Kevin Foo has spent the last 15 years producing, managing, and exporting some of the city’s best music talents. With names like The Steve McQueens, Linying, Charlie Lim, Nathan Hartono, and The Sam Willows under his belt, the co-founder of Umami Records is a firm believer in that good music will market itself — well, mostly. In anticipation of the label’s second iteration of #UMAMISOUNDS, a live showcase of their up-and-coming, we speak to Kevin about the future of Singapore music.
Hi Kevin! What’s one thing few people know about you?
That this journey in music started with myself playing in a local alternative rock band called Starfish, and that legacy still lives on as the members of that band from the late 90’s are still my business partners in Beep Studios. Although only Joshua Wan, the band leader of The Steve McQueens, is still actively involved in music.
Were you always interested in having a record label?
It was a dream of mine to be multi-faceted within the music industry, but focused on original independent English music. I had many opportunities to tangent off into Mandarin pop music, film scoring, and jingle production, but I tried to stay true to it as much as possible. So yes! I have always wanted to be involved in a record label and by a natural extension to manage and book artists too, which we now do with Foundation Music.
What do you think about the current state of Singapore music?
I think we are in a true renaissance of Singapore-made music. Acts like Linying have broken into Europe and the US, while Charlie Lim, The Sam Willows, Gentle Bones, The Steve McQueens, and Sezairi have played in shows and festivals in the region and beyond. I’m most excited about the amazing original music that are coming up in this generation, with many artists choosing to do this full-time. Many of these guys become a source of inspiration for others to follow suit.
How about where it’s going in the next couple of years?
I believe we will see more music export in the coming years. It is crucial at so many levels. Our local market is just not large enough to create sustainability for our music acts, and Singapore, being the young nation that it is, needs to discover and define its culture. Our arts, our food and our music are key vessels for the Singapore identity.
How do your live shows play into all of this?
#UMAMISOUNDS is really just a minute piece of that humongous puzzle. Every one of our new releases gets tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of streams in the first few months. We wanted to do a similar thing, but in the live music space. The show is kept deliberately small in interesting spaces so that the audience can actually feel like they are connected with each act, and so every act performing can bare a little more, be a little more vulnerable and engage the audience at a more personal level. However, we’re not looking to compete with the Live Nations and Lushingtons of the world, just as Umami Records was never set up to compete with the major labels.
What kind of artists does Umami Records look out for?
We’re always on the lookout for good music that excites anyone on our team. We have those great moments when we do our regular listening sessions to demo submissions, and you can see it on all our faces. Like there’s that magic of uncovering and discovering great talent. The music also has to make sense for the platforms and regions that we are strong in, predominantly the Southeast Asian territories, Japan and sometimes a bit of a spillover into Australia and the UK.
Is it true that your label sign mostly unknown artists? What’s behind that approach?
The truth about any business is that finances is the bottom line. Most larger labels with large overheads cannot take the risk of signing and investing in acts with little or no traction. We believe that has created a gap for us to comfortably slot ourselves into. We work with many newer or unknown artists, and with the very limited resources we aim to punch above our weight. We’re always proud to “break” new acts, and bring talent from obscurity into common consciousness.
It’s not enough to just be good at making music anymore, is it?
I’ve been quoted many times at panels and conferences as being the one who has blindly stood by the opinion of the need for good music before anything else. But I do have to concede that in a world where digital distribution has democratised the act of releasing music (nearly 25,000 new tracks are released every single day!) a strategy to cut through the noise is increasingly important. Once the music gets out there, to the right ears, to the stakeholders and gatekeepers, good music, art, lyrics, and production is what keeps the momentum going.
Share with us some up and coming Singapore acts — not necessarily just the ones in your label, of course.
I’ve been pretty excited about brb., a very new ‘pop-n-b’ trio who we’ve had the privilege of releasing two singles for so far. Another up-and-comer I love is Marian Carmel. She has a great single with Axel that’s enroute to half a million streams on Spotify, and that’s the only one song she has released commercially so far. I also love this guy Dr Boomy (who dropped a great alt-R&B tune a year ago), but has been producing new stuff under his new moniker AJ OTW. And keep your eyes peeled for this artist, Esta C. Oh, and Maricelle’s upcoming new material too … I can’t stop once I get started!
Wrapping up, what advice would you give to wannabe musicians here?
Well, ask yourself the simple question. Do you have the gumption and fortitude to go deep and go long? Because breaking into a local market that does not naturally support local music and working doubly hard just to expand your spheres of influence will be part and parcel of the journey. If in spite of all that, you know you still want to be a musician, then keep your head down, learn about digital and social media best practices (but challenge yourself to innovate as much as possible too), and work your ass off. Most importantly, do not neglect the music!
#UMAMISOUNDS is happening on Friday, 1 February 2019 at Decline. More details here.