Meet the couple behind local record label KittyWu

K-pop, EDM and bubblegum pop may have taken over the airwaves, but it is heartening to know that in recent years, our local talents the likes of Nathan Hartono and Sam Willows have managed to garner a strong fan base. Others like Gentle Bones and Linying have done well for themsevles too, being signed with Universal Music Singapore.

And there are stories like Singapore-based indie label KittyWu Records, that has managed to survive the onslaught of music digitalisation quietly over the last 10 years. It was jointly started in 2007 by Errol Tan and Lesley Chew, a husband-and-wife duo (no, KittyWu is not the name of a woman) who hold on to their day jobs and run the record label at night.

Tan is a creative director at an agency. Chew, on the other hand, runs special projects and operations at a social coffee enterprise, and is mother to a precocious three-year-old girl. Currently, they manage a roster of three active artists with about 20 album releases to their name. We were intrigued by how they have stood their ground for the past decade. Here’s what they think about the local music scene and the past, present and future of KittyWu Records.

How did KittyWu come about?

We started out as pure music fans, going to gigs and buying records. I also wanted to do more for the small music community in Singapore. I am a graphic designer by training and I was already designing t-shirts, album covers and badges for my friends in bands. The music label was the next natural evolution, in terms of investing our money in producing albums and managing the band’s bookings, PR and making it a business.

The actual origin of the name is actually quite prosaic. At the time when we were contemplating on starting the label, we just caught a gig by Jaga Jazzist, a Norwegian instrumental experimental jazz band at Mosaic Music Festival, and coincidentally, they have this song titled Kitty Wu. Turns out Kitty Wu originates from a character in the novel Moon Palace. Lesley and I are fond of cats, we had three in the house at one point, plus Wu sounded Asian.

What genres of music do you like most?

The fondness for our first love, post-rock, still remain, but it’s hard to pinpoint one genre of music we absolutely love. Music is music; what makes you move, and how you feel inside. We love all kinds of music, from shoegaze, metal, post-hardcore, alternative to jazz, hip-hop, nu-gaze, IDM which stands for Intelligent dance music (though, not EDM, kids!). And I’m not ashamed to share that our guilty pleasure at karaoke is Taylor Swift and Backstreet Boys.

How do you think the music scene here in Singapore has changed over the past 5 years?

It’s definitely changed. There’s a lot more backing for our musical exports, a wider understanding of the industry, music education, and greater advocacy for music as a cultural anchor. Even the general public’s perception that local music is sub-par to the more international mainstream pop or rock is shifting. I’m glad that our national broadcast radio has started playing our Linyings and Gentle Bones, compared to 10 years ago where you hardly hear any made-in-Singapore music on the radio.

Have the changes in the international music landscape affected you in any way?

With digitisation and the internet, it made it so much easier for us to release our music around the world, but that also comes with its downside. A decline in physical music sales and brick-and-mortar music retailers shutting down shops have significantly affected our revenue stream.

The future is all about access to music rather than ownership and this impacts rights holders in the immediate term but mass market streaming has the potential to keep giving back over time. It’s a different business model that we have to evolve to.

Was it difficult to sustain the record label? Was there a point where you wanted to quit? How did you overcome that?

The traditional idea of a record label is to make a business around the sale of music recordings, but it’s proving extremely difficult to make the business profitable in this age of digital music. It would be really nice to make the label self-sustaining, but to be honest, I’m very happy just to break even.

Very few indie labels, especially the DIY ones, actually make a profit, while many are barely breaking even. I realised very early on that the label wasn’t going to be a money maker. Lesley and I do it because we love the bands and their music, and I want to be there to help them realise their art.

How have the bands under the record label evolved over the many years?

At one point in our 10 years, we were representing six active bands. But, life happens and there’s a shift in priorities as people emigrate, graduate from school, change jobs and get married. Bands evolve or move on, but we hope we’ve imparted some of our business acumen and experience to them so they’re better equipped or more knowledgeable about the music business.

What are your hopes for the record label for the next 10 years?

More bands, and even more music for our 20th birthday celebration.

This coming May 5-6 will be big for KittyWu Records, which will be celebrating their 10th year anniversary with a series of gigs by alternative acts and rock bands. The music festival will kick off on May 5 with British rock band TTNG joined by guitarist Mylets, aka Henry Kohen. The second day will see six acts including KittyWu’s Amateur Takes Control, Dirgahayu from KL, T-Rex, Paris In The Making and other local acts.
Early bird tickets are no longer available. Get regular tickets for May 5 here ($60; $70 at the door) and for May 6 here ($25; $40 at the door). More details here.