As Swee Lee celebrates 75 years of success, CEO Kuok Meng Ru talks nurturing homegrown talents and the future of music-retail in South-east Asia

As Swee Lee celebrates 75 years of success, CEO Kuok Meng Ru talks nurturing homegrown talents and the future of music-retail in South-east Asia

Hobbyist, enthusiast, or musician, - you’d have walked into the doors of a Swee Lee shop at least once, whether that’s to buy your first ever instrument, or to simply take a gander at the prestigious selection up on display. In the early 2000s, a young but buzzing hobbyist Kuok Meng Ru strolled into Swee Lee for purchase of his very first guitar, akin to many of our relationships with the instrument giant.

Today, he is the Group CEO & Founder of Caldecott Music Group, which oversees music publications NME, Guitar.com, MusicTech, and UNCUT as well as music-retail brands in MONO, Teisco, Harmony, Heritage Guitars, and Swee Lee.

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In 2012, he took over Swee Lee and as of November this year, they celebrated their 75th anniversary - an age they share with American guitar manufacturing giants Fender. We recently caught up with Kuok; speaking on this momentous year, the recipe behind Swee Lee’s success, nurturing Singaporean talents, and what the future looks like for music retail in South-East Asia.

Swee Lee celebrated its 75th anniversary this year. Talk to us a bit about this milestone, what this means to the Swee Lee family, and for the local and regional scene

This is a hugely significant milestone to us not just because of the number of years that Swee Lee has survived and thrived, but because it is testament to the mettle of the brand and how we’ve evolved at pace to industry and consumer demands over the decades. There have definitely been ups and downs, but we’re grateful to all our customers, partners and suppliers over the years for their support and we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them. 

Swee Lee started out in 1946, incidentally the same year that Fender was founded, when Singapore was entering a new chapter of history. Although rock 'n' roll didn’t start taking the world by storm until the 50s, our humble beginnings supplying brass and woodwind instruments to the military gave us a front row seat to the different influences and a rise of a modern form of contemporary music.

Seeing how music had the power of shaping soul and society, we were able to build a name as both a reputable distributor and retailer of renowned instrument brands all over the region, with an additional purpose of establishing a legacy for local music - an ambition that resonates even more strongly today with us than ever before. 

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From buying my very first guitar, a Fender stratocaster, from Swee Lee back in the early 2000s - I was extremely blessed to have the opportunity to take over the company in 2012. Since then, we’ve expanded across the region with operations in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as diversified our offerings to span a range of over 129 different brands, a music academy, vinyl records, music lifestyle products and multi-concept social spaces. I’d like to think we’ve defied the odds of staying a small, independent outfit to being a major force to be reckoned with in the music retail industry. 

I’m the first to say we can always do better, but today Swee Lee is synonymous with Southeast Asia’s music and creative culture, and recognised as a trusted partner for the world’s best brands like Fender, Martin, Taylor, PRS and many more. I cannot be more proud of all that the brand has achieved and look forward to growing our business to further empower musicians in the region with top-of-the-line products, programmes and partnerships.

With its 75 illustrious years, what is the recipe behind Swee Lee's success and what is Swee Lee doing differently from its counterparts? 

As they say, there is no secret to success in business, but the common motto of “the customer is always right” is what we stress every day throughout the business and something we seek to have at the front and center of all decisions. Whether it’s one of our hundreds of dealers around the region, or a customer who buys directly from our flagship stores, or Swee Lee online, putting ourselves in the shoes of customers and ensuring we make decisions with them in mind is the most fundamental principle to giving our business the best chance of remaining relevant in today’s fast-paced business environment. 

Being a customer myself, placing emphasis on this aspect was something that came naturally when I took over in 2012. The question I asked myself was, “What can we do to make Swee Lee a place I would want to shop at?”. Central to bringing this next phase of the brand to life was and is our team, which to me is everything. We are nothing without the right, passionate people who believe in the same vision and have the capability and desire to follow through. 

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One of the first things we did as part of a new management strategy was to adopt an omnichannel approach to doing business. We wanted to be able to meet consumers where they were at - whether online or offline - and this meant having a platform to integrate those experiences as well as to make tough decisions on pricing. The days of having a high list price and an “in-store discount” to get to street price were gone in the world of e-commerce. This was especially important in a time where we were seeing two camps of musicians emerging - the classics who believed in the sensory, touch-and-feel experience pre-purchase, and the new ageists who were comfortable with doing research and checking out online. 

Today, our ecommerce platform is localised in three languages with more than 18,000 products listed to suit the tastes of an increasingly dynamic and eclectic pool of musicians. We’ve also brought prices down significantly to offer more accessibility and affordability to the best products and equipment - matching them aggressively with the largest and most prominent international stores in markets like the USA and Europe.

