Young home-grown music acts pulling off ticketed shows at big venues here

Young home-grown music acts are pulling off ticketed shows at big venues here

If you are a Singaporean musician and your name is not JJ, Stefanie, Tanya or Kit, the concerts you headline are likely to be small affairs usually described as "intimate" or "cosy". Especially if you are under the age of 30.

This is changing.

In 2012, pop quartet The Sam Willows were young upstarts making a name for themselves in the music scene with cover songs on YouTube. This Friday, they are set to headline a 3,000-capacity gig at The Coliseum at Resorts World Sentosa.

Not only is the concert their biggest ticketed show to date, but they are also the first local act to headline a gig at the venue in Hard Rock Hotel Sentosa, said their record label and the gig's promoter, Sony Music Entertainment Singapore.

Larger venues have never been out of bounds to local artists, it was simply a matter of perception... We're commanding audience sizes that are comparable to those of international artists. ''

MS EUGENIE YEO, co-founder of record label House of Riot, on local artists playing major venues

The Sam Willows are just one of the young home-grown music acts who have acquired a big social media following that would not only pay for their music online, but also pay to watch them in concert at bigger venues here.

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Names that have headlined their own concerts at the Esplanade's crown jewel, the 1,827-capacity Concert Hall, arguably one of the finest music venues here, are singersongwriters Gentle Bones, Tay Kewei and Nathan Hartono. Gentle Bones even sold out two nights.

International artists and established Singapore acts have long staged gigs at major venues here - Mandopop star Stefanie Sun pulled in 20,000 at the National Stadium in 2014 and JJ Lin has played several times at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, which can accommodate more than 10,000 people. Veteran acts such as jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro and rock pioneer Ramli Sarip have performed solo at the Esplanade Concert Hall more than once.

But for young millennial acts, many of whom made their debut in the last few years, pulling off a ticketed show at a big venue that regularly hosts world-class acts is a milestone in their musical journey.

For The Sam Willows guitarist and songwriter Jonathan Chua, 26, their gig at The Coliseum is "more than just a concert".

"We're going out of our comfort zone, we want to push boundaries not just as musicians, but also as entertainers. We want people to pay for the tickets, come to the show and be entertained for every second they are there."

 

Before their show this Friday, their biggest ticketed solo gig was their 2012 self-titled EP launch show at now-defunct club TAB, which drew 700.

While they are expected to pull in more than four times that number on Friday, bassist Narelle Kheng, 22, says it is not just about playing to a bigger audience.

"To pull this off, it's not just the performance, but also all the other things such as the lighting, the vibe, making sure that whatever energy we feel onstage is translated into the audience and that they also translate the energy back to us. We want to create a celebration," she adds.

Gentle Bones, whose real name is Joel Tan, says selling out tickets at the Esplanade Concert Hall on June 10 and 11 was a "surreal experience" and a validation of the efforts he and his team have put into his music.

The concerts, his first ticketed gigs, were organised by his record label, Universal Music Singapore, and drew a 1,500-strong crowd each night.

And the tickets are not cheap. Gentle Bones' concert cost fans from $25 to $45 a ticket and The Sam Willows' fans each paid $48 (early-bird price) and $58 for the band's Friday show.

While the artists say their concerts are not profit-making ventures, they want the prices of the tickets to reflect their value.

The Sam Willows' Chua says: "It's a case of how we choose to value it. We don't want it to be a case where we sell the tickets at $10 and then people will come with the expectation that it's going to be a $10 show."

Tan, 22, foresees more young musicians like him staging similarsized shows as long as they have an "understanding of our commercial music market" and what drives concert ticket sales.

"Singapore has an extremely diverse group of music lovers and musical preferences can differ dramatically from person to person. Artists have to realise this and decide how they'd like to approach their songs with our music-lover demographic in mind," he says.

For Tay, who sings in Mandarin and English, her Esplanade Concert Hall show on June 17 was a milestone to mark how her music has progressed since she staged - and sold out - her last ticketed show at the Esplanade's 245capacity Recital Studio seven years ago. At last month's show, she sold 750 out of 900 tickets released. The tickets cost $35 to $55.

"In the Concert Hall, I felt like a rock star, the vibe is great," says the 32-year-old. "My current original content, I have a good mix of fast, upbeat numbers and slow, intimate ones and they can be represented on a bigger stage, so that's why I felt the songs worked on the Concert Hall stage."

The spate of big shows by younger local musicians is a sign of growing mainstream support for locally made music, says Mr Hyder Albar, founder of Invasion Singapore, a social enterprise that aims to develop the home-grown English music scene.

"Mainstream fan support has been a constant challenge for the original English-language music scene. The music scene has always had a following, but artists crossing the bridge to become household names in the eyes of the public is not something that has been done. I think this represents the beginning of that trend."

Together with *Scape, Invasion organises the *Scape Invasion Tour, a series of concerts at schools here featuring music acts such as singer-songwriter Charlie Lim, Hartono and Gentle Bones.

More importantly, local artists playing the major venues means that audiences are putting Singapore music on a par with international artists, says Ms Eugenie Yeo, co-founder of record label House of Riot.

"The groundswell is positive on many levels. It goes to show that these larger venues have never been out of bounds to local artists, that it was simply a matter of perception rather than reality," she adds.

"We're elevating the live experience for consumers, giving high-quality, made-in-Singapore content the platform it deserves. As an industry, we're commanding audience sizes that are comparable to those of international artists."

In June last year, House of Riot set a precedent for indie acts here by staging a triple bill of three artists under its label - The Great Spy Experiment, Inch Chua and Lim - at the Esplanade Concert Hall. It was the first time home-grown indie acts staged their own ticketed show at the venue and the turnout was close to a full house.

One artist planning to join the list of musicians playing bigger venues is rapper Shigga Shay, whose last ticketed gig was a small club show at the now-defunct Home Club back in 2012.

The 23-year-old, whose real name is Pek Jin Shen, wants to play a ticketed show at a much bigger venue for the launch of his next album sometime next year.

"I think it's great to see the Singapore music wave coming up strong with so many Singapore acts holding such big shows on their own. It makes me feel honoured to be a part of the music scene.

"We're looking at venues and nothing is concrete yet, but we want to get things right when we do it, from the performance right down to the lighting, the visuals and maybe even flame-throwers."

While playing bigger shows is a good sign for young talents in the music scene, the next challenge is how often these acts can stage major concerts here.

Tay says her next big show will probably be staged only after she releases her next album, which will not be anytime soon. Like her and Shigga Shay, many artists prefer to tie the big shows with new album launches as a way to promote their new releases and showcase new songs.

Mr Albar and Ms Yeo stress that it takes more than just artistic talent for musicians here to continue playing big shows.

Says Ms Yeo: "Being unrelenting about honing songwriting and performance needs extreme discipline and dedication. But great content that's hard to discover isn't going to pack a concert hall in a small market like Singapore. Making sure that their music is easily accessible on discovery engines such as Spotify and Facebook is just the start. Mass media also has a role to play in helping artists to reach wider audiences."

Gentle Bones is already looking to the next career milestone - a show at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

"That is one of my goals for the next few years. It is quite a stretch. Most importantly, it is the music that draws the listeners and I am continually trying to produce music that will touch as many people as possible. That is a great priority to me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'Making it big'. Print Edition | Subscribe