Keeping live music alive

Azmyl Yunor

Those aspiring to be full-time musicians in Malaysia must take the time to learn the local industry, not base their careers on Western ideals. – Screenshot, January 12, 2024.

I WILL be performing with my band Azmyl & the Truly Asia at my favourite live music venue Merdekarya on Saturday.

The venue is celebrating its 11th anniversary and I foresee there being a reason to celebrate each year the venue manages to stay open.

To really earn a living as a musician in Malaysia – and what I mean by “earning a living” here is in the stereotypical 9-to-5 way to which most Malaysians are accustomed – is not easy. Heck, it’s not easy anywhere.

Here are two reasons we need to celebrate the present – using Merdekarya’s resilience as an example – to keep the creative industry healthy.

1. An entrance fee is a ticket for an experience, not just “music”

Most patrons tend to be regular 9-to-5 folks who, unfortunately, are used to the “pub model” of live music – free entrance and cover bands that take requests.

A Merdekarya bartenders told me about an incident where a first-time patron fumed at having to pay an entrance fee (of only RM20 or so) who purchased a drink and rudely threw money on the counter, proudly announcing: “I’ll buy the most expensive drink but I refuse to pay to watch live music.”

This is a rare occasion but a good dramatic example of the cultural attitude of most Malaysians. We don’t think live music, especially by a local performer in a small venue, is worth money.

However, gullible consumers that we are, would fork out hundreds if not thousands to watch an international Western act without hesitation.

No wonder scalpers and scammers are having a field day; most Malaysians are suckers.

Performing live is a trade hard to quantify, but I can tell you this – the rates for performing live haven’t changed in the last two or three decades.

Considering inflation and all that jazz, it is getting even harder to be a full-time live musician, not that it has ever been easy.

Live music venues also need to curate the acts they feature because, reality check, they need to earn from drink sales most of the time.

Having a kitchen increases costs and they need to hire chefs and whatnot on top of adhering to safety and health standards.

Live music venues have to make every event an occasion, and each venue also needs its own identity since that is its “brand”.

Merdekarya has a unique brand in this instance (it only allows original songs), but it is not easy being unique in conformist Malaysia.

Live music is a business, but that doesn’t mean a venue has to conform.

2. You don’t burn bridges in a small scene

Most aspiring creatives, unfortunately, are not resilient. Most probably have the wrong idea of what it means being an “artist”.

Frankly, most who leave the field are conventional and expect being a performer to be just like having a regular job.

I would rather keep my pride and dignity and have a menial job that allows me to write the songs I want, not what the audience demands. Through this form of resilience, I created my own “branding” by default.

I have seen aspiring singer-songwriters transition from having their own character in playing their original songs in indie venues to being a crowd pleaser, pandering to audiences with cover songs to get into music “full time” because they want to get paid more, and shunning the venues in which they first performed.

I have also seen the venues these sort of people perform at regularly shut down. Most copycat the model of being an “artist” from the West without understanding the already-present networks and communal infrastructure that exist there that allows some artists to go “full time”.

Even in the United States and Europe, most successful indie artists hold some other job or vocation to earn a living so they can be healthy and safe enough to create. That is problem solving – not asking for pay on a silver tray.

That’s why bands sell merchandise – it supplements gig earnings. You can’t fully depend on what venues pay you.

Malaysia is a small country, creative industry-wise. Our market is small. Therefore, we need both audiences and artists to understand the economics of the arts. We need empathy, not apathy.

I won’t see this become a reality in my lifetime, but at least I know I have done my part. There are no trophies or prizes in this business, and that’s why I celebrate the present with a clear eye on the horizon. – January 12, 2024.

* Azmyl Yunor is a touring underground recording artiste, and an academic in media and cultural studies. He has published articles on pop culture, subcultures and Malaysian cultural politics. He adheres to the three-chords-and-the-truth school of songwriting, and Woody Guthrie’s maxim “All you can write is what you see”. He is @azmyl on Twitter.

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