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Local music industry facing a brain drain?

 | November 27, 2012

The music scene in Malaysia, its 'glass ceiling' and prejudices is a point of frustration for many local artistes. The more brazen ones leave for pastures abroad and some perhaps never to return.


KUALA LUMPUR: One of Malaysia’s greatest problems is its brain drain and the loss of over a million of its best and brightest to other countries. Many of those who leave work in the sciences. Few however realise that Malaysia is also losing those involved in its largest creative industry, music.

Various factors including a lack of government and social will, a ‘glass ceiling’, ethnicity and commercial value have caused this drain.

The industry is “fragmented” and according to singer-songwriter Pete Teo, is deeply divided along the country’s ethnic and cultural lines.

“The music market is split between the Tamil, Malay, Chinese, English, urban and rural areas. We’re not just small, we’re fragmented,” he said, adding that these divisions caused Malaysians to know little about musicians in their own country.

“For example, if you’re Chinese, you’re not going to listen to Awie’s music, that is if you know who Awie is in the first place,” he said, referring to the former Wings frontman.

Malaysia is home to many different races and has earned its status as a multi-racial society. But the label however appears to have its drawbacks as it does not encourage locals to venture out of their respective cultural backgrounds, isolating each other over music.

Local resident Ariff Kamil likened these backgrounds to comfort zones.

“If you hang out with your English-speaking friends, listen to English radio, read English blogs, newspapers or magazines, you’d look for English songs,” he said.

He added that while there were times when music influences would overlap, most Malaysians would rather not venture out of their zones.

“You’re probably not interested, don’t have the time or have no reason to listen to other music. It’s not something you’d encounter [in your zone]. For example, I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to Chinese songs,” he said.

It is a cultural identity that Malaysians have wrestled with since the country gained its independence in 1957. Locals here tend to identify themselves by race, tagging their nationality as an afterthought.

Local singer-songwriter Reza Salleh told FMT that “Malaysia lacked national self-esteem”, and had come to point where it was not appreciating its myriad cultures.

“There’s a big identity crisis we face which is too deeply rooted in how we’re essentially divided as a people and sadly from top to bottom too many things prevent us from really coming together.

‘There’s just too much focus on our ethnicity and not enough on what keeps us Malaysian,” he said.

‘West is best’ mentality

These comments may come as a surprise to the older musicians. During Malaysia’s early days, the country’s artistes enjoyed wide acclaim. Singing greats such as P Ramlee in the 50s and 60s, and Sudirman Arshad in the 80s come to mind.

As the country grew, so did the divide between its cultures, trickling down to its music. Some artistes have suggested that this trend could be heard over Malaysia’s radio airwaves. More often than not stations had a majority of their content broken down according to language, a representation of the demographics they cater to.

This as such is especially challenging for those who perform in English. A large majority of songs played on most English-language radio stations here are foreign and even if they did play local songs, many were assigned to special non-peak slots.

Several artistes, including singer Jason Lo, said that Malaysians tended to suffer from a “West is best” mentality; one where anything international immediately trumped something local.

“The local media here is naturally attuned [to the West] because people here are attuned to Western media. A mass amount of people are influenced by the English language, English and American music. As a result, local artistes don’t compete with local artistes. They have to compete with Linkin Park,” he said.

Some stations here disagree with these sentiments, adding that they were merely playing what their listeners wanted.

In an email interview, Fly FM Head of Programming Adam Zain said that his station did not have a quota for local music.

“Our music selection is based on the response from our listeners and their preference. All songs that make their way to the station, regardless of its origins, are based on their merit,” he said.

Adam said that many local acts were able to stand alongside international ones, adding that there were many “unearthed talents” here. However, he added: “It’s also a matter of discovering the ones who are relevant and appeal to the current market trend.”

Avid radio fan Sheldon Teo however told FMT that he rarely heard local music played on the radio.

“Most songs I know are from the radio, and they usually play international bands. If they do play local stuff, I don’t catch them ’cause all I hear all day is Maroon 5, Flo Rida, and such and such,” he said.

Glass ceiling

In an attempt to reach a larger audience, some artistes may turn to writing Malay music. However this too limits a band’s reach to only Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

Pop Shuvit guitarist Jedidiah Wong (popularly known as JD) said: “If you produce anything locally in Bahasa Malaysia, there’s only so far you can go.”

He said that even contemporary Malay bands such as Hujan and Bunkface were already hitting glass ceilings, and were unable to expand because of their language.

“Anything (and everything) outside our borders is English,” Wong added.

Without radio stations’ support artistes – like their comrades elsewhere – have had to frequent and perform at commercial venues to raise awareness and sell their music. And to make ends meet, many such as Kyoto Protocol member Fuad Alhabshi have had to hold day jobs in order to fund their music career. Fuad works as a research analyst in a fund management firm.

Singer-songwriter Azmyl Yunor,  said that decent venue owners would pay musicians RM300 to RM500 for a 30-minute show, which was barely enough. But then there were also venues which did not pay at all, claiming that exposure was good enough.

Then there is also the Malaysian mentality for freebies and issues over alcohol.

“Let’s say a gig charges RM10 as a cover charge. The audience comes in but they don’t buy anything. They see the band, ask for water and then leave.

“Also venues frequently serve alcohol which is a danger for Muslims and youths,” he said alluding to the raids by the police or Islamic religious authorities.

Furthermore, artistes admit that whilst venues are abundant, some are simply too expensive to rent.

Successes abroad

Even with a steady sum of money, a band’s manager would have to spend on renting equipment, hire a sound crew and fork up accommodation and travel costs as most venues are limited to the Klang valley with pockets in Penang, Perak and Johor. Performing venues in the country’s conservative Muslim north are few and far in between.

Another reality is also the fact that unlike Indonesia or the Philippines, Malaysia lacked a touring circuit where artistes would travel the country and and play.

Said K-Town Clan member Roshan Chandrasekhar Nair: “Places to perform are abundant, but its the demand for artistes that’s the real question to be posed.

“If a lot of people get together and make it obvious that they want band X to perform in Johor, organisers would certainly go out of their way to capitalise on that demand.”

Nair also pointed out that while Malaysians had no trouble paying hundreds of ringgit for foreign bands, even if they sung in a totally different language, they were hesitant to indulge local acts.

To overcome these challenges, he said, that musicians here needed to break into the international market.

It is a feat easier said than done, given the lack of available awareness and support, although a small number do.

Leaving Malaysia is an expensive exercise. But history notes that a number of Malaysians have propelled to stardom after they were discovered overseas.

During the late 70s, the Alleycats gained fame in Hong Kong before they took it back to Malaysia a few years later. Female singers Zee Avi and Yuna were both snapped up by American agents after putting their work on YouTube.

Pete Teo himself admitted that if it were not for his Japanese fans, his music career would be sunk.

Even so, artistes seeking greener pastures elsewhere have to deal with unhelpful, negative comments.

Widely-acclaimed here and in the US, Yuna said: “The biggest challenges for me where when people said I will not make it in the industry because of my appearance because of my hijab, and that I wouldn’t make it internationally.”

Also read:

Troubled music industry is getting better


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