Swee Lee Music is an enabler of the best kind

Singapore’s only indie music station and undying champion of all things local Lush 99.5FM had its swan song in September, but trust them to leave with a bang— they featured the A to Z’s of musicians, artists, companies and brands because Lush Loves Local, culminating in 12 solid hours of live music in the lead up to the end of transmission on Sep 1. But that isn’t the end for local music. There’s another supporter in Singapore who’s been quietly gearing our well-loved musicians with all the right equipment for the past 71 years.

Now touted as Asia's largest distributor of instruments and audio equipment, Swee Lee Music first began as a pure distribution business back in the day with only a few showrooms, serving as Singapore’s go-to brand for musical instruments (fun fact: this humble music company supplied brass and woodwind instruments to the British military band back in 1946 when it was founded after World War II). As current Managing Director Kuok Meng Ru (or more lovingly known as Meng to most), who acquired the business back in 2012, puts it, “Retail wasn’t the core priority for Swee Lee at that point”.

From his perspective, he felt like there were a lot of aspects of the business that needed to change to benefit the consumers, so he banked on the company’s strength—their expertise and knowledge of the local music retail scene, primarily on guitar and bass— which he said was “a great position to build from”. He shares what has changed ever since he took over as the head honcho, thoughts on the local music scene and how he plans to take the company further.

MengKuok Meng Ru, Swee Lee's Managing Director

What does it mean to be the Managing Director of Swee Lee?

It’s evolved over the last five years! Taking over an established business in 2012, I felt it was incredibly important to first properly understand the business. I was extremely hands-on with all areas—including working on the shop floor at the very beginning—as well as building up supplier relationships and developing purchase, product and marketing strategies for our brands.

Today, I’m proud to say we have a tremendous team that supports the core of our regional business—from category managers in guitar, DJ, and drums who shape our retail mix; to the retail staff who are our vital eyes and ears; our marketing team who help spread the word; the logistics and warehousing staff who make sure everyone gets their orders smoothly; and many more. They’re key to helping us deliver a great customer experience. This strength allows me to spend more time driving our growth on our new business expansion internationally and building the foundation for core initiatives across the group that will set Swee Lee in prime position for the next 71 years.

How did Swee Lee go from a company that supplied classical instruments to offering guitars and drums?

I can only speak for the time that I’ve been with the business. As I understand it, Swee Lee went where the consumers were. With the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll and pop music centered on guitars and drums in the ‘50s to the ‘90s, Swee Lee began providing the tools for making that music.

Aside from music industry growth, we saw potential in the music education space for more rock and pop-oriented music schools, attracting more students to the art form. That’s why we established the Swee Lee Academy in 2012, where our student cohort continues to grow.

Overall, we continue to evolve with our customer’s tastes—we now offer a much wider range of DJ equipment and even opened a specialized drum shop.

Nate Smith at Swee Lee Drum Shop

What are some of Swee Lee’s milestones?

For a brand with a 71-year history, there are almost too many to name! Speaking for the last  five years, some notable highlights would definitely be opening our first lifestyle store in Katong 112, with Swee Lee Music Academy; launching our own dedicated e-commerce experience; winning the iconic Capitol Theatre AV refitting project (where Swee Lee started back in 1946) and acquiring (and selling) the world’s most expensive Fender Custom Shop guitar in 2012.

What was the vision then and has it changed since you took over?

The vision at the start would have been similar to many businesses emerging in Singapore back then, which was providing provisions to a small but growing domestic market. As Singapore grew in economic strength, so did Swee Lee. With Singapore’s strength as a logistics hub, regional business also became a significant growth opportunity for the company.

The vision changed when we took over and being far more focused on supporting musicians at every step of their journey, and being able to offer something for everyone— whether it’s your first guitar or your 100th music lesson. It's important for us to empower our customers, and we work hard on this every day. Even in the last five years the vision has expanded from a regional outlook to now where we have the possibilities to truly think globally.

Swee Lee Star Vista Lifestyle Store

How do you juggle running a company like Swee Lee and working on your other venture, BandLab; seeing how both command a huge amount of commitment from a person?

It’s definitely not easy, but they’re complementary businesses. Both fall under our umbrella of integrating the social, digital, and physical aspects of music. We have customers that may only want the hardware, like the physical/traditional part of playing a $5,000 guitar bought at Swee Lee—and they would never want to plug it into a computer.

On the other hand, we may have another customer who has no money to buy instruments, but a cheap laptop or phone that they want to make music on. That’s where BandLab can come in.

There will be some that are somewhere in the middle too, integrating the physical, digital and social aspects of music. BandLab Technologies (the group company) wants to cater to all of them and enable their creative journeys.

What do you value most about music, in Singapore’s context?

Access to talent. We have some incredible musicians at BandLab and have the privilege of interacting with the regional community every day. There are also some incredible initiatives like those by the Esplanade, the NAC, MCCY and many more that provide robust and open platforms for aspiring musicians of all ages and backgrounds.

Also, diversity. Singapore is a melting pot of influences that inspire creativity, and you can see that come through in regional talents like The Sam Willows, Gentle Bones, Nathan Hartono and many more.

Swee Lee Star Vista Lifestyle Store

Do you think Singapore’s attitudes towards music are changing (i.e. parents saying that there's no future in making music in Singapore)?

I can’t speak for everyone, but the talent in the emerging class of Southeast Asian musicians is encouraging. I’m inspired by what I see and hear in the local community. We hope to continue helping local musicians in their journey, regardless of where they’re at in their learning or discovery process.

How do you think you can further contribute to the local music scene?

We’ve only just started. We’ve already brought prices down significantly and changed the retail experience dramatically to bring more accessibility and affordability to the best products and equipment. With our new experience at Star Vista opening in November, which will integrate music with live entertainment, fashion and F&B, we’re moving onto the next stage of development for the brand and we’re looking forward to inspiring, educating and entertaining a whole new generation of music lovers in Singapore.

Swee Lee Drum Shop

As the head honcho of Southeast Asia's largest distributor of instruments and audio equipment, what’s your take on the relationship between the government and the musicians in Singapore?

I think the government is extremely supportive of local talent; far more so than many countries around the world. I feel it offers tremendous opportunities for local musicians, but it will be important for those who benefit directly or indirectly from public sector schemes to remember that being a musician is like running a business—it’s crucial not to take start-up support for granted, and one ultimately needs to build a sustainable business model.

Thoughts on the recent closure of Lush 99.5FM?

It’s not the end for local music. If anything, it’s more a reflection of the fact that radio is a challenging medium today. It’s a shame to lose a platform dedicated to showcasing local and alternative music, but as long as there is demand for it, new avenues will always find a way to emerge into prominence. To me, it’s a core responsibility for local companies like Swee Lee to step up and be a part of helping local musicians at every step of their music journey.

You can find the original story (and many others) in our 22nd Birthday print issue here.