Words by Indran P
Marcia Tan is immune to the fact that overuse has blunted the impact of terms such as “legend” and “doyenne”. When it comes to the immaculate arts of artist management and delivering panoramic you-had-to-be-there live music experiences from the soil up, Marcia is a legend and doyenne.
Her three most familiar veneers are that she is the woman behind the team that has made the 2014-2018 editions of the Singapore leg of St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival the most-attended iterations in its history, and the team that reconfigured the Pasir Panjang Power Station into the wonderland staging ground for last year’s femme-fronted indie music extravaganza the Alex Blake Charlie Sessions, and as the onetime manager of some of Singapore’s biggest artists, whose ranks include Mandopop queen Stefanie Sun and pop-rock force Electrico. And those are just some of the endeavours that she has helmed in the illustrious sweep of her arc.
Today, Marcia leads 19SixtyFive, an artist agency that provides creative services, and its subsidiary venue management arm 24OWLS. From these vantage points, Marcia is poised to chime in on the zeitgeist and give audiences some incredible memories along the way. She takes Popspoken through her resume and shares some gems of wisdom in the interview below.
Hey Marcia. How did you get into the business of management and PR?
Marcia: I’ve been involved in all sorts of industries – from fashion retail, fragrance, beauty and cosmetics, to the record and music business. I’ve also been doing freelance work with artists in a variety of roles, from management to publicity to staging music showcases. So, it was a natural progression for me to form a team (starting with a three-person team in 2003, to be specific), growing into the team we are today (lucky 13!). 19SixtyFive is a creative and artist agency, and the subsidiary 24OWLS focuses on venue management and programming.
Could you please explain to the layman what 19FSixtyive does and the philosophy behind it?
19SixtyFive is an agency: We cover the arts, music, entertainment and lifestyle work in various areas from artist representation to producing concerts and festivals, from conceptualising brand activations to PR & marketing.
24OWLS is a subsidiary set up to focus on the development of programmes and the venue management of Pasir Panjang Power Station.
It’s known that you used to manage Stefanie Sun. How did that come about?
Stefanie was doing a lot of work out of Singapore in the 2000s, and I know her mentors the Lee brothers (Lee Wei Song & Lee Si Song) and teacher Chen Peter. They mentioned that Stefanie was looking for someone to look after her work, and asked if it was something I could do.
By then, I had already paid my dues in the record business. I had my own circuit of media contacts, done several music showcases, from shows to meet-and-greet sessions, and was very much in touch with the fashion and beauty industry (who loved Stef), so I thought, hell, I could do this.
Stefanie and I met briefly when I was still working with Warner Music. She appeared easy-going (and indeed is), so it was a “let’s try this”.
Then came the fun times – the fashion shoots, travelling, humanitarian work, gigs, endorsements, appearances, etc. It was a whirlwind. I saw the ultimate paparazzi experience when she went to the store opening of Louis Vuitton in Hong Kong. There are so many memorable experiences – the Beijing Summer Olympics in China; a diamond/jewellery shoot in Australia; a luxury brand shoot in the Czech Republic; and a sports campaign shoot in South Korea.
I also remember the charity efforts: when we went to Meulaboh, southeast of Banda Aceh to lend support to the rebuilding of schools as part of the post-tsunami relief work; and to Niger, West Africa, to feed under-nourished children; and to Sichuan to visit the refugee camps after the devastating earthquake.
A lot was accomplished, and we forged a friendship. She is a deserving artist, by being true to herself no matter how famous she became.
And how different would you say the Mandopop world is from its Western pop world?
I’m not sure how different it is now, as I don’t dig into that scene as much, these days. That said, I did enjoy certain aspects of the Mandopop scene before the advent of social media. You built close human relationships and connections, and you learnt to come up with imaginative ideas from scratch. You didn’t go online to find an idea and copy it.
Sure, Mandopop and Western pop appeal to different markets so they are quite distinct. Then again, every artist is an individual – regardless of language and culture – so he or she needs to be managed and marketed accordingly.
It’s known that you were crucially involved with staging Laneway in Singapore. How did you come to be involved with the Australian festival?
I was involved in the first edition of the Laneway Festival Singapore in 2011. I became a fixer by accident. They asked me if I could help that year, and I paired up with Desmond, my current right-hand person for production matters.
That edition turned out be a baptism by fire, or shall we say, by rain. It was pouring buckets at Fort Canning. It was rough. I ended up becoming like a runner, going from front of house to back of house – basically anything which needed fixing.
I got to know some of the team members and connected with the folks in Australia. I gave them my take on how I think this festival could grow. Thanks to Michael Chugg, the Australian tour promoter, who made some ballsy decision to change and reset Laneway, I flew to Sydney to sort out some details, observed the 2013 festival, then took over from 2014 till 2018.
It’s also known that under your leadership, Laneway became sold out and profitable. How does that make you feel?
Blood, sweat and tears. I won’t say Laneway Festival Singapore was all profitable but it was always a great event, rain or shine. It was planned that way. That was our motivation: We must make it one of the best music experiences here in Singapore.
It took a village to make it happen and at one point we were feeding some 1,000 staff, crew, helpers, cleaners, security personnel, part-timers on site. I am a big believer in teamwork. We have a solid core team, lean but super dedicated, and we bust our asses off for a good six months to shit that monster event out.
