Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Timbre Group’s Co-founder Danny Loong’s take on Singapore musicians: “We may not know enough about ourselves, but I truly believe that we can be world class.”

Once a musician himself, Danny was bandleader of one of Singapore's most traveled, and widely regarded by the media and critics as one of the best bands in Asia, Ublues. The band performed in countries such as Australia, Spain, Italy and different parts of Asia.

Ublues received critical acclaim in USA at the "International Blues Challenge" in Memphis USA in 2003 and shared the same billing with James Brown, Bob Dylan, John Legend at international festivals. Ublues was also the first Asian band to be invited to perform in the prestigious music festival in Byron Bay, Bluesfest in their 20 years history.

Danny is a passionate advocate of not only Singapore music but music from Asia in general. During the interview, he spoke strongly of how his experience as a musician had shaped his vision of what Asian musicians can achieve amongst the challenges they face.


Danny Loong, Co-founder of Timbre Group

“In Western countries, very often many of them are surprised that we speak good English. And to be honest, if Gangnam Style did not achieve over one billion views, do you think the West would care? It’s a challenge to change their mindsets, but it’s not impossible. We only need a torch-bearer, not even necessarily from Singapore, but from Asia, to make it in the Western market so that we would be fairly judged for the quality of our music, and not be distracted by our ethnicity and its stereotypes.

During my experience in Australia, we managed to change some mindsets there, and even if it was a few hundred people, it was worth it as hopefully, that could translate to thousands or even more.”

Danny with partner Edward Chia, started Timbre Group, a holding company with a diversified portfolio of music lifestyle brands creating an eco-system of holistic and synergistic range of businesses.

Over the years, Timbre has proven to be a successful business model in the music industry, expanding from food and beverage concepts such as the Timbre chain of live music restaurants and bars to key large events Timbre Rock & Roots and Beerfest Asia, eventually vertically integrating into event and artists management, as well as a music education arm, with Timbre Music Academy and Junior Academy of Music.

Danny and Edward were both conferred the "Tourism Entrepreneur of The Year" award by the Singapore Tourism Board at the Singapore Experience Awards in 2010.

How was Timbre started? How are the roles split between Edward and yourself?

I was a full time musician, starting with a band from West Australia in 1999 after graduating. That experience as a musician was very important in shaping his thoughts to set up my own place, which eventually happened with Edward.

Since I was 18, I’ve always wanted my own place. But I wasn’t that serious until we disbanded in 2004. When I was playing in Australia, we were the only Asian-fronted band, and it was about promoting the music from Asia, as we stood out in the scene that was dominated mostly by white musicians. In 2001, I came back to Singapore with the band, and were based here for three years promoting the album and playing at various shows here and overseas.

Thanks to the eight years I spent as a musician, it developed a drive within me to build a brand name like Timbre as a force to promote Asian musicians, Asian music, and also help guide the bands.

I eventually met Edward in 2003 when he was running youth arts organization, Arts For Us All, and he invited my band to play at his events. We kept in touch, and talked about the idea of having a place, and came across the Substation, which was the first important step to what it is now.

Edward is the Managing Director, while I am the Chief Creative Director. Together with my team, we play A&R role, artiste management and creative role and develop our musicians and bands, making sure that the listeners come back and to maintain the brand’s main objective to uplift and support Singapore musicians.

What were the challenges when musicians faced back then? How about now?

Ten years ago, there wasn’t much of a live scene. There were a few places but it wasn’t a huge thing. Not many musicians were releasing albums as compared to now. Back when I was a musician myself, it was very tough for us, but we still did pretty well, and represented Singapore to play in many countries, such as Australia, Spain, Malaysia, Barcelona and Indonesia. And that experience also shaped the vision for the business of what I hope Singapore music could grow into.

In the past, being a musician was not looked upon with any respect. There was a strong stigma against musicians and anyone involved in the arts. Being in the arts was not seen as a valid profession, and the stigma still holds today, although it’s not as bad now. It was a bit disconcerting and disappointing, because the reason why I came back from Perth was because of the Renaissance City Plan report released by the National Arts Council which unveils details of Singapore’s Arts and Cultural Master Plan for 2008-2015, which got me all excited. But a renaissance cannot start if the people do not regard arts as a crucial part of culture development and the social glue that gel people together.

Through the years, I realize that (arts development) was done in a very pragmatic manner, and it seems that we may have forgotten that many legends in the past like Eric Clapton or Elton John who were struggling artists before they made it big.

