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Music buff turns passion into sweet sounds of success

Back in 2004, Mr Mah Chern Wei was selling high-end, custom-made electric basses. In 2012, he asked Aurisonics founder Dale Lott if he could represent its products in Singapore and became the first person to manage the regional retail business for th
Back in 2004, Mr Mah Chern Wei was selling high-end, custom-made electric basses. In 2012, he asked Aurisonics founder Dale Lott if he could represent its products in Singapore and became the first person to manage the regional retail business for the in-ear monitor manufacturer. He was a partner when it was acquired by Fender at the end of 2015.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Ex-bass player Mah Chern Wei now works as a consultant for US guitar giant Fender

When music executive Mah Chern Wei was a child, every so often, the sweet sounds from his father's vinyl record player would waft through the rooms and weave their magic.

Those melodious tunes stayed with Mr Mah, 37, so it was only natural that music - his passion - eventually became his business.

"The first album I played on the record player was Legend by Bob Marley And The Wailers. Apart from that, it was mostly Beethoven symphonies conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and some Pink Floyd," recalls Mr Mah, who also tried his hand in the live scene.

"I used to play the bass, sporadically with a band, it was an ad-hoc thing, not something I could see myself doing to support my family in the future. But I always loved being part of the industry, not just the music but also being part of the whole ecosystem. Since I'd never be as good as the guys who are talented and hard-working and want to be musicians, I figured the next best thing was to serve that market."

That led Mr Mah into a journey that took him to many corners of the music business, including his latest gig - a consultant with the United States giant Fender, the famed maker of Stratocaster guitars used by legends such as Jimi Hendrix.

He took on the role after boutique in-ear monitor manufacturer Aurisonics - of which he was a partner - was acquired by Fender at the end of 2015. Aurisonics products were positioned for the stage musician, but caught on with the audiophile.

In Singapore, Fender appointed local firm TC Acoustic to distribute its Fender Audio products here, including the in-ear monitor.

Mr Mah's arrival at the high-tech end of the music scene was a roundabout journey. The classically trained pianist - but he "can't play by ear" - says he never dreamt of turning his passion into a big business . At one point, that roundabout journey took him to San Bernardino County, 100km east of Los Angeles, for a custom-made Nordstrand electric bass when he was an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore's communications and new media programme.

AN EAR FOR MUSIC

Since I'd never be as good as the guys who are talented and hard-working and want to be musicians, I figured the next best thing was to serve that market.

MUSIC EXECUTIVE MAH CHERN WEI

That same instrument led him to start an online business selling high- end, custom-made electric basses, also from Nordstrand, in 2004.

As the Internet and people's tastes grew, Mr Mah - whose playlist ranges from Bach to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, American star John Mayer as well as local names such as singer-songwriters Charlie Lim and Tim De Cotta - spotted an opportunity and asked to represent Nordstrand in Singapore.

"People started asking me for my opinion. I'd recommend (other) guitar makers, and I'd write to them asking if they had representation here," he says with a laugh.

His small business, Red Dot Music, sold custom electric basses ranging from US$4,000 (S$5,500) to US$10,000 with margins around 30 per cent. Even when business took a hit from the 2008 global financial crisis, he maintained Red Dot Music while holding a day job as a management executive at the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).

"Tapping on the same principles" he had used before, Mr Mah started looking to sell high-end, mid-price American acoustic guitars made in Cambodia, but ended up with "dead stock of about 16 guitars worth about $26,000 in 2009".

The experience left him disenchanted and he swore off guitars. But the setback was a crucial turning point that eventually led Mr Mah to Fender.

A friend introduced him to a new company creating in-ear monitors. "He said they were fancy earphones. I did some research and found out they were custom-made, high-end and made in the US, and thought, hey that sounds like what I used to do before."

In 2012, he wrote to Aurisonics founder Dale Lott, who was based in Nashville, asking to represent Aurisonics products here. All it took was a Skype meeting where they hit it off, and they started working together. Mr Mah did well, selling around 20 to 30 pairs of in-ear monitors a month, each for between $500 and $800. It led him to becoming the first person to manage the regional retail business for Aurisonics.

"I wasn't actually hired; it had always been a loose relationship," he says. "It was only in 2014 when Dale came to Singapore and he asked: 'You're doing all this work for me, I'm not paying you a salary. What's in it for you?'

"I said I was in it for the long haul. We enjoyed working together and the money was great but not the end goal. I told him if he wanted me to take on a bigger role, why not make me a partner?"

That was how Mr Mah, who has three children aged four to nine, came to spend at least six hours a week speaking to Mr Lott via Skype at night, after completing his day's work as a director of a manpower business.

"We were a small outfit. I'd help with product planning, give my opinion on how to price products, and even helped him design packing. We never had retail packaging and needed it when we finally got big enough."

It was a bit of a surprise when Fender came knocking: "They literally showed up at our doorstep," recalls Mr Mah - as there was never any plan to sell Aurisonics.

"I don't think either of us were of the idea it was something we wanted to build and give to our children to take over. It was more of a 'we love doing this', and Fender's the biggest brand in the music industry, and is so entrenched in music and culture, that it was just right for it to move from guitars and amplifiers into a music lifestyle company.

"They looked through all the headphone companies in the world, narrowed them down to two American companies, and the other was much larger. The deal was in the millions, but because we were so small it wasn't a huge amount," notes Mr Mah, who became Fender's consultant after managing Asia for its audio products. Mr Mah's journey had come full circle, as he had once tried to get a job with Fender.

"I remember when I was working at STB or somewhere else, Fender was looking to hire someone in Singapore and I applied. But they'd hired someone already, and now here I am, working for Fender.

"It's interesting how things work out. I'm not the kind of guy who plans 10 steps ahead. I take things one step at the time, and it's thanks to the grace of God and the background and family and friends I have, who have been completely supportive. For a guy who's always been in the music industry, to work for Fender is like working for Microsoft or Google, how cool is that?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Music buff turns passion into sweet sounds of success'. Print Edition | Subscribe