Postcool Music Nation

[27 September 2005]

By Adrian Yap

Contrary to what a large portion of the world seems to think, Malaysia is not a sub-state of Singapore. And despite CNN’s constantly showing clips of our national park, Taman Negara—a large forest reservation housing wild animals, green hills and occasional Sunday campers—whenever Malaysia makes the news, Malaysians certainly do not live on trees. As primal as we can be when hustling for the bargain bins at annual clear-out sales, haling a cab or trying to negotiate rush hour traffic with little patience, Malaysians are far more evolved than the rest of the world’s impression may suggest. But we are neither here to discuss how fashionably chic Malaysians are nor the false doctrines of network news reporting. Rather we are here to discuss the de facto’s of the Malaysian music-buying ethos.

Typical Malaysian music fans are arguably no different than the average music fan worldwide: They worship the gospel of chart-driven format radio, buy the records of the most poster-worthy acts and care little for invention, only accessibility and acceptability. Records by Linkin Park, Mariah and Usher can be found at most hypermarkets such as Tesco and Carrefour, sharing shelf space with economical cosmetics and organic vegetables. The average Malaysian music fan, like most average music fans worldwide, is happy because frankly there’s nothing to be unhappy about. Most of what they can pick off the shelves are albums with songs that have been played to the grave on popular radio stations such as Hitz-FM.

Then there are the Malaysian music fans who check and balance that—the ones who search for things that simmer below the candy-coated froth of the mainstream, read leftist music publications and prefer listening to static than tuning in to mainstream radio. While the subculture is not massive, it is significant enough to warrant weekly club gigs and spur shows popping up all over the country featuring local and, occasionally, international bands like My Disco from Australia and the Observatory from Singapore. In smoky and dingy drink holes like Paul’s Place in Kuala Lumpur such bands play to crowds of about 200 people. But unlike other countries where diverse subcultures like punk, hardcore and indie pop are sizeable enough to find their own tight corners in which to mutate, in Malaysia, they are often mashed together in five-hour shows that sport everyone from Mohawk-wearing punks to mop-tops with horn-rimmed glasses gyrating to anything from screamo to death metal. In a way, it is this uneasy synergy of such a vibrant collage of genres that makes the Malaysian independent music scene such a unique work of art at times.

The main problem a Malaysian indie fan faces is that cool bands are no longer cool when they are available here. Take Jimmy Eat World for example. For years they made critically acclaimed albums such as Clarity that barely blipped the distribution radar here. If you were fortunate enough to have a friend’s brother’s girlfriend who went to the States on a holiday, you might have had a chance to hear of them. But now, a major-label package deal and three hit singles later, getting a Jimmy Eat World album is like eating week-old crumbs from an expensive French pastry. Jimmy Eat World’s name is synonymous with 14-year-old adolescents seeking a candy-coated rebellious punk fix. Their latest record is available at hypermarkets and the band’s mugs adorn the covers of music magazines such as Klue and ROTTW at newsstands all around town.

I’m not one of those fanatical indie purists that spends 20 hours a day plotting the assassination of key A&R executives for desecrating the sacred DIY code. But the fact remains that bands are, sadly, cooler when they are unpopular and broke, when they are cranking out of a practice space without sales expectations, working dead-end jobs so that they can scrounge up enough money for that debut that only a few thousand people in the world would bother about—not when they are dating movie stars, walking the red carpet and pinning up sales figures at rehearsal sessions for motivation. Unfortunately it’s only when they have been played into the grave on radio and have appeared constantly in the tabloids for frolicking with supermodels will you find their CDs adorning the racks of our hypermarkets. While this may certainly be true in most parts of the world, the problem is maybe slightly more severe here. This is because the availability of records in most cases does not even extend really that far into indie waters to begin with. So the chances of us picking up a CD from even an up and coming band like Death Cab for Cutie, with a few fairly successful singles and some videos on rotation on MTV is already close to zero, much less a band a critically acclaimed but largely independent band like say Arcade Fire.

The news that Death Cab for Cutie inked a deal with Atlantic is a bittersweet bowl of sour pickles. Why? Because with a million-dollar paycheck to solve possible financial gripes and buy ample songwriting time, and a 10-man marketing department working the hype machine, the band should score at least a sleeper radio hit. With that may come the MTV saturation which possibly might make Malaysian record companies notice that Ben Gibbard’s boyish grin is certainly marketable enough for a 10-foot poster. Then hardcore fans can look forward to explaining the reasoning behind the band’s name to their adolescent siblings.

