By Jocelle Koh
It’s been a busy and unpredictable couple of years for singer-songwriter Charlie Lim. From resuming his status as an independent artist to falling into the rabbit hole of web3 and furthering his pursuit of community-building and artist empowerment, I don’t think Lim himself could have predicted that this was a direction he saw himself taking. And yet, the veteran artist with over a decade of experience under his belt has come out the other side as a pioneering figure for indie artists both in the local and wider music scene. He is someone who not only walks the talk as an artist who prioritises his artistry above all, but has also been part of creating an alternative solution to support artists creatively and sustainably in their independent journey.
Pursuing a slew of collaborations with the likes of Aisyah Aziz, Miho Fukuhara, Sheikh Haikel and Abangsapau, Lim has continued to add his unique touch to works across the Asian music scene whilst empowering it in a myriad of other ways too. Taking on a role as music director at Singaporean online radio station Indiego and as one of the founding members of web3 artist collective and DAO The Great Wave, the singer-songwriter and producer seems to be on the edge of something potentially groundbreaking; and his willingness to share his vision and perspective is exactly what has made him such a role model for indie artists out there.
We spoke to Charlie about the myriad of projects he’s been involved in over the past two years, his mindset as an independent artist, and of course his new artist collective and DAO The Great Wave.
Congrats on your latest EP and also the launch of The Great Wave. I know you’ve been very busy over the pandemic, has your mindset changed about your craft over the last two years, especially?
Thank you. Yeah, the last couple of years have been intense. My initial plan to move to London –that all kind of went up in smoke after being there for 3 months when everything imploded. But since I’ve gotten back I’ve been really fortunate to be able to get a bit of work here and there, on top of doing more collaborations with artists and helping people out with stuff, doing a few commissions as well, which has been quite interesting.
I don’t think you can have a master plan for anything anymore, to be honest. I feel like the pandemic has just kind of, you know, thrown a spanner in all of that. So you just kind of roll with the punches and work with what you’re given. I’ve also kind of fallen into different rabbit holes, including this whole web3 thing, which really made me think more about the industry in general. There’s a lot of stuff that is really broken and everyone’s scrambling to find ways to fix it, but nobody has an answer yet.
You went into the pandemic with a set of plans and a straightforward idea and then everything got turned on its head. And now you have a new EP, and you have this Great Wave project, which is something that’s very, very unique. Going back to your EP, though, I think it’s a really cool concept. Why did you choose to do these specific versions of those songs during your set?
We wanted to capture a bunch of songs that were part of the set that we were touring with, and this was just off the last tour we did in Japan before the pandemic happened. So this was the band format that we were playing shows with whenever we couldn’t do the full 7-piece Mothership superband thing, it’s pretty stripped down in a more traditional sense without any electronic production. But that also allows a lot more headroom for rearranging and configuring. We affectionately call ourselves the supper squad, because we used to rehearse till wee hours in the morning and then eat prata at 5 am. That felt like a lifetime ago.
I think it’s very clear, just from listening that, your craft is still something that really excites you. What is it that gets you so excited about experimenting, and honing your craft?
I think a lot of this also got to do with collaboration and getting to work with really good people, which has been hugely inspiring. Like I couldn’t have done this without like Kerong for example, because he had his hand in a lot of the arrangements, reimagining and how we would strip everything back. Some of the songs are from CHECK-HOOK, which is like an electronic dance/UK garage record and having to strip that back down to completely live instrumentation was tricky, but also really fun to do. So I think the collaborative aspect, even the mixing process together with Utha, was really fun. It can be tedious but I think that that’s what keeps me going more than anything, it’s just being able to work with friends that I respect. It’s such a blessing when your friends are your heroes, and they also see value in what you do so I believe it’s mutual, I hope. (laughs)
I think that’s something that’s really special. But you mentioned that you’re very interested in the idea of collaborating and moving into your new project, The Great Wave is something that I feel is also very centred on the concept of collaborations. So I wanted to know what kind of part do you think collaboration plays nowadays, in the music industry?
Yeah huge, I mean this whole narrative of “decentralisation”, and the idea of just people coming together and forming their own localised communities doing what they love and helping each other out, I think that’s quite empowering.
