Live performing at F&B outlets is back. How do S'pore musicians & DJs feel about pivoting back?

Musicians and DJs in Singapore tell us how they are preparing to move on from the temporary arrangements that supported them over the past two years.

Alfie Kwa | April 02, 2022, 10:28 AM

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Two years on, we're finally seeing live performances again. Paired with late-night food and drinks, our pre-Covid lives are coming back – slowly but surely.

Local DJs and musicians are rejoicing.

Affected by the restrictions over the past two years, their jobs and livelihoods were taken away.

"It was surreal," the main vocalist of Singaporean band 53A, Sara Wee, said about the drastic change in her career as a musician when the restrictions were introduced.

She recalled looking into the audience and seeing dwindling crowds. They slowly started wearing masks during performances and weren't allowed to interact with the crowd.

Then, all together, that ended. No more audiences, no more singing live.

How did Wee and other gig performers survive two years with no live performances at food and beverage (F&B) outlets?

I spoke to some musicians and a DJ about coming back to the live music scene.

Building back stamina for shows

Local band 53A. Image from 53A/FB.

I spoke to Wee on Wednesday (Mar. 30) afternoon, hours before her first show back with a live audience later that evening.

Wee said she definitely felt the pinch of the ban on live music in F&B outlets over the past two years.

The musician started her music career at 17, playing about six bar gigs a week in her initial years. And right before Covid-19 hit, her band had about three to four gigs a week.

At their last performance before the circuit breaker, Wee was optimistic about the return of live music.

"I remember telling the staff at Timbre Substation (where 53A had regular shows): 'Hopefully, we'll see you guys very soon, like in a few months.' And next thing you know, it's two years down the road."

So, what happened when the restrictions kicked in?

"Income loss," said Wee, simply. Not only were her weekly gigs cancelled, but events that were booked months ahead were cancelled as well.

Image from 53A/FB.

Thankfully, the bar and restaurant, Timbre pivoted to holding virtual live streams (under a campaign called #keepmusicalive) where bands could perform on Facebook.

But, it wasn't the same. During the circuit breaker, they were stuck at home like everyone else, performing in their own rooms, away from the rest of their bandmates. The band's drummer, who couldn't have his full drum set in his home, switched to an electronic one instead.

But the band made do with what they had and continued work as per usual. Well, kind of.

While virtual gigs helped, earnings fell. Although Wee couldn't share how much income she lost, she said she had to pick up more work on the side to sustain her income flow.

Wee already had small projects on the side. She is a singing and yoga instructor, as well as a lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts. With fewer music gigs, she had to teach more classes to make ends meet.

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This was the same for her other bandmates.

53A's lead guitarist, Alvin Khoo, who had been coaching tennis for some time, picked up more students and classes. And their drummer, Helman Kamal, started doing food delivery.

Now that they can perform again, Wee seemed pretty optimistic that the live music scene is back and here to stay.

She said she'll be taking fewer yoga and singing lessons in the next couple of months as her schedule gets more filled up with live performance gigs – to focus more on her career as a performer.

Although 53A has done live stream performances and other smaller shows in the last couple of months, it's been a while since the band has performed at F&B outlets.

Wee said virtual shows normally last no more than an hour, but their first gig back on Wednesday (Mar. 30) was scheduled to be three sets long, lasting about three hours.

"It's almost like working out, you have to build the stamina to be able to do it multiple times a week."

She anticipated that she and her bandmates would feel fatigued after their shows. Despite this, she excitedly added: "[We are] very ready to get back to the swing of things".

The next day after, I dropped Wee a text to ask: "How was your first day back?"

Wee responded:

"It was amazing and so surreal. Even the audience was so happy to just hear live music again. People were standing outside Timbre X S.E.A, by the river, dancing to our music."

Prioritising work in physical venues

Gemstarr. Image via Ministry of DJs.

