“In the beginning, I wanted to do an album with the sounds of the 50s, the sounds of the 60s, of the 70s and then have a sound of the future. And I said: ‘Wait a second, I know the synthesiser — why don’t I use the synthesiser, which is the sound of the future?’ And I didn’t have any idea what to do, but I knew I needed a click. So we put a click on the 24 track which then was synched to the Moog modular. I knew that could be a sound of the future, but I didn't realise how much an impact it would be.”
— Giovanni “Giorgio” Moroder
My favourite track in Daft Punk’s chart-topping album of 2013, Random Access Memories, is “Giorgio by Moroder”. The recording opens with the ambient chatter of what could be a crowded bar or lounge. The deep, sonorous voice of Giovanni “Giorgio” Moroder, the revolutionary “Father of Disco”, begins to recollect his youth, and how he discovered discotheques on the road in 1970s Germany. The background music suddenly drops to silence, as he demonstrates the click of the Moog modular synthesiser that was invented by an American engineer, Robert Moog. Moog’s “electronic music models” would later become a watershed technological development for music creators everywhere.
I found myself in a very similar situation in a crowded cafe late in December, but this time listening to three Singapore-based musicians and sound artists living in the legacy of Giorgio, Moog and many others. They discussed the wave of musical experimentation that occurred alongside the Dot Com boom, the past and future impact of open-source platforms and new technologies on their own compositions, and on their industry, and the ethical tangle between the transactional bottom-line and the spirit of collaboration that is so innate to music.
Christina J. Chua: Tell me about how you started making music on your own. Did you first start using any kind of technology or tech platforms, and how did they affect your music-making?
Aqilah Misuary: So I bought my first guitar from Cash Converters, and started off using Audacity  to record some guitar riffs. During that time, MySpace music was huge. I was 14 years old. Now I’m 26.
Yuen Chee Wai: Yeah, Audacity is the unsung hero of the audio production and music industry. It’s free, it’s fast, it’s easy to use.
Misuary: I still use it to this day! So, moving from Audacity, I kept hearing this girl on MySpace and she made the sh*ttiest electronic music, but I loved her! I knew she was my age and she was using FruityLoops , looping her music in and out, and people were just super receptive to it. I wanted to use FruityLoops, so I got a MacBook and started using GarageBand. GarageBand is where I learnt more about recording — all self-taught. Then I figured if I worked somewhere surrounded by musicians, I would learn more. So I got a job at a guitar shop and learned more about guitars, recording, and so on. Naturally after that, I enrolled in music school. That’s where I learned everything else because I didn’t even know the difference between MP3 and WAV.
Yuen: For me, I played in indie rock bands in university. Even then, I was doing some feedback and noise stuff. I was wondering how to actually incorporate that into a normal band setting. Of course, the members weren't too happy with that. After I graduated, I started exploring, meeting all these noise musicians from around the world. And because I was working at a local theatre company, TheatreWorks , I managed to recommend and curate certain musicians to be part of the workshops and projects of the theatre. I would invite noise musicians from Norway to come. That was how I actually started to get more into computer noise, using patches, software, even granular synthesis. That was all in the early 2000s.
So that opened up a lot, having open-source software as well, and friends who were doing similar things. It opened up a whole new world, and I started to understand the different complexities about music-making, and began collaborating with more people while augmenting my own setup. Then I joined the Observatory , and just further evolved and adapted.
Chua: Would you say that discovering those technologies really set you on a certain path, into experimental noise?
Yuen: In some ways, yes. It made some sounds that I hear in my head, easier to produce. I mean, if there’s this sound that I really liked — say, the sound of a pair of glasses clinking — there were the tools to make that sound that I wanted. Also with technology, sometimes you hope for failure, because the failure opens up new things. There was once, for an art project, I was converting JPEGs — photos of people — into binary and then into sound, hoping to find a new kind of sound that would surprise me.
There were a lot of these very interesting things in the late 90s to the 2000s. It was the boom of post-modernism, and with Napster, all these new things were happening all over the place. It was just an explosion, like the whole idea of the glitch, the fracture. That actually emboldened a lot of people to try out more things during that time.
