Malaysian band Nadir performs in China.

Spotify didn’t kill the radio star…you did. Yes, you – the all powerful consumer with the buying power and limited attention span.

Our behaviour as individuals may seem insignificant but when all of us act in similar fashion, as a collective, we call the shots.

In this 2nd edition of a 3-part series, Eksentrika sheds light on the challenges faced by Malaysian musicians attempting at fame and fortune in the national arena. This picks up from our initial story, which explored some of the reasons and oft repeated folklore that may have contributed to the dearth of local songs on Malaysian radio stations.

Challenge #1: Malaysian-made originals forced to go indie. 

“Play my favourite song lah bradder!” Are you guilty of this line whenever you’re at a cafe or bar and the local band comes on? If yes, then you should know that you’re not the only one.

In fact, there’s so many of you, it fulfills enough statistical numbers for marketeers to deduce that original Malaysian music on radio would probably result in listeners responding with that exact same line. No prizes for connecting the dots there!

Hold up, we’re not trying to judge anyone’s taste in music. In fact, your fondness for the common favourites is a sure factor that drives a decent economy to put tidy sums into the pockets of our talented homegrown acts who perform cover music at local joints.

Fortunately, Kuala Lumpur also has an independent music scene, made up of venue owners, gig organisers and bands who work together to nurture the performance of original scores and lyrics.

Skies Are Red guitarist, Dervin Frank tells of the subtle yet tremendous indie movement conspiring to increase recognition and appreciation for original music in Malaysia.

Most of this however thrives by mere word of mouth and the constant presence of familiar faces among the audience.

“When our friends (who are performers) are putting a show together, they’d ask us if we’d (also) like to play and  if we’re available, we’ll do it. Likewise, if we’re playing a gig and there are available slots, we’d ask our friends if they want to play.

“We use social media and word of mouth to promote our gigs. The people who turn up at these shows are usually fans of the music and they are hardcore supporters of the bands. These kids come up right to the front of the stage to headbang to our songs,” he said.

Dervin added that he could only hope that certain efforts to win the favour of public and private organisations could lead to improved conditions for artists.

Challenge #2 :  Uneven playing field where locals play second fiddle to foreign stars. 

Dervin remembers a time when he could discover local musicians to aspire to through the radio, but that was more than a decade ago. He believes  radio DJs could play a significant role to include more Malaysian numbers in their daily song rotation list.

“When I was in school, I discovered local bands like OAG, Butterfingers, Nakedbreed and Disagree through the radio. I learned about local gigs on radio. Today, most of the English radio stations don’t play enough local music. A one-hour chart show on Sundays doesn’t count.

 Any foreigner listening to our English radio stations today may wonder, “Where’s the local stuff?”? – Dervin, Skies Are Red

Sabah-born songstress, Rozella has had the good fortune of  her tunes being featured on several mainstream and small radio stations, including Hitz. She however finds that the hurdles to get repeat air-time is no less diminished.

Each song submission usually undergo testing to gauge if it can hold up against the releases of international artists, who are generally signed by producer labels.

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Billie Blue & The Nowhere Man: Soheil Sanjabi – Guitar & Backing Vocals, Reuben Devanesan – Drums, Percussion & Backing Vocals, Billie Blue Blackstone – Vocals, Icco Elnoel – Bass

“Even if your song does pass the test, you most likely will only get played during the hours of lower listenership…unless you’re already famous or backed by a major record label,” she says.

She finds that contrary to frequent notion, radio announcers have little say to curate their own music playlists. By and large, mainstream commercial stations especially, are confined to play genres typified by the radio format such as Top 40’s pop or Easy Listening. 

It’s hard to say what they can do more, because at the end of the day, the decision of you getting played or not is in the hands of a few selected gatekeepers. If they don’t like your music or don’t think you’re up to standard, then how do we as independent artists change that? It’s so tricky. – Rozella

 In her experience, smaller radio stations were more generous to lend air-time for indie artists.

I’m very lucky in the sense that I’m Sabahan and that I get most of my radio airtime from Sabahan stations (both big and small). The pool of Sabahan artists fighting for the same airtime is definitely smaller than in KL.

“But I also feel that East Malaysians have a different sense of pride when it comes to local music and they tend to support local artists more.” 

Challenge #3 : Scarcity of trusted information about radio operations lead to circulation of false information. 