Jeremy Leong, better known as "Gemstarr", is a veteran DJ in Singapore who's been DJ-ing for about 21 years now. He's played in several clubs over the years including Bang Bang, Empire, and Altitude, among others.

Like Wee, DJ-ing was a big part of Leong's life. He used to spend every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night doing what he loves.

The professional DJ, who used to earn S$100 to S$500 per hour for gigs, said the Covid-19 measures hit him hard financially.

"My income went from 100 per cent to zero."

With no more live performances, he knew he had to hop on other projects to get by.

That was when he started the Ministry of DJs, a DJ school. He also did live streams on Facebook and for corporate events in the U.S and UK.

He has also recently started working with TikTok to stream performances on the platform.

But, virtual events are so different from live performances in club, Leong said.

"(Livestreams are) definitely totally different because number one, at clubs, you played to a dance floor. And when you play to a dance floor you need to know and read the crowd. You know what works and what doesn't work and how you're going to remedy the situation then and there."

Nonetheless, Leong believes virtual events are here to stay and stressed how important it is to adapt to the times.

Some of his friends in the industry had to pick up other jobs, such as food delivery, to supplement their income from virtual gigs. Others left the industry completely.

"Some pivot to do something else, I think [they] see no future in this."

Not Leong, who chose to stay in the industry and ride out the storm.

With live music back, how will things change for Leong?

Like Wee, Leong is going to prioritise his work as a DJ at physical events. After the announcement last week, Leong decided to cancel a virtual event after getting booked to perform at a club, the reason being that the physical event pays more.

It seems that the nightlife scene is bouncing back quite quickly, with clubs (most operating as restaurants now) quickly looking for entertainment for their guests.

Although live music is back, Leong said the scene is not what it used to be.

Nightlife players who managed to survive the past two years have been losing money and desperately need to recoup losses now. So, it is likely that they are able to pay artists the rates they used to get before Covid-19.

Butterflies in his stomach

Gearing up for his first gig on Friday (Apr. 1), singer Khairul Afwan from local band Supersonic said he anticipated that would have butterflies in his stomach and may forget a line or two on his first night back on stage.

Image from Supersonic/FB.

Unlike Leong and Wee, Afwan had little to no practice performing over the past two years.

The full-time musician said he used to have six to seven live performances at bars and pubs every week. And when live music at F&Bs stopped, his weeks were completely freed up.

The worst part was that he didn't get to have one final gig before everything closed during the circuit breaker. He recalled how heart-wrenching it was on Mar. 26, 2020, when everything came to a halt.

Image from Supersonic/FB.

But he was optimistic about the situation since the pandemic was something none of us had gone through before.

"When Covid-19 happened, we (him and his bandmates) were positive, albeit in the wrong way. A few of my friends of mine thought it was all going to blow over in the next few months and started digging through our savings."

By the fifth month, when his savings were drying up and came to the realisation: "This is not just a temporary setback."

With no resume and portfolio, Afwan was forced to pick up odd jobs β€” helping Singaporeans with TraceTogether token issues and handing out CDC vouchers, amongst other duties as a temporary staff at a community centre.Β  He was also a cook at a central kitchen and did food deliveries.

In January this year, he finally got a permanent role as an IT engineer.

Returning to his music gigs, Afwan is contemplating how to balance his day job as an IT engineer and his night job as a musician at F&B outlets.

"This Friday night I have a gig and the next morning I'm back to work. I'm not sure how I'll feel but I'll see how it goes."

Afwan admitted that before Covid-19, he placed all his eggs in one basket – only relying on his job as a musician which was easily taken away in an instance when the pandemic hit.

With that, it looks like he's taking a new approach to his career prospects moving forward.

"I like my job (as an IT engineer) now. So I hope I will balance both my day and night jobs... It's the way to survive now, you'll never know if something like this will happen again"

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Top images courtesy of Supersonic and 53A/FB, and Ministry of DJs.