How To Survive Being In A Local Rock Band

Clockwise from top picture: Hujan, Pop Shuvit, MASDO and Oh Chentaku.Clockwise from top picture: Hujan, Pop Shuvit, MASDO and Oh Chentaku.

“Rock is dead”.

Those words were uttered by rock legend Gene Simmons, bassist and founder American rock band Kiss, in a recent interview with Philly Voice last September. Simmons later elaborated that fans these days will not pay for music, and how other current genres such as rap and hip-hop are getting more popular, even taking their spot in the Rock Hall Of Fame.

While rock music still has its own loyal fanbase, the current popularity of the genre is undeniably only a shadow of the giant it once was. Looking at the entrees in the Billboard Top 100 chart, one can easily see that the current radio play is dominated by new-age hip-hop artists such as Post Malone, Logic, Kendrick Lamar and DJ Khaled.

Over in Malaysia, the rock scene, especially the independent scene (indie), has seen its reduction in fanbase over the past few years. While bands that have made it into the mainstream audience such as Hujan and Bunkface will no doubt continue making music in the future, newcomers are finding hard to scratch the surface with the overload of mainstream music.

And while mainstream music continues to rip into the flesh of rock music, we wondered how rockers in the country are surviving by being in a rock band?

 

It Is Tough To Solely Make Money From Playing In A Rock Band

MASDO performing during the recent Art of Speed festival in Serdang. Photo: MASDO FacebookMASDO performing during the recent Art of Speed festival in Serdang. Photo: MASDO Facebook

For newly-established rock bands such as MASDO, formed only two years ago, they are still building up their fanbase by playing in shows whenever they can.

“Thankfully, the number of shows we are invited to perform this year is more than last year,” said vocalist Ali Sariah. Their most recent performance was during the 50-year anniversary concert of Panggung Anniversari in Kuala Lumpur, and in the past, has performed alongside other big bands such as Hujan, Bunkface and XPDC.

While the four-piece band is only two years old, its members are far from being amateur musicians. Previously, Ali was part of the band The Lipstik for ten years. While its drummer, Azham Ahmad or popularly known as Ambobzeela, is currently the drummer for the successful rock band, Hujan.

MASDO prides themselves with a music style that fuses 1960’s rock and roll sounds with current music styles, and according to Ali, this trademark style has allowed their music to be accepted not just by young indie rock fans, but those from an older age group as well.

MASDO's promotional poster for their new album launch. The band uses 60s aesthetics in their songs, stage appearance and promotional materials. Photo: MASDO Facebook.MASDO’s promotional poster for their new album launch. The band uses 60s aesthetics in their songs, stage appearance and promotional materials. Photo: MASDO Facebook.“The fans of Malaysian indie rock are not very big, but it is definitely growing. Fortunately for us, whenever we play in shows, I see lots of loyal fans attending,” said Ali. Despite releasing only six singles to date including their successful hit Bunga, the band has seen a steady growth in fanbase, and hopes the fans will continue to grow when they release their first studio album in October.

The band is currently not signed to any recording label and independently manages its own promotion and shows, on top of playing music.

“When it comes to promotion, each member has to play a role. Internet plays a huge role, I have to manage MASDO’s social media accounts and we even invite our own friends to come to our shows, in hopes that they would spread our band’s influence via word of mouth.

“Thankfully our style of music is easily digestible by audiences from a wide age group, and that has contributed to the growth of our fanbase,” he explained.

Being in an indie rock band with no permanent record deal, Ali admits that it is tough for him to earn money solely from playing music. That’s why he and bassist Ahmad Azanol, known as Putuceri among fans, has secured full-time jobs, while both Azham and guitarist Mawi are full-time musicians.

While two of his bandmates are coping as full-time musicians, Ali has no plans to venture into music full-time.

“It’s very hard for me to leave my job right now for something that is uncertain. Unless my band has a solid plan and are able to sign record deals for album releases in the future, I am not ready to jump into music full-time,” said the vocalist, who currently works as an audio engineer in a production studio.

MASDO is far from being the only indie band whose members have full-time jobs. Another indie rock favourite, Oh Chentaku, also has members venturing into things outside of music despite being in the scene for ten years, and releasing three studio albums.

Oh Chentaku during the Reach Out 2017 concert. Photo: Oh Chentaku FacebookOh Chentaku during the Reach Out 2017 concert. Photo: Oh Chentaku Facebook

For Afiq Iskandar Zainal Ariffin, the band’s guitarist, he runs his own clothing company named Tarik Jeans aside from playing music. The company is running well for Afiq, as the brand even made an appearance in the recent Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week 2017.

“Besides being the guitarist of multiple bands and operating Tarik Jeans, I also conduct guitar classes,” said Afiq, fondly known as Amber among his loyal fans.

After being an active participant of the local indie rock scene, Amber can attest to the reduction of the genre’s fanbase over the years.