But currently, a music fan’s search for a Death Cab for Cutie record on Malaysian soil can be likened to an expedition to recover the lost treasures of King Cuckoo’s tomb. That being said, non-franchise shops such as Music Magic and Rock Corner, offering UK imports of Mogwai and Belle and Sebastian records (for often outlandish amounts) are lately starting to emerge in Kuala Lumpur to serve the upper-middle-class crowd who don’t mind fronting more than a few dollars just to have that rare record they hope will impress people. But most average Malaysian indie-music fans would still find paying that kind of dosh for a record a bigger travesty than violating copyright laws with the click of a button.

The RM (Ringgit Malaysia—the Malaysian currency) 69.90 we pay for a rare CD, when converted to U.S. dollars, roughly works out to a fairly reasonable $18. But when you compare the gross average income of an average middle-class Malaysian to an average middle-class American, the price suddenly seems much less reasonable. An average Malaysian earns about RM 1,500 (about USD $400) monthly. This means that every time an average middle-class Malaysian buys a CD, he spends about 4 percent of his monthly wage—frankly, that’s a lot. So CDs in Malaysia are luxuries you can afford only when it’s completely worth the dosh. For the others that you fancy only marginally, you can turn to the pirate peddlers that plague the streets here (a bootleg copy of a Linkin Park CD will only cost you only RM 10 or USD $2.50). You sacrifice elaborate sleeve design and decent printing, but nothing in sound quality. Or you can resort to the incredibly convenient magic of P2P download programs.

The P2P phenomenon is not foreign to the international music community, but drop it within the context of Malaysia and the angle shifts somewhat. While it is certainly possible that there are Malaysian indie scrooges locking themselves in their rooms and downloading the whole New Order discography in all its MP3 glory because they’re cheapskates, a lot of Malaysian indie fans turn to file sharing because the music they crave is otherwise inaccessible. If every fan of Starflyer 59 waited for a cousin to fly for a holiday before they could get their hands on the latest CD, they would’ve given up being a card-carrying member of the mod empire long before they heard a single new note from Jason Martin’s delay-drenched guitar. It is fair to say that a large percentage of P2P download activity in this region is largely fueled by astronomical record prices and the relative scarcity of records that don’t produce Billboard Top 10 hits. So while American download addicts may simply want to skimp on that $10 to hear a record, for Malaysian fans it’s a question of availability.

But of course, legal music download sites like iTunes offer people in this musical backwater a less conscience-taxing alternative to P2P programs. Unfortunately, legal MP3 downloads have not really caught on over here. People are largely still wary towards the Internet shopping phenomenon perpetuated by Amazon. With many Internet shopping sites having “FOR U.S. CUSTOMERS ONLY” disclaimers some Malaysians may feel a little alienated from the process, but it is also a question of affordability. The dual killer blows of steep currency exchange rates and sizeable shipments costs are a strong enough deterrent for many potential shoppers in this region. But more important, the reason why most people would not pay to purchase MP3s off a legal site is because of tangibility, or rather the lack of it. With a CD, we can hold the finished product, flip through the liner notes and show them off to our dates. In a country where most artists rarely tour (often because of poor official record sales due to rampant piracy), this tangibility is especially crucial. Otherwise, an artist’s representation will gradually be reduced to a computer file with an .mp3 at the end and nothing more. And many consumers, at least in this region, do not see the point of paying for a 5MB computer file. They still have a mindset that MP3s are a free commodity, seeing as the cost of making them is zero compared to the cost that goes to replicating a CD for store shelves. The concept that MP3 could be a future point format/device for the music industry has not been completely grasped by Malaysians. However, as iPod sales are boosting up as its price drops and as it becomes more indispensability as an upper-crust fashion device, this mind set could be a thing of the past pretty soon.

For Malaysian fans, it’s a no-win situation: Once we have easy access to our favorite once-indie band’s records, it’s only because 12-year-old adolescents are pestering their parents for their records after seeing their mugs adorning teeny bopper bubblegum/girlie mags like Cleo or Seventeen. On the flipside, fans who discover an exciting band, putting out albums on indie labels, unknown to Malaysian marketers, have to wage a war with the economics of marketing and confront a crisis of conscience just to hear a single note. Unfortunately, the conscience wall is terribly punctured. The tragedy of it all is we just want what we’ve always wanted since the days of black-and-white TV and 8-track players—to hear the music.

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