For the record, I’m nobody, really. You probably won’t know who I am. When people ask me what I do, the answer changes all the time. I’ll say I’m a musician, or that I work in music, and if I’m having a good evening at the one bar where I hang out, I’ll sometimes admit that I was the DJ spinning earlier. I’ve done a lot of work with successful artists in Oceania, either as a nameless player on stage, or featuring as a guest on “that single which didn’t go as well as we hoped it would”.
I have a solo project. My artist name is easy to spell and pronounce, but people still mess it up all the time. I’ve made six albums. Four of them aren’t on Spotify since they were released before digital distribution became easy. My fifth album is often erroneously referred to as my debut.
Sometimes at my day job, a streaming algorithm (or a well-meaning colleague) will sneak one of my songs into the office playlist. I always quietly leave the room when this happens. I dislike having to talk about myself. However, I’m very open and sarcastic when I point out something that is wrong. Easily triggered, I guess.
I’m hard to find online. Any photos of myself are posted on social media with immeasurable reluctance. They “get the likes” though, and I’m a closet dopamine fiend. My organic reach is terrible since I’m such a sporadic user. There is no Twitter tick or Wikipedia article to speak of. Not even a stub. Believe it or not, I like it this way. I hate advertising myself. Therein lies the problem of self-sabotage. I want to make my own records and go on tours and eventually make a living doing so, but I don’t like the spotlight. I’m screwed, right?
I’ve tried so many times to escape my fate. I’ve tried so many times to quit doing what I do. It’s ridiculous, but I really wish I could be happy doing something else. I’m colour blind, so being a commercial pilot is out. Can I be a chef if I can’t tell the difference between medium and medium rare? I flunked math and chemistry, so no science or accountancy for me. I’d love to be an athlete, yet I don’t have the physicality. I love sport now, but the culture surrounding it during my upbringing was so awful that I avoided it. The only trophy I ever won was at a Sunday school quiz.
Once upon a time, an alternate careers test indicated I had the skills to become an architect. I’d probably love it, but despite the beauty and innovation in practice, the industry looks depressing as hell. No offense. Being a musician in my country isn’t exactly a bubbling well of positivity either, unless you choose to ignore certain issues. Despite the unlikely odds of success, I just can’t seem to stay away from music.
I strayed furthest from music in my early twenties. I entered a two-year master’s degree in a bid to become a qualified audiologist. A graduate salary of $60k+ seemed like a solid plan B. One year into the course (i.e. half way), I realized that hearing aid prescriptions and cochlear implant research would soon drive me insane. To the dismay of my East-Asian parents, I did the opposite of locking in a back-up plan. I quit post-grad, found an entry-level full-time job, saved a couple thousand dollars and ran away to a bigger city to pursue music. Some would call it chasing a dream.
Here I am now, a contemporary musical director for hire, among other things. I make live shows happen for artists that don’t know how to arrange them. I’m usually part of the band too, as a bassist or a keyboardist. In the studio, I write, produce and mix and remix songs for artists who want an underground edge. I also record voiceovers and produce commercial spots for radio. I write toplines for other producers. I’m proud of what I do. If your stuff sounds a bit too clean, hire me. I’ll gladly throw some dirt on it. If you need some real damage, I’ll distress it like an expensive pair of jeans, and save it right before it gets thrown in the bin. Then I’ll charge you for it. It’s quite a niche talent.
My sound engineer once told me that my songs are like nuggets caked in mud and shit, and if you can scrub through the layers of dark grit, you’ll find gold. I thought quartz would be more accurate because my core philosophy isn’t that flashy, but I’ll accept the analogous compliment. I don’t mean to challenge anyone with what I do or make listening a chore. Deep down, I want my music to be liked. It’s just that I create what I like, and I like things more when they’re not so obvious. I’m not great at puzzles, but I enjoy solving them. I’m obviously a David Lynch fan. Yep, I’m that guy.
I’ve faced a lot of rejection in my time. I’ve played a lot of empty rooms. I know, everyone has. I know, there’ll be more rejection and empty rooms to come, and it only gets harder from here. I know music is subjective! I know it’s hard to create stuff that appeals to lots of different people. I’m okay with all of this, but I still complain a lot. So why am I still here? I can point to a few things–
1. There is so much good music out there.
There really is! Despite the opinion of most baby boomers, it’s a wild-ass party, and I want to be invited. I want to be in the good circle of that Venn diagram, rather than the intersection of good and bad known as popular. I don’t think I’ll ever get there, but that’s also why I’ll never stop trying. I can always do better. Nothing I make will ever be perfect to me. There are so many musical skills that I want to improve, and there aren’t enough years left in my life to become an expert at all of them, but I want to try anyway. Most of the time, it’s fun. Sometimes, it’s cleaning a window with nothing but spit and an open palm. As I’m smearing grime across the glass, I begin to see dull shapes of improvement through thin translucent streaks. It’s better than not being able to see through it at all.
