Entertainment

Triple treat: Chinese pop
music's A-list

Whether your yardstick is critical or popular acclaim, there is no doubt that Singaporeans Tanya Chua, JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun are among Chinese pop music's A-list.

With an unprecedented third win for Best Mandarin Female Singer at the prestigious Golden Melody Awards in June, Chua is not just the most feted artist in Singapore but she has also eclipsed the likes of Taiwan's Sarah Chen, Stella Chang, A-mei and Hong Kong's Karen Mok.

For the seventh consecutive year, Lin took top honors at the 17th annual Composers and Authors Society of Singapore awards last month, based on the amount of royalties he earned.

His glittery haul of Top Local Songwriter, Top Local Artiste Of The Year and Top Local Chinese Pop Song (for Remember) this year was also a first in the award's history.

He has also successfully held world tours which have taken him to cities in China and as far afield as the United States.

As for Sun, she burst onto the scene with a hit debut album Yan Zi (2000), won the Best Newcomer prize at Golden Melody and has remained an enduring act who has pulled off not one, but two successful comebacks - first with the album Stefanie in 2004 and then with It's Time last year.

Together, they represent a high point for Singapore in the Mandopop industry - arguably the equivalent of having three top 10 players in the world in a sport such as table-tennis.

Industry insiders are quick to point out that before the current big three, Singapore has had previous success with its pop exports with singers such as Maggie Theng, Kit Chan, Mavis Hee and A-do.

In fact, some see the rise of homegrown stars as coming in waves of, say, five to 10 years and the current big guns are the latest, and biggest, wave to travel out from our shores.

Still, music insiders tell Life! that this purple patch of the Stef-Tanya-JJ triumvirate may not happen again for Singapore.

One main reason is that the industry itself has changed since 2003, when Lin, the last of the three to make his debut, released his maiden album, Music Voyager. In those nine years, much money has disappeared from the business due to the Internet revolution, perhaps never to return.

The idea that stars are born and talent will be recognized is an irresistible one but the reality is that stars are made - through promotion and marketing, which obviously require big bucks.

In the case of Sun, she had the muscle of Warner Taiwan behind her when she made her debut. Warner Music marketing director James Kang says the company backed her up with "a multi-million-dollar budget and headlining publicity efforts".

He adds that Sun is a rare example and "a tough act to follow for Singapore singers". He says: "It is almost impossible these days to have a Taiwan label back up a debutante with a multi-million-dollar budget due to the dwindling of sales figures."

Ken Lim, director of Hype Records, describes the business model of star-making: After identifying someone with potential, you need to pour in investment.

He notes: "You see how much you need to put in and then weigh it against the returns. And right now, there is no source of solid revenue to cover your initial investment."

Back in the old days when record companies had it good, the business was "a no-brainer".

In the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan's Stella Chang, who was signed to Hype artist management, would easily sell from 300,000 to a million cassettes and CDs of each release.

Lim says wryly: "After experiencing sales of 300,000 to 400,000 each album, all of a sudden, you see sales of 3,000, 10,000 - you know that this is not going to work."

His stark conclusion is that, in terms of finances, there is no artist in today's context who is making the cut.

He says: "It costs too much to promote that artist and consumers have short attention spans nowadays. You have to make back your investment fast. That's not going to happen anymore."

Kang concurs. After all, even Lin and Chua, unlike Sun, were not big stars out of the gate - they built their success over the course of several albums.

But without the guarantee of recouping costs from sales, labels no longer have the patience to wait for a hit.

There is also the fact that when a Singaporean artist ventures to Taiwan and/or mainland China, there is the additional budget burden of flights, accommodation and daily expenses to figure in.

What about singers shooting straight from obscurity to celebrity on the strength of a couple of YouTube videos that go viral?

Hype's Lim points out: "It's a one-in-a- million chance you get signed by a foreign company because it likes your product. How many out of millions? You get just a handful. It's not easy."

But surely the cost of putting out an album need not be that high and prohibitive?

Ngiam Kwang Hwa, managing director of Rock Records Singapore, acknowledges that it may be enough to release an album in Asia with $50,000 to $100,000.

But there is a caveat - it is possible only "provided the artist is ready".

