From Musician To Entrepreneur, We Caught Up With Cherie Ko of Singapore Music Duo TOMGIRL

They were recently named the artist with the Best Album in Singapore on Apple’s Best of 2016, a yearly roundup of the best in content from the iTunes store in the country.

If you are an ardent follower of the local music scene, TOMGIRL is definitely a duo you’d have come across since their debut in July this year.

Described as a dark noir pop duo, TOMGIRL comprises of local musician Cherie Ko and Singaporean-Australian musician Ted Doré, and they have garnered a sizeable following despite being less than a year old.

You may have also seen them perform live at the recent Mosaic Music Weekend, rocking out to massive crowds of music lovers. TOMGIRL has so far garnered many positive reviews from publications and critics alike, leading some to say that they have very much raised the bar for local music.

We recently caught up with Miss Cherie Ko herself, to find out about not just her journey in music, but also in entrepreneurship, via the creation of her very own record label.

Cherie Ko Is Fully Embracing The Music Life

TOMGIRL / Image Credits: Yak

Cherie, of course, is no stranger to the local music industry.

As someone who has been making music since she was 15, Cherie has made it a point to try and experiment with different sounds, and trying to grow into the ideal musician she hopes to become – someone who isn’t afraid to try new things, always writes from the heart, and has great fun at what she is doing.

Despite being a budding musician since young, it was only until earlier this year that she decided to create a career out of her first passion – music.

With a few musical projects already under her belt, it was not until she started TOMGIRL with bandmate Ted Doré that things became serious.

The defining moment happened when both of them completed TOMGIRL’s first single ‘Darker Now’, and she thought to herself, “This is it. I’ve got to make this work.”

“It’s not like there was anyone else asking to put out my records” – Mac McCaughan, Merge Records

Born out of a necessity to catalogue and distribute all the work she has done as an artist thus far, and to promote and market her band TOMGIRL, Deer Island Records was created, with Cherie as Founder and Managing Director.

Besides, Cherie admits that she was always more of someone who valued the spirit of Do-It-Yourself, and since her younger days, isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty. Through the DIY method, she also gained lots of friends along the way who have offered to help, which she is grateful for.

It Started From Her Living Room, With Some Mahjong Paper

Image Credits: Raphael Michael Ong

Deer Island Records started out from the living room of Cherie’s home.

Together with manager Lennat Mak, they worked out a mindmap detailing the logistics of the label with just a big white sheet of mahjong paper and a sharpie marker.

Together, they mapped out the many aspects of running a record label, starting with the nucleus of their operations, TOMGIRL. From there, they branched out to potential release plans, gig planning, and identifying potential collaborators among many other things.

With experience in the music industry, Lennat also helped tremendously with getting the label off the ground. Both of them were always found bouncing ideas off each other in several arduous 8-hour meetings, during which they brainstorm profusely and meticulously plan everything out.

And the result culminates in what you see today with TOMGIRL and Deer Island Records.

The Daily Hustle

TOMGIRL / Image Credit: Yak

Being a musician is pretty much the same as being an entrepreneur, a statement that Cherie agrees with.

Unless you are signed to a major label who have the resources to take care of the menial and administrative tasks, most indie musicians will have to take care of that part of the business on their own.

Besides publishing music on all digital platforms, she takes care of the tons of paperwork, while also managing the production of merchandise, and releasing the music in physical formats like vinyl and cassettes.

That’s on top of having to dream up of captivating strategies and marketing plans in order to promote the albums and singles.

That’s not all either, being the owner of her label also means that she has to take responsibility for creative control of everything.

From the design work on the record sleeves and collateral, to liaising with production companies for merchandise, to setting up meetings with partners they work with, to conceptualising and setting up live shows – she does it all.

So it’s no surprise that a typical busy work day for Cherie consists of meetings with manager Lennat to discuss and put together label plans, meetings with clients and partners to set in place collaboration opportunities, and even squeezing in photoshoots or interviews in between.

For Cherie and Lennat, busy days and late nights means that having McDonalds delivery for meals is common, as they tend to forget to eat at regular times.

Managing And Knowing All Aspects Of The Business

Image Credits: Raphael Michael Ong

Having her hands on everything while running her own label means Cherie is well-aware of the importance of understanding the many aspects of the music business and knowing the rights that she’s entitled to.

Simple things like royalties and publishing rights might seem complicated at first, but they’re important to understand so as to not be losing any finances that rightfully belongs to the artist.

It’s all a step in the process of maintaining a sustainable career in music, where everything counts and adds up.

Since we were on the topic of finances, Cherie brought up a reminder that her manager Lennat would tend to say:

“We are not in the business to lose money.”

They are always careful with finances and budgeting of the business, and due to this, have always been able to break even, even attaining a slight profit margin.

At the end of the day, Cherie understands that she is still running a business, and that sustainability and long term planning are essential to ensure its longevity.

The Music Industry Is A Whole Other Ballgame

TOMGIRL / Image Credit: Cherlynn Lian

When asked about how different it is starting a music label as compared to any other businesses, Cherie says that the return-on-investment is really of a different nature altogether.

