Producer and songwriter Gilbert Ong has high hopes for Singapore’s music industry. The founder of Rhythmiz Music Production believes that given the right platform, locally-produced music can make it big in the world.
Gilbert admits that Rhythmiz Music Production, which produced the successful Piano Spa Collection series of instrumental music featuring Chester Tan, was a very big business gamble. Never having been officially trained – he’s totally self-taught – Gilbert ventured into the music business by chance some ten years ago, right after he left National Service.
He had always wanted to be part of this industry since he was young, having taken piano lessons since he was seven or eight. His mom realised her son’s desires and heartily supported his foray into music – his dad passed away when he was 18 – and provided him with the funds to kickstart his business. Gilbert also rounded up some people who were keen as well. Since then, except for a short stint in property, he’s been stuck doing what he loves.
“I’ve never worked for someone before,” Gilbert laughed.
His initial capital to start the business was $200,000. “During that time there was no such thing as digital technology, so equipment cost was extremely high,” he winced.
It was a difficult start. “I knew nothing about the industry and nobody knew me,” Gilbert remembered, â€œand I had to practically beg for business.” He even resorted to cold calling.
The life of a music producer, in his view, is overrated. “I listen to what people send me. If it is good, I push it. If not, I will suggest to improve it. I’m more like a salesman than anything!”
Gilbert then met composer Chester Tan by chance on the Internet. Gilbert had been producing stuff for schools and came across Chester while searching for new talent. They arranged to meet and Gilbert was soon impressed by Chester’s musical gifts.
“He showed me his reel,” Gilbert said, “and I thought it was fantastic. His music is very real and written to reflect his own experiences, something which people could relate easily to. It’s not made just purely for commercial purposes.”
“I offered him a contract.”
Gilbert proceeded to call recording labels to push Chester’s material, but they all turned him down, citing that they already had overseas content. He then came across Richard Lim and James Kang from Music Street (both now with Warner), and the Piano Spa series was born.
Piano Spa 1
Piano Spa proceeded to sell some 8,000, and is still selling well. Piano Spa 2 has already sold more than 10,000 copies, even hitting Top 20 in Korea (beating out Kenny G in the process!). Piano Spa 3 has just been released in Japan and Korea, and so far has sold more than 5,000 copies.
“By far I think he is the greatest piano composer in Singapore,” Gilbert gushed.
Piano Spa 2
Piano Spa 3
Commercial success aside, the most interesting project he ever participated in was recording an album in prison in 2002. Not as an inmate, mind you.
“The Singapore Prison Service had wanted to do an album, with music totally written and sung by its inmates,” laughed Gilbert, I had to lug all my equipment down and record it there. “Called Aspirations, the songs written by the inmates were about Singapore and about their own lives.”
Surprisingly, the album did well. It sold 3,000 copies, which is fantastic considering they were all amateurs. They even held a small concert inside the prison. “It was an extremely touching affair. The inmates apologised for the mistakes they had done, in front of their families.”
“It was a teary moment.”
Gilbert feels that the local music industry in picking up pace. “I hope that one day, people from other countries will point to music from Singapore,” Gilbert said with fervency. “And we should get there, considering our rich culture. We have so many cultures!”
The thing that holds it back, Gilbert believes, is the lack of opportunities and exposure for local artistes. “Look at the numerous talent competitions we have,” he decried, “but where are all the winners now? If we give local talent a bigger platform, they will make it some day. Otherwise, we may never make it.”
“It’s sad that we need to rely on people overseas to put a stamp and approve of what’s made in Singapore before it can make it big here.”
Gilbert shared that the biggest lesson he’s learned in the music business so far is the ability to constantly be able to adapt to change. Such as technological change. “For instance, once we had tapes, then MDs, then CDs, and now DVDs. It’s a lot to learn.”
It’s also important, Gilbert believes, to build a good team around you. He is extremely grateful for the support he has received from his team. “All my writers work together, even Chester. Teamwork counts. Without them there is no Piano Spa.”
“I am also grateful to Richard and James for their faith and support.”
The most painful thing Gilbert ever did, unsurprisingly, was attempting to leave the music business. “Having been in the business for almost 10 years, I wanted some change. I was tired of solving problem after problem, making changes and doing recordings.”
“So I thought it would good to go into property.”
It didn’t work out. “I was so depressed. It’s like having a regular job,” Gilbert shuddered. “I had been making music for a number of years, and I thought it was stagnant. So I gave music up, thinking it would be a good move. But then I realised I was nothing without that ‘boring’ job.”
Gilbert so went back to making music. “I am not Gilbert if I don’t make music. Sometimes it’s not about the money, unless you measure life with monetary returns.”
What’s one piece of advice Gilbert has for those who aspire to enter the local music industry?
“Be prepared for hard work. Don’t expect overnight stardom. Be humble and listen to comments, even if they are bad. The learning process will get you further.”
His next album, an instrumental, is due for release in October.
If you’re an aspiring songwriter or composer, you can reach Gilbert at email@example.com.