Chua: What about you, Sant?
Sant Ruengjaruwatana: I guess I was born with tech. Tech has never left me. Honestly, Horizon99 would have never happened without the Internet. I was a self-taught DJ.
We literally used to throw raves in the jungle five or more years ago. We would just bring a boombox, and go to somewhere in Punggol, and just plug our iPod in. That’s the fundamental form of deejaying right, just changing songs on your phone or your iPod. From them on, I guess we wanted to start doing this in an easier way, since it was kind of sh*t to loop and link songs — you would have to lower the volume, play a new song, then increase the volume. It was stupid, right? [Laughs] So we just bought a Traktor F2 native instrument — the most basic controller and programme. It’s still really good — we have it at home, I love it!
Honestly, whenever technology is good, it’s democratising. It cuts a lot of the middlemen in between, it’s so much smoother, it allows knowledge to be so much more redistributed.
And Horizon99 began about two years ago . All along, how we got to know and connect with people was basically through the Internet, social networks, and also SoundCloud. I always say SoundCloud is my favourite Internet platform, ever! I actually feel loyalty towards SoundCloud. I don’t feel loyalty towards anything else, not even Google or whatever... I just love SoundCloud. And through it, I’ve met so many friends who are making music elsewhere, music that’s really alien and weird.
Yuen: There are some really weird corners in SoundCloud that like, once you’re there, you’re kind of changed forever — really just mind-f*cked. [Laughs]
Ruengjaruwatana: Even for me as a UX designer, Spotify’s design itself is not that impressive. It’s not that fun. SoundCloud is the funnest because it’s a social network built on sound. The freedom there is just amazing. I think, why it’s so free is because the monetisation is bad, there’s not many incentives, and they just kind of have to keep it free.
Misuary: Did you ever hear of PureVolume ? That’s was before SoundCloud, so Myspace Music, then PureVolume, and then SoundCloud.
Ruengjaruwatana: But SoundCloud was bigger than all of them. Suddenly it had such a huge scale. Scale is an important thing, especially when it comes to the quality of social networks. The bigger it gets, the more data it has, the more variety you have, the more interesting it gets.
Misuary: There are all these music genres that would not have existed if these social platforms did not come together. Before I was a sound designer at BandLab, I was a tech support person. I was the person that would answer inquiries like, “How do I make beats?” and “How do I record?”, and from these song emails, I would listen to the users’ music. It was so awesome to hear like all these different kinds of creative, random recordings. There was one guy who just made a song out of birds having sex. [Laughs] You have this spectrum. There were some guys who play jazz — really accomplished musicians in their own way — posting to people who just use their iPhone microphone to record a guitar idea. It’s nice to hear that one guy who records a guitar riff on his phone, posts it online, and connects with some dude who takes that riff, and mixes it into some lo-fi, hip-hop thing on Ableton.
Chua: It’s very egalitarian. So what I’m hearing is that the way these platforms democratise in that they level the ground for all of these amateurs, or self-taught musicians like yourselves. But what about the professionals? I’m thinking of an interview that Crack Magazine did with Aphex Twin . The interviewer wrote:
Perhaps the most exciting product of James’ newfound transparency came when he began to make those long-rumoured archives public. Over the first few months of 2015, he dropped 269 free and previously unreleased tracks into an anonymous SoundCloud account. “It was really just a spontaneous thing,” James says of the SoundCloud avalanche. “And the label, Warp, were like ‘Uh... what the f*ck are you doing?’ That made me think it was even a better idea at that point. If the suits are getting annoyed then it’s definitely a good idea.”
How did open-source music affect the industry, and the record labels?
Ruengjaruwatana: There was a Radiohead album too that was free, In Rainbows.
Misuary: They never disclosed how much profit they earned.
Ruengjaruwatana: The rumour is that they got paid more than what they got offered with the label deal. In a way, it reflects very well on humanity itself. We are not as f*cked up as people think we are. Just because you offer something for free, we assume people cannot perceive value properly. Why is there a need to have that kind of central figure there to control and tell you what to pay, when I know what I want to pay?
