“I could see the walls closing in, even though the storm hadn’t fully broken yet.” A line poetically put by Take Back The Nights CEO, Audrey Lim. This gloomy image painted by the gig musician, hostess and singer herself, was a call back to the start of the pandemic when events first began to slow down. Much like every other industry, the music scene was hit hard when COVID-19 rolled around.
Disappointed and weary as Lim and her team were, little did they know that this initial set-back marked the beginning of a one-of-a-kind project pioneered by this passionate group of people. Eventually what started as a volunteer-run platform meant to connect talented musicians and technicians, turned into a full-blown virtual reality (VR) music festival featuring various homegrown talents.
Apart from music acts, the festival also features a series of panelists discussing elements of music and entertainment, as well as an open world inspired by the Somerset belt for festivalgoers to roam about.
Unlike Take Back the Nights’ first installation – which featured the live streaming of local artists – the artists performing within the world are pre-recorded motion captures. A paid upgraded pass would allow for user avatars to soar through the air, enjoying the sets from a unique vantage point. Expectedly, this feature is also Lim’s favorite aspect of the game – along with the distinct lack of need for port-a-loos.
Importantly, these upgraded passes do more than let you fly.
“This pandemic has been incredibly stressful and impacted the collective mental health of the nation. Music and entertainment has always gone some way toward alleviating that sort of pain, and I didn’t want anyone to be excluded because they couldn’t afford it.” Lim explained as a reason why they decided to keep the standard tickets free of charge.
Much like donations from live streams, the upgraded tickets help to fund the artists. Only this time you get a VIP pass and extra perks in the world given a few extra bucks. Of course, Take Back The Nights also received a good boost from grants and interested partners, allowing the artists to receive their rightful compensations, as first intended.
“Take Back The Nights was originally conceived in February 2020 with the aim of self-aid for the music community, by the music community.” Lim emphasised. “Gig musicians and technicians who used to play up to 7 nights a week, with up to 8 or 9 venues at a time, and original musicians who ordinarily could count on perhaps a festival and some corporate shows each quarter are still structurally unemployed or underemployed. This remains a driving force for the team.”
She shares more with us about the journey in starting this company, and her thoughts on the music industry in Singapore.
What kick-started this out-of-the-box idea of a VR music festival?
We went back to the drawing board and thought of different options that we could use to achieve the same goal of having the music ecosystem care for itself, only less replicable. We noticed that during the lockdown, everyone quickly experienced zoom or livestream fatigue, but somehow, people were playing more video games than ever. Gaming chairs and gaming consoles were hawked for crazy amounts on Carousell when they went out of stock in stores.
My co-founder Caspar, who at that time was one of the team of volunteers, suggested that we build a festival in a game environment. The medium of video games had been around for a while, and Caspar had been playing around in the AR/VR space with his company, Rawspark. It clicked, we started a company, and we’ve been running with that idea ever since.
This space on unreal has created a whole new realm for music and people to exist on, what significance do you think this new space holds ?
I think hybrid events are going to be a bit of a fixture over the next few years. Even if air travel and border controls were fully restored tomorrow, audiences are still going to be slightly cautious in their approach to gathering in large groups, let alone sitting on planes breathing each other’s air for great lengths of time. Nothing will fully replace being physically proximate to a tribe of people who share your interests, but building a world where some degree of interactivity and immersion is given to you, where you are an active participant rather than a passive viewer, that gives you some control back.
Take Back The Nights – Light The Future demonstrates the virtual world we have built can house music performances and panel discussions. We would be intrigued to see what other exhibitions, conferences and perhaps even sports events can be hosted in our space.
From the previous TBTN, what were some of the things you have noticed or discovered about Singaporeans’ views or feelings toward local music?
Singapore audiences are very diverse. There are those who are huge dyed in the wool supporters who will turn up to all your shows once they’re a fan, and then there’s the majority who believe that being in the arts is a “hobby”, and why should they pay for someone’s “hobby”?
Perhaps it’s the easy availability of “free” content both online and off, for example, the free to attend shows at the Esplanade or bands that play at bars, hotels and at events, that have made Singaporeans imagine that art does not need to be paid for. These audience members will gladly sit through the entire set, sometimes make song requests and sing along when the band plays their request, but it doesn’t occur to them to show their appreciation with a tip. It’s a funny situation with human psychology, when you come to view something as “free”, you don’t value it anymore.
That became very apparent especially when we were functioning as a livestream – even when we joined hands with a certified charity so people knew they were contributing safely, very few people actually put their hands in their pockets.
What are your thoughts about the trajectory of the music scene in Singapore?
I think this is a very exciting time for Singapore music. More and more acts are coming out of the woodwork with the understanding that it truly might be possible to make a living out of this. The eco-system around the artist is growing too – Local musicians are getting on the cover of luxury magazines, new music blogs are bubbling to the surface, more music managers are getting into the game, savvy corporates are understanding that Singapore musicians are worth paying for.
That said, it really is the absolute minority in the scene who are able to quit their day jobs and rely exclusively on music-related income. These include some original artists, and the gig musos who played covers at one or more bars a night, sometimes 6 or 7 nights a week, who were successfully providing for their dependents and making mortgage payments before our first lockdown.
Sadly, some musos have had to sell the tools of their trade, which will make it even more challenging for them to come back to music when this pandemic passes from us. I’m hoping having virtual options available might stop the brain drain, and pique the interests of corporates and event organisers who traditionally understand how that music must be paid for, rather than relying solely on audiences who don’t quite understand that art has value.
How have some of your experiences as a panellist or gastronome made this journey that much more meaningful for you?
I’ve spent the past decade exploring every facet of the entertainment industry. Moving into this role as a producer-presenter of a tech start up I cofounded represents personal development into an arena of entertainment that I am the least comfortable in. That’s also how I know I’m in the right place for growth – I’m taking all my experiences building up all these different brands in different areas (music, food, broadcast) and pouring them into a new frontier of virtual world creation. I have an acute understanding of how these other realms work, and it’s very satisfying to see how lessons I learned in one arena can be applied in another. It’s also a thrill when I bring friends that I’ve made on different parts of my journey together and they manage to make connections and plans to work together!
How did you fall in love with music?
I made the best friends in the music community. We were all young and immortal, so we made silly decisions like not asking before “borrowing” equipment from someone’s place of worship to set up in an ice cream parlour to persuade the business that live music would be a good idea. That’s how we became the first band to play live music in a Ben & Jerry’s.
There was always a huge sense of community: we would send each other download links to the discographies of new bands we were into (piracy was particularly virulent back then), watch each other’s shows at bars or at original music safehavens like The Substation, lend each other equipment, help each other set up and tear down for shows and hang out afterwards to talk about music some more. It was creative, it was vibrant, it was home. And if I can take steps to help pass that on to people who haven’t quite made that connection to the music eco-system just yet, I know it’s something I must do.