Indie music in Penang is alive and well

Indonesia’s punk merchants Marjinal ramp up the rock at Soundmaker Studio, described as the only venue to accept any and all forms of music. Photo: Cole Yew

The indie music scene in the Klang Valley may dominate the news and hog the limelight, but Penang has always offered fare that’s left of the centre. There’s something about an island that caters to a degree of uniqueness, and that sentiment is not lost on the Pearl Of The Orient.

Penang has time-honoured pedigree and a rich tradition of spawning great musicians, right back from its pre-war days, so technically, it should be no surprise that the music makers there are frolicking in a scene brimming with good fortune. Alas, that isn’t quite the tale.

Kelvyn Yeang, guitarist for Ocean Of Fire and organiser of the renowned annual indie music festival IndiePG, reckons that while the scene up north has a distinct identity, it is slowly but surely shrinking.

“There used to be many metal, punk, post rock and progressive bands. Now, what remains is a few consistently active ones for each genre,” he says.

According to Cole Yew, co-founder of Soundmaker Studio and guitarist for Hui Se Di Dai, who sees it differently, multi-band gigs continue to excite listeners there, but the days of 15 bands on a single bill have now been trimmed to five to eight per show. He puts that down to

the audience being spoilt for choice, given the increase in the number of shows.

“The scene has grown in terms of the number of genres out there now, with gigs featuring post rock, blues, hip hop, electro DJs, dream pop, art rock/pop, post metal, metal core, death metal, hard rock and punk,” he reveals.

Ksatriya reckons that Penangs indie music scene is an ideal business model away from getting it all right. Photo: Alexa Sheryl
Ksatriya reckons that Penang's indie music scene is an ideal business model away from getting it all right. Photo: Alexa Sheryl

He does concede that while the number of shows may have increased, attendance has dwindled, with a gig averaging 150 punters four years ago, to about 50 per event now.

He tips his hat to punk and metal bands, whom he feels have made the strongest connection with music fans in Penang.

The island’s smaller music circle has enabled musicians to push the envelope and experiment more, so feels spoken word proponent Danny Mahesh (Ksatriya). He throws an interesting point to ponder, believing that language is the deciding factor in what the audiences there choose to listen to.

“In general, most Malaysians listen to a wide variety of genres, but prefer listening to music in their mother tongue or the language they are most comfortable speaking in,” he observes.

A music scene thrives when it has a healthy live scene, and even with its more modest demographic, the island is still bristling with live opportunities, if for more commercial pursuits. But for something with more indie pedigree, Soundmaker Studio seems to be a name readily offered by industry players, a studio that also functions as a live venue. It’s that single space that welcomes any and every kind of music.

“Soundmaker is probably the only true indie platform in Penang right now, one which is completely free from the reins of genre restriction,” Yeang offers an honest assessment. “When it comes to the punk scene, Soundmaker is an institution,” echoes Ksatriya.

China House is mentioned with equal reverence, an eatery renowned for its grub and good music. “Art bistros like China House reintroduced original performances.

Now, smaller venues like The Big Fat Hen are also exploring how original live music and performances can work with their business model,” Ksatriya divulges.

Another hot spot is the Hin Bus Depot, an art space open to any and all kinds of sonic expression, Yew offers. He also throws in a good word for PenangPAC.

The dining and club scene, which also opens its doors to original local music, includes establishments like Talk Talk Wine Bar and Inch Food Bar. Clearly, lacking in performance stages isn’t the most debilitating malaise to afflict the scene, though growth has yet to register at a larger scale.

What is ailing it, though, remains how the live scene operates, which ultimately contributes to how it is viewed. At the end of the day, bands and artistes are left scrounging for an audience.

“We have this chicken and egg scenario where venues and organisers want big followings before they’ll feature original music, or even anything that’s not standard fare,” Ksatriya opines.

He rightly points out that to garner a following, artistes need to play, so the scratched record mantra continues with complaints about Malaysians not supporting original music, but at the same time, it’s not placed front and centre to be appreciated.

“People need to have more faith in homegrown acts and not always favour Hotel California over well-written songs by our own talents. I have organised enough indie shows to know that the standard of musicianship of local acts has come a long way,” shares Yeang.

Money matters

Professionalism is a catch-22 situation, as Ksatriya points out. “Very few people can afford to make playing music their profession, hence, they are part-timers or hobbyists, which isn’t a problem on its own. But a healthy music industry needs professional people ... experienced and effective managers, promoters and organisers,” Ksatriya offers.

Basically, professionals are needed to take the scene and music industry to the next level, but the industry needs to be nurtured and grown before it can accommodate and attract professionals.

The biggest stumbling block remains an economic one. So, if no revenue stream is created, the industry’s health is bound to be affected. Forget Penang, the story is the same in the Klang Valley, or any other part. The malady is always that music doesn’t make money, but the global model paints a very different picture.

“The world music festival scene in Europe and Britain, for example, is very successful. It’s a huge and very profitable business. That success offers dividends, in terms of talent and artistic expression, job opportunities and more,” argues Ksatriya.

According to him, the failure of the federal and state governments to successfully tap the potential of our arts, cultural and music industries has consigned all solutions to be backyard, DIY methods put together by people closest to the scene.

“They work very hard and some of the approaches are interesting, but the scope is obviously limited,” he informs.