When I returned, I wanted to help uplift the music scene, but it all starts with changing mindsets, and that was a huge hurdle. The lack of this cultural mindset was alarming, because if we claim to be a first world nation like Japan or Canada, we need to cultivate culture and arts at a whole different level, and this is a very important part of the ecosystem of the country.

In order to build the software or heartware of the country, we have to build trust and confidence in the youth and let ideas just blossom from a ground up level. That was the drive when Edward and I set up Timbre, which was to empower young people, and to build their confidence.

What is Timbre's strategy in creating a sustainable audience for your acts? How do you attract new customers and retain old ones?

Our customers are mainly between 18-40, anyone who likes live music and hanging out with their friends. At Timbre @ The Substation, you would always see groups of friends coming together. We also make sure that the ladies felt comfortable and safe at any of our outlets, as Timbre has a more wholesome and safe image.

At the different outlets, Timbre’s basic DNA of holistic dining experience with entertainment can be expected, but each outlet has its own charm. Timbre @ The Substation would be more rock-n-roll, louder and edgy, with more original showcases featured, due to its location near Fort Canning which live concerts are held, which is part of this entire sub-culture image that The Substation projects.

Timbre @ The Arts House would be more acoustic, laid back by the river, and because most of the customers are from the Central Business District, the repertoire would have to be different, including classics  songs from the 80s.

Timbre @ Gillman would have a more romantic dining kind of vibe and great for group celebrations like birthdays, and we also have a lot of families with kids heading there as well.

We also have Switch, which attracts a different group of customers, who are similar to the crowd at Timbre @ The Substation but they also enjoy listening to Mandarin or other Asian music. There are many who enjoy listening to Bruno Mars as much as Jay Chou, and this can be seen in their playlists.

When we first started, we had the help of many bands who brought their own fans to Timbre. We are thankful for that as Timbre @ The Substation wasn’t exactly the easiest location to find, and even today we have people calling us to ask how to get there.

At that time, it was also the start of the rise of social media such as blogs, Facebook and later on Twitter, which helped to spread awareness, especially amongst our younger customers. We’ve also had strong support from the media like The Straits Times, which published cover stories and articles about us.

Throughout the years, we realize that Timbre has become a place where people like to come to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, marriage proposals and anniversaries. That’s where our bands play a very big part in interacting the customers and being part of the whole experience, and not just engaging or entertaining them through music. Inevitably, we become part of their lives, and that kind of branding takes effort, because we’re dealing with very personal events like wedding proposals, which we cannot afford to screw up. Every event is a customized experience, which sometimes I’ll personally handle, and all details are thoroughly looked into, right down to which song they sing on stage, whether they will do a dance after the proposal and so on. We listen to their requests and try our best help as much as we can.

We also invested in technology to improve our dedication system, which allows customers to make their dedication requests through SMS, which would be shown on screen.

How would you describe the live scene in Singapore now?

Ten years ago, the clubbing scene was bigger than live music; there weren’t many options for people to go to, but thanks to the growing popularity of acoustic singer-songwriter types like Jason Mraz, and popular Youtube performers, more people like to enjoy live music these days. We see more live band venues coming up, which are great, although there may be saturation in the market now. So it’s all about quality, and the genuine personal touch that our bands and service staff can bring to the audience which sets us apart.

Why did Timbre go into music education too?

We look at Timbre’s business as an ecosystem, where all the subsidiaries would complement and support each other.

We have about 60 students currently, and two schools, Timbre Music Academy and Junior Academy of Music.

Obviously, music education is a synergistic fit, because not only are our musicians are qualified to teach, they could also promote the classes during their gigs at Timbre, and it empowers them to create an additional revenue stream for themselves other than performing. We teach the same things as other music schools, but the key difference is that our students immediately have a platform to practice and perform live in front of an audience which we think is key to their music development.

That is when students can truly learn about showmanship and how to deal with nervousness, how to prepare themselves before going on stage; tuning up and working with other people, and a whole lot of other things which are learnt on the spot.

We have the facilities to have our students play with our instructors in a live setting, and some of the students are doing very well, playing happy hour gigs. We also work with partners like the youth arm of NTUC, nEbO as well as our universities and polytechnics to train them and give them a showcase opportunity at Switch and Timbre.

Could you elaborate on the A&R and management role that Timbre undertakes? How are they marketed and developed?

We would do talent spotting, sign them, develop them and mange them for corporate events and hopefully get them to record an album, going to markets that will be interested in them.

The instructors are empowered to look out for potential students, and given their recommendation, I would have a listen, and we will consider signing them. We have already signed a few artists under our artists management arm, one of them as young as 11 years old. We are hoping to promote her in Taiwan some day for the Mandarin market.