A music label’s products are its artists and music, both of which are intangible and sometimes highly volatile, as they are intrinsically human in nature, and as such, the biggest challenge (and reward) for her at the moment is that she is currently both the creator and the product.

As a musician, she has a strong desire to create the best piece of art she can, but at the same time, she definitely wants to be more profitable as a business too, so right now, she is still trying to reconcile the war and tame the two beasts raging inside her, with the desired outcome of taking the best of both to become something else altogether.

We also asked if there was anything she would have done differently now if given the chance to start over.

She reveals that the first thing she would’ve done was to create a marketing plan for her previous releases, to be more meticulous in keeping track of the cataloguing for the releases alongside the collection of royalties for all her tracks.

Not-so-fun fact: there is actually an expiry date when collecting royalties. Cherie says royalties only date back up to 3 years, so for anything older than that, you will not get a cent from them.

This was a painful lesson that she had to learn, and a constant reminder to make sure she milks her work for all their worth before it’s too late.

The Local Music Scene Best It’s Ever Been, But…

TOMGIRL / Image Credit: Cherlynn Lian

We changed the tune slightly as we brought the conversation away from her personal journey as a musician and business owner, to the state of the music industry in Singapore.

Cherie starts off by saying that the local music scene is in a really good place right now, and is probably the best it has ever been since it started – especially in the last 2 years.

She says people now are actually recognising music as a legitimate career and taking it way more seriously, with the standards of music improving exponentially in terms of production quality, and the sheer volume of music that’s being released.

All these lead to a more competitive local music scene, which only serves to help artists better their craft while raising the bar as the industry moves forward.

Immense support from the government was also mentioned, with arts funding becoming more apparent via the National Arts Council.

Cherie says that the grants have helped budding and professional musicians alike greatly.

This was also helped by the fact that many brands and establishments are now pledging their support to local artists by inviting them to play at events and showcases.

The Sam Willows and Gentle Bones were also local acts that Cherie mentioned in terms of how they have helped raise interest in local artists, especially among the younger music lovers.

However, she feels there’s still a caveat. She says that music fans here are quite homogeneous in their tastes, which still brings about stark differences in the support for other indie and experimental bands.

The musical landscape is seeing a shift towards this trend, and the number of indie bands are shrinking, as artists try to cater more to the pop music-loving masses.

So in this aspect, Cherie hopes to see more support being driven towards indie and experimental acts, so as to keep these thriving subcultures alive.

Of Present Achievements And The Future

TOMGIRL / Image Credit: Cherlynn Lian

Going back to TOMGIRL, Cherie says that her proudest achievement so far has been putting out their debut on vinyl record, staging their live debut at the Mosaic Music Festival, and of course, clinching Best Album of 2016 Apple Music.

Vinyl, because it is something that Cherie takes pride in despite it being an old-school physical format.

“Nothing feels more real than the warm crackle of vinyl.”

This, along with the fact that most of her fans are vinyl collectors themselves, and found out about them through local record stores.

Their vinyl records are currently stocked at Hear Records, Curated Records, Roxy Records, and The Analog Vault in Singapore, Teenage Head Records in Malaysia, and Rough Trade Records in the UK. Of course you can find them online as well.

Aside from vinyl, people are of course also discovering TOMGIRL through online streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music.

Screengrab from interview with #vinyloftheday

All of these have been part of en exhilarating roller-coaster ride for her and Deer Island Records, but she’s not quite done yet.

A decade is a long time for projecting the future of any company, but here’s what Cherie sees Deer Island Records becoming 10 years from now,

“Deer Island Records will be releasing TOMGIRL’s 10th album release. On top of that, I hope to have a sweet lineup of artists/bands whom I personally believe in, which I can help brand and market. We will also host yearly guerrilla parties with our stable of acts and it will always be exciting and completely off-the-hooks. I would also love to create a line of merchandise and produce all sorts of wacky products for the label and artists and create a brand. We will also create crazy one-of-a-kind pieces and collectible items.”

Lastly to end of, Cherie has advice for anyone thinking of pursuing their passion as a full-time career.

“Everything passes and everything changes, just do what you think you should do. Screw what anyone tells you to do, especially if it goes against what you believe in. Don’t forget that while working on your craft is important, it is also extremely important to get acquainted with the logistic and business side of things as well. Knowing more never hurt anybody, and it’ll help you to make informed decisions. Last but not least, make friends along the way and always, always remember to have fun and not to take it too seriously.”

We would like to thank Cherie, and her manager Lennat, for taking the time to accommodate us into their busy schedules!

Image Credits: Deer Island Records

Ps. here’s a sneak peak of TOMGIRL’s next single, “Heartbeats” due on 13 January 2017, with a physical release that will be on cassette aside from just a digital release, and is a collaboration with Mark Ong, the famed custom sneaker designer and founder of SBTG.

Check out TOMGIRL on both Spotify and Apple Music.

Featured image credit: Raphael Michael Ong

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)