Year after year, we pat ourselves on our backs, and go: ‘that was great’, and then attempt to outdo it the following year.
What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered in staging Laneway in Singapore?
Staging a festival is challenging.
Everybody wants something. F&B needs more space. Production tells you there is no more space for a food village. The artist team says more rooms are needed, but the tentage cannot be subdivided anymore. The police say we need to put up more water barriers, but you know the spot is one which cannot be blocked in case we need to evacuate. The production team tells you they need more money as one of the bands is asking for special equipment, but you don’t have the additional budget for that.
There are many moving parts and you just need to be able to navigate them and find ways to make sure every team can run smoothly.
In your experience with Laneway, did you learn anything new about the industry?
Too many egomaniacs.
When working with government agencies for licenses, permits etc, how do you navigate that terrain?
The challenge and the thing we need to constantly remind ourselves is that there are numerous government agencies, and that they aren’t necessarily familiar with one another. They have different deliverables, and you have to work with them.
For a start, you cannot assume that the manager you’re speaking to is a music festival-goer at all or has attended a similar event. More often than not, you would have to deal with conflicting demands. For instance, an officer in charge of food and hygiene may insist on a certain set-up, but that would mean many pipes and cables, which could cause someone to trip, which leads to a crowd control issue you have to tackle.
So, you just need to be extra patient and try to find creative solutions.
Will Laneway come back?
Who knows? And who is to say? Something different may pop up.
Speaking from your experience and expertise, what do you think is the most important quality a person must possess in order to be part of this industry?
Love your job and respect your team. Don’t do for vanity or just to stay on-trend. This is not a fashionable business. It is very labour-intensive, and a lot of hard work and long hours have to be put in.
And speaking as the manager of some of Singapore’s biggest acts, what quality must artists possess in order to be successful?
Be original. Don’t obsess too much about social media numbers. Don’t be led by trends and churn out a product you think will captivate the audience. Do and play what you are good at, not what you think others may like to hear.
Work darn hard. I saw that in Electrico when we worked together. The guys worked non-stop and played every gig possible. They were their own roadie, guitar tech and engineer.
And for heaven’s sake, practise your playing. Nothing beats a horrifying live show. You may think you’re great screaming your lungs out, but all we hear is a terrible sound.
From your point of view, how important is live entertainment to Singapore’s cultural fabric?
I am biased. Live shows are captivating to me, so having a great concert or festival experience is important to me.
You cannot Auto-Tune a live set. It is real and that is what makes it quite magical. Culture is a way of life and in ours, we need human presence, community engagement and social activity. How do we develop that without being physically engaged?
How important is it to you to give indie/independent artists from Singapore and beyond a chance to play?
My question back to you is: How much do these artists really wish to play? If you say you do, then get to work. Write to a festival that you like, and ask to play. Start somewhere.
There is nothing to lose if you ask to play and you don’t get a slot. Ask yourself why and work on it. Sometimes it can be a simple programming issue, but in other cases, programmers have watched you and didn’t think you’d be suitable for their festival. Whatever it is, you learn something from trying.
The best-case scenario? You get to play, and when you do, give it your all professionally – whether you are a filler, a noon set or a headliner.
In 2019, you also spearheaded the Alex Blake Charlie Sessions. How did that come about and what influenced the all-female lineup?
We dug around for a lot of bands and we discovered that many of them were female-fronted.
We also recalled a particular Laneway edition with acts such as Banks, Courtney Barnett, FKA twigs, Little Dragon, and St. Vincent – all great female or female-fronted acts. So, we thought, let’s give it a go and see how far we can push for an all-female line-up.
Here’s a nugget for you: At The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions, we noticed there was a great vibe between bands backstage. We saw the bands in the audience supporting the other acts, and band members partying till the very last act. To me, that is when a line-up works magically for the audience and also the bands themselves, a roster of bands that even the participating bands want to catch.
Why did you pick the Pasir Panjang Power Station for the festival and why is that building important to you?
We first saw this building in 2017, and I thought, this space must be kept “as is”. There is a beauty in its rawness and it’s rare to see a non-purpose- built space in Singapore, so we thought we should keep it as it is.
We started a two-year journey on exploring the ways to rejuvenate this space for the creative industry, and how we can be the catalyst in making this a new and exciting live entertainment space.
With help from the Singapore Tourism Board, we managed to retrofit the space with air coolers, rework the electrical works, build those loos. Coupled with our experience in staging a great festival, we launched this space. We continue to venue-manage and programme for this power station – so stay tuned.
In these COVID times, what do you think promoters and bookers can do to stay afloat?
With livestreaming now the only way for audiences to watch artists perform, what do you think is the future of “live” entertainment and festivals?
I don’t agree that live-streaming is the only way. I like to see what new formats may develop from this. People keep saying it is abnormal but I think it’s new. It was not normal to watch the lives of people on TV but reality TV is a normal format now.
At the same time, I love live shows so I will continue to explore the various permutations, even if it means we need to go back to the basics, from 10 people to 100 to 500, and so forth.
Lastly, in these uncertain times, how do you keep sane and healthy? What advice do you have for people in the music space whose livelihoods are affected by the virus?
Stay very focused. Just because you need to survive does not mean you should jump on to do anything. Do what you are good at and do it freaking well. Stop thinking about what cannot be done but think about what you can do.
Featured image: Alex Blake Charlie Sessions at 24Owls