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Where Are The Listeners?

On cultural cringe and Singapore music


Published: 16 Nov 2021

Time taken : >15mins

Kiran is a Baybeats Budding Writer who was mentored by Eddino Abdul Hadi, music correspondent for The Straits Times.

When discussing Singapore music, the unavoidable elephant in the room is the sheer lack of listeners. There seems to be an apparent aversion to local music by the majority of Singaporeans. I myself have struggled with this bias against local music for the longest time. I saw local music as (for lack of a better word) “cringey”. Despite being an avid fan of music who prides himself on not shying away from any genre, I still had an uneasiness about diving into Singaporean music. Having overcome this bias over the years, I now realise that I saw our music as inferior to songs shipped in from the rest of the world. I saw our music as less than and was embarrassed by it.

Cultural cringe was the phrase I was looking for (turns out there wasn't a better word). The phenomenon is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the view that one’s own national culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries. It has its roots in colonialism and the subsequent decades-long mass consumption of entertainment imported from the West. However in recent years, our enjoyment of K-pop and Mandopop from neighbours closer to home has proven that our inferiority complex extends beyond the origins of colonialism.

A study by pedagogist Dr Yasser Mattar found that there are four key elements that make up the phenomenon. Authenticity: the idea that all local music is derivative of music from overseas. Accent: the “Singaporean twang” that sometimes shows up in Singapore music. Inferior skills: the claim that Singaporean musicians are essentially not as talented as their foreign counterparts. Supposed nationalism: the misconception that Singaporean music catalogue is made up of National Day-esque songs that harp on patriotism while shoving Singaporean values and traditions down our throats.

What do fans of the scene think? I spoke to 18-year-old graphic designer, Nisa Sorfina, who fell in love with the scene after hearing The CB Dogs. “I really love rock music in general and they were the perfect introduction to the local scene because their lyrics are so Singaporean. I loved it.” From there, she dove headfirst into local music and has since discovered many other great bands. On why local music listenership is so low, Nisa believes that it comes from a place of apathy. “I have seen others who simply (have) no interest (in) local bands or artists because they just prefer popular international music. I feel like sometimes they can’t be bothered to give the local scene a chance,” she laments. 

And this is nothing new, says longtime fan of the scene and educator, Foo Say Keong, 46. He’s also an avid collector of local cassettes, CDs and vinyls. He recounts how whenever he’d introduce local songs to his friends, who are self-proclaimed avid fans of all kinds of music, it was met with dismissive one-liners like “not bad” and “it’s okay”. “I think we are very influenced by Western music, the Billboard charts (and) we even have an influx of K-pop and this influence is (so) heavy in our lives and we don’t have space for local music,” he tells me. 

Generational divides?

It also has to do with age, he adds. “The support has a certain range of age groups.” Say Keong goes on to recount how he first got into local music in the ’90s, learning about bands through the now defunct music magazine BigO and going for gigs played by iconic pioneers like Opposition Party, Stomping Ground and The Oddfellows, to name a few. The counterculture nature of the bands resonated with his teenage angst and drew him and his friends into the scene. But some of his friends, as much as they enjoyed the music, saw it as just that; music for rebellious teens who have no idea how the 'real world' works. And they grew out of it. “Eh you how old already, still go to Baybeats." And as he’s gotten older, Say Keong says he’s realised how priorities change and how there’s less time for music. “As much as you want to 'rebel rebel', you want to put proper food on the table for your family… you end up just join(ing) the system eventually,” he chuckles.

Ernest Foo, 27, guitarist of local indie rock outfit Bakers in Space, also tied listenership to age. He used the general sentiments of those above and below the 50-year age mark as an example. “Those above the age of 50 tend to lean towards aversion as many view a music career to be ultra-unrealistic or even downright taboo, as they may have perhaps been raised with the media portraying music as closely linked to vices such as drugs and alcohol. This ideology is then unfortunately entangled with views of our own local music scene,” Ernest explained to me. For those below 50, he agreed that it is mainly due to apathy and a lack of awareness. “However with the advent of playlists and social media marketing, it is becoming ridiculously easy to discover these artists,'' says Ernest. “All one needs to do is cultivate enough interest to make that search.”

Pictured, from left to right: Amirul Hakim, Hafi Zainor, Ernest Foo, Eugene Soh. Photo courtesy of Direk Chew.

Developing that interest is sometimes easier said than done. That’s the case for Raag Sudha Sanjay, 25, a non-listener of the scene. They have tried a handful of songs from local bands but found that it didn’t really leave much of an impression on them. “It’s just not very palatable,” they said. This led to a lack of interest which discouraged them from searching through the scene for songs they might like. This is on top of how difficult it is to sift through the local discography. “It’s hard for me to find local artists in a systematic way. I would like to be able to venture out and discover local artists in genres that I already like,” they elaborate.

There have been attempts to combat this and encourage more to get into the scene. For example, a new radio station, helmed by musicians Gareth Fernandez, Charlie Lim, Auzaie Zie and Weish, launched recently. The station, indiego, is a spiritual successor to Lush 99.5 with a heavy focus on local music. It is a great stepping stone for those new to the scene. It’s biggest drawback however, is that it’s an online-only station that can only be streamed from Mediacorp’s meListen website and app, a platform whose listenership is dwarfed by streaming giants like Spotify and Apple Music.