Malaysia’s multi cultural nation gave rise to FM stations that are segmented by language. Although these stations are not restricted to play songs in a different language and may occasionally throw in English jingles in their mix, it is rare that the chosen songs would be locally derived.

Rozella pointed out that local musicians are inadvertently pitted to compete for precious radio exposure on national airwaves, with already established and well to do performers.

“Getting airplay on radio stations is definitely one of many ways artists like myself use to reach a wider audience…(but) there definitely isn’t enough support, unless you’re a big name, you’re under a big record label or you know someone on the inside who really believes in your music and pushes for you,” she says.

The country’s radio broadcasts also lack a designated platform that enables musicians to push their material or content pitch.  There might be existing modes of contact that most radio stations make available to interact with the public however these are more often than not, saturated with  huge traffic apart from spam.

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Aina Abdul sang at weddings before getting noticed. Image credit Aina Abdul.

KV, of rap duo, D2X said this creates a tall order for talents who knew few people in the industry.

 “Some of us are not well versed about the who’s who of the industry and find it daunting to approach anyone. Some, like me are trying to hold up our passion for making music while holding onto our day jobs,” he said.

The 27-year-old, who teaches at an international school suggested that radio stations could communicate a willingness to support the local music scene, by the simple act of creating a designated email or platform to receive local song submissions.

“It would assist an organised system where chances of ignored submissions could be possibly reduced. It could also help to avoid cases of fraud and being duped by false ideas such as there’s payment involved in getting airplay,” he said.

Challenge #4 : Stretched too thin to cover all the bases. 

Hiring a manager to sort out marketing and promotional work is a luxury few local performance can afford. Many rely on no other but themselves to organise bookings, discover potential gigs, coordinate funding, media coverage, videography, photography and everything else. This is usually on top of looking after a regular job and, or a family.

Independent producer, Madan Theertha Pathy says this needs to change as it is rare for DIY musicians to get a healthy chunk of the fame and fortune cookie.

Madan, who manages Pulse Soundworks shared that he has long observed many local musicians lacking the necessary understanding to properly market and promote themselves.

I have a band, we recorded a song and you should check it out” is not a Unique Selling Point (USP). – Madan Theertha Pathy 

“Do you have a story to tell? What influence could you have on listeners? The answers to these questions are what gives you regular and prolonged airplay, which will transcend the barriers in radio or even digital song platform.”

He opined that musicians need to embrace certain inevitable changes as the music industry continues to evolve.

Challenge #5 : Monetising the passion for music in an ever changing landscape.

“As of 2019, music is free. This is the price of progress. It’s not free to produce or upkeep or market, but it’s free to consume. Money is made from engaging the audience. The sooner we realise and accept this, the sooner we can all move on and explore other creative options.

“Live performances & appearances, subscriptions, collaborations, licensing deals, endorsements & partnerships. These are all valid means of making money,” said Madan.

As someone who ekes a living in the music industry since 2005, Madan has worn many hats. He’s worked as the person carrying speakers and laying cables to organising entire events. He’s also been the frontman of several bands, lyricist, guitarist, sound engineer and even toilet cleaner.

In 2010, he established his own label, Pulse Soundworks to help unsigned artists push their music on digital platforms.

Based on his experience, he emphasised that being a career musician requires full focus and more than just sideline hustle.

He also observed that musicians who overlooked the financial and business aspect of playing music rarely made it big in the industry.

“Everybody wants to be a rockstar or popstar. Everybody wants to be the face. This is simply not possible. Somebody has to do the thankless work behind the scenes. This is where the real money is, realistically.

“If only 1 out of 1 million potential artists, make it, those really aren’t favourable odds. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it is what it is.

He emphasised that simply insisting on songs to be played on radio or digital platform is not enough to create a sustainable and viable source of revenue.

“I strongly feel this is the wrong mindset to have. Yes, radio can help launch a career, but it’s by no means the be all and end all. Neither is Spotify, or any other similar platform.

“Musicians need to start looking away from streaming revenue as a means to sustainability. It’s simply not possible without financial muscle in marketing.”

To be fair, we’ve also provided the perspective from radio stations themselves. You can read what they’ve got to say here:

Are Malaysian bands really not good enough to be on the radio?

If you care to agree or disagree with some of the points made, feel free to let us know via editors@eksentrika.com 

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