Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Singapore festival organizer David Siow offers roadmap for musicians hoping to break into Asian markets

Joshua Ang photo of Singapore
Singapore is the “best country in the world in human capital development”, according to the World Bank. Photo by Joshua Ang.

Canada may be a giant country geographically, but it has a relatively small population. As a result, it’s tough for Canadian artists to reach mass audiences when there are only 38.25 million residents.

Author Doug Saunders explored the consequences of this conundrum in his 2019 book, Maximum Canada: Toward a Country of 100 Million. One chapter, “The Price of Underpopulation”, underscores how this has led to an exodus of talented musicians.

In recent years, some of these musicians have looked to East and Southeast Asia—and for good reason. There are huge populations in many of these countries, not just China, which is home to 1.4 billion people.

Indonesia, for example, has a population of 276 million. There are 125 million in Japan, another 115 million in the Philippines, and nearly 100 million people living in Vietnam.

Add in the population of South Korea—nearly 52 million—and these five East and Southeast Asian countries have as many residents as all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

That’s to say nothing of Thailand (71.6 million), Taiwan (23.5 million), Malaysia (33.5 million), Myanmar (54 million), Cambodia (17 million), Laos (7.5 million), and Singapore (6 million).

At the Jade Music Festival in Vancouver on December 1, a Singapore-based music-industry executive offered advice for Canadian musicians who want to break into these markets.

David Siow, the founder of Steady State Records, is a co-organizer of the annual ASEAN Music Showcase Festival, which attracts musicians from many countries.

“We have seven co-organizers,” Siow said, noting that people from Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are the main people running it.

“They find funding for the artists to come over,” he added.

In September, the festival featured 45 artists from about a dozen countries.

“We had Taiwan send over three artists, and Australia had one,” Siow noted. “If Canada wants to send artists, we’re quite willing [to welcome them]. Of course, we will reject bad artists.”

David Siow
David Siow is the founder of Steady State Records in Singapore.

Siow offers up a 10-point strategy

Siow said in his presentation that he has a 10-point strategy for determining whether a musical artist should enter a particular Asian market.

“It’s not patented,” he quipped. “It’s just how I think about things.”

You can read the list below:

  1. How they consume music
  2. Specific likes
  3. Demographics/Population
  4. Political climate
  5. Government arts policy & funding
  6. Socioeconomic status
  7. Languages/Races/Culture
  8. Music business infrastructure
  9. Stage of music city development
  10. Other artists

Moreover, Siow said that this analytical tool can be applied to many countries, including Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

He then asked the audience to choose any one of these countries and he would conduct a quick analysis. Someone in the audience shouted Singapore.

“Okay, let’s go through, one by one,” he replied.

1. How they consume music

Because Singapore is “super-westernized”, streaming services are very popular. Siow noted that this contrasts with Japan, where CDs are still the dominant way in which music is purchased.

“Physical is dead, so we don’t have CD shops anymore,” he said. “That’s not like Japan where you still have HMV. It’s all gone. Those are some of the kinds of things you need to think about when you come to Singapore. You basically don’t need to sell CDs.”

Spotify, for example, came to Singapore in 2014.

“We consume music very similar to the West,” Siow noted. “We use Spotify and Apple Music. YouTube is not as big as somewhere like Thailand because Singaporeans don’t care about the narrative as much. They just want music.”

He also pointed out that the average age at which Singaporeans stop listening to new music is 28, “which is not great”. This means that international artists need to reach them when they are young.

2. Specific likes

He described Singaporeans as “pretty basic people” who live in a country that lives on imports.

“Typically, whatever is popular overseas is popular in Singapore–very straightforward,” Siow said. “If you make it outside Singapore—make it in the West, or even in Asia—we will import it. You will have a market then.”

In addition, Singaporeans love influencers. He said that if a musician is pretty or looks like a model, the Singaporeans will love them.

3. Demographics/Population

The music executive said that Singapore has a small population mostly comprised of people of Chinese, Malay, and Indian ancestry. Siow mentioned a fourth category called “others”, which includes everyone else.

He described the Singaporean market as “very segmented”.

“We have linked with Taiwan for the longest time, from the ’70s, for Mandopop,” he stated. “So, if you are a Mandopop artist, if you’re big in Taiwan, you’re big in Singapore.

“But, like, we are…just six million people split between so many groups,” he continued. “It’s rough.”

4. Political climate

Siow opened this section by noting that Malaysia is in flux now following recent elections. But he described Singapore as “very stable” as the same party has been ruling the country for a very long time.

He said that this isn’t too bad for the people, but there is one downside: the government exerts tremendous control, including over state media.

“Censorship is really strong, so there’s no cussin’,” Siow stated.

He advises performers with politically charged messages in their music not to come to Singapore. Otherwise, they could face deportation.

David Siow strategy
David Siow says that his 10-point strategy is not patented—anyone is free to use it. Photo by Charlie Smith.

5. Government arts policy and funding

Siow described the government’s approach to public policy and funding projects as “very top-down”.

“So, it’s usually very clean, not dingy, and very organized,” he added.

6. Socioeconomic status

The founder of Steady State Records didn’t address this point in his lecture. According to the World Bank, Singapore is “a high-income economy with a gross national income of US$54,530 per capita, as of 2017”.

The country provides one of the world’s most business-friendly regulatory environment for local entrepreneurs and is ranked among the world’s most competitive economies,” the World Bank states on its website.

Singapore ranks as the “best country in the world in human capital development”.

“This means that a child born today in Singapore will be 88% as productive when she grows up, as if she enjoyed complete education and full health,” according to the World Bank.

7. Languages, Race and Culture

Siow partially addressed this in his discussion on Singapore’s demographics. About 76 percent of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, with ethnic Malays comprising 15 percent of the population and Indians accounting for 7.5 percent. The main working language is English, but there are four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. The symbolic national language is Malay.

8. Music business infrastructure

According to Siow, there’s a “lack of lighthouse culture” in Singapore. The shortage of clubs means that people don’t come to Singapore to seek out new music. It also means fewer opportunities for Canadian musicians to be discovered in this country.

9. Stage of music city development

Again, he said that Singapore is not a leader in this area.

“We lack start-ups,” he stated. “We lack managers.”

10. Other artists

To reach audiences in Singapore, musicians need to have succeeded in other markets. Siow acknowledged that this doesn’t make it easy for those still trying to break through.

“But, like I say, if you’re big in Taiwan, Singaporeans will listen to you,” he stated.

Moreover, if an artist has done well in the United States, they’re made for Singapore.

“That’s a quick rundown of how I think about each market,” Siow concluded.

Festival presented by TD

At the same Jade Music Festival event, other organizers of giant Asian musical events indicated they are also willing to work with Canadian artists.

They include Kerala-based Wonderwall Media CEO Sumesh Lal and Magnetic Asia cofounder Justin Sweeting. Lal’s company stages Indiegaga festivals in India and other countries; Sweeting’s company is behind the Clockenflap Festival in Hong Kong.

TD is presenting the Jade Music Festival, which has been organized by The Society of We Are Canadians Too.

Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia. For more information about the Jade Music Festival, visit the website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.



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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.