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Inch Chua (blonde hair), Charlie Lim (with book) and members of The Great Spy Experiment will be playing a triple-header concert this weekend at the Esplanade.

A-go-go queens Sakura Teng (left) and Rita Chao put Singapore on the world music map by cracking overseas markets like Japan.

Singapore 60s, which was originally released in 2009, was re-issued last month

Rapper ShiGGa Shay's unreleased and exclusive "No Trust" kicks off the double-disc compilation "State of Rock"

Return of Singa-Pop

Singa-pop has come a long way since its birth and golden years in the 60s when local music ruled the charts and the airwaves. Although the scene gradually disappeared over the decades for a variety of reasons, it has enjoyed a revival in recent years as the digital era made it easier for budding musicians to record and distribute their works. In the first half of 2015 alone, there has been a bumper crop of new releases from about a dozen homegrown acts. With major labels such as Universal and Sony announcing the signing of Gentle Bones and The Sam Willows respectively just last month, expect even more to come before the year is over. Meanwhile, two compilations and a concert this weekend celebrate this resurgence and offers an insight into the local music scene - past, present and future.
Jun 5, 2015 5:50 AM

Oldies from the sixties get digital re-issue

THE sixties were arguably a golden age of music for Singapore - week in, week out, there were new releases by homegrown acts and fans followed their favourite bands with Beatlemania-like fervour.

Author Joseph Pereira, who has written three books about the local music scene, says competition was fierce among record labels as they actively spotted and signed talents.

By his estimation, the 61-year-old reckons that there were several thousand works put out by a few hundred local musicians during that period.

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Unfortunately, many of those recordings have been lost over the decades and few ever made it to the compact disc format - at least not until the local Universal Music office worked with Mr Pereira to release Singapore 60s, a five-disc box set featuring the likes of Naomi and the Boys, The Cyclones, The Crescendos, The Thunderbirds, Veronica Young and more.

All of those acts were signed to the Philips label and the 100-track compilation became the first proper documentation of the birth of Singa-pop. It was originally released in 2009 before going out of print when the initial run sold out.

Last year, when a YouTube video paying tribute to the nation's pioneer generation went viral, interest in the box was rekindled, especially as four tracks on the video featured surviving members of pop sensation Shirley Nair and the Silver Strings.

"There was a real buzz after that video came out and we had retailers as well as the public asking us about the compilation again," says Lim Teck Kheng, marketing director of Universal Music Singapore, "And with SG50 just around the corner, we felt it was timely to re-issue it."

The re-release last month also marks the first time Singapore 60s and its double-disc sequel, More Singapore 60s, will be made available for download and streaming on digital platforms like iTunes and Spotify.

Mr Lim explains that the move is to attract a younger generation of listeners who might be curious about the roots of Singa-pop but are not used to buying music on physical formats.

Fans of vintage Singapore pop music will be glad to know that there's more to come - Mr Lim reveals he is collaborating with Mr Pereira once again on a new compilation that will feature local hitmakers signed to Philips' rival label, EMI, during the same decade. Set for release around August, it will feature the likes of The Quests, The Straydogs and more.

Mr Pereira, who grew up with those bands as a teenager during the sixties, notes that while EMI did not sign on as many artists as Philips did, it spent more time and effort developing its talents. Hence, it scored talents like a-go-go queens Sakura Teng and Rita Chao - both not only made it big here but even managed to put Singapore on the world music map by cracking overseas markets like Japan.

However, Mr Pereira stops short of calling that decade the golden age of music for the local scene. "That may be too presumptuous but in terms of productivity, it has never been surpassed," he says.

Indie darlings get hi-fi treatment

IF anybody needs proof that the local music scene is overflowing with talent, just listen to State of Rock, a double-disc compilation featuring a mix of 30 veteran and upcoming homegrown indie acts.

Artists appearing include roots rockers Cheating Sons, superband Typewriter, singer-songwriter Jaime Wong, The Observatory's frontman Leslie Low and retro power-popsters Obedient Wives Club.

Launched last week by audiophile label S2S in association with American loudspeaker and headphones manufacturer Klipsch, the tracks - some unreleased and exclusive such as the opening tune No Trust by rapper ShiGGa Shay - have all been mastered in hi-fidelity quality to ensure optimal aural pleasure.

Hence, it is only available on physical compact disc format and does not have a digital release.

