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Fine, I'll do it myself: Punk ethos for all

DIY culture of the Singapore underground


Published: 27 Oct 2022

Time taken : >15mins

Shearerlyn is a Baybeats Budding Writer who was mentored by Eddino Abdul Hadi, music correspondent for The Straits Times and Daniel Peters, a freelance journalist and contributor at NME Asia and radio DJ at Mediacorp’s Indiego.

Legend has it that somewhere within a grey industrial compound, just across the street, therein lies a place where bodies collide as music takes over—that is, if you find the right signboard and lift to get there.

It used to come alive at least once a week—a place from which people would emerge intoxicated with new friends and a renewed passion for music. Yet just as all legends exist as stories, over time it became a place that lived only in conversations and memories (and the archives of social media).

But during their existence, such spaces were the bastions of the local underground music scene, a refuge for musicians and gig-goers when there was nowhere else to go. In a pragmatic society like Singapore, artists and musicians have always had to struggle to find their place, both literally and figuratively. But that has not stopped them from creating their own gigs and opportunities, even if it involves taking risks with regulations. 

Singapore has a long history of gig spaces shutting down, including independent mid-sized venues like The Substation, Home Club, Decline and The Glass Hut. It’s no surprise when yet another established venue announces their closure, citing the lack of financial support, noise complaints, or problems with authorities, among other reasons.  

On other platforms, the music still goes on. Audiences flock every year to local festivals like Baybeats and IGNITE! Festival, which feature rising homegrown bands and musicians. But only a limited number of bands make it past the auditions or are invited to perform. So what do musicians do if gig venues and major stages remain ever so elusive?

If people don't invite you to play gigs, create your own gig.

– gig organiser, Shak

Shak also plays drums for the two-piece progressive instrumental rock band Bowden. Embracing the DIY (do-it-yourself) culture, they make their own shows; self-funded and completely independent. 

Punk ideology lives on

Most closely associated with the 1970s hardcore punk movement that originated in the UK and US, the anti-establishment DIY ethic stood for self-reliance and the freedom to live by one’s own terms. Originally a movement to counter consumer culture and mainstream ideologies, being a punk and embracing the DIY ethic meant building your own culture and community if you did not belong to any. The first local hardcore punk group Opposition Party burst into the scene in 1986, sparking off the raging homegrown punk subculture of the 1980s and ’90s. At the same time, the influential indie magazine BigO helped document a burgeoning local underground music scene through long-reads, quick interviews, concert and album reviews, and more.

Today, the local punk subculture might arguably have mellowed, but the values and ideology of the punk DIY mentality are here to stay in the face of incessant regulations and red tape in the country’s arts scene. Over time, it has also sustained the local underground music scene as an organic form of resistance to the uncertainties happening on the ground.

One could say it is the punk defiance, or perhaps it's a resilience that has held the underground scene out against the odds. For Shahreil Aziz, bassist of instrumental progressive rock band Hardihood, "all the limitations and restrictions that [the underground community have] are what make Singapore underground culture very unique”; and the fact that “it is still there and [knowing that] there will be gigs every either Saturday or Sunday,” after over 20 years in the scene and a global pandemic, is an optimistic sign.

The DIY mentality was born of necessity, and in the local underground music scene, that means “if people are not going to give us (musicians) the opportunity, instead of [...] just waiting, how about I come out with something,” says Aravin, guitarist of metal band Tariot. That entails organising a gig from scratch, from curating a lineup and finding an affordable venue, to managing social media marketing. There’s also the time spent looking for a good sound engineer, along with photographers and videographers.

These shows are raw and gritty—sometimes sweaty but also profoundly intimate. It is where you can throw yourself against others with abandon, knowing that the 50-strong crowd will pick you up if you fall. But it’s also where you can sit cross-legged at the foot of the stage, face to face with music.

Gig-goers at DIY show <em>The Burrow Presents… </em>Image Credit: Amos Lee

Having been involved in the local underground scene since he was 15, Shahreil reflects that the DIY scene is the “foundation of the Singapore music scene” and many local artists’ first impression of what it means to be a musician in Singapore.

“[It] is where bands, musicians and artists have that first view of what it is to play in front of an audience, understand and learn how difficult it is to put on a show, “ says Shahreil. “Without these DIY shows, I think a lot of bands and musicians might not have the stepping stone or the capability to break into the scene.”

Building a community

As much as the DIY culture is rooted in the ethos of self-reliance, it is more importantly built on a sense of community and empathy for others involved in the industry. Gig organiser Edwin Tan, guitarist and founder of music production and gig organising label The Burrow Records, believes that the underground scene is thriving, and “the number of bands and artists we have far outweighs the number of DIY shows there are to play”.

He had organised his debut DIY concert The Burrow Presents… in September 2022, featuring indie-rock bands Causeway Youth, Maneloren and Count Vernon. For him, organising a show is about making stages more accessible to both fellow musicians and audiences because “every additional show helps to bring the music to people”. It was also equally important for him to keep the price of tickets as low as possible “to make local music accessible.”

Indie ambient pop band Causeway Youth performing at <em>The Burrow Presents…</em> Image Credit: Amos Lee

It is an almost altruistic pursuit; after all, organisers bear the cost of DIY gigs. They can only hope to break even after accounting for the costs of venue rental, gear and sound engineering. In most cases, the musicians don’t get paid to play.

Speaking about what he hopes to achieve by organising gigs, Shak shared the same sentiments. “We wanted to give an opportunity to people who have probably fallen off the radar of other gig organisers. Give them a chance basically.” That means lining up veteran bands who have not recently played gigs with younger bands who could be making their stage debut.

