David Siow on Fulfilling His Calling As a Music Exporter and Producer

·14-min read

David Siow is a man who wears many hats. He is a familiar face to almost everyone in the Singapore music community as the bassist of local Indie-Pop outfit M1LDL1DFE (formerly known as Take Two) and through his work for the Singapore Music Society (SGMUSO) where he was a council member. He also exports music and produces under his solo moniker, DSML. It is not a stretch to say that David breathes music and is an active contributor in the local scene.

Considering the highly dynamic work he does today, it is hard to imagine David, over seven years ago, working in an accounting firm after graduating with an honours degree in Economics. Being a creative in Singapore is not easy, and is generally less profitable compared to sectors such as finance, science and law. So how, then, did David make music a viable career option for himself? David delves deep about how he build his niche path in music and discusses ways to bridge gaps in the music sector.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us about your journey as a creative in Singapore. Tell us more about what you do.

My name is David Siow, and I do three things. In the day, I do music export on a freelance basis, so I create programmes, such as the ASEAN Music Showcase Festival that just ended, and export artists from Singapore out. I work with organisations such as *SCAPE to develop local programmes for the scene. In the evenings, I play in an Indie-Pop band called M1LDL1FE and I produce Dark Pop under the moniker DSML.

It is known that you started out from a corporate background – you have a degree in Economics before diving into music. Tell us about your first gig in the creative industry, and how you made the transition from a corporate job?

Well, I started contemporary music when I was 16, and at 17 I’d already started playing gigs at school events and bars and external venues with my first original band. Even throughout National Service and University, I was still playing nights outside. So, I was already a gigging musician for over 15 years now, for very long.

Take Two, M1LDL1FE’s original name, started in 2013, so that’s when the original music started taking off. I left my corporate job in 2016, so everything was running parallel to each other, like a daytime-nighttime thing. I specifically chose a position in my corporate job where I knew I could earn a lot of days off and take a lot of them. Instead of going for the five-figure banking or finance routes that you’d expect an Econs graduate to take, after some consideration, I thought, “fuck it’, and went for something that gives me a lot more flexibility. Every year, I would accumulate about 40 over days off and I’ll apply for leaves in bulk if there’s a tour or if I need to spend more time on the music side of things.

How did you balance your corporate job with music? Especially for a fresh University graduate when finances are tight.

It was a bit strange. I was a transfer pricing consultant at Ernst & Young in 2014. Basically, I helped them manage prices such that we fulfil the tax laws of the country while minimising expenses, all done in a legal manner of course.

My corporate pay, when I started, was about $2,800, which was quite standard back in my time. Now’s probably higher, probably a little over $3,000. Accountancy firms all start at around the same salary, with yearly increments as your rank got higher. It was not a lot to start with.

With Take Two/M1LDL1FE, which started in 2013, we made the decision to pump everything we could into the band so we can build a band fund which can be tapped on for production, touring and other stuff. We were charging about $1,500 per gig, somewhere in the low-mid tier. This was sort of justified because we won the Noise award in 2014, but we lost out on the Spotify wave because we dropped our EP right before Spotify came. It was just bad timing, I guess. Take Two/M1LDL1FE started touring a lot, within and outside Singapore, so we were on the rise and thought that the rate we charged was fair. All the profits we made were spent on touring and production, so I think we were just breaking even. Of course there’s some money left to take home, but most of whatever we make goes back to running the band.

As we progressed to a mid tier rate, I think somewhere in 2016 and 2017 onwards, we could charge more so the profits naturally went up as the costs remained roughly the same. That’s when we had enough to bring back and save in our funds.

Was your company supportive of your musical side-hustle?

They do. In fact, when they interviewed me for the job, the director and partners recognised me from bars that I’d play at! [Laughs] When I played nights, it was usually Thursdays and Fridays, so they were fine with it.

One of the partners used to get all these F1 tickets and he’ll offer them in the office. But back then, Take Two was already doing F1 gigs, so I just declined whenever they offered. Those who know are the colleagues that I was closer to in the team, who are more art- and culture-inclined, but I told them to keep it hush-hush too because I didn’t want the bosses to know that I was playing these large-scale gigs too.

Even when I’d take long leaves to tour, I usually just say I’m going overseas for a bit. I don’t specify that I’m going to a certain country to play a festival.

At that point, did you have any other personal commitments you had to fund outside of the band?

Yeah, of course. I got married in mid-2016, so I had to pay for the wedding and everything that comes along with it. My ex-wife also happened to quit her job then, so I was pretty much paying for most things since we got married. I felt very pressured, which led to a lot of issues later on that had to be addressed.

Was it a conscious decision to make music and the creative industry your full-time job?

There were two main reasons why I left my corporate job: My health was getting quite bad at that point, the long hours were not helping either, and my guitarist happened to bump into the founder of SGMUSO at an event and he said he was looking for a project manager. Personally, I benefitted a lot from being a project manager, and later being promoted to being a council member and President of SGMUSO – they were a huge part in all the tours, songwriting sessions and other events that we were on, hence there was a natural alignment.

As SGMUSO’s project manager, what does the job entail? What was the application process like and how were you remunerated?

It was a straight-forward process, I interviewed for it, waited for a bit and then got the job in September of 2017. I was assigned to do Music Matters as a project manager and I had to run an export programme too, so it was really like jumping into the fire. [Laughs]

I took a massive pay-cut compared to the accountancy firm. I understood their situation, as money was tight on their end as well, but I was passionate about growing the industry, so it was something I was willing to accept.

