Raja, Gentle Bones and Narelle.
Local musicians Yung Raja, Gentle Bones, and Narelle all make an appearance on Spotify’s ‘Top Hits Singapore‘ playlist.

We decided that the best way to examine whether this was just a petty cavil was to study an artist in Singapore who isn’t a starving artist. Someone who has pretty much ‘made it’ and has found local appreciation, with tumultuous success in an international market. 

To vaguely assess the gripe,

If an artist from Singapore finds success in an overseas market, they are consequently deemed more worthy of attention from Singaporean audiences. 

In this instance, here the variables are implicitly, but intangibly implied.

The dependent variable: 

Attention and validation from Singaporean audiences

The independent variable: 

Artistes finding recognition in overseas markets

Profile of The Case Study

The Great Singapore Replay (TGSR) is an initiative that pairs ten of Singapore’s young musicians with veteran musicians in a mentorship programme, to release ten new original songs. I decided to speak with one of their classified veterans, Shabir.

Shabir is a judge of The Great Singapore Replay.

Shabir’s doing some massive stuff.

After getting scouted, the multiple award-winning singer-songwriter, record producer, music composer, and performer achieved mainstream success in India with some back-to-back releases and is set to compose the music of eight Indian films to come. 

Film music makes 80% of the Indian music industry, which is actively defying the predictions of experts. In 2018 alone, the Indian music industry had a whopping 21% growth in physical sales. Statistics from IFPI.

And of course, the local government is eating it all up.

Shabir’s no stranger to the local circuit. 

He’s been making music since he was 12, and in 2005, won Vasantham Star, a local Tamil singing reality show. In 2017, he was also awarded the Singapore Youth Award, making him the first artist of Tamil and Indian descent to win the award. An oldie indeed. 

And, he thinks music isn’t sustainable in Singapore.

In fact, his resounding “no” to my sustainability question was probably the most assured “no” I’d heard in my 23-year-long life. If I’d been asking him on a date instead, this would probably be what qualified for a ball-shrinking rejection. But, it’s a testament to him being the person for this article.

Let’s get to it.

If an artiste from Singapore finds success in an overseas market, they are consequently deemed more worthy of attention from Singaporean audiences.

Success here is defined as any kind of ‘break-in’ that an artiste has in an overseas market. For musicians, it could be defined as anything that puts them in an international playing field, from playing at a gig overseas or opening for a particular band, to the media value that comes with it. 

Surefire success is when the musician is making music for the overseas market that they’re in. 

Shabir = Surefire SUCCESS

Largely intangible, Singaporean audiences’ willingness to pay attention is defined as when there is a substantial increase in eyes or ears on the artist. An increase in listenership and fans from Singapore, an increase in media attention garnered, more local gigs, etcetera. 

Surefire success here is when the artist gets the holy title of being featured on lists with international artists by local curators. Better still, the government pays attention to them and wants to be part of their success! 

Shabir = SUREFIRE SUCCESS! Joseph Schooling also.

Pulling the elements of this disgusting stereotype together are three main factors: the audience (duh), musicians, and the government (double duh).

Musicians are going overseas, and we can’t blame them.

Instead of questioning what musicians are doing to reach local markets, we should probably understand that our audience base is very small, to begin with.

If you were serious about your craft putting food on the table, it wouldn’t exactly be feasible for you to zoom in on capturing the hearts of our small local audience. It’s an unreliable approach, and it’s going to squeeze you dry, especially given that Singaporeans aren’t used to paying to consume their art. 

In 2016 alone, the National Arts Council recorded 6,000 FREE, non-ticketed arts activities. With the costs that artists have to incur for these events, I’m not sure if I would call this a mutualistic relationship as much as it is commensalism. 6,000 events later, our arts scene is supposedly ‘thriving’, but actually just dying.

“It is what it is, and it’s better to accept that..and navigate accordingly than try to challenge… Just like how sometimes Youtube videos go viral, and even if they’re really shit, we can’t do anything about it,” Shabir says, in reflection of how audiences will be audiences.

Should we blame the audience?

You can’t change an audience: Pop music is made to be popular, and viral videos are made for virality

Like in this video that displays just how formulaic making a music hit is.

