Mandopop queen Stefanie Sun: Singapore English pop a hard sell

Mandopop queen Stefanie Sun says English-speaking musicians here must be one step ahead of the Western market to succeed

With No. 1 albums in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China and sold-out arena shows around the region, there is little argument that Mandopop singer Stefanie Sun is one of Singapore's biggest musical exports.

But would a similarly talented home-grown artist find the same level of success singing English pop? Sun does not think so.

"If you think about it on the practical side, it seems a very steep battle. A majority of things that we listen to are not Asian faces singing English songs," she says in an exclusive backstage interview with The Straits Times before her recent talk organised by the Musicians Guild of Singapore.

The 37-year-old points out that there is no "mature market" for Singapore English acts to tap into and have a sustainable career.

Sun says that what the artists can do instead is to focus on their creativity and be as innovative with their music as they can.

"If you talk about practicality, it is very tough. But if you are talking about really pushing boundaries, I don't think it's impossible, but you have to force yourself to be one step ahead of the Western market. And that is the goal English-speaking musicians can aim for."

The Mandopop queen is one of the most prominent members to have joined non-profit group Musicians Guild of Singapore, a body formed in April to look after the interests of professionals, amateurs and students involved in the music industry here.

Sun released her self-titled debut album here in 2000 and her most recent and 12th album, Kepler, last year. She has sold more than 30 million albums and won accolades including the Taiwanese Golden Melody Awards for Best Newcomer in 2001 and Best Female Mandarin Singer in 2005.

She says that having the guild is especially important for singers and musicians who are starting out.

"When you have somebody to ask about certain issues or if you're not sure where you stand, being in a community, having a conversation, I think that helps, so you're not lost."

Joining the guild as a fee-paying member is a way for her to give back to the home-grown scene that she started out in.

During her talk, she spoke about how her music career started, as well as the challenges she faced in her ascent to become a regional music powerhouse.

The talk, held at creative arts space 10 Square at Orchard Central, was attended by about 100 practitioners from the local music scene.

She also engaged the audience in a question-and-answer session centred on navigating the music industry.

Some of the negative experiences that she went through during her early years only made her more determined to pursue her dream of becoming a professional singer, she told the audience.

"I sang so much my neighbour upstairs would shout "shut up", that's how annoying I was," she recalled in the interview.

"I feel that you have to be thankful for moments where you go, "Did I sound that bad?". That's the point where you realise, I'm going to push on or I'm going to give it up."

During the interview, she also said she feels for the plight of struggling artists and musicians, especially the ones who are underpaid for their performances.

"The impression people have of musicians has not been upgraded, although I feel a few of us have been very lucky to make it on a regional scale.

"We would love to have more fans, but I think we also need to build a respect for people, their craft, the hours they put in and how important music is to every day life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore English pop a hard sell'. Print Edition | Subscribe