Culture Vulture

Band together to have a rocking career

The Musicians Guild aims to support the career, livelihood and development of music professionals

If there is one thing that I have learnt from my interaction with professional Singapore musicians over the years, it is that at one point in their lives, there will be doubts if they have chosen the right career.

As with many full-time jobs in the arts, the pertinent questions for a musician are: Will there be enough gigs that bring in a stable income? Will there be any help if my health fails? What will happen to me in terms of career advancement?

A bunch of music industry stalwarts - including classical conductor Adrian Tan, jazz singer Rani Singam, singer-songwriter Bevlyn Khoo, Chinese classical musician and sheng player Yang Ji Wei - have banded together to form the Musicians Guild of Singapore.

There are many groups and organisations that represent the wide and varied community of musicians here - some still active, some dormant, some defunct. What sets the Guild apart is that it aims to represent musicians from all backgrounds, whether singer, studio engineer or music teacher involved in classical, contemporary or one of the many genres in between.

It is not a union; it is a not-for-profit, professionally run company dedicated to those in music- related jobs as well as to music students and those with an eye on becoming full-time musicians.

What it offers musicians for now are immediate benefits, especially for those who sign up as full members (the board also offers associate and student memberships with different levels of benefits).

For the musicians who do not have insurance, the guild has partnered with an insurance company to provide specialised insurance packages.

Those with legal hurdles to clear - whether it is in drawing up contracts or in figuring out legal options when dealing with errant clients - can turn to the guild for work-related legal advice.

There is also the chance for members to be part of a comprehensive database of working musicians here as well as a job bank for music-related work.

A full membership costs $120 annually for Singaporeans and permanent residents and $200 for others. Associate membership and student membership are $80 and $50 respectively for locals. Only full membership comes with extra benefits such as legal assistance, exclusive insurance plans and alerts to music-related job openings.

Before writing about music, I was making music. I have written songs, played gigs and released albums and songs with various bands, mostly with garage- punk outfit Force Vomit (my friends and I started the band when we were 16 and it was the most hardcore name we could think of then).

It was never, and still isn't, a full-time thing.

Although we were lucky enough to have played at venues such as the Esplanade and The Substation, as well as overseas in a stadium at Kuala Lumpur music festival Rock The World, an open-air seaside private party in Bali and clubs in Bangkok, playing in the band was always a glorified hobby for me and my friends.

I have met many fellow musicians who operate on a whole different level and make music for a living and they have my utmost respect. These are the folks who have laid everything on the line for the love of music. They sweat, bleed and shed tears for their passion and not just for weekend kicks.

They tell me of a common reaction that they get when they tell people their profession - "Oh you're so lucky to be making a living doing what you love!"

Yes, but a job is still a job and it isn't that a musician is working any less or that he has fewer worries about being able to afford his desired standard of living.

Some have full-time gigs such as residencies at popular venues; others teach at reputable institutions and have the assurance of a regular paycheque and employee benefits, including healthcare or guaranteed days off, like workers in other occupations.

Many more do not have such luxuries. They live the life of freelancers whose rice bowl depends on market demand and supply, as well as their resourcefulness in securing the next gig.

No matter what their background is, it is important for musicians to get together as part of a proactive community by joining official organisations like the guild. It helps those working in the music industry here to learn from one another. Many in the music community here have decades of experience in not just excelling in their craft, but also in turning their passion into a fulfilling, life-long career.

It helps greatly that the guild's leadership comprises heavy weights from the arts and entertainment community - the patron is Ambassador- at-Large Tommy Koh and board members include actress and former Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh and entertainment lawyer Samuel Seow.

These are early days for the guild and the people who run it have their work cut out for them in getting musicians of all creed to sign up as members. Some might baulk at having to pay membership fees and it will be the job of the guild to convince them that the pay-offs far exceed the amount they fork out to be part of the organisation.

The next time I meet a professional musician who questions his choice of career, I will tell him that he is never alone - there are always like-minded compatriots out there who will have his back.

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