Musicians in Sabah: Boleh cari makan kah?

Is it really necessary to go to KL to make a living?

At Eyes & Ears, Chris Pereira, Alvin MY, Terence Mark Blantocas and Sonny Bahari shared thoughts about making a living in music, in Sabah.

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Alvin MY

Alvin MY said, “In my way, if I want to make lots of money, I just need to be in KL with my group (Infinatez). But I want my music to be more sincere, and to be close to my family, so I am in Sabah.

“We want to do music, and we want people to listen to us, to listen to our music. So we have to find a way to make a living, and make money through this. We don’t really have to make like ‘a million bucks’ as long as we can get money from it, so we can continue to do our music. I think that is what we really need to figure out.”

Chris Pereira has a different approach. The KL thing has to be done, he said, but people needn’t stay there. Sabahan musicians shouldn’t be intimidated by KL, he added, an opinion seconded by Alvin and Sonny.

“You don’t have to stay in KL, but you have to go to KL,” said Chris. “Go to the radio stations. Do the interviews. Then you can come back here. Roger Wang is doing it. He is based here.

“But you have to take the chance, to humiliate yourself in KL first. You know, because you have a bigger audience there, not everyone is your friend and not everyone is gonna like your song.

“KL has the connections, the radio people, the interview opportunities, and you need the connections to be in the music industry. You can’t just hook on RTM Sabah and SuriaFM. Because you still have Hits FM, and they’re not going to come here and say, ‘give me your song’. You have to go there and give them your song. So it’s taking the chance to go to KL, waste a few months, waste your cash, go around and meet the people and come back here and work it out. That what Alvin’s done, and Richado has done it.”

Sonny added, “When you say ‘music industry’, KL is the only place you can call an ‘industry'”.

Alvin shared things he learned in KL. “I did my first EP [Learning You] on a small budget so I could sell it cheaper. This is something I learned from KL and the indie bands there. They sell their EPs with 4 or 5 songs and sell it for ten bucks. Now, people just download things from the internet, so I must think: How can I get them to pay for my music? I make an affordable cd, so people will pay.

“I’m not actually teaching guys here in Sabah, but people will see it and learn. Like I learned this from the people in KL.”

[Because we were in RAM studios, Roger Wang’s albums were on display in a glass cabinet. Later, Alvin showed me what he meant, by explaining that the unit costs for producing a cd varied a lot depending on whether you had a cardboard sleeve or a clear perspex CD case, for example. Things like that will determine how cheaply you can sell your CD, he said.]

Chris Pereira

Chris said his issue with local bands comes down to commitment. “Not everybody is ready to take the chance, even if the chance is there.” He mentioned a successful band, who “were given the chance to be in KL, after they won [a national talent search]. They were given equipment, and offered an EP deal. Basically, ‘We’ll help you record an EP, market it in KL and everything,’ and they just didn’t do anything with it.”

Sonny asked, “They turned it down?”

“They didn’t even say ‘No’. They just left it like that,” Chris said.

But if they do that, what are they trying to achieve when they join a band and make music?

“Exactly,” said Chris. “If you start a band, you want to record and you want to release an EP, how far are you willing to go? You have to take a chance. You are not going to know what’s going to happen until you try it out.”

Chris listed a few Sabahans who have taken their talent out to the world. “Tian Long is really big in Taiwan. Karen Kong is from Labuan, talent scouts picked her up and groomed her for a year before she was put out, with a single, then an album, and now they’re marketing her in Taiwan and the Chinese market.”

“So that next step is already there,” said Sonny. “There are examples here and there.”

I thought about sound engineer Stephen Lim, a KK boy who has lived nine years in Hong Kong as Jacky Cheung’s personal sound engineer. Despite being at the pinnacle of his trade, he lives in a small apartment in Hong Kong, because that’s how it is over there; it’s just one price you pay. Stephen makes no secret about looking up to Roger Wang, who has the kind of lifestyle that Stephen eventually wants. There’s no getting around it. Success has a price.

Chris said, “I’ve said to a lot of bands: I can get you guys to KL, you guys can play, but can you commit? 80 per cent of the bands will say ‘No’. Why? No complete excuse. So I’ve come to a point where – you want to, you tell me Yes, if not you’ll be in KK, lah.”

Sonny said, “I don’t know if this will mean anything to anybody, but my second agent – born and bred in KL – with a very sharp tongue, told us when we first got to KL: Actually you guys, ah, you guys are the same you know. You eat rice, what. They eat rice also. What you scared of them? I found out Sabahans have inferiority complex! Filipinos, KL buggers, you guys play better than all of them! Then he starts obscenities, you know. I don’t know where it goes from there, but it shows us something back, lah. You know?”

Sonny Bahari, far left

Chris agreed. “I tell a band: ‘Your music is good enough to be in KL’. They’re like: ‘Oh no, no. Our songs are still kampung, kampung, meant for KK.’ I mean, just put it out and find out! Alvin wouldn’t be where he is now if he didn’t do that. You try it and you find out. It’s either it happens or not. Then you know.”

