A music lover since childhood, Derrick Tham (譚志華) began composing in 1999 & was later signed as a songwriter with a music publishing house in Singapore.
Derrick had his first song published in 2002, titled《我不能飛》, and that marked a milestone in almost 10 years of songwriting and publishing songs with local as well as regional artistes.
Today, he is best known for his collaboration with singer Sam Lee, having written numerous songs for him, including 《最近》 (Recently), 《擦肩而過》 (Passer-By), 《靠近》 (So Close), and many more.
As we spoke to the recent COMPASS Young Composer of the Year Award recipient, he comes across as a down-to-earth and sensitive writer who takes humble pride in his own works.
“All these songs are my babies. Most people only hear the 3-4 minute track, but they didn’t know the story behind the song, they didn’t know that this song had been rejected or criticized many times, but when it becomes a hit song, it gives me the strength to believe in my own work.”
|COMPASS Young Composer of the Year Award recipient, Derrick Tham|
Q: Describe your musical journey as a writer. What made you go into writing? When was your tipping point?
When I first started with song writing, I didn’t know how far I could go. And when we looked at established writers like the Lee brothers, we would always wonder if we could achieve the same too. Singapore’s market is very small, and there aren’t many success cases that could make it overseas.
I started with classical piano, and then one day I just decided that I was so tired of playing classical music, then I attended a songwriting workshop conducted by a local pop music school, after which I joined their courses for several years. Songwriting, to me, is like keeping a diary, but instead of using words, I use musical notes.
One day, I decided to write my own song, and submitted it to my teacher. She added a bridge to the song, so the final version was co-written by both of us. A few years later, to my surprise, I heard my song on a newly released album at a music retailer, but when I checked the booklet, I didn’t see my name, only my teacher’s name. That was the first song that I published, so I was sad that my name wasn’t included. I went to the publishing house, and they told me that there was a miscommunication, and said that if the CD sold well and were to go for a reprint, they would include my name, and they would still include my royalties. In the end, the publisher did offer me a contract, and so I had my first contract when I was 18.
A few years later, I sold other songs under the same publisher, and the third song was sung by Sam Lee, which became the turning point of my whole music career. After my contract ended, I chose not to renew it because I decided five years is enough and I wanted to try something new. I spoke to Sam Lee over the phone, and at that time, he had just started his own production company, so he asked me to join him. I went over to Taiwan, and had the experience of being a studio assistant. Even though the tasks were menial, like buying lunch or making coffee, it gave me an opportunity to listen to what the producers and audio engineers discussed during recording sessions and the decisions they make, and this experience helped me create better demos that were more in line with what was required commercially. It was something that could not be learnt from school. I would never have that kind of chance in Singapore. In Taiwan, the turnover is high: every month there’s a new singer and every other day, there will be a recording session and a learning opportunity.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration from?
I enjoy watching movies and reading stories, or it could be inspired from the stories around me or from my own personal experience. I didn’t expect to become a lyricist too, and it was because I couldn’t find any lyricist to write them, so I wrote my own. Some suggested that I submit my demo without lyrics so that it would not restrict the producer’s imagination, but at the end of the day, I choose to put in my own lyrics, especially after selling the song by Sam Lee. It was encouraging to know that even a Singaporean’s Chinese lyrics could be accepted by the market and I began to have more faith in my own lyrics.
Q: What do you think other budding writers can learn from your story? How can they stand out from the rest?
Firstly, making the first move is very important. Take the initiative to sell your songs actively and find a publisher whom you can work with.
Secondly, create a unique style of your own, and stay focused. In this way the producer would be able to identify you clearly for a certain genre (e.g. ballads). Producers will want albums to have a variety on their menu, so having 10 ballads on the album will be boring for the listener, and normally they would include songs influenced by other genres to create an element of surprise.
Thirdly, believe in yourself. Be persistent and patient, because even if the song does not sell this time, it may still stand a chance in future.
Finally, be flexible and open to changes. Sometimes, amending the song according to the producer’s request may not mean that the previous version isn’t good, but it’s to show that you are open to ideas and willing to improve, and this will help win the producer over. Don’t be too stubborn!
Q: Tell us more about your relationship with a local publishing house and later as an exclusive writer with Zoommuzik. What are some of the pros and cons of being an exclusive writer? What are some of the things you would look out for in your publishing contract? What do you value most?
Back then, I didn’t really look at the terms closely, but if I were to be offered a contract now, one of the things that I would look out for is that the rights of the song would be returned to me after the contract has ended. Over the years, I have also learnt to be more discerning about the royalty rates shared between the publisher and writer. In the past, it was typically 50-50, but now it is possible to have a higher share for the writer.
Although I’m an exclusive writer under Zoommuzik, it does not mean that I only write songs for the artists under the label. It does, however, mean that they would have the first right of refusal to my material. If the song is not suitable for their own artists, then the song is submitted to other publishing companies.
When I was under a local publishing house, I would have to submit my songs to the publishing manager, after which the publishing manager will liaise with the overseas A&R manager for selection. But when I’m with this Taiwanese publishing house, I would be able to contact the Taiwanese sub-publisher A&R manager directly, with the consent and knowledge of the original publisher of course. At the end of the day, you would still need a sub-publisher to manage all the accounts.
