THERE used to be a time when Khor Seng Chew received bank notices every month, reminding him to pay up the monthly instalment of his car loan or risk having his Proton Saga repossessed.
Khor’s personal finances were in bad shape during the early days of Dama Orchestra, which started off as Dama Quintet and then Dama Chinese Chamber Orchestra.
The music director recalled, “The expenses for our debut concert An Evening of Chinese Chamber Music in 1994 came from my own pocket, from running various errands to making phone calls to printing programmes.
“I received a meagre RM100 for the six months of preparation and the concert itself,” he said, adding that the name Dama was a short form of “Malaysia” in Mandarin.
His love for classical music was the ultimate foundation of his determination to make the concert a success.
“I just wanted to make it happen.
“We did it without giving much thought to the returns. If we had planned with some sort of business model, it might not even have happened,” Khor said.
The event was held on July 17 during the Fifa World Cup final between Brazil and Italy in 1994, and yet there was not one empty seat in the hall.
Many even donated money just to stand inside the venue to enjoy the performance.
After the concert, Dama recruited more musicians and partnered Chinese associations to perform at the Putra World Trade Centre the following year.
This time, according to Khor, the pay was “much better”. He could claim his expenses, and received RM2,500 for six months of work.
But still, the amount was too little for Khor — or anyone, in fact — to survive.
In those trying days, Khor borrowed money from two friends and taught music classes whenever he could.
The thought of returning to London, where he studied classical guitar, never left him.
“Our shows were ‘sold out’ and the response was always good. But it seemed to be a full-stop for me.
“I told Pun Kai Loon (Dama’s artistic director) many times, ‘That’s it. I’m going back to London.’ Over there, music artists earn more than entertainment artistes,” Khor said.
A turning point arrived when the idea of presenting Chinese oldies in an elaborate theatre production hit Khor.
The plan was to have a female and a male singer performing Chinese golden oldies like Tian Ya Ge Nu (Wandering Girl Singer) and Bu Liao Qing (Love Without End), as well as a narrator to explain the plot.
The concept was translated into the acclaimed production entitled Spring Kisses Lovers Tears in May 1997, featuring six musicians, two singers and one narrator.
“We had a lighting designer and a sound engineer, but everyone doubled up as crew members. We set up and dismantled the stage ourselves,” Pun recalled.
Furniture to enhance the presentation was borrowed from friends and Old China Cafe, because they could not afford to rent.
“The only thing we bought was five pieces of white cloth that cost RM100,” Khor said.
The response to the production was so overwhelming that it has since been staged in different parts of Malaysia, as well as Singapore and Shanghai.
It has been performed for a total of 88 times as of 2008.
The huge success convinced Khor that he had found the right direction for Dama Orchestra.
Between 1997 and 1999, Dama Orchestra experimented with diversity and expanded its portfolio from Chinese tunes to music from all over the world.
In 1999, they rented a 1,000sq ft premises at the basement of Dataran Merdeka for RM2,000 a month. Dama House, as it was called, had a CD shop and a music reference library.
In 2000, Khor roped in soprano Tan Soo Suan as Dama’s resident singer after spending two years observing her performances.
However, in June 2003, a tragedy struck. A flood destroyed almost everything in Dama House.
They lost musical instruments, books and manuscripts. The total loss was difficult to tabulate as many of the valuables were irreplaceable.
Help started to pour in following the incident, including a kind supporter who shoved a stack of cash totalling RM10,000 into their hands after a fundraising concert at Old China Cafe.
“Green Land Music, our CD supplier, wanted us to pay for the CDs damaged in the flood — but only at RM1 per piece,” Khor said.
It was the flood that prompted them to register Dama Orchestra as a limited liability company.
“All this while Dama was operated as a sole proprietorship with Khor forking out the expenses. The three of us — Khor, concert master Gan Boon We and I — decided to pool RM50,000 as the initial capital and registered Dama Music Productions Sdn Bhd,” Pun explained.
Shortly after that, they took up a loan and purchased an office unit at Plaza Damas in Sri Hartamas. They pay a monthly instalment of RM2,000 for the 1,400sq ft premises.
Aside from Khor, there is only one full-time employee who works as the project executive.
This is to reduce operating expenses, which is maintained at about RM250,000 per year.