Alvin said, “You know, it’s like a natural thing for most Sabahans to play a lot of instruments. Like you play, ‘Tears in Heaven’ when you are 11 or 12. In KL, other than Infinatez, there were more than 20 vocal groups like us. I’m the only Sabahan guy there. They’re good in singing, but not a lot of them — I can’t say that I’m better, but put it this way, I’m doing more than they do.

“So we don’t really have to see ourselves as someone down here (lowers one hand) and them up there (raises the other hand).”

Alvin also wanted to say that it isn’t always: ‘Them versus Us’.

“Do you know Najwa? Najwa is an up-and-coming songstress in KL. I wrote a song for her, and it will most probably be in her album. So actually there are good people over there who notice our talent here and want to work with us. So just work together and blend, lah.”

Alvin said some of his friends in KL have told him people are threatened by the Borneo Sabahan musicians, and worry that Sabahans will generally become recognised as the ‘Top Talent’. “They’re actually afraid that we will become bigger, my friends say to me, because we got a lot of talents. The thing which keeps us down is the business end, the magazines, the platforms.”

Sonny said Sabah does not sell its musicians with passion. “If you look at the past 10 years, statistics show Sabahans are the ones on top in music. Any talent search, whether it’s done by people over there or over here, the top three will always have Sabahans. Every AF or whatever, there is always a Sabahan in the top 3. Top 3 – get that right!”

But then, in his cryptic style, he added: But why change the status quo and make a music hub here? If the music industry remains in KL, Digi can continue to enjoy the Sabahans being the biggest consumers: Everybody here sms, voting in the AF competitions for the Sabahan contestant. Let the Sabahans pay.”

Chris said, “When I was in KL last month, I met up with the hip hop community there that I always meet up with. So I let them listen to ‘Nobody’. When Reuben started singing, the guys went: ‘Oh my God…’ they listened and said the rapping is fantastic. They like it that they [RapSoul] maintain the Sabahan diction to it. They’ve always been asking me: ‘Give me Sabahan Malay, give me Sabahan Malay rap.’ So T-Street has what KL has been waiting for. And they are ready to support.

“Reuben Raymond is a hidden gem in Sabah, that needs to be pushed out more,” Chris added.

“And he needs to raise his price a bit also,” Sonny quipped. “We have a lot of hidden gems here.”

The topic turned to supporting our local artists, financially.

Sonny said, “You know, you may not agree with the music, but you still have to support [by buying the music]. Because there is only us, there’s nothing else.” Sonny pointed to Reuben and Alvin. “When they come up with a product, do you buy it straight away? Or do you ask a million questions like: ‘Hmm, what kind of music is that again?’ Please don’t do that anymore. We are only helping ourselves now.”

Terence said, “One thing I see in Sabahans, they like freebies. We want people to buy our music, so the artists can survive and live, and make more music.”

Terence Blantocas, right.

Chris said, “This parting with your money thing. It comes own to our mentality locally here. Take ringtones. People can live off ringtones in KL, because you get more royalties from that than your CD sales itself. But in KK people don’t do that because you can still buy ringtones at the shop, instead of downloading from Digi or Maxis or Celcom.

“For example. Let’s say KL rapper Altimet, he puts out a single, and survives just from the ringtone sales. They cost around RM1.50 to RM2.00. Sabah is set up for downloading ringtones too. But nobody here buys!”  We laughed.

Sonny said, “Nobody even knows it exists, I think!”

“If you are willing to download a game for 3 ringgit…” Chris pointed out.

Sonny said it needed a change of attitude, which would have to come from young people, although their buying power isn’t great.

Chris went back to Terence’s point about freebies. “I still release a [free] rap-over. That means I rap over someone else’s song which I download or whatever. I still put it out on my blog, just to keep myself relevant with the other websites in KL or whatever. You have to put yourself out, for people to notice. You cannot expect people to notice you without putting anything out. Sure we have all the talents in KK but no-one is putting themselves out. Alvin is, Jonathan [Tse] is, I can’t think of many others. It’s hard to maintain that consistency, and realising how important the internet is and everything. And the internet is a whole different topic, yeah?”

Chris talked about sponsorship opportunities. “I’m actually getting trying to make it happen by next year, where certain local acts will get sponsored by clothing companies. It’s in the pipeline. So I will be helping out with a record label which is based in KL, but I’ll be running it in Sabah. So T Street might be the first ones to try it.”

And what about Bandwidth? Is the magazine doing what these musicians want?

Chris said, “Bandwidth has done a lot. It has exposed a lot about what Sabah has to offer, and it gives an excitement to the bands and acts to wanna do something, to be in Bandwidth.”

