Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore’s music scene has been through the wringer – and nobody knows this better than the city’s DJs, promoters, and nightlife venue operators. Bars and clubs closed on March 26, 2020 and remained so for over two years, reopening only two months ago. By contrast, the United Kingdom’s so-called “Freedom Day” saw nightclubs there reopen last July.
To say Singapore implemented strict regulations to battle COVID-19 is an understatement. For a period of almost six months, from June to November 2021, restaurants were even banned from playing background music, and reopening has been excruciatingly slow, leading exasperated musicians and nightlife professionals to form the #SaveMusicSG campaign in early March.
Apparently, their voices were heard, and live music, including DJs, returned to all venues on March 29. Clubs and bars soon followed, reopening on April 19, while June 14 brought the holy grail: the end of pre-entry COVID-19 tests and capacity limits in venues.
To capture the zeitgeist of Singapore nightlife’s post-pandemic renaissance, we reached out to a handful of venues, DJs and promoters on the ground to get a sense of how things have been unfolding, as well as begin to survey the aftermath and repercussions of over two years of lockdown…
Zach (Blackout Agency / Sunday Social Market)
What was your last DJ gig before lockdown?
My last gig was in February 2020 with Scottish DJ, Andrew Thomson (Huntleys + Palmers). It was in a speakeasy bar tucked away behind a ramen shop and you had to enter through a fridge door. It was just as COVID-19 was starting to get crazy and borders were shutting everywhere, so we were kind of worried about the rest of his tour moving forward.
You recently participated in the #SaveMusicSG live stream. Do you feel that the campaign made an impact on the government’s decision to allow DJing again?
I’m very sure it helped raised some awareness and we made enough noise for the government to start noticing us. We actually even had some ministers share our stuff and there was a fair bit of local media coverage, not to mention a whole lot of shares from people in the music industry and partygoers in the country.
For Blackout, what was one project that had to be put on hold during the pandemic that you are now able to get running again?
The Escape56 pop-up series we ran was one of our bigger parties and we had a long list of acts lined up for 2020. In fact, 2020 would have been my biggest year ever with some amazing headliners that I’ve been chasing for a while, so I was really bummed about it. I’m looking forward to bringing acts back to Singapore and the region again for sure.
On another note, we run a market called Sunday Social and we recently partnered with Pink Fest to do a Pride Market called PASAR PINK on June 11. We had local DJs playing music all day and featured over 35 artisan vendors, including many from the LGBTQ community. Around 3,000 people turned up again for the market.
Pink Fest, during Pride month, creates events bringing people together for workshops, movie screenings and even job interviews with LGBTQ-friendly companies. They also do this to help raise awareness for the big gathering at Hong Lim Park on June 18th where they hold the largest “protest” in Singapore. It’s truly amazing what they have done over the years and we’re very proud to help and support them in any way we can.
Dean Chew (Darker Than Wax)
Lockdown saw many nightlife venues close down in Singapore. Which one will you miss the most?
To be honest, there really isn’t one specific venue that I miss incredibly but what I do miss was that overall energy and spirit in the scene that we had pre-COVID-19, especially in 2019, when we all had this feeling that Singapore’s trajectory was strong and we were starting to be viewed globally as an interesting city. But having said that, I firmly believe the city is already bouncing back.
How did the return of Darker Than Wax’s BREW party go down on June 11? Did anything take you by surprise?
The return was phenomenal. We did have a feeling it was going to be extremely well-received but none of us was actually ready for the day itself. There were people queuing up an hour prior to the event, and the turnout was simply incredible. The energy permeating throughout the space was powerful, and we even had some regulars coming up to us and thanking us profusely for bringing it back. It was very humbling.
Apart from vinyl delays, what was the biggest challenge in running a label during the pandemic that people might not know about?
The main challenge was actually a mental one - to keep telling yourself that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and to try to maintain the morale and spirit of the team. I am not going to lie, it has been tough but everyone is going through the same difficulty manifested in different ways.
How do you really feel about live streams now that DJs are allowed to perform in public again – a great platform that should have been kept alive or flashbacks of 2 years of online hell?
While it was a great way to keep people connected, on a personal level it was difficult for me because I really enjoy DJing when I can exchange energy with people on the dancefloor in real life. The concept of streaming has always been around but before COVID-19 we relied on these platforms to see and hear DJs we couldn’t get to in our own country, so it felt like you’d have to be someone well-known enough to broadcast to the world. Now, it’s so accessible.