“We need about 100 people for a production, but we can’t keep 100 of them on the payroll, so part-timers are recruited during the period.
“Our resident singers and resident musicians, who perform exclusively for Dama, receive payment on a project basis, but we make sure that they have decent incomes.
“We also reward our performers with extra bonuses when we do well,” Pun said.
The performers, including Pun, have other day jobs, in music, education, business or trading.
They try to set aside a certain amount of money from every production to save for rainy days and operating overheads for the following year.
Pun noted that the business is essentially a social business proposition.
While possessing the characteristics of an NGO, it has to run as a financially viable entity to enable further development of arts, and to pave a professional platform for theatre enthusiasts to pursue a career in arts.
“If we do not make ends meet, that’s the end of our theatre business and professional career. However, it is near impossible to be rich doing theatre work in Malaysia,” he said.
Besides in-kind sponsorship from companies like A Cut Above, Studio DL, Wah Li Drycleaners Sdn Bhd and Kelab Shashin Fotografi Kuala Lumpur, corporations such as Selangor Properties Bhd and HSBC also contribute financially to help Dama with its operating costs. The grants are reviewed and renewed on a year-to-year basis.
“We’re one of more than 10 organisations receiving grants from HSBC. The grants are of tremendous help to us in covering some of our overheads.
“Nonetheless, we still have to rely on ticket sales from our shows to cover the balance of our operating overhead,” Pun explained.
In 2010, Dama tripled its revenue to RM1.6mil, from RM500,000 in 2009. It made a small profit of RM65,000 for 2010, reversing a financial loss of RM88,000 a year earlier.
The Moon Speaks For My Heart, featuring the legendary Teresa Teng’s songs, was Dama’s most profitable show. Staged in May 2011, the production managed to make a margin of 30%.
Dama Orchestra works on a cost-plus basis by budgeting a surplus of 20% to 30% into the production cost.
“The cost of manpower, inclusive of performers, artists, musicians, stage crew, front of house crew, creative team and production team, takes up bulk of the budget.
“The other cost items are sets and sets building, hire of additional lighting or sound equipment, printed promotional materials, costumes, rental of rehearsal halls, food and beverages for a one- or two-month period and so on,” Pun said.
Emails, Facebook, postcards and flyers are utilised to promote its productions.
“Because of the social nature of theatre business, we do enjoy the publicity given by various newspapers, magazines and news portals.
“They have rendered very critical support to the development of performing arts in the country. Without their help, we would be in deep trouble,” Pun opined.
They aim for a ticket sale of 95% usually, and rely on event-hosting partnership with corporations and NGOs to help reach the target.
“Our breakeven is between 75% and 80% tickets sold. The margin for theatre productions is relatively low because of the small market segment of the fledgling industry.
“We do work on a very thin line and unfortunately, we live on a precarious existence. Touch wood, we have thus far been blessed with a loyal supportive following of theatre goers,” Pun said.
Commenting on the challenges faced by Dama nowadays, Pun said there is a shortage of multi-skilled performers, who can sing, act and dance.
He also noted the lack of a conducive environment for them to grow steadily.
“The government, corporate sector and performing arts groups form a tripartite structure for the growth of performing arts.
“However, corporate sponsorship is not tax deductible, which makes it difficult for us to entice corporations to be part of our productions.
“Furthermore, students coming out of the education system have hardly cultivated any appreciation of the arts, unlike what it used to be when we were in schools. We had drama classes, readings of scripts or poems, performing, dance and singing, and the like,” he said.
He added that the market needs a lot of educational for it to expand significantly.
“There would still be a few successful theatre groups in spite of the harsh operating environment, but for the industry to grow, we need to see development cutting across the board and not just relying solely on a handful of groups,” he said.
Khor chipped in, “Unlike other countries, we do not have foundation to provide funding for performing-arts groups.”
Last year, Dama Orchestra collaborated with The Star to present In Perfect Harmony in conjunction with the English daily’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
It was Dama’s most expensive show thus far because the scale required and expectations to be met were huge. The production cost was between RM1mil and RM1.5mil, not including the value of sponsorship in kind.
Moving on, Dama Orchestra supporters can look forward to Empress Wu — The Musical in September and October.
For details on Dama Orchestra, visit www.damaorchestra.com