“Just two years ago, we found ourselves travelling around the country to play in shows and gigs almost every weekend. Unfortunately, the number of shows now have decreased.

“In my opinion, indie rock is finding it hard to compete with the electronic and hip-hop genres which are gaining popularity nowadays,” said Amber.

To put it into perspective of how the number of shows has reduced, Amber told Malaysian Digest Oh Chentaku have only performed in ten shows this year, a relatively small number compared to them playing at least two shows every week when the indie scene was bigger.

The mainstream audience’s preference for electronic music is also embraced well by event organisers, as the cost to host an electronic music show is cheaper than that of a rock show.

“The way I see it, for electronic and hip-hop shows, organisers need to only pay for one or two persons per act. Even the equipment is not much, probably just a DJ set.

“Whereas for rock bands, they need to pay for the band’s members which can be a lot, and the rock shows demand huge equipment such as drum sets, guitars and amplifiers, making it more expensive to host a rock show,” he relayed to Malaysian Digest.

Even competing among bands can be difficult, as Amber thinks that the advancement in technology has enabled more people to make their own bands and that makes it difficult to differentiate the talented bands among the sea of similarly-sounding bands.

When it comes to fans, Amber said their numbers remain stagnant, or has even decrease as he found it difficult to attract the younger fans.

“We have been playing music for ten years. As time goes on, something new will come up to grab the interest of the younger generation. Sometimes, in night clubs we see the DJs get more attention than the rock bands,” he explained.

Nevertheless, the Tarik Jeans owner is still very grateful to the loyal fans that have supported the band throughout the years, and says the band will not stop playing music anytime soon.

“With the small number of shows right now, we will take things with Oh Chentaku slowly since we are an independent band, using our own money to support the band’s endeavours.

“We have been playing music for so long, I don’t think we can do anything else. All our members are currently working in the music industry, either in the studio with other musicians or as music teachers. One way or another, we will keep playing music,” Amber concluded.

 

“The Era Of Rock Has Passed”

As Amber revealed indie rock bands often splurge their own money to record their material. And despite many recording studios available across the country offering their services, according to Paul, who owns a recording studio in Kuala Lumpur, said the number of rock bands that come into their studio has decreased significantly as compared to during the founding of the studio back in 2002.

“When we started back then, we charged bands RM70 per hour to record in our studio. Fifteen years later, we have improved our studio and moved to a bigger place, now we charge bands RM150 per hour.

“A lot of indie bands can’t support that kind of rate if no record company is supporting them. Right now, it is very hard to find a record company that sign up rock bands,” Paul lamented.

According to him, the reason why record companies do not invest in indie rock bands anymore is because young people nowadays prefer the newer, modern forms of music such as pop and hip-hop. Even if there are rock enthusiasts in the country, Paul thinks they are more Westernised now, and they would rather listen to foreign bands than support local ones.

“These days, the majority of our clients are solo vocalists and musicians. There are hardly any bands that come into our studio anymore,” he shared.

He admits that it is very hard right now for indie bands to go mainstream, as they are unable to get more exposure due to lack of opportunities, other than the high cost of producing their own music, promoting themselves and playing in shows.

“The last band that came to our studio recorded their song and launched it on YouTube. It only got a handful of views, but then again they were only doing it for fun,” he said.

From its founding until 2013, the studio had opened up its doors for local rock bands such as ACAB, OAG, The Times and Love Me Butch, who then received tremendous success in the music scene.

“There used to be a couple of indie record labels, up to three or four prominent ones. Unfortunately, they have gone silent in the past few years, mainly because the era of rock has passed,” said the studio owner, who also thinks that the quality of music by the recent indie bands were not good enough to attract loyal listeners.

Even the number of rock shows in Malaysia has reduced to only a handful per year, as event organisers prefer to host concerts of other genres.

“The advertisers realise that rock events do not attract a lot of people anymore, so they do not see the appeal of sponsoring those kinds of events,” he opined.

Other than the financial issues, Paul observed that most bands stopped playing music after its members have settled down and decide to look for more stable jobs aside making money from playing in a band.

To aspiring local rock bands, Paul cautioned for them to be aware of the reality of the music market, while suggesting for them to produce more powerful and entertaining material.

“They are going into a market where not many people would pay attention. They have to make sure their songs are chart-topping material and not just mediocre songs. If not, they are just wasting their time,” the studio owner remarked.

 

It Takes Hard Work To Stay In The Scene

Even though the indie music scene has come to a halt, the bands who have achieved mainstream status are still well-received by fans, and not likely to go away anytime soon.

Take Hujan for example, one of the few Malay indie bands that have successfully penetrated the mainstream market since their humble beginnings in 2005. The band is now a household name for fans of Malay rock, and its vocalist, Mohammad Noh Salleh, might have taken his spot as one of the biggest rock stars in the history of Malay music.

