Radioslave at iKi
Photograph: Zig Zach

Stayin' Alive: Singapore's nightlife scene is struggling to survive

The city's nightlife is being crushed by high costs and shuttered venues. But club owners, event organisers and partygoers are not giving up

Cam Khalid
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When nightclubs were granted the green light to fully reopen in April last year, the scene was like a dormant corpse finally given the kiss of life. People were flocking to their favourite dance floors, event organisers were throwing parties, and the Ferris wheel at Marquee Singapore started spinning again. Nightlife was back with a bang.

But that was short-lived. Since the pandemic, halls of hedonism have been struggling to keep their doors open and are staring down the barrel at possible extinction. Some venues such as Canvas didn’t make it out of the woods, citing a shortage of funds as one of the reasons.

There's no denying that while the social aspect of nightlife is thriving, the economic aspect is, well, struggling. The nightlife economy is still recovering from the pandemic, and with rising costs of rent and energy prices, many are feeling the pinch.

This has made things harder for smaller players in the game as opposed to big guns like Marquee and Zouk, but in order to survive, they need to adapt to this ruthless new environment. Otherwise, the decline of nightlife could result in a city that has gone – and we hate to say this – stale.

“Club culture has been a window to access different cultures and connect with people from all over the world,” Francesca Way, aka DJ Aurora and one-third of the brains behind the now defunct Nineteen80 and Rails, tells us.

“I’ve met plenty of like-minded people over the years, [including] the love of my life and we’ve been together 12 years now. I’ve also made countless business connections that have helped me in my social and work life,” adds Zig Zach, DJ and founder of Blackout Agency.

Could you imagine what things would be like without nightlife? 

To find out more about the shift in the scene and the things that can be done to steer it in the right direction, we chat with the co-founder of Sivilian Affairs and music director for Potato Head and Kilo, Sivanesh Pillai, event curation and organisation collective North East Social Club, and of course, Francesca Way and Zig Zach.

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North East Social Club
Photograph: North East Social Club

First things first, why is nightlife important to Singapore?

Sivanesh Pillai: Nightlife offers a much-needed respite and an opportunity to meet with new and old friends in a city that moves fast. Beyond the social aspect, the nightlife industry is a major contributor to the night-time economy. There’s the obvious personnel that a bar or restaurant would employ such as bartenders, chefs, musicians and security, yet nightlife is a major employer in other industries too. [The pandemic] gave us a little taste of what could happen without a healthy nightlife scene – taxi drivers giving up on driving, late-night food spots and audio-visual (AV) rental companies shuttering, and hospitality & tourism workers being unemployed and desperately looking for work.

Francesca Way:
A vibrant nightlife scene is one of the biggest indicators of a thriving economy. We have seen how a flourishing nightlife industry attracts international investment and tourism opportunities, from global festivals, events and brands such as F1 and Ultra Music Festival. This in turn also encourages local players to become entrepreneurial and open new cutting-edge concepts.

Nightlife offers a much-needed respite and an opportunity to meet with new and old friends in a city that moves fast.

What are some misconceptions people have about club culture?

Francesca: That clubs are commonly associated with illicit activities, which is not the case. Club culture – as the name 'club' implies – is about creating a community and sense of belonging through entertainment, music discovery, and socialising.

Sivanesh: A common misconception is that all nightclubs are the same and offer the same kind of experience. Even within nightclubs, you have really different setups. You have your superclubs like Zouk and Marquee which are big enough to hold thousands and are critical to the commercial scene. But then you also have underground hotspots like Headquarters, iki and Offtrack which offer a more intimate vibe and tend to have a tight-knit community that consistently shows up at these locales. 

Another popular misconception is that clubs are full of rowdy and unintelligent young people. Nothing can be further from the truth. Sure, you have some people who might fit a certain stereotype, but in my experience, I’ve found a wide spectrum of people of various ages, educational backgrounds, and socioeconomic situations.

Zach:
There is always the stigma that nightlife is associated with the underbelly or that only the bad people hang out late at night. While precautions must be made, that old-school mentality needs to go, and the sooner we get out of that, the industry and the scene will flourish faster and better.

Sivanesh Pillai
Photograph: Sivanesh Pillai

What sets independent party culture apart from club culture?

Natasha Hassan (North East Social Club): Independent collectives tend to be more genre-driven. For example, Revision Music focuses more on breakbeat sounds like drum ‘n’ bass and jungle. Syndicate is more experimental sonically, with an equally meticulous focus on visual presentation. Developing a particular sound for your collective helps to set you apart from one another and lets the masses be more open and flexible with what they are exposed to. 