I do think the idea of the concept of collaboration is something that’s very interesting. I think, essentially, decentralisation equals to collaboration, especially in the music space, because collaboration is when everyone is on the same level, whereas I think it’s very limited the ways that you could come up with collaborations, especially when you have a more centralised model, which is like, I guess, the traditional music industry one?
Yeah, I guess I found that to be a bit of a problem sometimes, you know, when working with a major label, a lot of the collaborations happen just organically and then we had to go through the red tape to sort those things out. I think if the machine is running for you, that’s great. But you know, how many artists on that massive ship actually get that amount of attention and resources? I’m just not sure how it’s practical…so I think there has to be some sort of alternative, or, you know, just another option. I’m not saying like, what we’re trying to do with the DAO is going to replace the label by any means…it’s just another platform that aims to provide more opportunities for artists and take back some agency without holding them down with bloated opportunity costs.
I think overall we’ve gone really quite deep already. But for general audiences, do you want to quickly share what the great wave is all about?
Well the DAO, which stands for “decentralised autonomous organisation”, which is kind of a buzzword in itself…but it is the goal that we want to work towards. Basically, we start off with a pool of funding. We can commission artists for their work, and they can choose a proportion of that fee and reinvest it in the collective as the governance token, so that they have a share in the collective. For our first few releases and as a proof of concept, we pair artists up with different collaborators, producers, engineers, even visual artists, then we put the track out, which is collectively owned by the DAO.
I think the best thing about this is we can adapt as we go along, and have different models to how we can create deal structures and ways to organise projects based on everyone’s needs. And when more artists come on board, we can get more supporters, investors, fans, brand partners, even labels, if they want to be part of this. Hopefully the rising tide will lift all boats.
Awesome. I think something that I was very curious to know is, how does web3 in particular empower artists and makes something like the Great Wave a unique alternative for supporting them, as opposed to, you know, anything else that might have come before it?
Sure. I think what web3 unlocks –and for me, this is already quite a conservative view compared to many others, that have much more grandiose takes on it –for me web3, basically, which is, you know, the event of crypto and blockchain tech, it basically allows for the democratisation of risk sharing. So anyone can come up with an idea and anyone can have equity and shares of that project with the tokenisation of it. So I think that’s quite powerful in itself. So just based on that you can basically run with anything that you believe is feasible, you can bring a community together to rally behind it as a start. I think crypto and blockchain allows us to experiment with all these mechanics which you couldn’t do in any other situation.
Yeah, for sure. I think I understand a bit better now. Because basically, the thing that’s different about it is that it’s a different economic model altogether. I know that you’re someone who has been affiliated both with independent and major labels, and you have a really good understanding of how the industry works for artists. Do you think major labels are like a viable option for like, majority artists in this day and age?
I would say it really depends on the artist’s expectations, and also where they’re at in their career, and where they’re based, as well. So it really depends…I think my overall experience was still a net positive at the end of the day, like, sure, I got screwed over a few times, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, I still got to put out the music that I wanted to put out without compromising anything, and I got to work with the people that I wanted to work with.
I’d say quite a lot of decision making does get taken away from you, and you’re always waiting on stuff to move and be approved…there can be a lot of inertia, which is really frustrating for the artist. Meanwhile the label has very little to lose. Whereas for the artist, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg, right? It’s like, why do you need a label if they’re betting on you to be a unicorn? But then if you’re a unicorn, then why do you need them? It’s the kind of thing where they wouldn’t flood you with resources until you’ve “made it”…I think if you’re at that level, I guess first of all, you wouldn’t be needing any advice from me, but you’d probably be better off just going into a joint venture where you have more leverage and can hold them accountable. And just, you know, using as much resources as much as you can from them because you’re calling all the shots, right?
Yeah. But then in that, you know, in that scenario, then to me, it’s kind of like, well, then you could just go to like a bank, or you know, like what because you know, that’s not the that’s not the function of a label to just give artists money.
Yeah…at the end of the day, they’re a corporation who understands what they need to do. And they need to push all their resources towards the horses that are winning…but hope that the smaller ones blow up on their own. I don’t think that’s very helpful for a lot of younger artists. I hear so many horror stories of others being trapped in decade-long deals with so many obligations to fulfill and hardly get any support, they can get trapped in the contract and it’s this horrible cycle where they can’t release music, and it all gets quite nightmarish.
