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Singapore's gig musicians talk Covid-19 and the live music situation

Apologies for not having a weekly wrap today — an emergency came up yesterday afternoon and I basically ran out of time to write a wrap. 😭 If I can, I'll write one this weekend so you'll get a wrap on Monday. If not, we'll be back to regular programming next weekend, I promise!

But we have something that's probably even better than a weekly wrap: the first story from the Kaya Toast Mini-Mentorship Initiative! I've been working with the Kaya Toast writers behind-the-scenes over the past few months, and while these ridiculous pandemic times means we haven't been able to finish every single piece, I'm very excited to publish this one by Enya.

An introduction to our writer

Professing over two decades of experience as a performing vocalist, Enya's career highlights to date include supporting household music legends such as Andrea Bocelli, Kristin Chenoweth, Wang Lee Hom, and Jacob Collier — on world-renowned stages like Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, Berklee Performance Center and Boston Symphony Hall. In addition to opening for and being featured in festivals like Beerfest Asia, The Conscious Fest, Earthfest, Newport Folk Festival (RI, USA), Boston Greenfest (MA, USA), and Gardenbeats, her artistic appearances onstage as NyaLi have garnered critical appraise across the North Americas, Europe, and Asia.

Since Covid-19 devastated the live music and events industry which used to be her bread and butter, Enya feels lucky to have diversified her income streams to include substantially increased teaching assignments, as well as performing for virtual and hybrid live events across the globe. With this report, Enya seeks to reconnect with her previous writing chapter from her university days, by representing the predicament of gig musicians in the same boat, from a more raw, on-the-ground perspective.

Singapore's gig musicians talk Covid-19 and the live music situation

By Enya

In the year-and-a-half since Covid-19 imposed itself ruthlessly upon the world, once-teeming food-and-beverage (F&B) spots — which previously provided sound and atmosphere until the wee hours of the morning — have either folded, or gone into radical survival mode.

“Venues have been closing,” says D, the owner of an established brand in the local live music scene. “It’s untenable — some of these brands are not able to survive purely because the main attraction [was] music. People go there because of the music — not just the food, the ambience, the drinks… it’s really the music.”

Stanley, owner of an established music-lifestyle venue in Holland Village, told me that business has been “worse than pathetic”. And when an F&B outlet sinks, the live music acts they once boosted get sucked under, too.

Over 40-odd hours of Zoom calls, yours truly had the privilege of engaging in heartfelt and, at times, gut-wrenching conversations with several (ex-) heavy-duty gig musicians — practitioners for whom 33–100% of their monthly income came from entertaining regularly at bars, weddings and corporate event functions, and whose music performing careers span between five years to over three decades. As a gig musician myself — at least, that was my profile — I could relate to much of what they told me.

For some, gigging was absolutely a lifestyle: routinely nocturnal work hours, smoky stages, and chumming it up with patrons who would buy a round of drinks, five, six, even seven nights a week. Holding down residencies at F&B venues, these musicians played the same time slots weekly, for the same agreed duration. On certain days of the week, some industry full-timers even played multiple venues on the same night. Many full-time musicians also juggled a mix of income streams: performing at corporate functions, teaching their instrument and/or music theory, as well as the occasional commercial or festival contract hire. It was hard work and not as glamorous as people might expect, but one could make a decent living; previously full-time gig musicians I spoke with said that earning upwards of $4,500 a month was not shocking. Year-end festivities coinciding with high gig season would typically account for this figure doubling, tripling, occasionally even exceeding a few fold during peak periods — according to Melvin, a long-time gig veteran who also runs his own audio tech support company.

With the pandemic, many of these gigs vanished. “I would say I’m probably earning 20% of what I used to,” says Rai, who used to perform five nights a week for over 20 years. “I actually am, to be honest, living off my savings… not totally, but at least partly. My income is definitely not where it used to be.”

What's prioritised, what isn't

Over 2020 and 2021, Singapore’s Covid-19 regulations have shifted again and again as the government tries to balance public health goals with the need to stimulate the economy. While Singaporeans have been generally compliant, these rules are nevertheless taking a toll, particularly on industries that continue to be shut down, or heavily restricted, no matter how the situation evolves.

It’s not that musicians don’t understand the rationale behind a ban on live music at F&B and nightlife venues — even one that has outlived the “circuit breaker” period and other “Heightened Alert” phases. Loosened restrictions elsewhere, though, leave musicians wondering how far down the national totem pole they really are. That the government would permit the easing of some restrictions while rigidly persisting with the live music ban at all F&B industry establishments raised a few brows: travel borders reopened for short-term business- or social-trips under provisions like the Air Travel Pass and Reciprocal Green Lane, and indoor places of recreation, such as cinemas and the casinos at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, have been permitted to resume business since July 2020. Sure, the state can relax restrictions to safeguard its own economic interest, but how is permitting live music to resume more unsafe than running the risk of importing foreign cases, or a cluster forming in a casino or cinema?

