Indie music in Singapore

Singapore Infopedia


Independent (commonly shortened to “indie”) music encompasses a wide range of musical genres, including rock, pop, metal and folk. Indie music is associated with alternative, non-mainstream productions and forms of distribution.1 Increasingly, the term “indie music” is also used to refer to musical styles that deviate from the mainstream, popular fare.2 In Singapore, indie bands and musicians took off in the 1990s and continue to be an important part of the local music scene today.3

Indie music refers to music produced by individuals, bands or small recording companies independent of the major labels. It is usually associated with alternative, non-mainstream music, although the term encompasses a broad spectrum of musical genres. The term “indie music” became widely used in Britain in the 1980s to describe music of the post-punk ethos, which is characterised by a do-it-yourself spirit and differences in ideology from the commercial music industry. Indie musicians are said to make fewer concessions to market expectations.4

Patrick Chng, lead singer and guitarist of jangly indie rock band, The Oddfellows, said: “We’re less formulaic. And we have more ‘attitude.’”5 This “attitude” may be viewed to be more important than musical or lyrical ability. Philip Cheah, editor of the erstwhile independent rock ’n’ roll music magazine BigO, said, “The lyrical content and the music in indie tend to be more freewheeling and less concerned with structure. It’s all about breaking rules. If you’re looking for perfect diction, forget it! The musical statement comes first.”6

Beginnings: 1980s
The start of the local indie music scene can be traced to the 1980s when non-mainstream music was introduced to Singapore through music reviewers or radio deejays such as Chris Ho (later known as X’ Ho) and former Singapore Monitor journalists and BigO founders, brothers Michael and Philip Cheah. The latter have been credited for their seminal role in providing exposure to, and creating awareness about, local indie music.7

Movers and shakers
Ho was one of the pioneer movers of indie music in Singapore. A deejay with the Rediffusion radio station at the time, he introduced new music to the Singapore audience through his programmes – Eight Miles High, and Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine (the latter co-hosted with Philip Cheah). In addition, Ho was also a musician who pushed the boundaries.8

Ho’s band Zircon Lounge – the first new-wave band in Singapore – released their debut, and only, album Regal Vigor in 1983. Regarding the album, Ho said, “Everyone wants to play safe. No one wants to do anything about music because the feeling is – ‘Ah, it’s too difficult’. This is what making Regal Vigor means to us – not playing safe.” Regal Vigor, however, did not see strong sales; Ho attributed it to the audience’s unfamiliarity with the album’s aesthetics.9

In October 1985, the Cheah brothers, together with Stephen Tan, launched the inaugural issue of Singapore’s first independent music magazine BigO (short for “Before I get old”, a line from the song “My Generation” by English rock outfit The Who). BigO was initially conceived to be a platform for music enthusiasts to discuss and be informed about various genres of music, especially rock ’n’ roll, but the endeavour soon expanded beyond the printed matter into organising concerts and releasing sampler cassettes and CDs. BigO eventually became not only an influential champion of, but also a catalyst for, emerging local indie musicians and bands.10

Less than a year later, BigO released its first cassette compilation, which came free with the June/July 1986 issue of the magazine. The cassette, titled Nothing on the Radio, showcased new talent. It was put together following the magazine’s solicitation of demo tapes from unsigned musicians and bands. The 12-track tape comprised solo singers as well as groups – including Chris Ho, Razor’s Edge and Corporate Toil – that the BigO team deemed best among the submissions.11

BigO had also begun organising concerts even in the early years of its establishment, focusing on local indie acts. This aided the development of the local indie music scene by providing musicians with exposure and thus helping them gain a wider audience.12

Greater awareness
BigO continued to be a big supporter of local indie music in the 1990s. The March 1991 issue was sold along with a free CD compilation of original music by local bands. The CD was part of the New School Rock project, under which four other CD compilations were released over the years. Concerts were held in conjunction with each CD release to provide an opportunity for the bands to perform. The first, titled New School Rock, featured The Oddfellows, Corporate Toil and Opposition Party.

The New School Rock series gave the bands and musicians publicity. With this project, the BigO team aimed to “build an infrastructure and a platform for new and exciting bands to come up”. In subsequent New School Rock sampler CDs, BigO helped launch other indie bands such as AWOL, The Padres and Stompin’ Ground.13

Soon, interest in indie music took an upturn. The Oddfellows released their debut full-length album in 1991. The self-produced album, titled Teenage Head, moved 2,000 copies – a record for a local English-language recording at the time. In addition, one of the band’s singles, “So Happy”, became a number-one hit on the local radio charts. The relative success of the band paved the way for other bands to release their own music.14

According to a 1992 Straits Times report, in that year, 15 other albums were released on independent labels and around 200 local bands were writing their own music.15 The following year, songs by The Padres, CU1359, ESP and The Oddfellows were featured on Multitrack 3, a British Broadcasting Corporation radio programme.16