Yeah, I think it’s, you know, it’s not how it should work. I feel, yeah, in general, the way that the major labels are working right now. But I mean, we talked a lot about the business side of the music industry. And I know that you’re doing a lot of different stuff at the moment. So I wanted to know, is it a challenge for you trying to balance between the business and the creative side of things.
It’s always a challenge, for sure. But I’ve also been very blessed and lucky that I never really had to compromise on the creative side of things. I think what we’re doing now, even with like Indiego and this DAO stuff, like a lot of it’s kind of community building. So I guess for me… it’s interesting, I’m passionate about it, but yeah it is a lot of work for little monetary reward.
Yeah, I think I mean, for me, I think it’s really interesting because you’re still, you know, other than working on all this, I would say more like administrative for like coordination or you know, even tech related stuff. And then on the other hand, you’re still doing collaborations you’re still creating, you’re still working on music. I feel like it’s two completely different worlds. So I wanted to know, how do you manage your time so that you can jump right into the creative stuff?
I don’t manage it very well, to be honest. I’m sure you can relate when you’re juggling so many projects! But yeah, I think I think sometimes there’s some confluence when you work within parameters and deadlines and deliverables. You know, like, whether it’s planning for a show that you’ve agreed to do down the line, and then you kind of plan and work backwards. And, you know, like, without this DAO thing I probably wouldn’t have reached out to so many artists and try to get everyone interested in, you know, getting new music done. And so, I think that’s also exciting for artists as well, because there’s like a new impetus to work on projects together. Yeah, just because usually, there’s a lot of inertia because the whole release process can be really daunting…artists sometimes just sit on their hard drives of unfinished tracks and don’t really know what to do with it. Sometimes you just need some help to just light the fire again. So hopefully things like this kind of can help to get the engine going, for me I know that that helps personally, so yeah, hopefully it does for others as well.
Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, talking about the inertia, actually, my next question was like, Do you feel knowing about the business side of the music industry is essential for artists?
So… to answer your question about knowing about the business side of music industry, whether it’s essential for artists, I mean, yes, but, but the truth is, nobody knows what they’re doing. Because it constantly changes so fast. And it’s like, by the time you have some sort of academic syllabus, or you know, masterclass thing about it, it’s not gonna work already because everyone will be doing it. I think it’s about finding your own space to do what you do best. Like if you can find that in the industry, then I think that’s important, otherwise, you’ll always be thinking, Oh, I’m not performing like this artist or whatever, because you’re comparing stats on social media and, you know, that’s a horrible way to like (think about it)… the metrics are not great, because the playing field wasn’t even to begin with.
Cool. So looking back on your earlier days as a budding artist, is there anything you would do differently or something that you wish you had known earlier?
I (would) try to get better quality sleep, which I still don’t right now. I think stress management is really important. Because when you are your own boss, everything you do is a passion project. It just consumes you entirely. I think finding outlets, finding hobbies that are not related to music. I think if I like, started boxing earlier I probably would’ve been in a much better place physically and mentally (laughs). Having good people around you is really important as well. And people who love you, not for what you do, but for who you are, I think like, that’s really important as well to ground you. I think these are things that I kind of already knew, but had to like actively and consciously make an effort to find and secure for myself.
What I found most inspiring from the conversation with Charlie was how much thought he’s put into all the topics that we discussed; from artistic independence to the interaction between web3 and the music industry. There were no arbitrary anecdotes; instead, his words reflected both his own experiences and always an understanding of the other side of the story. While as Charlie mentions during the interview, a lot of it stems from an ongoing existential crisis, I think it also stems from a brilliant, questioning mind that takes nothing for granted and always seeks to pay it forward.
Armed with a startling capacity for generosity and an understanding of the web3 space, Lim is putting everything out there in the hope that the new model The Great Wave empowers artists to find sustainable pathways to continue creating; but I believe that it is doing so much more than just that. The model shows artists that there is an ecosystem of creatives available to support them, and reminds us that there will always be an alternative route to empowering ones’ artistry; one that prioritises collaboration and community. And even just the possibility of that – as the future for artists and the music industry is unbelievably exciting for me.
The Great Wave will be part of Singapore’s Economic Development Board’s Minting Good presentation at the upcoming London Tech Week. Learn more about the project here, or follow The Great Wave on Twitter to stay in the loop. Find Charlie on Twitter or Instagram to keep up to date on his latest projects, or check out his music on Spotify for a good time always.