Chua: So do you think the labels are a necessary evil?
Misuary: I think it depends. As an indie musician, you can do your own releases using CDBaby, TuneCore, things like that. But if you want to be truly marketable on a global scale, there are some connections that you have to have.
Chua: So the platforms have given you options.
Yuen: In the early days, The Observatory was with Universal, but then it didn’t really help much. I mean, we still have a lot of old Universal stuff in our office that’s not sold. So eventually we just did it on our own. Everything of ours is now self-released, except probably the last album that we worked with the local independent label, Ujikaji Records. It’s now really turning the tables, where we can do everything ourselves like what Aqilah said.
But with streaming platforms, I’m not too sure. We opted out of Spotify as well because every few months, I would look at the payback that Spotify gave, and it didn’t make sense. It works only for big names. For each stream, they pay you only 0.0037 cents !
Ruengjaruwatana: Nobody earns money from Spotify. Spotify itself doesn’t earn money. How about Bandcamp?
Yuen: We do most of our business on Bandcamp. But what I can’t stand about Bandcamp — well it’s not their fault — but the transaction goes through PayPal. PayPal takes money for doing sh*t.
Ruengjaruwatana: But it’s sickening, you know. I mean, this is the sickest form of capitalism ever, where they don’t need to do anything and they can just take money from you.
Chua: Let’s frame this issue in relation to these large companies and e-marketplaces actually benefiting from the data we share and transact. Do you think that 100% open, free data is an impossible ideal, kind of like a utopia?
Ruengjaruwatana: Well, when you think about the origin of the Internet, it started off as a science project for the United States military. The Internet was never meant to be a utopian space. That was only an ideology of a certain group, somewhere in San Francisco, that took too much acid at Burning Man. And to think of it that way, kind of rewrites its history.
So even when it comes to SoundCloud, I think the whole point for me, or at least what I like about SoundCloud, is not about constantly having free music all the time. But I think SoundCloud has the potential to redistribute that in a way that’s more fair. Whereas Spotify is a platform that does that very badly. I feel like instead of making things free, we should be thinking about making things fair. — fairly distributed. And fairness doesn’t mean things are free. So the question of whether it’s either 100% or 0% is less interesting to me than whether people get their equal share. Not even equal, but more like their fair, equitable share.
Yuen: Because as a musician, how can you continuously produce new stuff that’s free, how would you continue to subsist, to survive? Being remunerated in an equitable fashion ensures a healthy ecosystem, you see, where there are choices.
Ruengjaruwatana: Exactly. To me, there’s no such thing as something that’s “free” in the world. There’s always cause and effect, and this is our true, realistic condition. It’s only free in an economic, transactional way — in the value that we attach to things. But there’s always going to be an ecological value to everything, you know what I mean? Nothing, not even 3D printing is free. That material comes from somewhere. The electricity has a cost.
Chua: So Sant, the last time we met, you were speaking about taking the SoundCloud model but integrating it with a ledger on the blockchain. That was an interesting proposition for me.
Ruengjaruwatana: There are other platforms out there that are already operating, like Resonate. Have you heard of it? They are basically creating an alternate Spotify that uses blockchain technology to redistribute the amount of money according to the number of plays. They call themselves “a music commune” instead of a platform. Because I don’t think the people who built the platform collect any royalties.
Yuen: I read a little bit about it, but I couldn’t understand the mechanisms of how it works.
Ruengjaruwatana: I think they only accept donations or maybe a very, very low percentage of the cut to maintain the platform. And because of the nature of the blockchain and the smart contracts, it can be so damn accurate, it’s granular.
I think there is so much possibility in the application of the blockchain within the realm of music. For instance, we were talking about the idea of music being collaborative. What if you build a kind of music repository, where people post their clips and sounds and all those tracks, and an artist can click on it and make a different kind of sound. And when, let’s say, one of those songs hopefully goes big, and you start collecting royalties for it being in a movie. Then, because everything is tracked, some guy posts some bird sound, another guy posts some jungle sound and they get a percentage cut of the royalties that is fair. Not equal, but fair to what they did to the system, because a smart contract has been written, and these rules apply until the end of time.
