Malaysian musicians struggle for steady incomes

  • People
  • Wednesday, 30 Dec 2015

Sudirman was quite the showman. Filepic

The sad tale of a national treasure, pianist Ooi Eow Jin, barely eking out a living in his twilight years brings into sharp focus the deplorable level of awareness of artiste management in Malaysia.

The former bandleader of Orkes RTM, composer, arranger, record producer, and music instructor doesn’t even own a house, living in a rented house in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, with his wife and son. Why is a 77-year-old music legend, who was recently conferred a Datukship by the Penang State Government, living in such circumstances?

Likewise the unfortunate situation Search drummer Yazid Ahmad found himself in when his health deteriorated badly last year. He was left to scrounge for finances to settle his growing medical bill, brought on by his ailing kidneys, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Shouldn’t the rock band’s earnings from record sales, concert revenue, and sponsorship deals have accorded him a life of luxury? Apparently not.

Music maestro Ooi Eow Jin is immediately at ease when his fingers rest on the piano keys.
Music maestro Ooi Eow Jin is immediately at ease when his fingers rest on the piano keys. Photos: The Star

The tragic stories have been splashed in the media and in relevant circles, hotly debated even. Yet, this dismal state of affairs continues to be ignored, most scarily, by artistes themselves.

How aware are Malaysian artistes of the need to have proper and professional management? According to a host of professionals in the music industry, not very.

“Many artistes have a short-term view – they see a manager as someone who will take away a part of their income instead of building their earning power by developing them as a brand,” says Datuk Freddie Fernandez, president of the Creative Artistes’ Association, Karyawan.

Trust has been a central issue, which is why many artistes have gone down the ill-advised route of employing family members or close friends to take care of their financial interests. And in most cases, these family members and trusted friends have little knowledge on the subject of financial management, the music industry’s workings, social climate or the law, all of which play a vital role that a professional artiste manager would factor in.

Norman Abdul Halim of KRU Studios concurs. “Some artistes view it unnecessary to share 10% to 30% of their revenue with professional managers, preferring to deal directly with clients instead,” Norman observes.

Ignorance is the sole reason why many artistes are not able to tell the difference between a manager and booking agent. Anuar Shariff, of Kromok fame, and now responsible for business development at creative ad agency Uncang Tiga, draws a contrast between the two roles. “A booking agent is a person who, on behalf of the artiste, liaises with clients or promoters to book shows for them. Their task is all about securing shows for the artistes. No show means no income for the booking agent.

“But an artiste manager looks into a variety of areas – public and media relations, image and branding, growth of the artiste, sponsorship, financial management, and, of course, a manager can easily handle the booking agent’s job, too."

Producer Roslan Aziz thrives in - the recording studio, doing what he does best.
Producer Roslan Aziz thrives in - the recording studio, doing what he does best.

Event manager and industry activist Jennifer Thompson is compelled to agree. “The manager should be the one who moulds the artiste’s career and makes decisions together with them on the direction and goals, unlike a PA, who executes the daily schedule, carries costumes, gets coffee and looks after an artiste’s handbag (personal effects). But then again, in Malaysia, sometimes, the artiste manager does all of this,” she shares.

The slice of the commercial pie in Malaysia is perhaps too small to sustain the industry. Music stalwart and academician Joe Chelliah concurs: “Most musicians do not see the need for it as the scope of their earnings is unlike those in Westerns countries. Besides, many managers also do it as a part-time affair.”

Daniel Dharanee Kannan, former manager of the legendary Datuk Sudirman Haji Arshad and now heading business development at Covenant Artiste Management, reasons that there is a much bigger picture that should be looked at, and likens the whole artiste-manager dynamic to a corporate structure.

“The artiste is the chairman or owner and the manager acts as the CEO. Then you have the lawyers handling all the legal matters, accountants managing the financial details, the business managers looking into the business development and marketing, the A&R person handling the creative material, and finally, the publicist attending to the media, publicity and publishing requirements.”

According to him, artistes are rarely able to juggle between the creative and business needs, which is why proper management is imperative.

