Is There Still Hope For The Malaysian Music Industry

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09 September 2021

By Petra Music

It may be fair to say that most of us have entertained the idea of becoming a professional musician at some point or another.

After all, who wouldn’t want to live a life of fame, fortune, and travel?

But sadly, these rock star fantasies are often put to an end by either impatient parents or irate educators who have no time for dreamers.

This writer for one has been told by more than one teacher to “Come back down to earth” and “Grow up and start focusing on the future.”

And as Malaysia is a country dominated by Asian values, it’s fair to say that the only career options available are “The safe bet”, such as that of a lawyer, accountant, doctor, or engineer.

While there’s nothing wrong with any of those fields, it’s incredibly ironic given how rich and diverse the Malaysian music scene is.

So, let’s start by addressing some common misconceptions.

Things people often get wrong about musicians

1. “You can’t make a living as a musician”

Music Producer In Room Petra Music

Photo by Tom Pottiger via Unsplash

Every aspiring musician has probably heard this more than a thousand times – music is just a hobby and you won’t be going very far with it.

But here’s the thing, how would the world look like right now if every aspiring creative believed what they were told?

Chances are there’d probably be no music, no movies, no artwork, and probably no inventions of any kind.

One of the most common misconceptions people have about the music industry is that it’s impossible to earn a living as a musician.

Sure, the early days can be difficult, but with tenacity and some careful planning, the sky’s the limit. As artists like Yuna, Mayabayu, and SonaOne have shown us, the music scene of today is very different then what it was 10 – 15 years ago.

For one, it’s now a lot easier to build up your exposure thanks to the power of social media like Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram. A lot of the time, Malaysian artists who made it internationally got their big break thanks to social media.

So the next time someone tells you that music is just a hobby, remind them that even great things have humble beginnings.

Even if you aren’t exactly filling up stadiums during your concerts, you can count on at least some income through live performances, studio work or content marketing and recognition from streaming your music on Spotify and Apple Music.

But do keep in mind that the life of a musician is far from easy. In fact, it’s probably going to be even more demanding than a day job.

Take a look at Paperplane Pursuit – a Malaysian pop band with a Billboard Top 5 hit. Even when the band’s single charted on the Billboard, some members of the band still held on to their day jobs.

2. “It’s all just sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll”

Sex Drugs Rock n Roll Petra Music

Photo by Mishal Ibrahim via Unsplash

Contrary to popular belief, the local music scene or the entertainment industry isn’t as controversial (or exciting) as many may think.

Instead of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, making it as a musician is more about marketing yourself, finding gigs, and writing or producing music.

While some may argue that sex sells, the local Malaysian music scene is a whole lot more wholesome than many would give it credit for.

For example, you have musicians like Yuna and Talitha who’ve all found success through talent and hard work. Yuna in particular has often been praised for how she’s able to balance both religion and career without compromising on her beliefs.

So keep that in mind the next time a conservative aunt/uncle/cousin/random stranger tries to tell you what’s what.

3. “You have to be naturally talented”

Sure you need to be talented in order to make it as a musician in Malaysia but at the end of the day, hard work, and character counts for a whole lot more.

Do you know why we admire and respect our favourite artists and musicians?

It’s because they make everything seem so effortless.

Whether it’s a blistering guitar solo or a flawless live performance, chances are thousands of hours went into perfecting that single moment.

Remember: there’s a reason why it can take days or even months to record and produce an album. And when it comes down to it, talent can only take you so far.

If you want to be a truly great musician or artist, you’re going to have to put in the time. That means hours spent practicing, performing, crafting lyrics, mulling things over with your producer, building your network, and creating value.

And at the same time, you’ll probably also be forced to juggle between a day job and your passion as a musician. The reality is that you’re probably going to be working two jobs and that’s something that most aspiring musicians fail to take into account.

Is there hope for local musicians and artists in Malaysia?

Having spoken to our team of musicians, artists, and creators and Petra Music, we realized that there is a growing interest in local music.

While in the past, the local scene consisted primarily of indie or underground acts, a rising number of homegrown artists are breaking through into the mainstream.

First of all there’s the clearly popular Bahasa scene with folks like Hael Husaini, K-Clique, Andi Bernadee, SonaOne and Aina Abdul just to name a few. Tune in to any local Bahasa radio station i.e. ERA and Hot FM and you’ll be serenaded by a selection of local hits from Malaysian artists.

Besides Bahasa, the scene for both Mandarin and Tamil musicians is also an active one. For our Mandarin speaking brethren, there are stations like Melody FM, GoXuan, and Ai FM to name a few.

Meanwhile, fans of Tamil language music will be able to listen to their favourite songs on stations like THR Raaga and Minnal FM.

And let’s not forget local radio stations like Lite FM, BFM 89.9, Hitz, FLY FM, and RAKU who have all begun showcasing local talents from all backgrounds.

Challenges faced by local artists and musicians

While such efforts are indeed admirable, many local artists still face a number of challenges when attempting to break through into the mainstream, these include:

1. Building up your own personal brand

Photo by Vinicius Amano via Unsplash

People tend to make the mistake of thinking that show business is all about the looks.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In actuality show business is all about building up your own scale of service, brand value, personal style, network, and not just your looks.