Chua: I love this idea!
Ruengjaruwatana: I see open source as a philosophy. I’ve kinda been so influenced by it.
Yuen: Yeah, because it pushes creativity to the next level, because you have to keep inventing something new after that.
Ruengjaruwatana: It’s an acceleration, and in the best form.
Misuary: Yes! You’re like standing on shoulders of giants. Some of the visuals that I do are taken from people who have already coded so much, and I’m just building on top of that.
Aqilah Misuary is a mainstay performer in the Singaporean and international music scene, and commands audiences with her live visuals and music. She has worked on projects commissioned by the ArtScience Museum, The Esplanade and Mosaic Festival, LaSALLE College of the Arts and more. Misuary has also collaborated with the likes of SAtheCollective, Canvas Conversations, FERRY, Bani Haykal, George Chua and Zeekos Perakos. Overseas, Aqilah has brought her take on music and visuals to stages, galleries and performance spaces throughout Asia and Australia. She is also a sound designer at Singapore on the music cloud platform BandLab. Her creations can be seen at www.aqilahmisuary.com.
Yuen Chee Wai is a musician, artist and designer based in Singapore. Often inspired by ideas drawn from philosophical and literary texts, film and photography, Yuen’s stylistic oeuvre in improvised music is marked by internalised reflections on memory and loss, invisibility and indeterminacy. In 2008, he teamed with Otomo Yoshihide, Ryu Hankil, and Yan Jun to form the improvised music quartet, FEN (Far East Network). FEN focuses on the continuing multifaceted networks and collaborations between Asian countries, and together with them, Yuen co-curates the annual Asian Meeting Festival (AMF) in Japan. He is also a member of the avant-rock band The Observatory, with whom he plays guitar, synth and electronics. With twelve albums to date, and extensive international tours, The Observatory has conceived a vanguard of initiatives such as the annual festival Playfreely, which gives artists new creative avenues for performing and working together.
Sant Ruengjaruwatana is one half of Singapore-based design team lhtttt (abbreviated from lies, half-truths, truths, true-trues), the other being his partner Chantal Tan. lhtttt operates along the queer spectrum between print andscreen, offline and online, still and moving, flat and multi-dimensional, object and subjects, solid and spatial, lies and true-trues. The team’s research interest lies in the updating of communication strategies (visual and non-visual) for the new synthetic and subjective media landscape brokered by the current geological epoch, the Anthropocene. lhtttt also organises Horizon99, a party/broadcast/design series for the redistribution of collective future imaginaries beyond the dull realism of the neoliberalist media.
1 Audacity is a free, open-source digital audio editor and recording software that was released in 2000.
2 FruityLoops, now called FL Studio, is a digital audio workstation that comes bundled with a number of samplers, synthesisers and effects.
3 TheatreWorks is a major, independent performance and theatre company in Singapore that is dedicated to inter-disciplinary productions and partnerships. It was established in 1985.
4 The Observatory is an experimental, electronic Singaporean band that has been active since 2001 and performed around the world.
5 Horizon99 is a series of underground parties thrown by Sant and his partner Chantal Tan in Singapore, Taiwan and parts of Europe.
6 PureVolume was a website for uploading and streaming music files that was set up in 2003 and shut down in 2018.
7 BandLab is a Singapore-based social music platform that enables music creators to make and share their process.
8 Ableton is yet another digital audio workstation and software music sequencer.
9 Read “Aphex Twin’s Mask Collapses” by Andrew Nosnitsky, where he also recounts the early DAT machine that allowed him to tape recordings on C90 cassette tapes: https://crackmagazine.net/article/long-reads/aphex-twins-mask-collapses/.
10 The exact amount varies, but almost negligibly. One band made their Spotify Royalties public data on a Google spreadsheet, and their average per-stream payout was $0.004891: https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2016/05/26/band-1-million-spotify-streams-royalties/.