"The problem still lies in the fact that this is a society that does not appreciate the importance of the arts, and the importance of live performing, and how much a part of our regular vernacular it is."

“I understand that it’s not easy and that [the government is] trying their best, and for the most part we’ve done very well, considering, but the problem still lies in the fact that this is a society that does not appreciate the importance of the arts, and the importance of live performing, and how much a part of our regular vernacular it is,” says full-time vocalist, voice talent, and dramaturg AF.

“They are consistently taking it for granted, putting it on the backburner, trying to help pretty much every other industry except this one in a real meaningful way… and it hurts.”

Attempts to pivot

For many of Singapore’s musicians, the pandemic has crippled their industry overnight: live music contracts suddenly void at bar spots, and weddings and corporate function bookings postponed, if not cancelled outright. In this strange new world, many turned to Covid-generated jobs like swabbing, safe distancing ambassador roles, SafeEntry personnel, and food delivery during the initial “circuit breaker”. They expected these jobs to just be a stopgap until they could return to music, not realising how long drawn things would actually be.

Melvin took up Grab delivery work during this time, but found it a struggle. “I did try lah… but nobody will hire a 50-year-old when there are so many younger applicants! So what did I do? We uncles have driving license, so we try and do delivery lah,” he says. “Which brings me to a point — delivery also xiong! Government increased petrol duties because they say, want to give more subsidies to encourage more green cars… Now no income, how to change to green car?  The delivery job [industry] rates and hours are already tough and have not risen to compensate for the increased vehicle operating costs… and wah lau eh petrol prices now are ridiculous!”

Pivoting takes courage, especially when performing full-time was a lifestyle built over decades. But some have decided to take a leap. Former full-time pub singer-guitarist DJL, for instance, stopped performing and moved into coding: “After the month-long ‘circuit breaker’, I realised, okay, this Covid is not going anywhere, so I spent the next couple of months deciding what to do, because my savings aren’t going to last forever, right?” Right now, they’re only earning slightly more than half of what they used to pull in as a musician, and it looks like it’ll stay that way for some time, since they’re new to this career and don’t have an industry-relevant degree.

For many others, it’s been more a matter of shifting their focus. Before the pandemic, JW, a pianist, saw his income split evenly between gigging, music arrangement, and teaching. Now, his income comes more from teaching and music arrangement, with about 20% coming from performing via live-streams. Rai too, shared that his income went from coming from primarily venue and corporate event gigs, to relying more on show-hosting, commercial acting, and the occasional production job.

The diminishing returns of live-streaming

As work, meetings, and study moved online, it was inevitable for musicians to try out the live-streaming path. Virtual stages, such as the one funded by the People’s Association (PA) at Geylang Serai Community Centre, sprang up as early as May 2020. Performing to a lens was initially strange. MY, a full-time pianist and music educator, misses the old atmosphere: “[Live streaming is] here to stay but hopefully it doesn’t take up the bulk of what we do… because nothing can replicate a live performance—whether it’s an event, or just a little pub. You cannot see how excited [audience] are when they are applauding… emoji claps are different.”

The novelty wore off quickly for both performers and audiences, as steadily dwindling live-stream views can attest. “It gets really boring, and on top of that [people] don’t pay for it because it feels the same as watching a video on YouTube,” Jeremiah, previously a regular bar musician, tells me. “[Live streams are] more for keeping my [voice and guitar chops] in shape. It’s definitely not sustainable… in terms of music viewership, it went from like, 50-60 a night and dropped all the way to like, 10… on some nights, less.” He’s since shifted his attention towards education and tech production.

If you reflect on the appeal and value of any live music experience, the problems with live-streaming become quickly apparent. In the words of Ze, a guitarist-singer who used to gig nightly: “It’s a placeholder for live music, and a contrived way of performing live music. If it wasn’t for the pandemic I feel like not many people [would] actually wanna watch a musical live-stream because that’s not the point… the whole point [of live music] is to see someone killing it in person… it’s way more amazing in person.”

“The [immediate] interaction is gone… that’s a huge factor when it comes to live performance,” says DJL. “With live streams… it’s something you can leave on in the background so, people aren’t as invested or participative as you’d like them to be, unless like, they damn hardcore support you. The attention span is a lot shorter online… it’s really not the same.”

"After a year of live-streaming I looked at my accounts, just to be straight up — it was maybe about $2,000? From one whole year of live-streaming."

