Let Our Voices Be Heard — The Case for Local Music Quotas on Local Radio
Dear Dr. Ibrahim,
An Open Letter: Let Our Voices Be Heard —
The Case for Local Music Quotas on Local Radio
I am writing to exhort the Ministry of Communication and Information to re-examine the issue of local music quotas on local radio, since Dr. Ibrahim’s response to PQ on radio airtime for local music on 15 November 2012. In this letter, I write in support of the notion that we need a government-mandated quota for local music, and particularly English-language music, or else, as artists we will fail to create a sustainable future and as a nation our cultural development will always be stunted regardless of the economic progress we make.
I also refer to John Lui’s article “Set aside airtime for local English music and film”, dated 2 April 2013, Straits Times Life! C3, and Eddino Hadi’s article “Rise of the Local Stars”, dated 10 April 2014, Straits Times Life! C4; and to NMP Janice Koh’s Speech at MCI Committee of Supply Debate on Mon 10 mar 2014, “Developing a Strong Singapore Music Industry”.
I write from the perspective of an independent singer-songwriter and ex-Radio 938LIVE DJ at MediaCorp Radio. In the last 4 years, I have gone through the process of independently launching two releases, Let’s Pretend (2010), Brand New (2012), and embarked on creating a Chinese EP 要你的愛 (2014) earlier this year, which I have been promoting independently in Taiwan since January.
1. Sustainability & Audience Development are Highly Linked
Firstly, I would like to define sustainability for any artist, as the ability to make use of earnings from the artists’ products or management, whether it be in the form of digital downloads, physical sales or royalties generated by airplay or licensing deals, to live show revenue and endorsement deals, to pay for living expenses and have enough capital to reinvest in future artistic works.
In most countries, the local market still forms a key audience for any local artist for the purposes of sustainability. Having a sizeable local market alone for your music as an artist can be enough live on and invest in future works.
This is why even Malaysian artists like Zee Avi and Yuna, who write and perform in English, have been able to gain the attention of US-based labels. Presently, these labels have since taken these artists’ careers to international heights. In order for the labels to have noticed them, however, these artists had to amass a sizeable local following. A sizeable local following is necessary as “proof” of an artist’s relevance from a label’s point of view, because it reduces the risk involved when investing capital to produce and promote new music.
To illustrate the point with a local artist, one of the most successful Singapore English-language artists to date is Corrinne May. Her key audience is in Singapore, even though she is based in Los Angeles. Not only has she managed to be a platinum-selling artist (shipped more than 10,000 units in Singapore), she has also managed to sell-out large-scale concerts of 7000-10000 people in Singapore and actually make a sustainable living from being an artist.
This is my dream, and the dream of many other homegrown musicians. We do not need to be world-famous, really. We just want to be able to find a large enough local audience that appreciates our work, so that we can produce even more music! Corrinne May’s rise to prominence in Singapore is not easy to replicate current day and age, because the internet has really changed how we access and make use of music. However, Corrinne May benefited from extensive exposure on TV and Radio in her early years, and has eventually become one of the few English-music household names we are all proud of.
The power of Radio cannot be denied, when thousands of F&B and retail outlets in Singapore make use of their favourite local radio station to fill their audial space. Each Singaporean radio station reaches out to tens of thousands of listeners on average at any minute in the day — I know this because I previously had the privilege of being a Radio DJ. That reach, however, is hardly in reach of most artists, who either only have their songs played once every few days at best, or do not even have the chance of getting the different radio stations’ music directors to listen to their music.
How can one even begin to think of sustainability, unless we develop new audiences for local music every single day?
2. We Lack a System of Recognition and Endorsement
Secondly, we need local music quotas on Radio so that our music scene can develop into a true industry where not only a mass audience can be developed, but where critical recognition can be gained.
Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna won major Anugerah Industri Muzik awards (the Malaysian equivalent of the Grammys) for her English works before signing with her first US-based label. Now, is that even a possibility for Singapore? We do not have any sort of merit-based system of awards for English language music produced by local artists here. Aussie and NZ-based artists like Kimbra and Lorde have the ARIAs to back them up, winning over their own local audiences before heading for international stages.
What do Singaporean artists have for industry recognition? The Singapore Hit Awards is unfortunately more of an awards system for Chinese-language regional artists, which happens to be based in Singapore, while the COMPASS Awards are based on royalties – which are generated by both radio airplay and mechanical royalties, both of which are hard to get much of in the present state of radio programming. The Singapore Radio Awards are unfortunately just for MediaCorp to recognize their own DJs rather than celebrate excellence in local music.
Let us not even talk about awards – what about “Charts”? In the US, the Billboard 100 is a huge signifier of whether a song is hit material or not. A large percentage of the positioning is based on radio airplay. We do not have any kind of “Local Music” Charts system, because there is simply not enough local content on Radio. Instead, local artists are expected to going head to head with the likes of Bruno Mars, Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles — all great artists — who have deep major label budgets to spend on promoting their music internationally. Only when a local music quota is established, will Singaporean audiences begin to recognize, appreciate and critique the variety, depth and quality of homegrown artists.