KRU Bros Sdn Bhd executive president Norman Abdul Halim. Photo: The Star/Shahril Rosli
KRU Bros Sdn Bhd executive president Norman Abdul Halim. Photo: The Star/Shahril Rosli

Various organisations that look into the welfare of musicians exist, like Karyawan, Recording Performers Malaysia, Yayasan Artis 1 Malaysia, Recording Industry Association of Malaysia, Music Authors’ Copyright Protection, Public Performance Malaysia, etc.

These organisations look into, variously, the copyright, publishing, and royalty collection areas for artistes in Malaysia. And Fernandez is a firm believer in their validity, suggesting that most artistes only get to flourish within a small window of opportunity.

“Artistes are similar to sports people in how their careers peak at an early age, and it is only a select few who go on to continue their careers well into old age. For the rest of them, those who do not turn into legends, they have to find alternative careers,” he feels.

The lack of a symbiosis within the industry might be why it’s still plagued by problems, with musicians continuing to be left by the wayside. Anuar believes that for the industry to advance, all the players must be on the same page in the first place.

“The organisations are not working together as a team. So, the voice of the artiste is not strong. We are not united as one voice, with one mission, and one vision. Our issues are not heard enough in the public domain and in government and business sectors,” he reasons.

Without regulation, the music industry is bound to flounder. And for that reason, Daniel feels the government should take on a more active role.

“The creative industry is as good and has as great a potential as any other industry. So why should our creative people be any different from anyone else’s in any other field?” he says.

Daniel reckons that musicians should take hold of their own destiny and empower themselves by being more savvy. “Nobody told The Beatles, Elton John and so many others, even Sudirman, that their creative works will continue to earn for them or their estate for years to come,” he stresses.

Organisations looking into the welfare of artistes should ultimately have the support of the artistic community – after all, it takes two hands to clap. But rogue corporations exist too, and Fernandez warns artistes to be wary of them.

“The government should identify those who are genuine and not support those who are looking for a quick buck. As it stands now, there is no difference between those which are effective and those which aren’t, especially in terms of funding, so this confusion continues to reign in the industry.”

Anuar feels too many parties are jostling for the same salacious serving of commerce. “Ideally, there should be just one organisation which collects royalty, and the royalties should be distributed to the deserving parties,” he says.

Hitting a sour note

Glaring cases of mismanagement exist, but like any commercial pursuit, the music industry is more accustomed to trumpeting success stories over failures. Incidents usually involve artistes being conned by their manager, the lack of financial acumen on the manager’s part, or outright criminal breach of trust.

Fernandez attributes some misgivings to overzealous managers who price their artistes out of the market. “In the end, the phone stops ringing and the artiste is left without work.”

However, there are two sides to that coin: in some cases, managers charge too little and cheapen the artiste’s value.

As an elder statesman of the music industry, Fernandez also warns artistes to keep their political views and musical ambitions separate, given that their personal lives are under constant scrutiny: “Some have lost lucrative endorsement contracts because they commented on political events in social media, violating their contractual obligations.”

Referring to management failures, Thompson adds, “Most of the cases have been finance-related or even the lack of experience where the manager doesn’t know the industry landscape well enough to add to the growth of their artiste.”

Sure, Malaysia doesn’t have its own Colonel Tom Parker, Brian Epstein, Don Arden, Simon Napier-Bell, Andrew Loog Oldham or Peter Grant, but certain individuals have contributed greatly to, not only the industry as a whole, but also to the growth of influential artistes.

Invariably, impresario Mike Bernie Chin’s name comes up, what with his stable of artistes with long careers, including the likes of Datuk Sharifah Aini, Datuk Khatijah Ibrahim, Noorkumalasari and, most importantly, the late great Sudirman.

Fernandez, having plied the music scene since the 1970s, watched both Chin and American Bunny Bosco, who managed Anita Sarawak, at work.

“They were so dedicated to their artistes, checking the sound system, lighting, effects, and props for each show, down to the very last detail. They built their artistes up to a point where they were able to charge high fees, and because of that, they could use live musicians, backup vocalists, and even dancers for each show,” he reveals.

Fernandez intimates that a lot of creativity went into every performance, from the right repertoire down to the costume changes. Those managers ensured that the audiences were left yearning for more at the end of every show – “Mike’s Chow Kit Road concert for Sudirman in 1986 is now legendary,” he rightly points out.

