The show must go on


Sound of music: Artist Leonard Siaw’s mural of musicians in Kuching. — File photo

TOO many naysayers have sounded the death knell for the performing arts scene that was already struggling even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit our shores.

The lack of financial and governmental funding was pitiful in Budget 2020 with a mere RM5mil channelled towards the Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana).

Then Covid-19 came, forcing all businesses that do not fall under essential services to a halt.

Granted, the performing arts industry cannot be counted on par with the food, healthcare, security and defence and water industries.

Nonetheless, do we want to live in a world that is largely sustained by functionality but devoid of any cultural or artistic expression?

No movie that inspires or provokes, no music that stirs our emotions or dance that moves our soul. I cannot imagine what kind of world that would be.

Despite not being seen as a necessity for survival, there have been worldwide reports on how communities were turning to music for comfort, relief and the forging of a communal spirit during this pandemic.

Among the devastating economic setbacks that our country has faced since the imposition of the movement control order (MCO), was the performing arts industry being one of the worst-hit.

The cancellation or postponement of live performances, international collaborative projects, conferences and art exhibitions left many unprepared to plug the financial gaps that they faced.

Among the 519 artists in Malaysia interviewed as part of Cendana’s report on Covid-19’s impact on the arts, 70% of them said they lost all or most of their income.

The online survey also documented that close to 40% of them had an actual RM5,000 weekly loss to their income.

Consumption of digitalised experiences is rapidly changing the music industry.

The spike in Zoom user subscription, and music performances and events broadcasting live has become a norm in these recent times.

There has been much effort among local music practitioners and private stakeholders, who have been coming up with innovative ways to sustain the music industry.

Within weeks of the announcement of the MCO on March 18, Jao Tim, a café based in Kuala Lumpur which features live performances had shifted its jamming sessions and jazz concerts online and even started a fund for struggling musicians and live performance venues.

These live concerts on Instagram or Facebook were exposed to virtual platforms that could be streamed anywhere in the world, transcending geographical boundaries and attracting more than the usual crowd the venue could hold.

While nothing beats live performances and the instantaneous responses you get from the audiences, the plan to go digital seems the most feasible and safest approach for musicians in a post-Covid-19 era.

The digitisation of live performances posed yet another set of challenges for musicians.

Most are excellent practitioners who went through years of training perfecting their art and technique but lacked the technical know-how of transferring their performances onto a digital platform.

The Selangor Local Musicians Association (PPTS) has responded to this need and built Memories Studio, a live recording studio for local musicians to stream their performances with better equipment and quality.

In such pandemic times, there is also a stronger effort to form communities that provide better representation and support to the community.

The Music Centres and Music Teachers Association of Malaysia was birthed with such a vision in mind in June this year.

Through this platform, events, workshops and webinars were organised and standard operating procedures for music centres were streamlined and highlighted to all music educators in Malaysia.

The surge of support and help given towards the music industry in Malaysia especially from local and private sectors speaks volumes about the perseverance and resilience of the music industry.

I commend the initiatives that Jao Tim, the Selangor Local Musicians’ Association and the Music Centres and Music Teachers Association of Malaysia have done in the spirit of looking out for their fellow musicians and music educators during this crisis.

No doubt more could be done in terms of governmental and financial support, though I am sure that musicians in Malaysia are creative and resilient enough to bounce back. There is no stopping the music, not even a pandemic. Not yet.

Dr Ch’ng Xin Ying is a lecturer at the Institute of Music, UCSI University. She holds a PhD and an MMus in Musicology. Her areas of interest include 20th-century music and cultural studies in Britain, music and national identity, gender and sexuality, singers, voices and vocality as well as media and radio studies.

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