Hujan performing during the recent House of Vans concert. Photo: Hujan Facebook and Hafiz ShahHujan performing during the recent House of Vans concert. Photo: Hujan Facebook and Hafiz Shah

“It took two years for us before our music started to grab the attention of the mainstream audience. Initially, we did not even set any target for Hujan as our only focus at the time was only to perform the best we can for the indie crowd.

Mohammad Noh Salleh.Mohammad Noh Salleh.“Our songs spread wildly without us realising it. We managed to achieve this even without our appearance in radio, television or other forms of mass media,” said Noh, adding that their only aim was to have fun playing rock and roll.

Starting with their breakout hit Bila Aku Sudah Tiada, the band later gained more exposure and conquered the airwaves with chart-topping hits such as Pagi Yang Gelap, Dugaannya and Jiwa Kelajuan. 12 years since the establishment of the five-piece band, they have released five studio albums and performed in countless shows in Malaysia as well as overseas.

The band does acknowledge the fact that the Malaysian music industry is a rapidly evolving industry, where genres can come and go real fast among listeners. This fact, according to Noh, is quite risky for newer indie bands but healthy for the industry in general.

Despite the difficulties that plague new bands as mentioned by previous interviewees, he still believes that an indie band can be successful in these times.

“For example, Bunkface is a Malay pop punk band that is very successful without the help of any labels, and has even played in shows overseas. It all depends on the hard work and the intention of the individuals,” said the Sarawak-born vocalist.

Their advancement in fame has also translated to higher payment for shows. During their early years, the band performed mostly for free, and sometimes the organiser gave the boys a meager RM200 out of courtesy.

The band has come a long way since just consuming plain bread and water for a whole week due to financial constraints. Now, as a high-profile band, they are paid up to RM4,000 per member for each show.

When it comes to fans, Noh is proud to say that they have one of the largest loyal fanbases throughout the country.

“When we hosted our 10-year anniversary concert in KL Live, fans from all corner of Malaysia quickly bought the tickets and we sold out the venue after only two weeks. The tickets were not cheap, but they were willing to come from far places, taking the train and buses, convoying on their motorcycles just to watch us perform live.

“That enthusiasm shown by our fans, the RAINgers, is what drives us to continue being rock musicians,” Noh relayed to Malaysian Digest.

Another band that have achieved mainstream status is hip hop-rap rock band Pop Shuvit, that formed back in 2001. According to its guitarist JD, it took six years for the band to break into the Malaysian mainstream market.

“We were largely ignored back home until the success of our first album Take It & Shuvit in Japan and the tour that followed in 2005. It was only then did the local media started paying attention to us, being the first Malaysian band to penetrate the Japanese market,” said JD.

Their music, heavily inspired by elements of skateboarding, was hugely influential in Japan, and ESPN has even licensed their tracks to be played in the Summer X-Games. Over at home, their Malay-language song Marabahaya became an instant hit, achieving very high rotation on Malaysian radio stations.

Pop Shuvit performing during the 2016 Rockaway concert. Photo: Pop Shuvit FacebookPop Shuvit performing during the 2016 Rockaway concert. Photo: Pop Shuvit Facebook

As a band that caters to international and local audiences, Pop Shuvit has faced unique challenges in marketing music to both markets.

“The biggest challenge is balancing the fact that the requirements for success in the local market compared to international are almost polar opposites. To be successful locally we have to write radio-friendly songs in Bahasa Malaysia, whereas international audiences are keener to listen to heavier or more experimental material in English,” said the guitarist.

As an experienced musician, JD opined that it is difficult to sustain a career in rock beyond short to mid-term lengths, and one must either constantly evolve with the times, or diversify into other areas of the music industry. For example, the band’s vocalist, Moots, is not only working for the band as he also runs Rocketfuel Entertainment, a talent management company.

When it comes to working in an indie band, JD told Malaysian Digest that it is more than just being able to play rock instruments well.

“I believe that equipping oneself with the knowledge of the business side of the music industry is important to progress. Knowing how to market and promote your music is equally important to the artistic and creative aspects of music.

“Indie bands can succeed if they work hard, work smart and most importantly; have a plan all the way from the songwriting, recording/production and through to the release and marketing strategy for their music,” he explained.

Even after 16 years, the band is still actively releasing new material, as proven by their two recent singles Ingat Kau Bagus and Sweet Hustle. They are still in the process of releasing new singles digitally, and are even collaborating with a group of Southeast Asian musicians dubbed Project EAR, to work on the collective’s second album.

Despite the challenges, JD is optimistic for the growth of the rock scene in Malaysia. “The proof is in the ever-growing number of gigs happening every week and the emergence of more live venues that cater for music.”

Let’s face it, indie rock bands will no doubt find it hard to compete with the currently popular genres, as told by the interviewees, but that doesn’t mean that aspiring rock stars cannot stick to their guns and play rock music. Nothing can get in the way of a passion and to keep rock alive, is to breathe it and live it, but also be smart to always have a plan up your sleeve for your future.

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