The Substation
Besides BigO, The Substation – an independent arts venue on Armenian Street – also played an important role in the growth of Singapore’s indie music scene, serving as a launching pad for many local bands. Numerous independent gigs were staged at the Substation Garden in the 1990s, providing exposure to homegrown musicians and creating awareness of indie music among locals. Being one of the few venues in the 1990s where local bands could perform, the Substation Garden became a space for musicians across genres, music fans and friends to meet one another; this in turn led to the burgeoning of the indie music scene.17

Proliferation of music labels
Pony Canyon and later Springroll Creative Entertainment Agency were two significant record companies of the 1990s that propelled the music scene forward through producing, promoting and distributing albums by local artistes.18 Between its establishment in 1990 and demise in 1998, Pony Canyon, which was owned by a large Japanese company, reportedly recorded more than 90 acts and released at least 50 albums by local musicians.19 Springroll, on the other hand, was a small label that received financial backing from Pony Canyon and focused on producing albums. Many of the artistes under Pony Canyon moved to Springroll when the former folded.20

Jimmy Wee, who managed Pony Canyon and later moved on to helm Springroll, provided strong support for local talents and helped many to cut records. Some of the bands that were part of either the Pony Canyon or Springroll stable include Astreal, Humpback Oak, Stompin’ Ground and Stoned Revivals.21

Other music labels that were active or established in this decade were Noisebox Music, Red Records, Odyssey Music and Tim Records – all small, independent labels.22

Limited appeal
Despite its rising visibility, the popular appeal of local indie music remained limited and albums rarely met with strong sales. These were largely attributed to the small local market; the weak sales in turn deterred profit-centric big labels to sign on local acts. Stephen Tan, then managing director of major record company BMG, explained why few indie bands were offered recording contracts with major labels. He said: “Look, you have to be realistic about the whole thing. What kind of returns can we get? Looking at the situation here, there is just no consumer base for local indie music.”23

Demo culture
Nonetheless, many unsigned bands and musicians continued to record and put out low-budget demo tapes of their songs themselves. The demo tapes were typically produced in small quantities.24 The Oddfellows and Humpback Oak were two acts that successfully transitioned to making full-length albums following several demo cassette releases.25

Evolution of the indie scene
The situation changed in the new millennium when indie music began to attract larger audiences. Since 2002, the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay has hosted Baybeats, an annual three-day indie music festival featuring both local and overseas musicians. In its inaugural year, the festival attracted a crowd of around 9,000, while the 2009 edition of drew a turnout estimated to be 100,000-strong.26

The festival became the most prominent platform for local talent. Saiful Idris of The Great Spy Experiment said, “Being invited was a huge deal because Baybeats was to us the biggest stage a Singaporean band could play.” The festival also inspired a new generation of bands who were influenced by the acts they saw.27 The positive response to Baybeats also led to the emergence of other venues for indie music.28

Technology and changes in distribution model
The proliferation of the internet has enabled indie musicians and bands to reach out to their audiences more effectively. In addition to self-releasing albums or being signed onto independent labels and performing at gigs, indie bands can now release their music and videos online to gain an international audience.29

Independent music labels
The development of the current indie music scene is also aided by the growing preponderance of local independent music labels such as KittyWu, Ujikaji Records, Prohibited Projects and Syndicate.30 The labels perform a number of functions for the bands or musicians that they manage: organising shows, producing, marketing, taking care of distribution and pressing albums.31