What came out of COVID-19 streaming culture that’s different from before is that the audience became much more hungry and adventurous. It was amazing to see people come together to help musicians financially and emotionally through a tough period. I think it should be kept alive, it’s helped so many DJs come out of the box and be innovative about sharing music.
Name one track that reminds you of what partying used to be like pre-pandemic? And, one track that encapsulates the post-pandemic vibe in Singapore right now?
Pre-pandemic, I used to go a little harder, playing loads of footwork jungle with really high energy. So, I’d go for ‘Cold and Rain’ by Fracture. Dark rooms, rowdy punters.
Since COVID-19, I’ve been a little more chill but in a more celebratory mood because we are back doing gigs again. I’ve been rinsing Floorplan’s ‘Tell You No Lie’ a lot. It reminds me of an easy, bright sunny day outside, no masks on, everyone is free. It’s really happy.
Every cloud has a silver lining. Looking back on the pandemic, what was yours when it comes to your music career?
It really gave me the time to reassess the way I juggled multiple things at a time, especially balancing work with people I love. Not being able to DJ helped me really appreciate each moment I was able to do so and gave me more time to actually listen to music better. I think I became more confident as a person and a musician, because for two years I didn’t feel like I had to live up to anyone else’s expectations of who I was, what I loved to do, what I wanted to play, or how I even wanted to DJ. It was great.
Andrew Li (CEO, Zouk Group)
Zouk managed to brave the storm and survive two years of lockdown - many other venues have not been so lucky… Did Zouk’s overseas projects play a major part in its survival?
It’s no secret that clubs in Singapore were hit hard during lockdown. Although we were simultaneously working on Zouk Las Vegas, which opened up at the end of 2021, it was our ability to diversity our portfolio that enabled us to survive and thrive. We opened up Sushi Ichizuke and Here Kitty Kitty, as well as adjusted our programming for Zouk Club and converted Capital into a restaurant. By facing a challenge head-on, we had to become more resilient and think how to increase different verticals.
Why was opening the club to patrons amid risky COVID-19 rules important to Zouk?
Opening up as soon as we could was a no brainer as people were eager to return to Zouk. After being closed for over two years, there was a massive void which we were able and happy to fill. There were certain government requirements we had to adhere too, and we also upped our security detail to help ensure a safe club experience for our all.
Now that the club is back in full swing and international travel is back to normal, what exciting overseas bookings can Singaporeans expect in the coming months?
Everyone can expect the same high quality club experience that they know and love. As always, we’ll be dialling up our events, theme nights, and of course international DJs and talent. We can’t say too much now, but it’s safe to say that our return to nightlife will come with plenty of jaw dropping surprises that impress and delight our guests.
Read this next: Venue Spotlight: Zouk Singapore
Was it difficult to maintain a sense of community in the scene during lockdown?
I think we all faced challenges in our own ways during the lockdown. For me, I felt it brought us closer in a different way, focusing on our own mental well-being more than anything else. I made it a point to call and just catch up to see how everyone was doing, just a simple “hello” and “how are you”, etc. I can’t speak on behalf of everyone, but I did put the ‘music’ aside and focused on what it means to be human instead over the last few years.
Now that things are open, what events have you attended and how did it feel seeing fellow DJs spinning again?
I was fortunate enough to attend and play at a couple of gigs since we’ve opened up. Some highlights were Intriguant’s ‘Uploading’, which was my first gig together with Aya Sekine, who played keys with me together with a whole line-up of friends – some of whom I hadn't seen in years because of the pandemic.
I checked out Kush Jones at a Revision Music gig at Projector X which was fun! There was also Northern Lights at the Pasir Panjang Power Station which was pretty sick as a venue. Furthermore, I attended a few art shows, one of which was produced by us as part of the Singapore Art Week earlier this year.
Personally for me, it wasn’t so much about seeing DJs play but more about reconnecting with the community in a physical space and just having conversations and catching up!
Let us in on some upcoming gigs you’ve got this summer?
