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Varsha is a Baybeats Budding Writer who was mentored by Eddino Abdul Hadi, music correspondent for The Straits Times.
If you asked a casual music fan to name which record label distributed the last song they heard, they’d probably not know the answer. Large, corporate labels like Universal and Sony have a ubiquitous presence, with hundreds of artists on their rosters. However, in Singapore’s close-knit music scene, the steady growth of indie labels over the years has been far more personal. This has led to the creation of new spaces for musicians to experiment, as well as new communities of like-minded listeners.
From the dreamy, shoegaze sounds of Cosmic Child, signed to Middle Class Cigars, to the quintessentially emo stylings of Forests, signed to Sweetness Follows, indie labels in Singapore run the gamut when it comes to genre. After speaking with the founders of both labels, alongside those from electronic label Darker Than Wax and audiovisual collective Syndicate, it became apparent that the question of what makes an indie label has many answers.
For one thing, indie labels are largely driven by the personal tastes of label founders, as well as the bands and communities they nurture. When asked how he would describe Darker Than Wax to a new audience, co-founder Kaye put it succinctly: “It's really quite simple. We just release music that we like.” The sentiment was shared by both Sweetness Follows founder Jonathan Fong and Middle Class Cigars co-founder Raphael Ong, who is also creative director of the label. “It’s about advising bands I really, truly love on what they should do,” said Jonathan, whose label focuses on digital distribution.
While labels like Sweetness Follows tend to focus on tasks like distribution, branding and other means of growing artists’ audiences, less traditional approaches are just as present in the local scene, including reaching out to other creatives beyond musicians. Syndicate’s own process is more experimental, according to DJ and co-founder Kiat. “Music is just one of the things we do,” he said, describing the collective as multidisciplinary, but “not by design”. From designers to coders, Syndicate creates a space where creatives who enjoy music can provide their unique perspectives, thereby “finding something new beyond what we create on our own,” Kiat added.
No matter the genre or art form, a personal investment in the growth of local artists is a key part of what keeps local indie labels going. “It’s about servicing artists, and giving resources to the music I like and believe in,” said Raphael, adding that Middle Class Cigars doesn’t stick to “a specific genre” when signing artists. Cultivating close, personal relationships with artists is also a key part of Syndicate’s process—when deciding whether to work with an artist, Kiat elaborated on how collaborating with musicians and other artists is driven by trust, and “always happens organically”.
This brings us to the act of discovering new music—while streaming via sites like Spotify has become the norm for most listeners, community-based platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud featured in several labels’ responses on how they find music.
“It used to be almost exclusively digging for artists on SoundCloud,” said Kaye, when asked about how Darker Than Wax looks for talent, adding that much of the label’s global following was built through the platform. He added that once the label gained a reputation, artists began approaching them instead.
Jonathan described a similar situation with Sweetness Follows, where artists such as Forests and Mediocre Haircut Crew sought the label out as a source of advice on how to digitally distribute their music. However, his initial discovery of Forests was purely analogue: “I saw them with about five other people at Blu Jaz, and they were amazing.”
This experience is a familiar one to most local music fans: heading to a gig without much knowledge of who you’re about to see, and unintentionally discovering a band you love. However, amid ever-changing restrictions due to COVID, attending shows is a much more deliberate task. The in-person social aspect of the music community is dwindling as the pandemic continues, impacting indie labels in a variety of ways.
“It's impossible to translate a 3D experience into 2D images,” said Kaye, when describing how the lack of events has impacted Darker Than Wax. “This kind of experience needs to be had in a crowded space, because the DJs feed off the reactions the crowd has, and vice versa.”
For Syndicate, their shows are a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with each gig crafted to be completely distinct from the next. “One thing that we always strive for is that every gig has to be different; if you miss it, you miss it,” said Kiat, adding that support for the collective has “traditionally” come from gigs.
Conversely, Raphael mused that shows “aren’t a massive part of [Middle Class Cigars]”. “Through the pandemic, I realised how little real-life gigs really matter to me in terms of enjoying music. I realised how much more fun I can have just listening to music at home,” he said. Diving into thriving music communities online has also been a part of his pandemic listening, from older music fans on Facebook to the younger generation on Discord.
While the emotional resonance of gigs can vary, the financial rewards from live shows are more concrete. From ticket fees to drink sales, playing shows in Singapore and touring regionally were cited as significant sources of income for some labels, and pivoting to online events hasn’t quite measured up.
“DJs here have tried moving things online,” said Kaye, citing Darker Than Wax’s own weekly Twitch show, “but it's extremely hard to monetise any kind of music performance online in Singapore.”
The lack of shows begs the question of how fans can support indie labels while staying safe. Much of the labels’ responses mirrored each other: buying music directly, via formats like MP3s and vinyl, tends to put more money in artists’ pockets compared to streaming revenue. Differences in strategy also emerged across labels, from the desire to find an expanding global audience to focusing on smaller, more intimate groups of fans.
Sweetness Follows has sought out opportunities like brand deals and spots on in-store playlists as a means of increasing listenership and ultimately income, depending on “what the goal of the band is, what their aspirations are”, according to Jonathan. “There’s no harm in developing relationships with brands,” he added, especially if they aligned with the band’s own creative vision.
For Middle Class Cigars, Raphael sees the label’s audience as more niche: “The label has garnered a little bit of a cult following, so it’s about a specific audience that I’m familiar with, that I can trust as much as they can trust me.” To him, this leads to more willingness on the part of listeners to invest monetarily in the label’s bands, namely via Bandcamp.
While the platform provides a direct way for listeners to support artists, particularly through initiatives like Bandcamp Fridays, Kiat expressed that those sales alone aren’t enough for an artist to sustain themselves financially. “I could [tell you to] support artists via Bandcamp and stuff, but that would be a lie to say that it’s going to make a living for them,” he said, adding that he understands why the lower costs keep audiences with less income, such as students, on streaming services.
While there might not be one perfect listening method or platform that indie labels all agree on, the bigger picture might involve shifting people’s perspectives on what we value as a society. After the phrase “non-essential” was used to refer to artists in an article that went viral last year, the question of what we value—and thus tangibly support—has been on many creatives’ minds.
“It comes down to cultural values of how much value we see in our artists, beyond just liking the music, and whether the economy allows artists to be truly sustainable so they can just create,” said Kiat. When discussing Darker Than Wax’s trajectory in Singapore, Kaye felt similarly, albeit with a bleaker outlook: “It's never been a thing that we strive to be noticed in this country, because we've made the conclusion that this country doesn't really care about that.” While the bigger picture for indie labels might signal the need for a fundamental shift in thinking, the passion and care of fans seems to be at the heart of what keeps them going now. “It’s always very heartwarming to see people buying our physicals, interacting with the band,” said Raphael. These experiences, aside from the tangible financial support, indicate a care for the local music scene that keeps fans coming back. “If we didn’t love the community so much, I don’t think any of us would still be doing what we do. There’s something about our community that keeps us here,” said Kiat.
Varsha is a writer whose interests include queerness, race, music and literature. They have written for publications including ISSUE, Buro Singapore and National Gallery Singapore’s Perspectives magazine.