SING50: 2000s: Then and now

Billy Koh made JJ Lin a big Mandopop star

Billy Koh's (right) Ocean Butterflies Music launched JJ Lin's debut album in 2003.
Billy Koh's (right) Ocean Butterflies Music launched JJ Lin's debut album in 2003.PHOTO: COURTESY OF BILLY KOH

Not many people can say they had a hand in grooming one of the most successful Singaporean Mandopop stars of the 2000s - JJ Lin.

Billy Koh, co-founder of iconic home- grown company Ocean Butterflies Music, has those bragging rights. His company launched the then 22-year-old Lin's debut album in 2003.

Having also produced more than 100 albums and groomed other regional stars such as Kit Chan, A-do and BY2, it is no wonder Koh remains one of the most influential music industry players today.

He quit as chief executive officer of Ocean Butterflies last year to set up Amusic Rights Management, an international music company. It was reported by Lianhe Zaobao last month that Ocean Butterflies has been sold to a China business group.

One of the pioneers of the blossoming xinyao scene in the 1980s, Koh started off in a band called The Straws with classmates Koh Nam Seng and the late Sunkist Ng. Together with two other xinyao writers Colin Goh and Teo Kay Kiong, they set up Ocean Butterflies Music in 1986.

In an e-mail interview with Life!, Koh, 52, credits the xinyao movement in the 1980s for launching the careers of local music industry players such as himself, Tan Kah Beng and twins Lee Wei Song and Lee Si Song. The Lees went on to mentor Singapore's top Mandopop export Stefanie Sun, who shot to fame in the 2000s.

He says: "The success behind Singapore artists does not lie solely with the artist. Be it music producers, arrangers or songwriters, there's a very strong team of Singapore musicians behind many successful Mandopop acts."

Did Koh expect Lin and Chan - she was launched by Ocean Butterflies in 1994 - to be so successful?

He says: "When I do music, I don't expect. I work hard to lift expectations."

It is this philosophy that has pushed the veteran to keep going in spite of the odds local artists face.

He recalls when he first met former construction foreman A-do and Lin, who was then a 17-year-old student, at Ocean Butterflies' Extraordinary Singer's Course in 1998, the Mandopop market was dominated by Taiwanese idols such as Jolin Tsai, Elva Hsiao & F4.

"The idea was to study the market well but work against the existing one. Making a hit may be by luck. Continuing to make stars is an art," says Koh.

In 2002, Ocean Butterflies had become a full-fledged recording label managing its own artists.

According to Koh, a decline in the popularity of Taiwan and Hong Kong music in the new millennium provided the golden opportunity for Singapore musicians to break into the competitive Taiwan market as they were more "multicultural".

"With the exception of Jay Chou, most of the Taiwanese pop acts were mainly idols who lacked interesting musicality," he says.

Indeed, when A-do's debut album - featuring the distinct Singaporean sound of mixing English and Mandarin hits - was released under Ocean Butterflies in 2002, it sold two million copies across Asia in six months.

Lin entered the scene a year later. None of the artists under Ocean Butterflies who entered the market after him, such as Hong Junyang and Sing Chew Sin Huey from Mandopop Channel U singing contest Project SuperStar, has come close to creating the impact Lin did in the 2000s.

Koh has a practical explanation: "Science experiments do fail at times. We all live in a world that has competition. We have been beaten up simply because the opponents are stronger."

But he is not one to be deterred by failure. "All we need to do is get up and fight - not just with muscle but also with mind," he says.

A judge on Project SuperStar for two seasons, he acknowledges that Singapore Mandopop talent contests have not produced any stars to rival the big three in the 2000s: Stefanie Sun, JJ Lin and Tanya Chua.

Well-attuned to the workings of the entertainment industry, he says: "The fundamental business model of a television station is that viewership numbers equal advertising income, so it has to be an entertainment show first. Whether or not it can be a successful talent hunt is secondary."

He adds: "A television show in Singapore is just a tiny part of the entire entertainment world out there. Someone may have won on Singapore television, but he may have zero impact in the much more competitive entertainment world outside."