Beyond musicians, we’ve also spent recent years moving Swee Lee past its music retailer category to be recognised as a social experience that even non-musicians can feel a sense of belonging to. The product of this ambition is our concept flagship store at The Star Vista, which, aside from carrying a wide range of instruments, is also home to lifestyle products like apparel and vinyl records, in addition to a cafe. This to me is the next-generation music retail experience and how we see ourselves being set apart in the years to come.

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What does the future music retail in South-East Asia look like?

I’m extremely bullish on the future of music in South-East Asia. There’s an incredible amount of talent that continues to mature and I’m inspired daily by the songwriters and producers that have popped up over the years. Data-wise, and contrary to even our own expectations as we entered the pandemic, the industry has had a stellar two years.

We’ve been extremely fortunate and feel lucky to have had our two best years of business at a time where we might have expected consumer discretionary spending to drop. Our biggest concern was that hobbies and interests like playing the guitar would be seen as non-essential with health concerns taking over the region’s psyche. Instead, we found that at a time where factors out of our own control changed the way humanity lived, worked and interacted, music was more essential than ever before. 

There have been casualties, with stores and retailers that weren’t as ready for the shift to online impacted by the mandated closures of retail environments. Broadly speaking, however, the sector has benefited from massive changes in consumer behavior as a result of the pandemic, with more picking up instruments as a past-time. Beyond retail, we’ve also seen an international music reaction sparked by the global pandemic as people turn to tunes for comfort and connections. This has resulted in a USD1.5 billion growth in the recorded music industry over the last two years, which will have a positive knock-on effect on the retail side of things. 

Music is a journey, and I feel the huge influx of new players and enthusiasts in the last two years will benefit not just music retailers like ourselves around the region, but greatly supercharge the creative significance of music created from South-East Asia in ways we wouldn’t have expected before.

Swee Lee also has a music academy – talk us through how it's like to nurture Singaporean talents, what goes into it, and why it's important to do so? 

Traditionally, pursuing a career in music in a country like Singapore is known to be challenging. This is very much a struggle of practicality in that our music scene is not as developed as that of places with a much longer history - history that has afforded them time to cultivate culture and more tangible support for local musicians.

The heartening news, however, is that in the last decade or so, there has been a significant uptick in public perception of the arts locally, and homegrown music, in particular, has gained notable recognition and popularity. This, in turn, has ignited more boldness amongst younger Singaporeans especially to dare to want to pursue music, whether as a hobby or as a potential career path. 

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Swee Lee Music Academy was established to create greater and quicker progress in this area, and we see our support as two-pronged. The first is practical in that the academy’s primary offering is to help develop and improve the skills of musicians. Good music is as much about technique as it is about innate talent, and we see our role as sharpening the skills of serious musicians locally, which plays towards raising the overall standard of musicianship in the country. 

The second is to democratise music. As a global society, we’ve made significant strides on this front with the growing affordability of music technology, which has helped musicians record from their homes and distribute music even without a label. In fact our sister brand, BandLab - a cloud platform for music collaboration which recently raised US$53 million from a funding round - was developed with the intention of eliminating the barriers to making and sharing music. We see Swee Lee Music Academy as supporting this movement locally, by giving musicians access to quality training and equipment at nominal prices to level the playing field.

Releases from our homegrown artists have been aplenty amidst the ongoing pandemic, how does Swee Lee play a part in the current music landscape? 

As a homegrown brand, advocating for local musicians is something that we take great pride in championing and is a big focus for the years ahead. Over the years, we’ve had the privilege of interacting with tons of incredible musicians like Charlie Lim and Dru Chen, and we support them in various ways. Most commonly, we sponsor their instruments or offer artiste discounts, and we also connect them with reputable brands to customise bespoke equipment or even so far as to release signature artist models like we did recently for Eross Candra in Indonesia with Fender. 

We also regularly collaborate with some of the world’s biggest music groups like Sony, Universal and Warner Music Group for artist activations, from Ed Sheeran’s global pop-up initiative back in 2019 to events with Niall Horan, Billie Eilish and Harry Styles to name a few.

Most recently, Swee Lee Malaysia teamed up with Universal Music Malaysia for a cover contest to discover local musical talents, called #MYUniversalCoverOf talent. This is another way that we provide platforms for homegrown talents to get recognised. 

Lastly, what's in store from Swee Lee in the future that we can expect?

In our immediate future, we are focused on enhancing consumer experiences both online and offline, including the remodelling of our flagship store at The Star Vista and also the implementation of click-and-collect points at showrooms, a loyalty and rewards programme, as well as home-delivery services. These efforts will be rolled out in the first half of 2022.