3. We Must Create Our Own Culture
Finally, we must make an effort to counter the thinking that Singapore’s unique brand of English music has to be modeled after American Pop music. Just as we have Singlish, our uniquely Singaporean brand of English, we must reserve the right to create and promote music in English that is uniquely Singaporean. This is especially needed in a time where Singaporeans increasingly function very much so in English above other languages, due to our progress in education.
I would like to quote music/programming director Jamie Meldrum of SPH Unionworks, from the ST Life! Article “Rise of the Local Stars” (10 April 2014, C4), who said: “If we’re forced to play tracks which can’t stand up between JT timberland and Beyoncé’s latest, then I think that portrays our local artists in a negative light.”
This line of rationalization should not be held valid in this modern day and age where independent or “indie” music is at the forefront of breaking boundaries in music. None of us “local artists” would dare to say we would ever compare to the international US pop stars, and no comparison should be made. Because what we are producing is English language music from a uniquely Singaporean point of view.
It’s precisely this line of thinking by local radio music programmers that reveals who they are serving: themselves and their profit line, not the interest of the local scene or giving listeners a service to discover new music. It is logical, safe and commercially-minded to have programming strategy be playing only the top 100 or so English hits that have ever been made in international pop music history, that target your station’s demographic. But there is such a wide variety of local music that is being produced, that it would be myopic to box all local content as “not being good enough” when it has not been given a fair chance, i.e. enough exposure.
Last year, MediaCorp made a commitment to play one local song per hour on their stations, as announced through SGMUSO. When the news came out, many people were excited at this “milestone” for local music. But I would like to counter that local music should not be relegated to a token one song an hour, or we will never create our own “local hits”. A new “hit song” requires almost hourly airplay to break it in to the consciousness of the mass audience, and on multiple stations. Now that our music is being categorized as “local”, that means that as an individual artist, my music only gets played at most once every few days because the MediaCorp programmers would logically rotate between different artists and different songs for this “one local song and hour” rule. Why should songs from local artists be restricted to only one song an hour anyway, on MediaCorp stations? This is an arbitrary and token measure, which does not bear any significant, long-term fruits.
Furthermore, playing the “hits” from the Western pop industry as the overwhelming majority of radio programming does not differentiate the different English radio stations from each other, no matter how the programmers insist that they are playing what people like. The local radio scene has become monotonous and is in need of a revival. With great power comes great responsibility, and Radio has a responsibility to create new opportunities for the local music scene to grow into an industry.
Under your purview at the Ministry of Communication and Information, the Media Development Authority of Singapore, which has the authority to create such a mandate and ruling, must take a more active role to give local artists the mass exposure they deserve on Radio. This is something that must be prioritized above production grants schemes, which lack a promotional/exposure aspect, and organizing large-scale regional industry events that only serve Singapore’s reputation as a “hub” rather than empowering individual artists to succeed.
Previously on 15 November 2012, Dr. Ibrahim issued a statement in parliament citing that “there is not a strong library of broadcast-quality local music at this time”. It has been one and a half years since this statement. And I would like to urge the MCI to do a survey of the output of the local English music artists during this time.
Personally, I have had multiple tracks played on various local English radio stations since my 2012 release, Brand New: “Love-Shape Void”, “Parallel Lives”, “Make Me Love You Less”, “Diagonal Rain”, “Just Me”, “Happy Ever After” and “Even in the Small Things”. These songs were selected by merit alone and not due to an imposed local quota, as a testament to the quality of the songs. But even then, they are not played regularly enough to create a large awareness of my music, the way an international artist like Katy Perry is allowed to penetrate into the Singaporean market with every one of her new singles was playing incessantly on all stations when it was released, some recent examples being “Roar” and “Unconditionally”.
In conclusion, the listener base of Radio is huge, but unfortunately what they hear is in the hands of a few gatekeepers that have only limited interest in industry development, and larger interests in commercial profitability. A quota for local music on local radio stations is the only way to ensure that Singaporeans continue to be open-minded and receptive towards local artists who have quality work, and deserve a wider audience for their music.
Culture isn’t built overnight. It is built over years of common shared experiences that are unique to us as Singaporeans. It is precisely Music that has a transcendental power to bind us, and create a true Singaporean culture — not one that is imported. But there must be a bigger platform for our music on local radio.
As artists, we are going to keep on singing, playing and expressing ourselves, because we just want to bless others with our music. We create music to uplift, to bring hope, and to unite. We create music to take audiences to another place, to soothe, to calm, to heal. We create music to express ideas, to inspire others, and most of all to bless the nation that we love.
Please, let our voices be heard.
Sarah Cheng-De Winne
Singer-Songwriter and ex-Radio DJ