It means checking out demos by new artists and inviting them to the next show; or turning up to a gig to play with new bands even after you’ve toured North America and Europe. It means ultimately encouraging and having hope in each other. You can hardly find a more democratic stage than at a DIY show.

At Shak’s gig Fragments, post-rock quartet Nagetto strikes the first chord on stage to a crowd of close to fifty. The group is candid about how nervous they are; opening a show is both an exhilarating and nerve-racking experience for any band, and especially so for a band playing their debut gig. They are regulars at the jamming studio and were invited to play at the show after the organisers heard them practise at the studio. “We’re the first band to play their first set at the first post-rock show,” said the band’s songwriter and lead guitarist, Hafiz Syukri after their set, his nervousness now replaced by pride.

Nagetto playing their first live show at <em>Fragments</em>. Image credit: Dom Soh

For many in the scene, going to these underground gigs feels more like going out to meet friends, and a way to “still be in touch with the local music culture,” says Aravin. Given its intimate setting and the community’s strong sense of connection, a DIY show feels “more a party than anything else,” says Tan.

That is not to say that the underground scene is an exclusive community. Organisers like Shak feel that seeing new faces at gigs is a positive sign, it means that the show is “[opening] up to more people and [bringing] in more people into the community.”

Gig-goer Anirvin Narayan shares that attending underground shows in such a small country and community is never a lonely experience, as he is “bound to run into somebody that [he] know[s].” And it is not just at the shows where solidarity prevails. Travelling to “an abandoned building late at night or a random recording studio” is what Anirvin loves most about going to gigs. The journey to the “ulu”, far-flung corners of Singapore is a shared experience, a pilgrimage of sorts, for musicians and gig-goers. Yet as romantic as that sounds, the local underground scene has been increasingly driven to keep their operations on the down-low.

Struggle for a space

Because of the lack of mid-sized venues, many gig organisers have depended on smaller spaces to host shows like Room 0416 at Golden Mile Complex and jamming studios such as The Basement Studios at Golden Mile Tower, Tonehouse Studios at GR.iD and Lithe Style (formerly Lithe House) at 23 Madras Street that also double as gig venues. But such spaces come with their own set of limitations.

Jamming studios with the licence to host public gigs that are situated in commercial areas demand a high price, and many self-funded DIY gig organisers struggle to afford such places in central Singapore. In addition, the fear that gigs of heavier and hardcore genres might invite noise complaints from neighbours has led to shows being held in jamming studios or make-shift gig venues in the less-populated industrial areas of the country instead. But of course there is a catch. Most of these studios and spaces situated within industrial properties do not hold the public entertainment licence (PLE) required for a venue to hold public music gigs, hence any shows held in such places are technically unlicensed and risk regulatory actions if found.

Unable to publicly announce their gig locations at unlicensed venues, bands turn to more private ways to share information about their gigs, through word of mouth, or Instagram marketing where audiences can “ask the bands” for the venues through private message.

“It's ironic that there's no [one] around to complain, but you can't have it here,” says Shak. We were gathered at one of hundreds of lobbies at an industrial park after his post-rock gig Fragments, which was held at one such jamming studio without a PLE. Throughout our conversation, I was reminded more than once not to reveal the gig’s actual location. The organising team had swiftly packed up; apart from several gig posters left on the wall, there were almost no other signs that a gig had just taken place in a jamming studio a few levels above us.

But even such studios are finding it difficult to maintain gig spaces; some were hard-hit by the restrictions on gathering and live music during the height of the pandemic. Despite having been a decade-long stronghold for the underground scene, independent music venue Lithe House (now known as Lithe Style after a change of management) had to crowdfund to pay bills and rent after losing income in 2020 when people stopped going to the studio. It eventually retained its space at Madras Street. Others like Play by Ear Jamming Studio, which had plans to host several DIY gigs, announced their closure two months ago for reasons not publicly disclosed; but musicians I spoke to divulged that the space was badly trashed up by the artists and gig-goers after a hardcore gig, and there were rumours of people urinating and having sex in the vicinity. They acknowledge that it’s a prevailing problem and that musicians “have to be responsible” in taking care of the spaces, says Zan, bassist of Bowden. From audiences to band members, “everyone has a part to play in everything” that makes the local underground.

For the studio at which Fragments was held, the exorbitant cost of maintaining the equipment damaged during gigs became unsustainable, and the studio closed its gig space in mid-October 2022. It is undoubtedly a big loss for the community as the venue was one of very few left that have been actively hosting shows in the past year. And if there is one thing that the musicians hope will change for the underground scene, it is for the authorities to grant greater “flexibility” and “freedom for DIY arts groups to collaborate and have a safe space to conduct activities” by making venues more accessible for artists, says Aziz. “Maybe just one is good enough”; a place where they can perform without having to worry about costs, noise complaints, or getting caught for performing without permits.

Within the soundproofed walls of a studio kept secret, the last band ends the night giving thanks to the studio owner, and perhaps to all who have fought for the spaces of the underground scene. “Know that you are a part of Singapore history,” Aziz says, before Hardihood completes one of the last few sets at the studio. But such spaces never really disappear, they just take on different names, sign boards and lifts. There is always another existing right now, where the people still sing and dance, that has not yet passed into legend. It’s right here. But to find it, you’ll have to ask the bands.

Contributed by:

Shearerlyn Mok

Shearerlyn is a Baybeats Budding Writer whose erratic music listening habits has cultivated a curiosity and appreciation for different genres of music and cultures. She is inspired by good food, the moon and how everything happens for no reason.

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