When my musical friends make good music, I talk to them about it. It’s like a soaped up sponge-squeegee combo coming to rescue my dirty window. They tell me how they’re on the same quest for merit, and that I’m not alone. Suddenly I’m on the other side of the glass, reminded that it isn’t only my ability that makes my music unique, but my inability too–similar to how the basis of a good film photo lies equally upon its content and its exclusions. The result is often a combination of accident and deliberation. That note I can’t hit because it’s out of my range might just be the one that prevents my melody from being predictable and boring. I’m aware of the possibility that it might just sound bad too. That being said…
2. There is so much bad music out there.
Nothing inspires me more than seeing a band or hearing a song that is both super popular and super terrible. Afterwards, I can’t wait to pick up an instrument and start writing and playing with sounds, because I think I can do better. We live in an era where a person sweating behind a laptop or an ironic voice over open chords can be interpreted as good musicianship. Throw projections of random anime on the wall. Add a loop pedal, a cajón player and some reverb. Now watch the crowd go wild. I’ve been the sweaty person behind a laptop, and it is dead-shit boring to me. I’ve also tried serving irony on a bed of acoustic guitar with three chords, a capo and the truth. It doesn’t work in my great southern land if you have eyelids that look like mine. People say things like, “wow, I didn’t expect that voice to come from him.” On that note, let’s pause for a quick reminder to everyone including myself: music is subjective.
Now that’s out of the way, I’m going to come out and say it. It’s easy for white artists in my country. Don’t confuse my readiness to pull the race card with tall poppy syndrome. I’ll admit to both, but they present differently. I’m sick of people listening with their eyes and not their ears, of nonsensical categorization by award associations, of the extra hoops that musicians of colour have to jump through to get recognition; of the low and easy bar that white musicians always have luxuriously set for them by white gatekeepers. This breeds laziness and stagnation in our arts culture. I could get deeper and angrier, but I’ll save it for another article.
I’m not in this for a medal or social justice. I’m really out here to reach other musicians of colour with my music. It might be thankless, but I’m a true masochist. I’m in it to get my ass kicked by life and to get high. Every time I try to give up, something feels wrong. I’m addicted to smart chord progressions, ingenious voice leading, elusive rhythmic flair, deep wordplay, mind-bending production and cheeky flashes of furtive virtuosity. Until I can brandish all of the above and convince my people that they can be musicians if they want to be, I’m not calling it a day.
3. There are good people out there.
If you know, you know. These people listen more than they talk. They let me finish my answers to their questions instead of damn near interrupting themselves. They see me as a musician, not a typical ethnic who can play piano. They want to do things right the first time, and deliver on schedule. I can see pride in their work, their attention to detail, evidence of their preparation and a high level of clarity in their communication. They work well in a team, and they work well on their own too. I can trust them. They are honest. Most importantly, they show humility and apologise unreservedly when they fuck up. Managers, bookers, sound engineers, lighting directors, drivers, support bands, check-in attendants, venue staff and all who are part of the machine have a responsibility to be good at what they do without being an asshole. When I meet these people, I hope that I get to work with them again. They’ll often become friends who pass on business, advice, and Soundcloud streams, or other helpful gifts–like that time the boss of a vinyl subscription service bought his members copies of my record for distribution because they thought I was worth it.
It’s not only people working in the industry. It’s the committed friends, friends of friends, family and unrelated followers who buy tickets and steal your posters off the wall after the show. The unknown fans who want to meet you, but know you’re tired because you spent big on stage, so they keep it short or wave quickly on their way out, or the ones that buy you a drink unprompted–I actually have all the time in the world for these people. Then there are pals that slide into your DMs with nothing but a fire emoji when you release a new track, instead of getting mad because you’ve been too busy to hang for months. They really get it.
4. There are good people on the way.
Speaking of getting it, young people are important. They know a lot more than most people assume. When I was in my early twenties, I only cared about myself, and not in a healthy way. In contrast, the impressive young artists I’ve been working with have nondestructive self-care routines and are well aware of their environment and the effects of their actions. They understand each other, and they understand their future. They understand that their future is the future. They understand their differences, and that they should try to work through them. They’re up to date on social politics and ethical matters. They acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which they stand, believe in global warming, have a strong opinion on the refugee crises, support the LGBTQI+ community, take mental health seriously and denounce violence against women.
From a professional perspective, the young people I’ve worked with in the music industry have an impressive understanding of digital media. They’ve had access to it since birth. They’re getting killer streaming stats on their releases and they know how to mount a promotional campaign that generates viral engagement. Young artists don’t need a communications degree, they just figure this shit out because they know how to talk to each other.
I want to work with young industry.
I want to work with young industry. It won’t be long until they’re in charge, and I’m really looking forward to the changing of the guard. Things move so quickly in the music industry, and I’m only going to get slower from here onwards. Inevitably, I’ll fall behind, but until then I’m keen to learn from young people.
It’s not only business know-how. It’s the art itself that is changing. I’m learning how to be a better DJ from pros a decade younger than me. Rappers, singers and producers under 25 keep coming up with new styles and trends that blossom into new sub-genres every year. I’m pretty good at reverse engineering a beat when I hear it, but lately there have been joints coming from teenage bedrooms that floor me. The new guard is getting weirder, and weird is good. Anything but normal, please.
By writing this, I’ve actually given myself a pretty strong argument to stick around. It wasn’t intentional, but I’m glad I did it. My team knows that I’ll always ponder quitting a few times a year, and now they have a manifesto they can send me the next time I mention leaving the game. I hope the cynic in me reaches the cynic in someone else out there and helps them realize that despite all the trash in our wonderful creative lives, there’s plenty to be excited about. If it ever gets you down, whoever you are, feel free to @ me on Twitter.
Melbourne-based musical chameleon, Yeo, is known for bending genres, continually exploring the dimensions of electronic, pop and R&B and has been praised as a multi-instrumentalist, in the studio and on stage, alternating between keys, bass and keytar.