Treating live-streaming as a long-term solution for live music would be a mistake. It’s far from financially sustainable, unless state funding or private sponsors come forth and fully commit to financing such events. The logistical and technical skill sets required to run live-stream events mean having both live audio and video crew support on site — already double the overheads of the regular live gig, without even considering hybrid events that combine both in-person and virtual audience elements. The majority of those I interviewed cited high input for declining returns. As Rai deadpanned: “It’s basically just a way to keep our faces in people’s faces … the amount of work that goes behind a live-stream is way more than just playing gigs. A lot of bands dropped out because [their viewership stagnated and they] weren’t really substituting their income with live-streams… After a year of live-streaming I looked at my accounts, just to be straight up — it was maybe about $2,000? From one whole year of live-streaming.”

Displacement and a loss of identity

Many artists say that what they do isn’t just a job. “[Our work] is tied to self-identity, and a sense of purpose, and an essence of who we are,” says M, a singer-songwriter and music educator. “So when that is taken away, you have one whole sector of people who are very lost.”

Other musicians agreed with this sentiment. “When [the circuit breaker] first happened I didn’t feel it — because you’re hopeful, right? Things are gonna change… and then things didn’t change and you just feel like everything is seeping out of you, and you’re forced to become another person,” says Sharon. “Especially these few months, I’ve been really grieving the loss of my identity as a [performer].”

"I’ve been really grieving the loss of my identity as a performer."

But there were also those who take this harsh reality in their stride. “We have to be very clear on personal responsibility,” says ML, another formerly gigging singer. “It was a decision when we decided to be full-time musicians, so I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘Oh I am a full-time musician but I can’t continue because the government owes me a living’. And if I can’t continue there’s also no shame in going to another industry to get funds to be able to sustain what I want to do. A lot of people are doing jobs they don't 100% love.”

“This has been a shakeup for all of us… so I think the people who are left are those who learnt to adapt. Of course, you have to grieve things which are lost… then afterwards get over it, move on. You learn from that, then you get better and that’s how we’re going to get stronger as individuals and creatives. Of all industries, [we] should be most primed to find creative solutions in times like this! Like, of all people, we would have the best chance, you know?”

Relief matters

F&B outlets subsisted on takeaway orders and had rental relief while dining-in was banned, and creative organisations turned to the Arts and Culture Resilience Package operating grant and venue hire subsidies. But I found that the ousted gig musician’s predicament often seems to have slipped through the cracks in state support systems. The bevy of official assistance schemes targeted at the arts sector do make provisions for freelancing individuals, with funds like the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) and the Covid-19 Recovery Grant. Alas, the qualifying criteria to receive this aid — specifically the ones looking at the annual value of one’s residential property, and prior household income — scuppered many otherwise legitimate applications. Ruled ineligible for income relief by these above rubrics, Melvin sighs: “The frustration is you see [the government] helping everyone but us! We start with SIA—how many billions of bailout dollars. Uncle here ah, zero income since Feb 2020.”

Some, like SS, have been further caught out by bureaucratic categories. “I wanted to apply for grants. I’m not eligible for [SIRs] because I have a company — mostly for working with certain hospitality establishments, where they require their vendors to have a company. So because I’m listed as the director of my company entity, it’s not considered self-employed… even though I’m not paying myself a salary obviously! So that is definitely sucky lah. I’m basically not eligible for anything else so I’ve been surviving on whatever I earned in 2019. It’s really been depleted.”

On grit and resilience

There is, thankfully, some silver lining to all this Covid-19 bleakness. “For the last 11 months or so, we have been putting out acts who are mostly local… also because no choice lah. It used to be a good balance of 50-50 between local and international artists programmed. With one arm down we have to use the other arm right? Which is our local artists… so we’re giving them more platform to perform and shine,” quips Shisa, arts administrator for a well-subscribed local arts centre.

"I think as musicians we just need to learn how to survive."

And it seems some musicians are determined to keep on keeping on, finding different ways to survive within or without Singapore. As bassist-composer Wendy, who emigrated to New Zealand last year, told me: “I think as musicians we just need to learn how to survive. We are after all, a hustling breed — we didn’t pick musicianship because it’s the easiest way to make a quick buck. We do it because we love it. And Covid-19 pandemic or not, we will still do it… and we’re very creative people—there are so many ways to earn a living as a musician. You know, I just came across [music] people who are earning as engravers — they just take music and notate it, because people need music sheets, you know?”

Keith, an audio engineer, is “bullish”, insisting all this will pass: “The only reason we feel like this is not gonna end is because we are in the middle of it right now… three or four years down the road nobody will remember this, everybody will have a new problem… just have to [hang in there] lah, that’s the only way to get past this. We have to give it time.”

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