Yeang insists that as long as he and his team are still around, indie musicians in Malaysia will have a chance to showcase their talent at the annual IndiePG music festival. Photo: Brigitte Rozario
Kelvyn Yeang insists that as long as he and his team are still around, indie musicians in Malaysia will have a chance to showcase their talent at the annual IndiePG music festival. Photo: Brigitte Rozario

Any burgeoning art scene is going to have to lean on its state or federal governments before it can crawl, sprout legs and eventually start to run on its own. As long as that isn’t happening, an uphill battle beckons.

No concrete plans have been laid, but Yew has wind that there’s fair weather beyond the horizon. “I’ve heard some good news that the state government is allocating a bigger budget for the art industry’s development. We’ll have to wait and see how things go and hope for the best. If all goes well, their new vision will benefit all of us and not just a select few,” he says.

Yeang is grateful for the corporate sector’s sponsorship, with his IndiePG initiative benefiting from the likes of Music World, PenangPAC, Hurley, Clarion, Roland and more, all of whom have been firm supporters of the indie scene in Penang.

The arts and cultural industry has great potential to be a cash cow for the nation, and in various shapes and forms over the years, efforts have been made to place greater emphasis, but nothing sustained has ever been achieved.

Ksatriya concurs: “Some countries have progressed to having arts and culture contribute a significant amount to their GDP, and these aren’t just post-industrial nations.” He feels industrial nations (or what used to be termed “developing nations”) stand to gain the most from arts and cultural export.

Like in the Klang Valley, attempts are slowly but surely being made. Buskers no longer have to up and run at the sight of municipal officers ... designated spots have been allocated for them to hawk their talent. Penang municipal is doing likewise, and that can only bode well for the scene and its longevity.

Talent exchanges

As for the music itself, there’s no discounting that western music heavily influences pop culture in Asia, and likewise Malaysia, but the interpretation of it up north gives it a unique identity.

Cole Yew has seen the indie scene grow, noting that it now includes more genres than it used to. Photo: Cole Yew
Cole Yew has seen the indie scene grow, noting that it now includes more genres than it used to. Photo: Cole Yew

“I believe musicians here have never been trendy. They play what they feel like playing ... they all have their own sound,” says Yeang, conceding that the bands in the Klang Valley have an aggressive style of marketing themselves that Penang bands could learn from.

Ksatriya reckons that Penang’s economic transition is making it lean into creative industries as an alternative to manufacturing, thus influencing culture and popular tastes.

Compared to the Klang Valley, which is more fragmented due to language, he sees Penang as more homogeneous. “If you’re a Hokkien language performer, you’re potentially reaching out close to half a million people over a much smaller area. With some clever distribution, you can acquire a large listenership,” he says.

A greater synergy between both Klang Valley and Penang’s indie scenes is helping the overall industry grow. There are more exchange initiatives which have allowed bands from both regions to head in opposite directions to search for better fortunes.

Like Gene Simmons once said, “If your music doesn’t work in one place, find another where it does.”

“My team and I have been forging relationships with many acts from out of Penang and will continue to do so. We are always ready to provide a great platform for a band from out of town,” professes Yeang, hoping the favour will be returned.

Yew singles out Soundmaker Studio, Rumah Api and Live Fact (both in the Klang Valley) as hotbeds for talent exchanges. “The organisers from Penang and KL are actually connected and have been collaborating for quite a while now, hosting tour shows together,” he says, intimating that more such initiatives will be taking place from this year.

The scene on the island has changed dramatically from the days the legendary The Damn Dirty Apes and Ocean Of Fire (which still pumps its rock fury) were the buzz words. While the technology age has given access to all kinds of music aids and devices, upping the ante in terms of quality musicianship and songwriting, numbers have dwindled.

Gand's neo psychedelic leanings are fast making the band a name up north. Photo: Gand
Gand's neo psychedelic leanings are fast making the band a name up north. Photo: Gand

“It was a cool thing to be in a band. Every other kid in town wrote songs and was in one back then. There were many bands, and a few good ones. These days, while the quality has improved, we have way less bands overall. Where are they now? Many got jaded and even quit, perhaps. And some have relocated to KL,” Yeang theorises.

“The music scene doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If a city is doing well and attracting people to move there, then the music scene can grow, too,” observes Ksatriya.

Penang’s demographic was skewed to older residents and retirees previously, but having picked itself up from urban decay in the last 10 years and jumped through hoops for revitalisation, the trend of young people moving there and making homes is expected to continue, contributing to the likelihood of a cultural shift in the next decade.

Mentorship programme

Moving forward for the industry simply comes down to more well-planned opportunities for indie musicians. “We really need more platforms and organisation. We need people who care enough for the music to come forward and do something ... anything,” states Yeang, reasoning that artistes must also play an active role in putting themselves out there.

Yew is of the opinion that greater freedom from the authorities and more funding would do the scene a world of good.

A business model that works for venues, organisers and performers is imperative, and Ksatriya simply couldn’t bang home that point more.

“We need to start initiating comprehensive measures, like incubator programmes, training, knowledge and skills transfer and exploring national, regional and international markets,” he says. Hard graft is the order of the day, and he feels that should create a healthy and vibrant industry.

For his part, he manages the Say It Like You Mean It (SILYMI) mentorship programme with some friends, a free and voluntary movement which teaches up-and-coming musicians to hone their craft and make money from it.

Penang’s struggles aren’t exclusive, not by any stretch of the imagination. But what it has going for itself is a rich heritage and a fertile ground for breeding the next generation of talented indie acts. There’s a long way to go yet, but positive vibes seem to be rumbling from below, and it seems like only a matter of time before it bubbles over.

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