Is That The Noise Of Singapore Becoming Asia's Next Big Music Hub?
Compared to the other music capitals of Asia, Singapore can seem, well, a little staid. But despite its reputation for being one of the continent’s best-behaved cities, it has been a music and festival hub for far longer than many of us realise.
In the 1960s, the country was a launchpad for bands like The Crescendos and The Quests, while by start of the 21st century, pop singers such as Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin had been making waves around the continent—not to mention the myriad of festivals that take place around the city.
But today a new generation of Singaporean singers are making their mark on the Asian music scene—and breaking ground around the continent. One major player is Charlie Lim, who broke into the Southeast Asian music scene in 2011 with his eponymous debut album. Signing with management label House of Riot! in 2012, he signed to Universal Music Singapore in 2016 and toured the region, playing major festivals such as Mosaic Music Festival in Singapore, Jarasum International Jazz Festival in Korea and Urbanscapes in Kuala Lumpur.
His latest album, CHECK-HOOK, went to number one on the Singapore iTunes album charts and he has recently played at Summer Sonic in Japan, Bigsound in Brisbane and OzAsia Festival in Adelaide—and packed the iconic Star Theatre in Singapore for his album launch. No stranger to experimentation when pushing the boundaries of pop music, Charlie’s ability to traverse genres has made him beloved at home and abroad.
“It’s been a great year,” he says. “There's a bunch of collaborations in the works which is really exciting for me, because working on your own record can be incredibly insular. I've also been sitting on some live content we recorded that we're finally going to be putting out soon.”
The festival circuit has had a major impact on Charlie’s career—and given Singapore’s burgeoning reputation as a festival hub, he hasn’t had to travel far for most of them. Rivalling even England when it comes to the quantity and quality of festivals (if not the narcotic consumption), Singapore is now home to ZoukOut, Laneway, Garden Beats, Jazz Fest, Music Ultra and It's the Ship.
“There's been a huge influx of festivals over the last 10 years,” says Charlie. “It has definitely opened a lot of doors for both artists and audiences, but I believe it also caused a bit of a bubble. And I think that's burst recently, so you can see things winding down quite a lot. I can imagine it's tough for a promoter when the market is small and oversaturated. On the plus side, I've also been seeing more community-driven events that have grown over time. Those are the ones that are most encouraging and probably best for our music scene.”
Another Singaporean artist who has covered similar festival circuit is Manfred Lim (no relation), who goes under the name of DJ Myrne—an amalgamation of his name and his idol’s: Talking Heads' David Bryne. Manfred has released three electro-house albums in five years and collaborated with a number of Singaporean artists including Joe Tan. He recently wrapped his first debut solo LP, In Search of Solitude, which comes out this September.
“Festivals are a natural progression, or product, of a thriving music scene,” says Manfred. “I think they are a productive way to grow the Singapore scene. Long-time fans will get to see their favourite acts live, and newcomers get to enjoy the food stalls, installations, and get introduced to acts they’ve never seen before.”
Having played numerous times at Singapore’s best loved festivals, he feels a particular affinity to making music on home soil in front of a crowd of his compatriots. “It’s compelling to play here both as a grounding element for me to remain true to my 'roots’, and a source of trust for me to experiment and try out new things,” he says. “Listeners also get extra excited any time a music act does something cool overseas, which adds a nice little facet of motivation to my growth. As always, I wish Singapore had a larger population—more communities to thrive, more people to bounce ideas off of, and bigger crowds at festivals.”
Given the speed with which Singapore’s music and festival industry has grown, there is speculation that it could soon rival that of larger industry hubs—namely South Korea or even Japan. “Japan’s domestic market size allows for self-sustainability,” says Charlie. “A young, post-colonial Singapore means we're adaptable and that makes us great consumers of international culture, but it also means we have to compete in the same international industry that has been around long before our country existed, let alone having a sense of identity or "sound" that can be exported on a commercial level. Like a lot of Japanese rock or K-pop, for instance.
A young, post-colonial Singapore means we're adaptable and makes us great consumers of international culture, but it also means we have to compete in the same international industry that has been around long before our country existed, let alone having a sense of identity or "sound" that can be exported on a commercial level
— Charlie Lim
But while the urge is always there to make it in bigger, more sophisticated music markets, both Manfred and Charlie emphasised the importance of focusing on Singapore’s growing scene and being content with fame and success on home turf.
“We could always use more local and regional support and believe that a lot of what we have is actually good,” says Charlie. “I guess we will always look to the West or China for affirmation, because that's where the main industries are. But why do we always have to "make it" overseas before getting mainstream local attention?"