Maybe we just suck at identifying what’s good and what’s not, a consequence of our shitty media culture and tired tropes that still sell on local television.

The effect of musicians going overseas and garnering media attention is a definite part of local media consumerism, and it’s prevalent throughout our culture. We’re very very proud when a Singaporean makes waves overseas, or at least that’s what our media gatekeepers tell us. It’s a stereotype that’s not unwarranted, but definitely unwanted

Shabir chimes in. “If they have to seek validation outside and then you celebrate them, you just don’t have awareness. You had to wait for someone else to tell you that they were good. What’s the point of that?”

Oof. As we all know, there’s no need for geographical boundaries with music. Good is good, and sexy is sexy.

Plus, our musicians making it overseas is mutualism. How?

It’s a possibility that local audiences are actively aware of our small market, and somehow deem artists worth paying attention to if they can make it outside of our market because they have traversed much larger fields. That, along with a lack of personal desire to foster a locally ground arts culture could be what has contributed to our stereotypical hypothesis. 

Musicians like Shabir bring plenty of their experience from overseas back to Singapore, helping foster the local music industry with a strong sense of social responsibility. Shabir recently used music to help market local community paper Tamil Murasu, which he is personally inclined to help keep alive. He voluntarily produced the video pro-bono and it earned its place with over 50,000 views on Youtube.

Apart from that, he also brought his music to at-risk youth with Sinda, and to secondary schools with Tamil songwriting workshops and programmes. He’s definitely been doing his grassroots, and it’s a contributing factor to how the musician is perceived in the Singaporean market, though it’s not exclusive to our country.

As he told CNA in 2018, “Music is plural, democratic and open. If you can do something for the scene, people are going to love you.”

Given that we’re a small market, there’s a lot to learn from our musicians who’ve navigated through music industries abroad, starting from ground zero. So, not to discount the work of heartland musicians, but maybe our overseas musicians deserve some of their extra fame in Singapore, especially if they decide to still dedicate their time toward the local market.

Should we blame the government?

Or your expectations?

On the shorter end of the stick and analogous to the rich getting richer, musicians who have made it overseas seemingly get more support from the government. And if we were to stick to our guns and apply what we’ve discussed to the government, our government is also, ultimately, an audience of our art. So maybe the same rules apply, and maybe the government can’t be faulted for picking up on what’s already famous.

The erroneous decision that happens here is that, because less famous local musicians have less projectable success rates, they have traditionally gotten less attention. And while it’s easy for us to say, “pay more attention to the actually starving artists!” isn’t this synonymous to how things work in the rest of the world? Things with a higher value proposition (easiest to dictate by existing success) are likely to get fed more hope in monetary form. 

With that said, the job of the government is primarily to foster and cultivate healthy creative industries in relation to national identity, and that’s why it needs to take a chance on more unknown artists.

Well, boo hoo, we’re a utilitarian state. And as Shabir says, governmental help shouldn’t be the expectation of any musician. 

“Music artistes have to help themselves first. We have to bear the responsibility, and we have to be self-sustaining and independent. We cannot always seek help. If we get it, it’s good. But we should never be in a position where we say that “you must help”. You need to be strong and fiercely resilient if you want to put your art out there.”

So optimistically, it isn’t our fault that Singaporean audiences deem artistes who’ve found success in overseas markets to be ‘better’. 

In a world where none of us are absolute dicks, where we’ve got no sense of national creative identity, and where 92% of Singaporeans are stressed with no time to look for their music, maybe we pay attention to artists more when they’ve gone overseas simply because they’ve become more famous and have therefore been fed to us. Or maybe because we’re proud that they’ve made it out of our country, where life in arts (and in general) is a life of toil.

But then, the sad fact of the matter is that many of us are just dicks. 

There are people among us who refuse to believe in the talent of local artists by using cringeworthy popular media as a yardstick. They’re the same people who would never pay to go to a gig unless there’s an international artist performing, and a subset of the ‘dick’ group includes people who pay no heed to artists of other races. 

Ahh, there it is. Comments on Joseph Schooling on a post by The Straits Times.
Only one of these comments makes any sense. Comments on Joseph Schooling on a post by The Straits Times.