That said, independent party culture is also devoted to providing unconventional yet accessible experiences for its audience, from getting venues like an ice warehouse, Haw Par Villa or a kopitiam. While mainstream clubs can give a million-dollar party experience, it’s very hard for them to engender that sense of belonging inherent to smaller-scale gatherings.

Why is it important to have other nightlife outlets beyond big names like Zouk and Marquee?

Sivanesh: Zouk and Marquee are large format super clubs that play an important role in the commercial dance space. However, for some, these spaces are completely overwhelming, and/or they prefer to explore different musical styles.

Chris Sim (NESC):
Nightlife culture is not homogenous, and will never be. You have to account for differing needs and appetites. It would be rude to celebrate your ORD at a 150 pax venue, and I wouldn’t put on a DJ who’s trying something new in a room that holds 8,000.

Nightlife culture is not homogenous, and will never be. You have to account for differing needs and appetites.
Francesca Way
Photograph: Francesca Way

How has the scene changed since the pandemic?

Francesca: There are very few proper nightlife establishments now (especially those that are permitted to open up to 3am), with pop-up parties dominating much of the landscape. Sadly, this is largely due to many venues having to pivot or give up their nightclub usage during Covid in order to continue their operations. With so few places available, rental has been driven up, along with manpower as so many from the nightlife scene have either changed careers or moved away from Singapore.

Zach: So much has changed since the pandemic. We forget but we’re all three years older now. Our habits have changed during the pandemic – some people have stopped going out, [some] go out a lot less, some have had kids and a lot of people we knew have left Singapore. Throwing the first few parties back I barely knew anyone. It was refreshing to see new faces, but it also felt like I was starting all over again. 

The rising cost of everything – including goods, venue rentals, artist fees, flights and even hotels – has also made throwing events way more expensive. As a promoter who brings in top-tier quality acts, I try to keep my prices affordable for partygoers as I want them to be able to experience what a really great artist [can] do. The number of promoters has also more than doubled since 2019. There are probably about 20 promoters or more now, so on some weekends, there are about six or seven house and techno parties. That’s a lot of events for not a lot of people! 

Esther Goh (NESC):
Budget is definitely an issue when trying to work with new spaces. We’ve been lucky to collaborate with fellow community players such as The Projector, Room 0416 and Thugshop who understand the struggles of putting up these events and help to support as much as they can to help reduce costs.

Zig Zach
Photograph: Zig Zach

Zach, you recently posted an Instagram story, asking for suggestions and ideas to keep the industry alive. What are some of the suggestions you’ve received?

Zach: I think the issue was more about the rising costs of running events while trying to keep them affordable for partygoers. How could we – both promoter and attendees – benefit by working together? Some had suggested that we offer memberships or subscription packages for a number of events a year. Some also gave incentive-driven ideas for regulars or want to be part of the community.

Besides government support, what do you think the nightlife scene is currently lacking?

Sivanesh: The first thing that comes to mind is the lack of venues. Losing key places like Cato, Kilo Lounge and Kyo over the years combined with an influx of new promoters, and what seems to be bigger audiences, has made it tough to find locations to throw parties for DJs and musicians to play music for people to dance to.

Francesca: We definitely need more establishments that offer a diverse range of music and entertainment. Right now, we have pop-up parties that peddle different vibes and sounds, but we need consistent brick-and-mortar places that cater to a wider range of genres and walks of life.

Zach: Support from brands and local businesses, working together and collaborating on events.

We need consistent brick-and-mortar places that cater to a wider range of genres and walks of life.

What’s the way forward to help the scene?

Francesca: From a business perspective, there's a need for commercial spaces carved out for nightlife with more engagement and continuing conversations with the government on creating a vibrant industry. 

Sivanesh: I have always been one for strategic partnerships through creative collaborations, and I strongly believe that our scene could grow leaps and bounds if collectives could work together more often. Look at what happened just recently with The Last Mile party.

Zach: Definitely more collaborations between organisers. I think the scene here will never move forward if people don’t start working together. The attendees will also benefit from not having to spread themselves over too many events. 

For the attendees, reach out to your local promoter. You’d be surprised how much they would appreciate some help from time to time. It may not be paid work, but you might earn yourself some free tickets and drinks as a volunteer.

Natasha (NESC): Continue to show up. Tell your friends who have yet to discover the local happenings here. If you're chronically online, share the events. These are small steps, but they definitely work. 

Esther (NESC):
It’s also important to keep the scene safe and inclusive as we continue to grow.

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