"We needed to give music lovers a reason to pick up the CD and I believe that this hi-fi quality will demonstrate how much improved the tracks sound compared to MP3s," says veteran local musician Kevin Mathews, who worked as a consultant on the project, choosing the artists and writing their bios in the liner notes.

He adds that State of Rock is inspired by the sampler discs which used to come free with selected issues of now-defunct underground music magazine BigO.

"The nineties indie scene was kickstarted by those compilations and that served as a wonderful introduction to many great bands," explains Mr Mathews. "I felt that the current scene needed something similar, especially in 2015 (and SG50) when Singaporeans are more open to Singaporean arts in general."

A casual suggestion made to Dean Augustine, managing director of S2S, earlier this year was gamely accepted even though the label has always been better known for signing jazz and easy-listening artists.

Mr Augustine says he took on the project because S2S wanted to explore other genres and felt the current crop of local indie musicians was good enough to be exported overseas.

He reveals that State of Rock will be launched at French music trade fair Midem this week, and then in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea.

Mr Mathews says he had two basic criteria when picking the acts for the compilation - first, they had to be songwriters with radio-friendly material, and they had to be writing, recording and performing for a minimum of two years.

"In that respect, I wanted also to get a good mix of established and up-and-coming artists," he explains.

More than 50 artists were approached although some declined for one reason or another. "(But that) number is a positive indication of the quality of the artists we have in Singapore and I believe that if we keep up the momentum, we shall have the vibrant, hip, indie music scene that the likes of (British music press) NME and (influential music blog) Pitchfork will be writing about," Mr Mathews adds. "Hopefully, there will be sequels to State of Rock in the years to come!"

Label drives music industry ahead

The House of Riot concert this weekend will mark a couple of milestones in local music history - it is the label's most ambitious project to date and the first time homegrown indie acts are trying to fill the 1,600-seat Esplanade Concert Hall on their own through a ticketed gig, no less.

"This is definitely the biggest show that House of Riot has produced; it's a very meaningful endeavour for us as we are really driven by a bigger purpose of changing the face of Singaporean independent music," says Mike See, who co-founded the label with his wife Eugenie Yeo.

The triple-headliner showcase will also mark a couple of firsts (and last) for the acts, who are all signed to the label. Singer-songwriter Inch Chua will play her homecoming show after living alone on Pulau Ubin since March as part of the island's Artist in Residency programme; neo-soul crooner Charlie Lim will debut material off his new double EP Time/Space, which shot to No 1 on the iTunes chart hours after its release earlier this week; and power-pop quintet The Great Spy Experiment, the first band Riot signed in 2006, will call it a day after a decade together.

Says Mr See: "We hope to create a milestone not just for our artists but for indie musicians here at large, and hopefully inspire them to believe that they are just as well-positioned to deliver a world-class experience at a world-class venue."

At S$50 a ticket, the show is priced at almost twice as much as what local bands typically charge (granted you are getting three acts for the price of one here) but response has been encouraging. At press time, stall and first-level circle seats have sold out, leaving just limited seating on the two upper balconies.

"(We priced it) based on experience from previous shows, as well as the balance between profitability and accessibility - we clearly do not want this to be a loss-making venture, yet at the same time it's equally important that we price this at a level that's accessible to our target audience," explains Mr See.

He also notes that "the rule of thumb is that musicians need to be properly compensated for their work (be it) through ticket sales, fixed fees by organisers or a barter of services" and bands should not hesitate to say no if they feel that they are being exploited when asked to play for free.

But the public has also become more receptive to paying for shows by local artists - just last week, Hanging Up The Moon sold out both its performances at The Substation while The Observatory has been selling tickets for its gigs for years now.

In a way, that has taught music lovers to be more discerning, especially since they are spoilt for choice with so many new acts waiting to be discovered.

"(The fans) no longer just blindly take what the media tells them to consume - they pick and choose what is deserving of their time and attention," notes Mr See. "This is a good thing for the industry at large - musicians putting out content with solid quality will benefit and continue to proliferate; and those who don't work at their craft will naturally get weeded out - or at least that's how it should work."

  • House of Riot presents A Triple Bill: Charlie Lim, iNCH, The Great Spy Experiment takes place at the Esplanade Concert Hall on June 6 at 7.30pm. Tickets at S$50 available from Sistic and at the venue.