“I think in the future, they should SELL Bandwidth,” said Alvin. “At the moment they are still giving it away for free. I think people would pay for Bandwidth.”

Sonny said, “I hope I don’t offend anyone, kan. But to me, Bandwidth is like DJ Othoe, bah?”

[In other words, it will cover anything Sabahan and say good things about them, to support the local artists].

So, if people paid a few ringgit for Bandwidth, would they complain if Bandwidth says something is great, and they disagree and think it’s crap?

Sonny said, “I wouldn’t care if what is in it is crap! At this stage, we need all the publicity and the exposure and the feedback. If the magazine then gets feedback because people say this or that is crap, that’s good!

“It means: ‘Oh My God people care enough to give us feedback! They have passion!’ That’s the main thing!”

Chris said sometimes, when he needs to know whether something is good or not, he pushes it out in KL because they give positive and negative feedback. “Whatever I put out in KK, everything is positive, positive, positive. Which is good, but at the same time it’s bad, because you don’t improve.”

But Sonny added, “In KL, I found that when you have a name, and when you really do make a crap thing, it sells 🙂 . That’s the other side of KL.”

Alvin MY is really optimistic about the future in Sabah, that musicians will be able to make a living here, without having to go to KL.

“It IS going to happen!” he said.

“So that’s the gamble, lah,” said Chris. “We try and make it happen.”

People need music. Some of us make music, almost everybody consumes it. People need to know that Sabahans are making great original music. ‘Original music’ doesn’t always mean ‘Sayang Kinabalu’ and ‘Jambatan Tamparuli’, although that will always be a defining part of the music landscape and heritage of Sabah, and rightfully so.

But we also have Alvin MY, RapSoul, T Street, Decipher, Jiaja, Nadia Ali, Dayang Noraini, Felix Agus, Roger Wang, Eloise Lau, Jonathan Tse, Jon Paradise, Da Prinz, RTM Kombo, Atama, all our great jazz musicians – these guys are making original music too – R&B, rap, folk, rock, pop, jazz, metal. Everything is here.

12 responses to “Musicians in Sabah: Boleh cari makan kah?

  1. Salam di bawah bayu ~
    Industri Seni / Kreatif Sabah dilihat seperti terlalu ‘kecil’ walhal kita punya kelebihan dari segi keluasan geografi dan jumlah penduduk yang ramai. Kelemahannya ialah kurang permintaan pasaran disebabkan oleh kelebihan itu sendiri. Bagi memanfaatkan kelebihan yang ada, kita memerlukan medium penyampai. Pemasaran / promosi diri melalu media akan dapat banyak membantu. Kita tidak kekurangan bakat, cuma kurang saluran untuk mengetengahkannya.

    Satu langkah yang bijak dengan penggiat industri seni kreatif di Sabah saling bekerjasama dan membantu menaikkan industri tempatan.

    Impossible is just a words… YES! we can do it

    sokong kamurang …hehehe

  2. KL is industrialized with laws & enactments that spur & regulate the industry which comprise of associations, unions, bodies, media, corporate business entities etc. It has become a Trade Industry earning up to 35million (just for MACP).

    Here in Sabah, there is NO INDUSTRY nor fraternal bodies / organizations which fight for the rights of musicians : but nevertheless we can earn a good living in music. The lives of musicians will improve IF & WHEN musicians are ready to make a CHANGE.

    Q: Musicians in Sabah: Boleh cari makan kah?
    A: Yes. When they become Entrepreneurs. When they become professionals.

  3. It was a really interesting discussion that night. Idealists and realists speaking up.🙂

    Well, it’s hard but not impossible. Nothing pays without effort.

  4. Thanks for all the comments. I think Sabahans are known for being multi-talented, maybe it’s because of necessity that they learn a lot of instruments. Guitarist Sonny Bahari said in an earlier post about him: “In those days it was a plus if you could play every other instrument a four piece band would play. so I taught myself a bit of keyboards, a bit more bass, and drums.”

    This post is full of other people’s experience and knowledge, and I’m really happy that they were willing to share it.

    • Hello ‘Hidden Gem’ 😀. Keep creating, and I hope to meet the whole gang one day. Something about you guys captures everything we have been talking about – wanting to make good and beautiful things because it strengthens our spirit, not wanting to leave this wonderful place, not dreaming of millions – just wanting to be able to survive and create more, and of course – the music: melody, harmony, feeling, memory and tribute; in English, Malay, Dusun, and maybe even some sign language? Haha. It’s truly been an honour meeting you.

  5. Whether you admit it or not, music imbeds our daily life, weaving its beauty and emotion through our thoughts, activities and memories..so, stop cheating our listeners with just singing without composing…(panazzz2…hehehe…)

  6. Joanna, I will be releasing a malay song soon which I co-wrote and sang together with Baha Tungau aka Ateng aka Joannes. He is also a singer-songwriter and later I will let you listen to his songs if you haven’t. ^_^

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