Not sure about summer, as it’s summer all year round here (lol), but in the short term, I’ve got a club set at Kings of Bass on July 1 in Singapore. On September 2 and 3, I’ll probably be up in Kuala Lumpur with Intriguant playing two gigs with the locals at Fono and the Rex. Really looking forward to it as I haven’t been there in a very long time. Mid-term, there is a high chance I’ll be up in Bangkok and hopefully Canada, too. We’re still working out the details of that so follow me to get the latest updates!
Prashant Somosundram (General Manager, The Projector)
The Projector (cinema) has collaborated with local music crews for years. How does Projector X tie into this strategy, will it become the more regular spot for dance parties?
In the midst of the pandemic in 2021, Projector X was conceptualised as The Projector’s pop-up experience focused on adaptive reuse takeovers of disused spaces and fostering creative collaborations into a social experience of discovering quirky spaces, film, music and art. We discovered an abandoned club (and former cinema) at the top of Riverside Point and were keen to adapt the space into a creative platform. As there were potential plans for building redevelopment, we could only secure a short 18 month lease.
While we continued with film screenings and community arts events at Projector X: Riverside, unfortunately it took almost a year before nightlife restrictions were lifted. We have always seen live music as an extension of the Projector experience, so we didn’t waste any time and came back with a bang with dance parties in April 2022!
We now regularly host local and international music crews and intend to continue till the end of this year, when we have to return the space to the landlord for potential redevelopment. But not to fret, we have just secured another pop-up location at The Cathay (Handy Road) from August onward, which will continue to showcase films, arts and music under the Projector X: Picturehouse brand.
What crews has Projector X already collaborated with and are there plans to diversify further?
We have hosted music crews from very diverse genres. Some of the crews we have hosted so far include: Revision Music [pictured above], Kampong Boogie, King of Bass, Midnight Shift x Modal, Teenage Pop, Afrodisia, indie music collective Northeast Social Club and underground queer parties like Yum Yum Disco Dong, Two Queens and Kiki Ball by Vogue in Progress.
We are open to collaboration and are always on the lookout for interesting music collectives to work with. We have also offered a space at Projector X: Riverside to Straits Records music and bookstore, so we are looking forward to collaborating with them to bring new music and dance party experiences for our community.
How integral are music events for the community ethos at The Projector in general?
At The Projector, we have always seen music as integral to the social and community experience. While we started out as a cinema, we have always paid attention to creating an experience around the film-going and post-show jams and dance parties were very much a part of that. We do not want people to just come, watch a movie and leave through a cold, sterile back exit. We wanted them to come back into the communal space and music events were important social lubricants, facilitating more interaction, engagement and community building among very diverse groups of people.
What was your first post-lockdown gig? How did it feel getting behind the decks again?
My first post-lockdown gig was actually in Black Flamingo in New York in October 2021. It was with my homie, Marco Weibel, a DJ from Singapore who's based in NYC right now. It was pretty nerve-wracking and weird to be in a club around so many people in such close proximity, especially coming from Singapore where I hadn’t played out in two years, but I was really excited and got back into the groove pretty quickly.
Singapore’s nightlife was a little behind in opening up. Restrictions started easing up with F&B first, where bars and restaurants were allowed to open past 10:30 pm, so there were a lot of smaller-scale DJ gigs that were happening in these venues, and my first Singapore gig was at a spot called Corduroy Palace sometime in March this year. That was super fun, to be around friends in an intimate setting.
How would you describe the mood in the Singapore scene right now? How does it compare with pre-pandemic?
There is a fresher, renewed energy. A lot of new, younger faces, the ones that haven't gotten to fully experience nightlife during the lockdown. Music became an important element in dining places and bars, and people are more creative with spaces outside of a club. I actually had a gig yesterday at a wine bar called Wine Rvlt. It was an event to support LBGTQ+ movement. People dined in earlier in the day and it really picked up at night.
Singapore was in a really good place and our nightlife was thriving pre-pandemic, especially with places like HQ. I think we definitely have the potential to reach that again. It will take time but the community spirit is strong, and there is a renewed faith in the scene!
What was the number one track you were saving to play for when things opened up?
Omg. ‘Party Girl’ by Zero dB has been my favourite so far, but I played Vengaboys’ ‘We Like to Party’ once and people have been associating that song with me and expecting that from me lately…
Read this next: Mixmag Asia Radio: Pure dancefloor energy from Singapore’s Rah
[Image of Dean Chew via Lenne Chai)
Mengzy is Mixmag Asia’s Music Culture Columnist, follow her on Instagram.