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Home-grown music companies have changed with the times

KittyWu, a home-grown music company, is celebrating its 10th year in the business in a time when the local music scene is also flourishing

The story of KittyWu, a home-grown music company run by husband-and-wife duo Errol Tan and Lesley Chew, is also a parable of how much independent music labels have had to adapt to the sea change in the music industry in the last decade.

It started out as a record label for releases by acclaimed Singapore acts such as instrumental outfits I Am David Sparkle and Amateur Takes Control, as well as post-hardcore band Caracal and experimental rock band Monster Cat.

The company eventually branched out into artist management, merchandising and organising and promoting shows for not just artists on its roster but also touring international acts.

"The traditional idea of a record label and the business model has drastically changed," says Mr Tan.

"Record labels have been decimated by the digital shift and are rethinking their business model to survive.

"Music companies are diversifying and branching out into various spheres of the music business."

Mr Errol Tan and Ms Lesley Chew, the husband- and-wife duo behind KittyWu. Mr Willy Tan runs Aging Youth, which handles artist management, concert organising, publishing and other music- related services.
Mr Errol Tan and Ms Lesley Chew, the husbandand- wife duo behind KittyWu. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

KittyWu is one of the local indie companies that have played an important role in the rise of home-grown music acts.

This weekend, the company marks its 10th year with two shows at the Esplanade that feature both Singapore and international acts.

British math rock band TTNG and American loop artist Mylets will perform tonight at the Esplanade's Annexe Studio.

Tomorrow's concert will feature home-grown outfit Amateur Takes Control, progressive rock band T-Rex and Malaysian band Dirgahayu.

While Mr Tan, 41, had experience designing T-shirts, album covers and merchandise for his friends' bands, he and Ms Chew, 36, had "zero knowledge" about running a music label when they formed KittyWu in 2007.

They picked up tips from friends who were already in the music business and did research online, but it also took them a while to learn the ins and outs of running the business.

Says Mr Tan: "We took our own skill sets and experience from advertising and events management and applied it to our music business with a healthy dose of common sense and a gungho spirit.

"We liked the DIY spirit of the music community. No one will make it for you, you have to do it yourself. There was a lot of experimentation."

Their achievements over the years - which include helping I Am David Sparkle play in South By Southwest (SXSW) in 2009, a major annual American music conference and festival, and bringing in acclaimed bands such as post-rock luminaries Mogwai - are quite remarkable, considering that the couple have always kept their day jobs.

Mr Tan is a creative director in a creative agency and Ms Chew handles special projects and operations at a coffee-based social enterprise. The couple have a daughter who turns three this year.

Says Ms Chew: "It's always been a passion project done over late nights and the occasional e-mail or two snuck in during office lunch times at the day job.

"I feel you really have to struggle in Singapore to make music a full-time job and our motivations would be very different if we were to turn KittyWu into a full-time job and I'm not sure if I would enjoy it as much."

Running KittyWu has never been about profits. Their projects are mostly self-funded and they get help from "angel investors", but Mr Tan says that they are happy just to break even.

Working in KittyWu has become such a big part of their lives that when the couple got married in 2010, their wedding took the form of a gig they dubbed Rollopoloosley - A Wedding Festival and they got bands such as I Am David Sparkle, The Great Spy Experiment and Amberhaze to perform.

While KittyWu will continue putting out records and organising shows, Mr Tan says what excites him more is seeing the home-grown music scene expand.

"The scene has grown by leaps and bounds," he says.

"There's a lot more backing for our musical exports, a wider understanding of the industry, music education, and greater advocacy for music as a cultural and economic anchor."


Secret Signals

Home-grown music company Secret Signals' name is a cryptic, yet apt, moniker as it describes its invisible, behind-the-scenes role in helping artists reach out to their audience.

Formed in 2012, the company has handled artist management and music label services for not just Singapore acts such as pop-punk/indie veterans Plainsunset and breakout singer-songwriter Gentle Bones, but also artists such as English singer Cher Lloyd from singing reality show The X Factor.

Secret Signals has also been instrumental in getting American and European music labels such as Hopeless Records, which represents popular pop-punk names such as Sum 41 and New Found Glory, to develop their artists in the region.

The company is made of people who understand both the business and creative side of music as they are avid music fans and musicians themselves who have been involved in the scene since the early 2000s.