He notes that his company used to groom artists for three full years before releasing their first album.

Meanwhile, the Korean pop machinery frequently puts aspiring stars through their paces from as early as their pre-teen years, grooming every aspect of them, from the way they speak to how they dress, sing and dance.

"That's a huge investment," he points out.

According to SM Entertainment chief executive officer Kim Young Minhim, about 3 billion won (US$2.6 million) was spent on discovering and developing just one member of the red-hot K-pop group Girls' Generation.

Hence, long contracts of up to 10 years are not uncommon for singers to sign - management companies say they need to recoup the cost of training.

The girls in new K-pop band Skarf, which comprise two Singaporeans, have signed for seven years to their label, Alpha Entertainment Group.

In order to make a splash in Asia, a record label here needs some help.

While Ngiam welcomes the Media Development Authority's grants of up to 40 per cent of Singapore-incurred expenses to produce an album, he thinks that the Taiwanese are doing even more.

Recognizing pop music's importance as a creative industry and for its soft power (witness the impact of the Korean hallyu), the Taiwanese government has earmarked NT$2.1 billion (US$70 million) to promote the industry for the five years between 2010 and 2014.

The funds support different facets of the business, from nurturing talent to producing albums and the goal is to increase the industry's five-year cumulative value from NT$31.41 billion to NT$50 billion ($1.6 billion).

For example, newcomer Ai I-liang received a grant of NT3.5 million (US$116,900) for her debut album, which was about 48 per cent of the cost.

For all the talk of money and numbers, it does not mean that talent does not matter in the star-making equation. Indeed, it is the prerequisite without which everything else is merely dressing.

And Singapore has produced talent over the years and some, such as Huang Jinglun and Rachel Chua, have taken part in regional singing competitions such as Taiwan's popular One Million Star.

And institutions such as Lee Wei Song School of Music and FM Pop Music School attest to the fact that there is no lack of newcomers willing to give it a shot.

Lyricist Xiaohan, founder and director of Funkie Monkies Productions and FM Pop Music School, says that one factor that has helped Lin, Sun and Chua stand out is their Westernized background.

She notes: "The Western influence in their music sets them apart in terms of their writing and diction. Sun's diction is very un-Taiwan but it makes her very different."

Even though the going is tougher now, companies such as Funkie Monkies and Ocean Butterflies are still attempting to produce new stars.

Serene Koong and Malaysia-born Wu Jiahui from Funkie Monkies have ventured abroad to Taiwan but due to a lack of financial resources, they have taken the unconventional, indie route instead, performing at schools and pubs.

Xiaohan says: "That means they are not perceived as mainstream and if we look at them from the mainstream point of view - whether you see them appearing in the newspapers or on TV a lot or on gameshows - you will feel that they are not big. But they have their following."

As for a potential big star, Warner's Kang points to Derrick Hoh, a "young, good-looking multi-faceted artist who can actually sing, dance, act and compose competently".

His words carry some weight given that Sun and Chua were both previously with Warner and Lin is still there.

To Billy Koh, co-founder of home-grown record label Ocean Butterflies Music, however, the ground has already shifted and the centre of Mandopop is no longer Taiwan or Hong Kong but mainland China instead.

Based on search engine Baidu's index of user attention, he points out that Ocean Butterflies' female duo BY2 have far outstripped Sun and Chua in terms of popularity.

In the past year, BY2 have averaged 8,000 points a day to Sun's 6,000 points and Chua's less than 2,000 points.

The points refer to Baidu's measurement of degree of user attention, although it is not clear how the system is derived.

Of course, a question mark hangs over how accurate an indicator of popularity web searches are - the most common search term for BY2 seems to be "BY2 before and after plastic surgery" while "Tanya Chua good songs" and "Stefanie Sun good songs" are the top searches for the other two.

There is no doubt, though, that the music industry landscape has changed and for a local act to break out as a regional Mandopop star is tougher than ever.

As Ngiam puts it: "If we can uncover someone with a great voice and is talented, with a special quality everyone is looking for, then we can well create another high point.

"The current peak is the highest. And no one can predict if there will be another, higher, peak. But nothing is impossible."

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