I truly believe that some Singaporean artists are or can be world class. There are many Singapore musicians who tour with the biggest Asian names like Zhang Hui Mei or David Tao. I think we don’t know enough about ourselves, and we tend to undertake too much of a self-defeating attitude towards ourselves. So what I want to do is to empower people to start thinking that yes, they are good enough. Personally, if I didn’t go through performing at Barcelona and Spain and all the other places, I would not have possibly known that as well. We sold our albums, got invited four times by Bluesfest at Byron Bay, who eventually became our partners for Timbre Rock and Roots.

We have good quality musicians who need to dream and think big, and we just need the audience to change their mindsets and be a little more positive. Together we could make this work.

How would you propel your artists to be successful in Asia?

In terms of the Mandarin market, of course it would be China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As for English music, Australia has a lot of potential, and it all comes down to perception. We will work with partners on the ground who believe in such collaborations, like West Australian Music (WAM), a society that represents many musicians over there. They hold a festival and award ceremony every year. More importantly, there has to be a cultural exchange, just as how there is a lot more potential for Australian bands to come over, if the bridge is built without any prejudices or stereotypes. We brought three bands over last year, and this June they will bring three bands over here. This form of cultural exchange could start something hopefully big in future, whether is it through a major label, or through a music society, or through the arts and culture departments of government, and that’s what we want to do, which is to give back and help build a strong music community.

I think there is a lot more potential for Mandarin speaking and singing artists because they already have known Singapore, and have a good impression of Singapore because of the likes of Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin leading the way.

Of course, we would need to have quality songs, quality production, and we are heading in the right direction. I have heard from producers in the US and UK who have given praise for our production quality. Secondly, we would need to find the markets that can accept our music, which is the tough part, but it helps if our artists are marketed right and professionally.

Do you think Timbre's stable of artistes should perform more covers or more of their own original material? How do you balance both?

I always encourage my bands to write their own songs, as that is one of the best ways to improve themselves. However not every band writes songs, and we recognize that every band is different. A band like 53A does that, because they write their own songs and release their own albums. About 10% of Timbre’s house music nightly is originals, and we also have designated events such as Singapore Originals and worked with events like Singapore Writers Festival to organize production and projects, which encourage creativity and showcase purely original works.

Audiences now are reacting more positively to originals, as their fans look forward to the bands playing their own music. Thanks to social media and portals like iTunes and others, the bands can build a fan base and release their own material.

The audience base may be small now, but they will need to keep things going, build their portfolio, so that they would even be ready when they venture overseas.

What do you think would be the future of Singapore and Asia's music scene would be like? What are the top 3 trends that you'd predict.

1.    While China has become such a big influence, we have to be aware of how China consumes popular music, which is still a case study for many, but its sheer size cannot be ignored. It’s huge but fragmented, and the question is how we can penetrate it.

2.    As for Mandarin music, there could be a revival of classic rock bands, as I observed that in Beijing as well as Taiwan, there is a huge underground rock scene there. I like rock, so it would be nice if the next big thing is a band with a huge rock sound. I also hear that they are also into blues, jazz and even exploring into funk, so there could be a potential for such niche genres there.

3.    Coming back to Singapore as a market, I hope to see more original music being played, whether is it live or on radio or digital platforms like Deezer, which promotes local content. SGMUSO lobbied for mainstream radio to increase play of local content, and now we have about 1 song per hour. In my opinion, it’s not enough, but at least it’s a good start.

About Timbre Group

Timbre Group was founded with the social mission of developing the Singapore music scene through the talent cultivation of local musicians, and growing sustainable audiences for them. Today, the Group has evolved into a holistic music lifestyle company with a diversified yet synergistic portfolio of businesses ranging from food and beverage, concert and festivals promotion and music education. It currently comprises six live music restaurants and bars, two international festivals (Timbre Rock & Roots and Beerfest Asia), a pizza restaurant and delivery service, an artist management agency, and two music academies.

Timbre Group’s Portfolio of Brands

Timbre • Switch • 12-inch Pizzas & Records • Barber Shop • Timbre Catering • Timbre 12-inch Delivery • Timbre Music • Timbre Music Academy • Junior Academy of Music • Timbre Rock & Roots • Beerfest Asia

Community Involvement

Danny Loong is also
- a member of the Arts & Culture Strategic Review (ACSR) committee.

- Vice-President of Singapore Musicians Society (SGMuso)

This interview was conducted and transcribed by Emily Haw. Follow her on Twitter @emilyhaw