The founder of SGMUSO is Graham Perkins, who’s from the UK built SGMUSO when he was living in Singapore as he saw an opportunity in 2013. Fast-forward to when I joined, the project manager before me had left in 2016, I believe, so that’s where I came in. I interviewed with Syaheed, who is currently leading SGMUSO as Chairman, as Graham had left for the UK. It was an informal process. I started about a few months after the interview, and they had already secured some projects when I got in, so I could start work immediately.

SGMUSO is about plugging the gaps in the industry. Shortly after I joined, they decided that they want to do music export as well. I was informed that one of the reasons why they decided to hire me was because I was already doing that for the band, so I already had an idea of what needs to be done. So, in February 2018, we had an annual meeting where they decided to promote me to the role of the President. Which is honestly a big jump. [Laughs]

Considering your background, what do you think is the difference between applying for a corporate job and applying for a job in the creative sector?

In the world of Econs and Finance back then, there were a few criteria that you had to meet. You have to get your honours – second upper or first upper, before they even look at your CV for the better regarded accountancy firms. After that, you’ll be called in for an aptitude test, which is not like your exams in school. The aptitude test is very hardcore, a lot of abstract IQ questions, and it lasts for about three hours. It’s really quite jialat. [Laughs] There might even be multiple tests before you even have your first round of interviews. The process is very systemic and structured.

I guess some people thrive in that kind of environment, like the difference between left-brainers and right-brainers. But, these companies tend to want to look for people who are both logical and creative, so it didn’t really matter that I was doing music on the side because to them, it’s an advantage.

With creatives and SGMUSO, it’s very different. Here, people kind of know you already. In the interview, they already know, “Yeah, you’re the Take Two/M1LDL1FE guy, and you’ve been doing regional stuff for the band, but tell me more”. They are more interested in what you’re internally made up of, what you believe in, and whether your visions align.

For readers who are fresh graduates or looking to enter the creative industry, how do you think one can land a creative job without a certain level of experience or connections in the industry?

It is super tough. Even back then when I was a fresh grad, it was a challenge getting into the creative industry because the roles are limited and new graduates are being churned out every year by the thousands. Good roles are very limited, especially in sectors like music, theatre and film.

With music, you really need to have a broader view of the industry as a whole. You need to get how each part of the industry works, before figuring what you’re good at and how you can fit in any of those nodes. I could do data and distribution, but I hate it. I don’t want to be a journalist or write stuff because I know I’m not good at it. I had to find my niche over my time in University and in my corporate job, which turns out to be music export, because my skills lie in networking and it’s something that I like, too.

School is the perfect time to explore and try new things. Yes, you still have to study, but on the side you can be doing a whole bunch of other things. The earlier you start, the better.

There are two routes: Generalist and Specialist. A good example of a specialist is Foxela, he started producing when he was 16 and all along he knew he wanted to be a music producer so he just went straight into honing his craft and branching out to different genres. The generalist rote is, like myself, when you do everything you can – I can be a musician, a sessionist, a project manager, and more. From those things I can find what I like and just keep doing them. There’s really no right or wrong.

For connections, no matter where you’re starting from, there’ll always be interest groups or people who have similar interests as you. So, if you’re still in school, you can definitely join an interest group and branch out from there. You can go to events, get to know more people, and you might get to know companies that align with your interests as well.

When you started working full-time for SGMUSO, how did you build trust amongst the people you worked with? Were there projects that you worked on that you think allowed others to put their faith in you?

I think that really boils down to your personality, your vision and your heart. When SGMUSO hired me, they were looking for someone who could build goodwill with artists and their teams. The reason why I chose SGMUSO was because, well, they just want to help artists as much as they can. Sometimes people are like, “What do they actually do sia? Do so many things, but they’re not very clear about it.”

There was a sense of altruism, I guess. I had to always remind myself that what I do is for the scene and for the industry to grow. I think, the people I worked with and got to meet along the way could kind of see what we were trying to do. Whatever we do, the number one thing is that we try to pay artists and vendors fairly. We do things with integrity. That was the way I approached things and it worked, I guess, since artists trust me a fair bit. I’m just happy to be a part of their journey — to help reveal opportunities that will benefit them.

I think you need to come from a place of authenticity. If you do things right, you’ll be able to build organic relationships with the people you work with. It’s about connecting people, not just me and the bilateral relations. It’s more about linking suitable people together to make things work. It also comes from a place where I just want to help as much as I can, and I want to prep the industry for all the opportunities that are there for us.

What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring producer or an up-and-coming creative?

Career-wise, we all fluctuate and we all have different paths. But, if you’re genuine about it and you’re genuine with the people you meet, treat them right, then things will come quite naturally. Be it success, or friendships, just don’t be an a**. [Laughs]

Finally, what else can we expect from you for the rest of the year? What projects will you be working on next?

I’ve got a remix coming out in November. I’m also working with *SCAPE on some programmes, Music Day Out being one of them where I help to plan its conferences. With M1LDL1FE, we’ve also got some exciting stuff in the works that I cannot reveal yet.

For DSML, I went on such a rampage doing one track a month, I think I went a bit crazy there. [Laughs] I did like 14 tracks in 12 months, so that’s why I took a break from June onwards. The break was also because I shifted to a new place, so it was much-needed. For me, I don’t think I need to do that anymore because now I know I can do it, so mission accomplished! [Laughs] Now, it’s more about what I want to do. So, for DSML, it’s exploring darker stuff. I do have some stuff in the backlog, but I think I want to explore more with GIN.GIRL. The stuff is meme-worthy – it’s dark, it’s about trashy stuff, but still groovy and musical.

This article David Siow on Fulfilling His Calling As a Music Exporter and Producer appeared first on Popspoken.

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