Co-founder Esmond Wee, 35, says: "It's always been part of our plan to help local and regional artists. We all grew in the music environment, we know what it's like. We feel a bit of social corporate responsibility to give back to the scene that gave us so much."

Mr Wee was not just a singer with emo-rockers Vertical Rush; he also cut his teeth on the business side of things by playing various roles in now defunct indie label and music collective Wake Me Up Music.

Secret Signals fellow founder Sameer Sadhu, 29, was Mr Wee's intern at Wake Me Up. While he is now based in Los Angeles, and manages Grammy-nominated American singer-songwriter Mike Posner full-time, Sadhu is still actively involved with Secret Signals and acts as a liaison for the company's American partners such as music label Red Bull Records.

Another founder, Mr Keith Tan, 35, has worked in music companies and organisations such as the Esplanade, live music venue TAB and runs another music company, Slate Entertainment.

The newest member of the team, Mr Edwin Waliman, 26, plays bass in pop-rock band The Summer State and runs day-to-day operations as label manager.

The growth of the music scene and the rising income artists are getting through gigs, music streams and merchandising mean that it is important that artists here become more aware of the business side of the music industry, says Mr Wee, and that is where companies such as Secret Signals can help.

The company's current batch of acts include rising names in the scene such as R&B/electronic singer Ffion, who is starting to develop a fan base in Indonesia, as well as post-hardcore band Villes, who recently started to get airplay on Australian radio.

Mr Wee says: "I wouldn't be caught dead saying this 15 years ago, but it's good that bands are starting to see themselves as a business as they end up being less of a pushover.

"In the past, we've seen things such as event organisers that don't pay bands just because they're not a business entity."


Aging Youth 

Aging Youth started out as an online magazine covering the independent music scene here, but went on to play a pivotal role in the rise of home-grown music acts such as rapper Shigga Shay and singer-songwriter Inch Chua.

Today, the company, which does artist management, concert organising, publishing and other music- related services, is a one-man show run by Mr Willy Tan, 39.

Back in 2004, he and his National Junior College schoolmates Tan Yee Yong and Seng Woei Yuan decided to fill the gap left by BigO, a local music magazine that stopped publishing its print edition in 2002.

  • BOOK IT / TTNG + MYLETS LIVE IN SINGAPORE

    WHERE: Esplanade Annexe Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Today, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $70 at the door

    BOOK IT / CELEBRATING 10 YEARS OF KITTYWU

    WHERE: Esplanade Annexe Studio

    WHEN: Tomorrow, 4.30pm

    ADMISSION: $25 from ticketbox.sg/kittywu10

Within the same year, the trio expanded their operations and started organising gigs at the Esplanade and the now defunct night spot Bar None.

"Our reasons for starting Aging Youth are not that altruistic," jokes Mr Tan. "We were musicians ourselves and we organised the shows so that we could have opportunities to play live as well."

They were also big fans of the bands that were active around that time and became a music label for acclaimed acts such as their first signing B-Quartet, Lunarin and Allura, an alternative rock band whose singer, Inch Chua, went on to carve out a music career as a solo singer-songwriter.

Declining CD sales and the closure of music retailers such as Gramophone prompted the company to move into other music- related businesses such as artist management.

From 2011 to early this year, Aging Youth handled business affairs for Shigga Shay as he rose from an underground rapper to one of the local hip-hop scene's most recognisable faces.

Mr Tan Yee Yong and Mr Seng eventually left Aging Youth in 2009 to focus on their day jobs and families.

Mr Willy Tan, a bachelor, had juggled the company and day jobs in the past, but Aging Youth became his full-time job in 2014, when more gigs started coming in.

Besides managing Singapore newcomer Jasmine Sokko, an electronic music artist whose debut single 1057 was released last year, he also does marketing and public relations for clients such as R&B singer Sheeq Luna and music recording studio AOR Studios.

He takes on projects such as curating the artists performing at the recent sustainable light art festival, i Light Marina Bay, and produces digital media content for clients such as major record label Universal Music Singapore.

"Today, the scene has a lot of artists and bands who are very savvy in how they market themselves," he says. "I still feel that while artists drive their vision, there is a role for people like me to amplify their artistry and to help them get their music out to a wider audience."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2017, with the headline 'A high note for the local music industry '. Print Edition | Subscribe