“Do you know how frustrating it is to play “Take Heart” over and over again?”, confesses Jonathan Chua or Jon Chua JX, eliciting silent laughter from his students at SOMA (School of Music and The Arts).
It is that insatiable drive to repeat the motion and get better with each reiteration, that eventually catapulted The Sam Willows to be one of the most sought-after acts for millennials. Though the band has officially announced its indefinite hiatus over a year ago, as an artiste, he has been kept busy with solo projects, most recently dropping track “Give It Back”. Aside from his more public persona as an artiste, Jonathan is also a business man, having founded local music agency Zendyll — that is segmented into Zendyll Productions and Zendyll Records.
2015 saw the initiation of Zendyll Productions, centred around film scoring and sound design for commercial work at his recording studio, which saw the company clinching contracts for eBay, GV, Adidas and more, followed by the acquisition of Beep Studios in 2019 which brought upon more music production work. Jonathan also started to dabble in the artiste management aspect side of things, with Zendyll Records being formed in 2018, leading to his first sign-on — former J-Pop idol, Estelle Fly.
It is his first-hand understanding of music commercialisation that sets him apart from his peers, coupled with experience within the millennial era of local pop music. Jonathan is realistic with regard to the insights he brings to the session with his students. “Virality should not be your priority”, he shares candidly and whilst he supports subcultures, he is also acutely aware, “There needs to be a successful pop industry in order for there to be a subculture.”
For burgeoning artists, he further notes that the playing field has been leveled, as there is a plethora of options when it comes to music distribution for those starting out, such as TuneCore (subsidiary of Believe), The Orchard (subsidiary of Sony Music) and the newly launched, Spinnup (subsidiary of Universal Music). Towards the end of the workshop, Jonathan openheartedly leaves his contact details with departing students. “Don’t hesitate to email me with any demos or questions, I’d love to hear it,” exuding deep passion to listen to all new music coming out of Asia.
Popspoken: Having had started out as a guitarist and vocalist, was there a need to recalibrate your mindset when you began the label?
Yes, of course. I think being an artist with Sony Music, and one of the first few 360 signings to them had me playing more than the role of an artist. I was involved in the management and pitching process, and the behind-the-scenes work. I had to re-calibrate my mentality when beginning the label. I was aware that I had to function as an indie label, but at the same time do things differently from past indie labels. This resulted in Zendyll being more of an artist/producer services hub. We have multiple studios, producers and songwriters in order to create the infrastructure needed that was beyond just a freelance model. The structure of Zendyll has evolved over the years, from a production studio to the music agency it is now.
Popspoken: Zendyll Productions was launched in 2015. At what point did you feel like it was the right time to branch out to integrate a recording studio and a label?
It was always part of the plan from the beginning. But we knew we had to build a track record from the start. We felt like the right time to debut the record label portion was at the end of 2018. We had built a stable business model, especially financially to ensure that we could pursue this investment of building a record label.
Popspoken: What is the most important value you hold onto while running Zendyll?
I think “community” would be our most important value. Building this community has been our goal from the beginning and also providing opportunities to the right talent that could help build this ASEAN music infrastructure.
Popspoken: How did the signing of Estelle Fly come about? How did you first hear about her?
Estelle Fly has caught my eye since her first independent release. To me, her story was more attractive than her statistics. I was interested in how she’s still so determined to do well as an artist. She’s trained for many years in dance, acting, singing and lately she’s been into gaming. I first heard about her when she applied for the mentorship programme that I was mentoring for, however, she didn’t turn up for the audition. We reconnected a couple of months later and decided to work together on her artist project.
Popspoken: Do you find yourself appreciating music from a different perspective as compared to when you were in a band?
Definitely. I think now I’m able to focus on music that goes beyond just The Sam Willows fans. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been listening to a wider variety of genres and it helped with my perception on how music business in Singapore could be run, and also understanding other markets such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, seeing what practices we could adopt here in Singapore.
Popspoken: How did you decide that you wanted the record label to focus on the A&R side of the industry as well?
It was a natural progression. I started the label from an artist/producer perspective. Many independent labels have different beginnings; some from a tech perspective, some from a business perspective, some from a lawyer’s perspective. I felt like I could contribute to the A&R side of things here in this region.
Popspoken: Tell us more about the work SOMA does and how it has shaped the music community.
SOMA has been providing students with the necessary tools to prepare themselves to work in music, and I’m personally a huge supporter of the organisation. Their diploma courses not only provide technical skills, but also essential connections into the industry. From my point of view, SOMA’s role is to shape the next generation of musicians in Singapore. It’s heartening to know that institutions like SOMA and Zendyll are working together to educate and inspire the next generation. Only time will be able to tell what significance will come out from this collaboration.
Popspoken: From your experience, why do you think it’s important for young artists to have a grasp on the workings of music business?
In this day and age, I think musicians need to go beyond the role of just creating and performing. Having a good understanding of music business allows them to become musician entrepreneurs; which equips them with the skills to thrive in this industry. It is a young but tough industry—and having the knowledge of music business allows them to make the right decisions from the beginning.
Popspoken: What do you see in the future of Zendyll?
I hope for Zendyll to grow into a significant institution for ASEAN music. My short term goal is to license and distribute tracks amongst the ASEAN countries. As Singaporeans, we’re very educated in our ASEAN food cuisine, but not with music. I hope to be able to use food as a starting point to educate more listeners on what ASEAN music has to offer.