Behind the Music

01 March 2017

We speak to three music promoters in Malaysia for insights on how the industry has matured, the challenges involved in putting on an international music festival, and what keeps them going.

Concerts and music festivals used to be a rarity in Malaysia, but over the past decade, the country has seen more international acts – both major and independent across different styles and genres – coming over to perform. From UB40 to Metallica, Mew and Tame Impala, the increased interest in Malaysia can be attributed to the maturity of the country’s music scene, and with the industry’s developed professionalism, fewer foreign acts see Malaysia as a risky choice.

Adrian Yap, CEO of Freeform.

Adrian Yap, CEO of Freeform (the organisers behind homegrown creative arts festival, Urbanscapes), explains that this maturity came when people realised they needed to handle the industry as a business: “we have to be a lot more professional and detailed in how we go about doing [things]. There is a certain amount of expectation that comes from all parties, whether it’s the band or the fans.”

With a background in digital and print publishing, Adrian initially ventured into events and music promotion as an active way to connect to the readers of Freeform’s former publications (which included the now-defunct KLue and Junk, and Tongue in Chic). Urbanscapes – Malaysia’s longest running creative arts festival – was one of these events. From humble beginnings in 2002, the festival has since evolved into a platform for not just local talent, but international ones as well. Through Urbanscapes and their Upfront live music series, Freeform has managed to bring in numerous international acts including Sigur Rós, 65daysofstatic and The Temper Trap.

Tame Impala’s sold-out show at KL Live for Urbanscapes 2016.

In the past, vague governmental guidelines and legislations made it hard for promoters to put on events and convince foreign booking agents and musicians to come to Malaysia, but with better structures in place, more acts are open to dropping by.

Adrian says the formation of non-profit organisation ALIFE (Arts, Live Festival and Events Association Malaysia) is a good example of how things have evolved for the scene. “There is a lot more professionalism, there’s an NGO that represents the industry and also deals with the government and legislations.”

Livescape Group is one of the founding members of ALIFE. Group CEO Iqbal Ameer explains that prior to setting up ALIFE, promoters rarely worked together. “Nobody wanted to share how the processes were being done with each other, because competition was high. But when ALIFE formed, we were like ‘look, we’re going to compile everything we know between all the top organisers and we’re going to lay it down and work with the government’.”

Although some grey areas remain unaddressed – and Malaysia still lacks in efficiency for certain aspects, such as its application timelines – Iqbal notes that the application process has gotten a lot smoother. There is also more accountability in terms of who is responsible if incidences ­– such as last-minute cancellations – occur.

Iqbal Ameer.

Established seven years ago, Livescape – who now has headquarters in Singapore and Jakarta – is one of the youngest major music promoters in Malaysia. They achieved their first big break in 2012 when they received the support of Tourism Malaysia to organise the first ever Future Music Festival Asia (FMFA) in Sepang, the Asian leg of Australia’s Future Music Festival. Although FMFA and Future Music Festival have been discontinued, Livescape blazed the trail and developed their own brand of music festivals, including rock festival Rockaway and It’s the Ship, an EDM cruise festival.

While Livescape and Freeform are recognised for their festivals and the diverse international acts they’ve brought in, Soundscape Records is mostly known for putting on concerts for niche bands. The indie promoter’s past shows include a string of post-rock, instrumental and experimental acts including Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Battles, Mouse On The Keys, Mono, A Place to Bury Strangers and Toe.

Soundscape initially began as a small indie label in 2001 with the aim of exposing Chinese singing bands to a wider audience. It was only in 2006 that founder Mak Wai Hoo started bringing international artists down to Malaysia, his first foreign act being Australia’s Dirty Three. Today he is also the co-founder of the independent music venue, Live Fact.

Mak recalls when the Malaysian music industry was younger, you needed a lot of persistency to get artists to take the risk of coming over. “Back then it was difficult to convince foreign acts to stop by KL or the region because they [didn’t] have much experience in the region and [were unsure of what to expect]. But our persistency paid off, I got my first breakout show in 2008 when we brought Explosions in The Sky.”

For Mak, the success of that concert helped him instil confidence in the international acts he invited over. Combined with the success of other promoters putting on successful shows and festivals, the Malaysian music scene began to appear less daunting to outsiders.

Mak Wai Hoo.

But even with Malaysia gaining global recognition, and legal procedures for bringing in international acts have become less complicated, organising an international music event still comes with a long list of challenges. The weakening ringgit has also become a major drawback for the promoters.

“The currency is a big, big issue,” says Adrian. “Everything costs a lot more because everything is in US dollars when it comes to booking acts… which makes the viability of shows a lot more challenging.”

Iqbal adds that with deals being done in US dollars, sponsorship becomes a vital aspect to bringing in international acts. However, when it comes to getting sponsors, promoters are faced with this “chicken and egg” situation: you can only secure sponsorship when you’ve confirmed an act, yet you cannot confirm an act until you have enough funding.

With sponsorship being a huge driving force and only a handful of sponsors active in music sponsorship, competition is extremely high between the various promoters. “Almost all the main players are eyeing the same bunch of sponsors. That makes it harder to work because we all go for the same resources. Although we still can’t rely on ticket sales to survive, I believe in the long run that’s the only way for indie promoters to sustain,” Mak remarks.

American noise rock band A Place to Bury Strangers during their KL show in 2015.

In regards to ticket sales, although sponsorship helps to subsidise ticket prices, Adrian and Mak say that some music fans are still unwilling to purchase tickets.

As Freeform doesn’t bring in international acts with a massive fan base, Adrian says that predicting the market can be difficult. “It’s kind of touch and go in terms of what kind of fans are there, and more importantly how many fans are willing to pay for tickets. That’s always a challenge for us. There are a lot of fans, but there are a lot of fans that also don’t want to pay for tickets – they want to get tickets for free.”

Adrian hopes that ALIFE may be able to help with sponsorship in the future by reducing the aggressiveness in the competition between promoters. “[We could have] some way of dealing with corporate and commercial interest, and we could support one another in that sense,” he says.

The lack of diverse venues also remains a sore point for many music promoters, but Iqbal sees potential in Malaysia having more destination festivals – something that neighbouring Singapore is not able to achieve due to lack of space.

With the high costs and risks involved, one wonders what keeps these music promoters from throwing in the towel, but it all comes down to one major factor: at the end of the day, they’re all music fans passionate about seeing the industry grow.

“In general, people who get in this business are passionate about what they do. I can’t imagine anyone doing this without having any passion or interest in the shows themselves,” remarks Adrian.

He adds, “I think people get rewarded in different ways when it comes to what they do in life. Some people get rewarded financially; some people get rewarded through their work… I think for promoters [it’s] maybe not so much the monetary side but derived pleasure from putting on [shows], and the joy and happiness that people derive from those shows. I think those are mainly the reason most of us do it despite the challenges.”

By Stacy Liu

This article is related to OFF THE BEAT MUSIC BUSINESS

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