Having a successful music career while attending school can be challenging. In his 20s, Jonathan Chua skipped most of his classes and lectures as a sociology major at Nanyang Technological University in favour of tours and rehearsals with one of the nation's most famous pop bands, The Sam Willows.
He remembers writing his thesis on a plane to Sweden. "I was fortunate to have a progressive professor who helped me. It was about English pop music in Singapore and where I predicted it would go based on social forces changing," he explains.
"The funniest thing is that I had suggested in one paragraph that it would have taken a pandemic, a war or an epidemic to trigger an uptick in local music. When Covid-19 hit, he reached out to me, quoted that line, and wrote: 'Now is your chance to do something great.'"
Unbeknownst to that professor, Chua wasn't just twiddling his thumbs during his decade-long musical career. He had started Zendyll, a studio that provides artist and repertoire (A&R) development, music publishing, production, songwriting and marketing services. Although many still recognise Chua as the guitarist and vocalist for The Sam Willows, he is most comfortable behind the scenes. "I was always the most uncomfortable among us when the spotlight was on."
Finding his voice
There is no trace of any such discomfort now, as Chua sits comfortably in a cap, jeans and sneakers, with just enough swagger to pull off the gold chain around his neck and the Bvlgari Serpenti cuff on his wrist. Here in the Zendyll studio, the 31-year-old, professionally known as Jon Chua JX, spends his time helping other people make music.
Chua founded Zendyll in 2015 as a response to creative frustration. Despite the raging success enjoyed by The Sam Willows at that point, Chua, who had signed with Sony Music, did not appreciate the administrative hassles he had to deal with every time he wanted to book a recording studio. "I've always wanted to go with the flow. If I feel like recording a song at seven o'clock in the evening, I want to do that instantly, without going through any red tape."
It was also a complementary move for the band as it allowed them to create commercials for its projects. As Zendyll grew, it began producing music for companies like Adidas, Lazada and Hugo Boss, along with government agencies like the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).
Chua has released five singles as a solo artist, but remains just as passionate about his work behind the scenes. "I didn't study business, finance or music, but my sociology background helps me see things from a different perspective. I love performing, but I also love watching performances and watching other people's recording processes."
Chua's interest in social ties makes him well-suited for his current responsibilities. "They are not always in the music industry, but they involve reaching out to key players in other industries for collaboration so that we can all grow together."
Collaboration with clout
To date, the largest partnership is a joint venture with multiple companies that is set to launch in October and will help to raise local music culture in the region.
Even when Chua says he feels "embarrassed to be Singaporean" when he meets foreign artists, you can't question his commitment. It doesn't come from a lack of national spirit but rather an abundance of it. "I had nothing to do with their impressions of Singapore.
''They are amazed by Marina Bay Sands and its rooftop infinity swimming pool, or they have heard how Singapore is so clean that the cops will come for you if you spit on the ground. It appals me that this is all that we're known for. Once I understood the comfort and luxury that the country has afforded us, I knew it was time to tell the other side of the story."
Free from The Sam Willows "cookie-cutter, easily accepted" music since the band's indefinite hiatus in 2019, Chua has put all of his efforts into finding musicians with diverse backgrounds. He's about to announce two record labels as part of the upcoming partnership: 465, which will focus on commercial pop fare, and HVT, hip-hop.
"HVT stands for high value target. It's more than just a record label," he says. "It's a storytelling platform for people who can only rely on their musical talent for social mobility. We're talking about people with loved ones in prison or those most brands won't take a risk on. It's for anyone who doesn't feel like they belong in 2021 Singapore."
Chua will take that risk because he's not motivated by "big brand money". He was inspired by DJ Khaled's formula of finding hot up-and-coming acts and turning their meagre fan followings of 5,000 into 500,000 after a successful song collaboration. "I'd rather have DJ Khaled's life over Justin Bieber's any day."
For broader appeal, he released Hometown Heroes, a video documentary and game show series on YouTube that featured local performers, in July. It explores the relationship between participating musicians and the neighbourhoods that influenced some of their work.
In August, he launched ARtistry@Somerset in partnership with the Somerset Belt, National Youth Council and the MCCY. The initiative invites people to scan QR codes around the area to activate minute-long performances by five local artists through augmented reality.
"Music has evolved from being very skill-based to being tech-based," notes Chua. "What used to require enormous machines to achieve can now be done with a click of a button. Singaporeans can afford this technology. Seeing a 17-year-old here with a MacBook Pro is not uncommon. Thus, it makes sense for us to be a hub for artists and music services."
In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, music promotion is an edgier scene. "They really innovate and hustle. They drive to kampongs to hand out individual CDs, offer people vegetables so they'd come to shows and even pirate their music to sell out of the boots of cars to get street cred," he shares.
Here, resources aren't as important as recognition. His strategy for Singaporean artists is to promote them around the region first before bringing them home. "As much as I don't like it, it's just the way Singaporeans learn to appreciate their own. No one really talked about JJ Lin until he made it big in China and Taiwan."
Chua has long outgrown his role as a pop band member (probably even while he was still in the band) and settled comfortably into his role as a promising music mogul. His business ambitions and musical aspirations aren't the only things about him that have matured. Now, success has nothing to do with screaming 14-year-old fans camping outside his car, and everything to do with getting fund managers, venture capitalists and brands to support talented unknowns now so that they may sell out entire stadiums in the future.
It's not that he didn't bask in the privileges of fame during his 20s. "Could I have treated some ex-girlfriends better? Of course. Could I have been a better person back then? Definitely. But it's okay to have regrets. Anyone who says they live life with none is delusional or lying," he declares, adding that empathy and loyalty are now the values we should all strive for. "Looking back on the busiest years of The Sam Willows, I had a lot of luxuries and privileges. I felt like the world revolved around me. The time has come for me to do more."
Today, he donates regularly to the less fortunate and gives out meals, refusing offers to document any of it. "This isn't an act. What I am looking for is a genuine connection with the person I'm doing this for," he says. "I learnt all of this from my wife [the actress and TV host Amanda Chaang]. She inspires me. I am becoming the person I am because of her."
If that growth continues to drive him to nurture a greater sense of community in this industry - and by extension, this country - then his university professor is probably right about greatness being on the way.
This article was first published in The Peak.