The sweet sound of business

PHOTO: The sweet sound of business

The low point for audio business Resonance Audio came a year after the financial crisis of 2008.

Bryant Hwang, now 60, and who mainly handles the business side of the company's jobs in producing, mixing, recording and engineering music and sound, said of that bad patch in early 2009: "A lot of projects were delayed or cancelled.

"It was almost like the stock market. You sit there, everything you were planning for is gone, and you have to wait for it to come back."

Now, he is speaking from a gleaming studio in Balestier Warehouse, and Resonance is doing decently for itself, though it still judders occasionally from the turbulence in the industry.

His business partner and fellow director Leonard Fong, 40, with 14 years under his belt as an audio engineer, says with a laugh: "Everything crashed in 2008. But surprisingly, we still did two big projects in (late) 2009 - MTV World Stage and the F1 Rocks concerts."

Things bounced back within a year and a half, but Mr Hwang says the industry's volatility is a constant.

The music industry wants instant, social media-friendly stars, he says, and the demand for immediate success has led to a shorter turnaround in production time, resulting in more artistes falling by the wayside and "ridiculous" working hours for the two partners.

The digital revolution, with easy downloads of music and falling sales of physical media, has not helped.

As a result, the company's annual revenue, which is in the hundreds of thousands, has been up and down over the years; last year ended in a net loss.

The company's monthly revenue also varies widely. In good months, it makes $50,000, and in the weaker ones, just $15,000.

Mr Hwang reflects ruefully: "It's very boom or bust, feast or famine. You have to learn how to ride through this."

Despite the turbulence though, the 11-year-old company has scored its own coups, having worked with the big names in Mandopop such as Jacky Cheung, Emil Chau, Stefanie Sun, Kit Chan and Ah-Mei.

Resonance works primarily with arrangers, composers, producers and artistes, but has also recorded high-profile live events here and overseas, such as the Andrea Bocelli Live In Singapore concert at the Botanic Gardens in 2010 and the Good Charlotte concert in Kuala Lumpur three years before that. Its most recent project was the recording of the score for a big-budget EVA Air commercial starring Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro.

Resonance typically charges $2,000 to $4,000 for recording, mixing and mastering an advertisement; it has also done movie scores and sound design, charging $12,000 to $15,000 per job. The pair agree that, tough as it has been through the years, things are, on the whole, better than when the business was just starting up. Back then, they were carting their equipment around in a van to different studio facilities.

Mr Hwang says: "It started as an informal partnership among four of us in 2002, working hands on." He had met his business partners, including Mr Fong, while he was a business development consultant in the late 1990s for the now-defunct Form Holdings, the owner of the then-largest recording studio in Singapore.

When Form Holdings folded, the quartet decided to strike out on their own, and made a conscious decision to refrain from applying for grants from the Media Development Authority. They wanted the independence to do their own thing, says Mr Hwang.

They started out doing live recordings because they thought that providing professional-quality live recording services was a growth area. They were wrong.

Mr Hwang says: "Here, it doesn't grow the way it does in the West, probably because our venues are quite limited and small, and promoters pay a huge premium to bring acts in. To get recording rights is very, very expensive."

Of the original four partners, he and Mr Fong are left. One has left the business and the other remains a shareholder in the company.

The breakthrough came when MTV hired Resonance to do trouble-shooting on the live recording of a series of concerts.

This led to other projects such as the MTV Asia Awards; MTV went on to become their first big client for music broadcast and live recording, which hugely raised their regional profile.

The duo eventually did well enough to invest $500,000 in furnishing and equipping their studio in 2007. It also hires part-timers and freelancers. But challenges have since surfaced in the industry. One challenge has been the rise of home studios.

Mr Fong says: "The equipment is getting cheap. Everyone who's a songwriter and has a computer can start working at home, bypassing the recording studio. Even some high-profile artistes have gone to home studios."

Mr Hwang says that arrangers are also feeling the heat of economic pressures: "Instead of carrying more new musicians, they start doing things like programming and synthesising.

This cuts their usage of studios and they earn more. They get pressured into trying to build their own studios and doing that little bit of recording work." Mr Fong says that Resonance Audio has been able to rise above such challenges by thinking ahead of their competitors, being open to collaborating with others and venturing into previously uncharted territory.

For example, some studios have "a completely dead listening environment where sound cannot breathe". But this is not the kind of environment in which 99 per cent of consumers listen to music, says Mr Fong.

The studio at Resonance was thus designed and built to create a natural and accurate listening environment. He added that the company has also been "fastidious" about every piece of audio gear purchased.

Some 11 years ago, it became the first to use a digital work station, an electronic system designed for recording, editing and playing back digital audio.

Mr Hwang says that, in the long run, the goal of the company is to continue playing a supporting role in quality projects. It is also looking to diversify its business, but hasn't quite decided what it intends to do just yet.

He says: "It's quite unclear as a landscape, but we will find a niche for ourselves."

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