What, really?

Beyond a doubt.

Do you know why artists like Aina Abdul and Billie Eilish have been able to find success in recent years?

Well, that’s because they’re both willing to go against the flow.

Rather than relying on their looks or revealing outfits, Aina Abdul and Billie Eilish are instead known for their deep lyrics, unique fashion sense, and relatable personas.

While there will always be a market for scantily clad twerking dancers, it is clear that music fans are looking for something that goes even deeper.

This can be seen by the success of Aina Abdul’s ‘Semalam’ and Billie Eilish’s ‘Lovely’, which address issues like toxic relationships and depression. Topics which just about anyone would be familiar with.

Which is why as cliche as it may seem, it’s always better to be yourself. And this is something that local musicians and potential artists would do well to remember.

Talent and hard work will always be appreciated by your audience. If you are sincere in your work and put in the effort, you’ll be surprised at how receptive the Malaysian music scene can be.

2. Funding

Ask any seasoned musician or artist and the first thing that they’ll tell you is that recording an album costs serious money.

According to Dasha Logan, recording an entire album can cost upwards of up to RM30,000. And if you don’t have a record label behind you, all of that’s going to be coming out of your own pocket.

Also, do keep in mind that there’ll be additional costs to be taken into account such as marketing, travel expenses, merchandise, and equipment.

Worse still, there’s no guarantee that the album will be a success with the fans, so if things don’t work out, chances are the artist might even end up losing money.

Given that most Malaysians tend to gravitate towards international acts, it can be difficult to break into the local mainstream, which is a shame given the abundance of local talent to be found here in Malaysia.

So, let’s say you’re an up-and-coming artist who’s looking to record an album, but you’re in dire need of funds.

How would you go about doing so?

Why not check out CENDANA and their range of grants and programs for independent artists and musicians in Malaysia.

CENDANA’s Independent Music Funding Programme is an initiative by the Malaysian government to support the local music scene. Successful applicants will receive funding of up to RM30,000 to help them push the boundaries of their music.

But don’t worry, all genres of music are supported.

So if you’re forming a polska dubstep dance group, chances are CENDANA will be glad to lend you a hand.

3. The local scene

As was mentioned previously, most Malaysians tend to prefer international acts over their local counterparts.

And ironically, some of our local talents first found success overseas before they were actually appreciated back in their home country of Malaysia.

For example, you’ve got folks Sheila Amzah, Firdhaus Farmizi, and Namewee who made it big in China and Taiwan before they were actually appreciated in Malaysia.

While it’s easy to accuse Malaysians of elitism, this isn’t really the case.

Acts like Bunkface, Akim & Majistret, Airliftz, and Bunga have all upped their game and given their international rivals a real run for their money.

So how did they do it?

The answer: daring to be different.

How often have you heard the phrase, “this band/singer sounds just like (insert influential artist here)”?

More than you care to remember we guess.

While it’s perfectly fine to wear your influences on your sleeve, it’s not okay to try and imitate your favourite artists.

The last thing fans want to hear is someone trying to sound exactly like someone else – remember all the hate Hujan got for sounding just like The Strokes?

And this is why it’s refreshing to see how more and more Malaysian artists have decided to create their own unique sound.

Artists like Bunkface, Yuna, and Aina Abdul have all localized their influences and taken their music to the next level.

So, if you’re trying to break into the Malaysian mainstream, stop trying to sound like who you were inspired by. It’s okay to be influenced by their works but make it your own by putting your own spin to it.

4. A lack of support and direction

Sad Musician Petra Music

Photo by Ali Yasar Isgoren via Unsplash

Becoming a professional musician is challenging enough on its own and this situation is not helped by the lack of support and direction.

Unfortunately, people tend to dismiss musicians as mere performers who make their living playing in cafes, pubs, or even on the streets. Many simply cannot compute how a musician is able to transition from a performer into a local or international superstar.

Because of this aspiring musicians simply are turned away before they can even get started. Unlike more traditional careers, there isn’t much of a guideline for the aspiring musician.

A lot of the time, success depends on both skill and luck.

This is why it’s important to approach your musical career in an organized and structured manner. Instead of diving in headfirst, you should instead carefully plan out your foray into the world of performing arts.

But wait, there’s more…

To give you some direction, you can always reach out to seasoned musicians and artists in the community. The Malaysian creative scene is a close-knit one and there are always friendly faces willing to lend a helping hand.

And that’s why we at Petra Music have assembled an ensemble crew of musicians, artists, performers, and technicians.

Recognizing the challenges faced by a new generation of musicians, Petra is looking to lend a hand to keep Malaysia’s local music scene alive and well.

So if you’re looking to launch your career or just want to get some direction, feel free to reach out to us at Petra Music. And if you’re an aspiring musician trying to make it big, why not send us your best work and we’ll be more than happy to light the way forward.

So, should you even try to make it as a musician?

The answer is and will always be yes.

If you’ve got the passion for it, then go all out. In a world that is now more interconnected than ever before, it’s so much easier to build exposure.

But that’s not the only thing. If the numbers are anything to go by, chances are good that the demand for homegrown talents is on the rise in Malaysia. This is especially true for the English language scene with more artists gradually making their presence felt.

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