Stephanie Ho

1. Roy Shuker, Popular Music Culture: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2012), 184. (Call no. 781.6403 SHU-[ART])
2. Joseph Tham, “Review: +65 Indie Underground,” S/pores Journal no. 6 (March 2010)
3. Dylan Tan, “Music’s Defining Moments,” Business Times, 2 January 2015. (From Factiva via eResources website)
4. Shuker, Popular Music Culture, 184; Tham, “+65 Indie Underground”; Chris Ho, “Stand and Deliver,” Straits Times, 6 December 1991, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Notes from the Underground,” Straits Times, 14 February 1992, 2; Christopher Toh, “Now, They’re the Odd Ones in,” Today, 30 July 2008, 38. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Notes from the Underground.” 
7. Tham, “+65 Indie Underground”; Christopher Toh, “10 Moments That Shaped the Sound of Singapore,” Today, 16 August 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Serene Goh, “Eight Miles High Gets a Second Wind on Air,” Straits Times, 26 April 1996, 16; “Chronicle of BigO,” Straits Times, 14 July 1991, 17; “Page 5 Miscellaneous Column 2,” Straits Times, 31 January 1992, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Philip Cheah, “Regal Vigour,” Singapore Monitor, 7 November 1983, 17; K. C., “Chinatown New Wave,” Straits Times, 20 November 1983, 8; “20 Years of X’Ho,” Straits Times, 23 August 2003, 5; Philip Cheah, “The Heart of Darkness,” Singapore Monitor, 4 December 1983, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Sandi Tan, “BigO Leads Way in Rock Scene,” Straits Times, 1 September 1995, 6 (From NewspaperSG); M. Cheah, “But Seriously Folks,” Before I Get Old 1, no. 1 (October–November 1985). (Call no. RSING 780.5 BIGO)
11. “Sounds Like Nothing on the Radio,” Straits Times, 4 July 1986, 6 (From NewspaperSG); “Buzz: Beating a Different Drum,” Before I Get Old 1, no. 9 (June–July 1986), 3 (Call no. RSING 780.5 BIGO)
12. “Chronicle of BigO”; Tan, “BigO Leads Way in Rock Scene.”
13. Christopher Toh, “New School Rock II,” Today, 8 July 2010 ((From Factiva via eResources website); Ida Bachtiar, “Going Live,” Straits Times, 12 April 1991, 3 (From NewspaperSG); C. T. Lim, “New School Rock,” Before I Get Old no. 63 (March 1991), 8 (Call no. RSING 780.5 BIGO)
14. “Notes from the Underground.” 
15. “Notes from the Underground.” 
16. Arthur Chan, “S’pore Indie Bands on BBC,” Straits Times, 24 December 1993, 5(From NewspaperSG)
17. Joceyln Lee, “Indie Station,” Straits Times, 10 December 2010, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Toh, “10 Moments That Shaped the Sound of Singapore.”
19. “Pony Canyon Sets Up Office,” Business Times, 13 December 1990, 2 (From NewspaperSG); P. Cheah, “In Singapore, Springroll Will Take Pony Canyon’s Place,” Billboard 110, no. 4 (24 January 1998), 71.
20. Rebecca Lim, “Alamak! Springroll a Wee Music Company with Big Dreams,” Straits Times, 24 July 1996, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Cheah, Springroll Will Take Pony Canyon’s Place,” 71.
21. Toh, “10 Moments That Shaped the Sound of Singapore”; Eddino Abdul Hadi, “Internet Keeps Their Music Alive,” Straits Times, 30 August 2014 (From NewspaperSG); Astreal (Musical Group), Ouijablush, Springroll Creative Entertainment Agency, 199, compact disc (From MusicSG); Lizard’s Convention Musical Group, Here’s a Funny Fish, Hurrah!, Pony Canyon Entertainment, 1995, compact disc (From MusicSG); “No Way for $400,” Straits Times, 8 September 1993, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Humpback Oak (Musical group), Pain-Stained Morning, Pony Canyon Entertainment, 1994, compact disc. (From MusicSG)
22. Nazir Hussain, “More Recording Labels,” Before I Get Old no. 72 (December 1991), 28 (Call no. RSING 780.5 BIGO); John Lui, “S’pore-Made Music Being Recorded By Local Outfits,” Straits Times, 22 December 1991, 22; Chris Ho, “Everybody Wants to Rule the Radio,” Straits Times, 7 January 1994, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Sharon Lim, “Indie Blues,” Straits Times, 17 April 1992, 7; “Sounds of Success,” Straits Times, 22 November 1992, 2; “Small Market, Poor Returns Some Reasons for Decline,” Straits Times, 28 July 1995, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Nazir Keshvani, “Demo Tapes Catch On,” Straits Times, 7 January 1994, 11; “S’pore Bands Make Headway By Producing Their Own Demos,” Straits Times, 21 September 1995, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “The Oddfellows’ Experience,” Straits Times, 21 September 1995, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Eddino Abdul Hadi, “Indie Music for the People,” Straits Times, 22 January 2010, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Eddino Abdul Hadi, “Local Music Acts Jump in on the Beat,” Straits Times, 28 August 2009, 69. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Christopher Lim, “Homegrown Music’s Heartbeat,” Business Times, 30 November 2012, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Christopher Toh, “Top Musical Moments of the Decade,” Today, 18 December 2009, 99; Dylan Tan, “Indies Take On World Stage,” Business Times, 5 July 2013, 35; Yeow Kai Chai, “Time to Face the Music,” Straits Times, 9 August 2000, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Tan, “Indies Take On World Stage”; Eddino Abdul Hadi, “Music on the Side,” Straits Times, 22 April 2008, 61 (From NewspaperSG); “About,” Ujikaji Records, n.d.; “Prohibited Projects,” ProhibitedProjects, n.d.; Eddino Abdul Hadi. “New Wave of Electronic Sounds,” Straits Times, 12 December 2013, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Hadi, “Music on the Side”; Sujin Thomas, “Local Gig Organisers are Music to Musicians’ Ears,” Straits Times, 18 February 2005, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 11 March 2015 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 


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