Production values and vision

Production quality is another factor that comes up in this discussion. While Say Keong acknowledges that production quality of the ’90s was very much lacking, he is elated to see how much better it is today. Singer-songwriter Krysta Joy agrees, saying that production has become so good, that good and bad production quality has essentially become indistinguishable for the general listening audience. Krysta posits that what turns people off from local music is essentially two things: the Singaporean accent and underdeveloped musicianship. “A lot of Singaporean artists fail to enunciate things, even basic things like the ‘th’ (sound). To combat this, singers tend to do one of two things,” she says. “One, they stay true to themselves and lean into it, going with a ‘that’s the real me’ approach or two, they emulate a Western accent, both of which can alienate a huge chunk of the general listening population," she explains. "I think there’s a very fine line between sounding local and sounding unprofessional and lazy."

Pictured: Krysta Joy. Photo courtesy of Francesca Soh.

On musicianship, Krysta says, “A lot of these bands don’t do music full time… so you don't really see a lot of musicians who will have the time to really put in the work every single day and learn new technical skills and apply it to their music. It’s something all of us artists struggle with because the reality is that it is tough to make it in music in Singapore.” Krysta compares it to Western music where they have a lot more time to explore the nuances of different sounds and incorporate it into their music. “Even Korean music, (their) production is amazing because even if they use the same formula for all their hits, there's a lot of exploration around it as well… sometimes you can hear a certain scale or melody hidden in the background. There’s layers to it.”

While this lends some credibility to the thinking that international music is better than local music, Krysta acknowledges that not every artist struggles with such issues. However, in the minds of most Singaporeans this idea has become so deep-rooted. The stigma is so pervasive that a worrying trend has cropped up. “The most common sentiment I've heard of is the impression that there is a group of Singaporeans who are apathetic to local music unless the local musicians make it overseas,” shares singer-songwriter Jean Goh, 30, who goes by the moniker Jean Seizure, on Singaporeans’ aversion to local music. And it has happened. Despite toiling away in Singapore for almost 10 years, Nathan Hartono only rose to prominence in Singapore when he came in second place in 2016’s Sing! China competition.

How do we then overcome this stigma and get more support for the local scene? For Jean, they believe increased exposure is the way to go. “While COVID isn't making this any easier, having online content or festivals that can feature local musicians or music is a good step that we're taking. Playing local music on radio stations, having more opportunities for local musicians to share their works would help bring local music closer to people,” they share. Amirul Hakim, 32, drummer of Bakers in Space shares similar sentiments and even takes it one step further. “(People need) to overcome the typical stigma of thinking that international music is way better than local music. If they have that stigma, maybe we can try sharing local music on radio stations and on social media platforms without letting it be known that it's local? Just play it and force them to listen,” he chuckles.

Pictured: Jean Seizure. Photo courtesy of Lenne Chai

Connecting with audiences

On a similar note, Krysta relates to me how a lot of artists tend to forget about working on the business aspect that's (unfortunately) intrinsically tied to a music career. Bands need to give their PR and marketing as much attention as they give to their lyricism and melodic composition. “Too often, musicians see it as a transactional process like ‘here’s my music, please stream it and save it!’ But artists need to engage their audience and make them feel involved in the process of creation. They should make them feel like this music was made for them and because of them,” she says. She shares with me how for her recent album, Embrace the Progress, she sought to get to know a little slice of her Instagram followers’ lives by looking through their profiles. She then sent personally crafted messages to almost 700 of them, connecting with them and sharing songs from her album that might resonate with them and where they are in their lives right now. 

What might help attract more listeners is for us all to understand why supporting the scene is important. Jean believes that supporting the local scene helps lift up our arts scene in general, which our small nation direly needs. "Music written by our own artists is unique to our country and perhaps being able to appreciate the simple fact that you can't find these works anywhere else would also develop a sense of appreciation towards art and culture amongst the people," Jean explains.

What stuck with me was what Krysta had to say: “There are a lot of songs about heartbreak that I can find out there from other places in the world. But when I listen to, let’s say Bitter by Charlie Lim, knowing that someone local has written it, someone who lives just a few kilometres away from me, it hits me so much harder and resonates with me so much better. There’s a feeling of camaraderie and of home just knowing that it was produced and written here. And that’s why supporting local music is important, not just for the artist, but also for what it can do for the people.”

And maybe that’s what we should all take away from this exploration; that at the end of the day, music is made for musicians and for listeners and the connection that can be borne from such engagement is truly something beautiful. It’s something for us all to cherish. And hopefully as more of us come to understand this, more love and support for our local scene will come about too.

Contributed by:

Kiran Keshvani

Kiran is an avid supporter of all things Singaporean. He dabbles in writing, music and video production. He believes Singaporean indie music and films deserve a chance and a bigger audience. Kiran also makes video essays on Singapore’s culture on his YouTube channel, (ingeniously named) Narik.

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