As a writer, I would like to work with a publisher who is equally as aggressive as me in pushing out my works. I remember once there was a local publishing manager whom I approached to submit a song, but the manager simply just placed my CD aside and I felt disheartened and demoralized. That was when I decided that (this publisher) was not suitable for me. The environment must be right. You must be happy with your colleagues. Even if you can sell many songs, but if you’re unhappy, then there’s no point. If we can work well together, even if the song is not sold, I would still value the effort that the publisher has put in.
Under the Taiwanese publishing house, I was introduced to not only the singer, but also the producer and audio engineer, and having the opportunity to be in the recording studio is also an experience I value very much.
Q: After writing so many hit songs, what kind of income do you generate as a writer?
I receive mechanical royalties from the publisher and performance royalties from COMPASS. The proportion of performance royalties is much bigger because of high radio airplay, and royalties from Karaoke and ringtone downloads.《最近》and 《擦肩而过》are my top grossing songs.Top songs can generate up to a four figure sum per year in terms of royalties. I’m not sure how the royalties are calculated in detail, but I trust that they will do their job properly.
Q: You seem to have found some success in Taiwan, HK and Singapore, according to your accolade of awards. What are your future plans?
My plan is to conduct a live music showcase with a couple of friends who are live performers and tour around music cafes in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, so that more people will get to know my music, and because both the singer and myself are Singaporeans, I hope that more people will get to know more Singaporean artistes and writers. So far there have been a few local artistes who have been conducting such tours, but most of them are females, so we would like to have an all-male team for this tour.
Q: How do you think local composers and authors can collaborate with each other better?
Personally, I never had the opportunity to work with other local writers, but in my opinion, the local music schools are a great way for different musicians (writers, lyricists, vocalists) to congregate and collaborate together.
Q: What do you think of the future of the music industry in Singapore and in Asia? How should writers be looking to sell their music?
In China, some publishers practice “买断”, which means that writers are paid upfront a fixed amount. Their name is credited but they do not receive any royalties thereafter because the publisher owns the song completely. We wouldn’t know how big a hit the song would be, and whether it would be used in other media such as in a film, so it is difficult to assess if a writer should take up such a deal. I would advise writers to consider very carefully with such deals.
Awards and Milestones of Derrick Tham
Began Songwriting Career in 1999
Published 1st song in 2002, entitled “I Cannot Fly”
• 2004年成為《新加坡詞曲版權協會 》會員
Became an Official Member of Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (COMPASS) in 2004
Garnered popularity with the song, “Recently”, in 2006
• 2007年以作品《這樣就好》獲得香港新城國語力 熱爆K歌
Awarded the HongKong Mandarin Karaoke Song Award, for the song, “That’s All”
Became an Exclusive Songwriter with Zoom Musik (Music Production Company in Taiwan)
Invited to attend the S-Pop Event in Singapore as a Special Guest in 2008
Awarded the Taiwanese Ringtone Download Champion for the song，“Passer-By” in 2008
• 2008年以作品《擦肩而過》入圍馬來西亞 Red Box2008最高點播率K歌20強
Top 20 Most Dedicated Songs in Malaysia Red Box 2008, for the song “Passer-By”
• 2008年以作品《擦肩而過》入圍台灣KKBOX年度數位音樂風雲榜 No.5
Was Awarded 5th Position in Taiwan’s KKBOX Annual Music Chart, for the song “Passer-By” in 2008
• 2008年以作品《擦肩而過，最近》入圍新加波KBox 年度K歌金曲大奬20強
Entered the Top 20 position in Singapore KBox Annual Hit Songs Award in 2008, for the song“Passer-By” and “Recently”
• 2008 担任第14届《飛越時空》半决赛 评审.
Judge for NTU Chinese Society 14th Music Express Songwriting Competition Semi-Finals
2009 Conduct Music and Songwriting Workshop in Singapore with Taiwanese Singer Sam Lee
• 2012年 新加坡詞曲版權協會 COMPASS 年度青年歌曲创作人
2012 awarded COMPASS Young Composer of the Year
· 我不能飛 (I Can’t Fly) - 路嘉欣 Jozie Lu
· 矛盾 (Paradox of love) - 何静萱 Nicola Ho
· 最近 (Recently) - 李聖傑 Sam Lee
· 分心 (Distraction) - 王傑 Dave Wang
· 這樣就好 (That’s all) - 鄧穎芝 Vangie Tang
· 別要走 (Do not go) - 鄧穎芝 Vangie Tang
· 讀心術 (Read my Mind) - 卓文萱 Genie Chuo
· 擦肩而過 (Passer-by) - 李聖傑 Sam Lee
· 靠近 (So close) - 李聖傑 Sam Lee
· 下个幸福 (Next Love) - 卓文萱 Genie Chuo
· 抱歉 (Sorry) - 李聖傑 Sam Lee
· 明白 (Realize) - 李聖傑 Sam Lee
· 最後紀念 (Last memory) - 陽韻禾 Melody Yeung
· 擦肩而過 (Passer-by) - 王馨平 Linda wang
· 當初 (In the beginning ) - 胡夏
· 第一次 (First time) - 陳浩民 Benny Chan
· 會過去的 (It’ll be Over ) - 梁靜茹 Fish Leong