Shabir once said, “here’s the fact: If someone gets into the finals of a singing competition in China, Indonesia or Malaysia, the population here is going to feed on that news immediately. But we don’t have the mass numbers that are going to feed on something Shabir has done and make it headline news… If JJ Lin is doing something, I have to do 10 things to get some kind of recognition from the mainstream press.”

The next time you hear an artist whine at an art fair, remember the dickwads that they’re subject to.

And so if it begs the question of “does any of this really matter?” The answer is yes.

As a country, we yearn for discourse, expression, and a sense of national identity so much so that recent independent artists who have made waves in local music circles are those who offer social commentaries, like Preetipls and 377bae.

‘The Gay Agenda’ by 377A is a humorous, parodic commentary on the sad state of LGBT+ rights in Singapore.

At least for now, those people have made an active decision to corner themselves mainly into the Singaporean market.

Ground-up initiatives like TGSR are grooming local talents for global industries.

Given the size of the market here, it would be far too optimistic to say that music-making in and for Singapore alone will become sustainable anytime soon.

Where Digital Audio Workstations have prevailing accessibility, even being free to use, passionates can make music from just about anywhere, though this had made music more commercially-driven than it ever has been. In fact, it means that there’s a larger burden of responsibility on the shoulders of musicians. Initiatives like TGSR (which is funded by $313-billion-big investment company Temasek) force young musicians to go back to the basics of the craft. 

A screenshot of a Bandlab DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation.
With Bandlab‘s web-based DAW, you don’t need to look beyond your browser to make professional sounding music.

Now in Season 2, The Great Singapore Replay features a panel of industry experts from Sony Music and Warrior Records. The programme will put young acts through a professional production experience comprising song-writing workshops, song arrangement, and recording. Revisiting Singapore’s culture, their songs will be inspired by mashups of distinct tunes from five iconic eras of Singapore’s history, and five modern music genres. 

Growing musicians, not hacks.

Following Shabir’s self-sustaining motto, TGSR instills traditional values that he says are often overlooked in the music industry. Some of these include discipline and being honest with the craft.

“We have skin in the game,” he says about the mentors and producers involved in the programme, adding that the emerging musicians enter the programme with that understanding. 

All familiar faces on this year’s panel of TGSR mentors.

In fact, TGSR might just be the most industry-oriented music programme that Singapore has at the moment, especially with the fan bases and serious networking opportunities that come with the programme. As Shabir puts it and has experienced himself, being sustainable means making connections. 

“If you remove TGSR from their career, it’s going to be a slower climb for them. You get access to producers who are in the A-game and you get access to mentors who will become your friends..who might be able to connect you in the industry.

It’s very important for them to understand that this is not a reality contest, where you come and you sing and you win, and then we just leave you out in the market out to dry. This is you being nurtured, which means we’re setting the foundations for you.”

For once, it’s not about the brands, or making the rich get richer. 

So pay attention to this.

Learning from TGSR and Shabir, the music business is lean and mean. TGSR is about letting our musicians be good musicians, whether they’re going to venture into local markets or not. It whips our artists into commercial, industry-ready shape, as opposed to boosting those who are already successful. And yet, it thematically manages to ground itself in Singapore’s culturalism. The combination is exactly what we need to develop a sense of cultural identity with Singapore’s music.

The Mad Chinaman, The Great Singapore Replay.
Revisiting our prime musical days, ‘The Mad Chinaman’ is originally a Dick Lee song that was remade with modern music sensibilities for a previous edition of The Great Singapore Replay.

In the blame game of whether locals pay more attention to artistes after they’ve ventured overseas, fingers need to be pointed at everything and everyone.

But here’s the paradoxical truth: the epitome of a movement that cares for the local industry is one that helps struggling artists get out of the local industry. That is, so the local industry gets better. 

How? By prioritising heritage and culture, and teaching audiences that our market matters.

Check The Great Singapore Replay out here, or save the date for their free showcase concert on Jan 18 2020.

Author: Hijanah

Takes The Office a smidge too seriously, walks into walls, and makes god-awful puns (debatable). Between music, television, and Harry Potter, Hijanah writes about things she as sees them--no BS.

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