Thompson shares her respect for Chin as well: “He would be a hard icon to beat. I think he really made show business and artiste management in this country.”

Legendary producer Roslan Aziz, who formed Roslan Aziz Productions (RAP) and set the nation’s music pulse racing in 1989, elevating artistes like Sheila Majid, Zainal Abidin, and Amir Yussof to household name status, deserves equal credit for shaping the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“He created and popularised a new genre in the market, jazz, and positioned Sheila as a world class artiste by using quality musicians and great recording techniques. To this day, Sheila is the undisputed queen of jazz here,” shares Anuar, who also acknowledges Roslan’s introduction of world music through Zainal.

Former manager Daniel Dharanee Kannan remembers Sudirman as an achiever with very high standards.
Former manager Daniel Dharanee Kannan remembers Sudirman as an achiever with very high standards.

Ella’s manager, Ikhmal Hisham, isn’t to be forgotten either. He made Malaysia’s rock queen the highest selling artiste back in the day, with album sales exceeding 300,000 units, and earning her many firsts: first to record in the United States, first to employ a foreign producer (Kyoji Yamamoto), and first to record with a world renowned artiste (she had former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash record a guitar solo on the track Bayangan in 1998).

Daniel throws the Bakar brothers’ names, Aziz and Ali, into the hat, claiming that their artiste management and concert promotion setup, Showmasters, was also a force to be reckoned with.

“Aziz and Ali gave us so many opportunities and breaks which we would never have received otherwise,” he says of the brothers, who collectively managed rock bands Search and Wings.

The music scene today has a plethora of channels to reach out to a listening audience, from satellite TV to the Internet, and while such multifaceted approaches could be a boon, it could also be the bane of the entertainment industry’s existence with audiences’ interests diluted by sheer volume and variety.

Artistes are more empowered, with greater control over their destiny, especially with the reach of social media, where music can be sent directly to an A&R person at a recording label. Back in the day, an act could only hope that an A&R representative (talent scout for a recording label) was in their midst at a performance and would pick up on their marketability.

Yazid of Search.
Yazid of Search.

But this new sense of personal authority could throw the manager out of the loop.

Fernandez sees this as a step back for an artiste’s development, saying that artistes today are more inclined to hire a personal assistant instead. He questions how an artiste’s career could develop without the authority or capability of a manager to give them advice and instructions on furthering their cause.

“Social media has definitely made it easier for artistes to promote themselves, but with a good manager, the sky is the limit,” he says.

Norman seconds social media’s role in today’s climate, which caters to a more intimate artiste-fan relationship, but insists that the role of professional managers cannot be discounted.

“Artistes should focus on creative matters and allow the managers to work on the daily stuff, like marketing, operations, finance, legal and administrative issues.”

Unfortunately, the music industry’s growth has not been in tandem with the increase of the global population, so, the pie keeps shrinking.

Anuar echoes that sentiment: “The cake is getting smaller every day, so all artistes are trying to grab a piece of it. For an artiste to share it with their manager means losing 25% of the revenue.”

He provides a shuddering dose of reality: Gone are the days of record label promotion, A&R and PR departments working to break an artiste. He says, now, an artiste would be lucky to sell 5,000 copies of their CD, which is why, although social media has staked its claim as the new frontier, a manager will always be needed.

So, what is the way forward for a greater synergy between artiste and manager, so that a more stable revenue stream can be established, and how can trust issues be banished?

“There has to be a business plan, so track record apart, the two things the artiste needs to see is how much the manager believes in them and their music and what ideas the manager puts on the table for the artiste’s career,” Thompson shares.

“Trust is the main problem,” offers Joe.

But with examples of long-term relationships like Bibiana Peter still managing her sister Francissca, and Lisa Aryanti having managed Ziana Zain for a number of years, he feels there’s hope yet.

“When managers can show artistes where they should be instead of where they are, artistes will follow,” asserts Daniel.

He likens the success rate for a collaboration to be based on everyone pulling in the same direction. “It’s all about a great partnership, which means great collaborators and great teams who create great works.”

Sudirman went from being an artiste paid RM1,500 to RM3,000 per show in the early 1970s to one earning a cool RM15,000 to RM20,000 in the 1980s under Chin’s stewardship. These eye watering figures must surely be enough to prove the wisdom of professional management.

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