Covid-19 Exclusives: Music-makers Left to Fend for Themselves Under MCO


MUSIC AND THE arts have always been a tricky national affair. It is recognised the world over as a symbol of a developed society capable of celebrating the finer things in life, yet their importance is always a subject of debate.

As an artiste myself, I am of the notion that life without art and music is truly not worth living. Excluding nature, the very design of everything we use and enjoy today are the results of artistic engineering. The songs that give life to media, and the tunes that hype our events, exercise routines and drives are all the result of the labour of love of musicians.

And so, the thought strikes me as strange when something so universally appreciated is neglected, and those who form the backbone of the creative industries are quickly forgotten, especially after we have just survived the Movement Control Order (MCO). The nature of state policies and the lack of initiatives serve to reinforce this opinion; the consultancy and research firm Media Partners Asia reported an average of 60% increase in streaming services in Southeast Asia alone during the crisis. With more people staying indoors, music consumption has actually increased.

But after three months, the local music industry is facing a very serious problem. Local musicians depend on live performances for their income, but if there are no performance venues available, what then is to become of them? Many are tired of waiting and many more have already left the industry. Some have seen success in reinventing themselves, others not so much.

Prem Raj, a local talent from Penang was not spared. He faced a triple threat; in pre-MCO days, he could be seen singing, drumming and even emceeing. With his work routine suddenly disrupted, Prem has had to search for alternative income sources. He tried being a Grab driver, and then with his savings and with support from friends and family, he set up a burger joint. When asked if he would return to music after things got better, he promptly replies, “No, I really don’t think so.” You can’t blame the man. He had handled the situation so far, putting his family first and sacrificing his passion for them.

Others took their talents online to conduct virtual music classes. Although group and ensemble classes were quickly disallowed, these musicians managed to make do. Siva, a drummer and music educator who graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia, was fortunate in that he never fully relied on live performances for his monthly income. However, this did not mean he escaped unscathed. “I have been taking up photography more seriously in the hope that it could become another stream of income,” he explains, adding that though he tries to be optimistic, he misses being on stage.

Prem Raj.

Hazel Leong is a full-time performer and singer who is popular in the KL circuit.

Hazel Leong, a full-time performer and singer who is popular in the KL circuit, wonders if things will get better soon. “I don’t even feel like being in the mood to be creative. It’s frustrating because nothing seems to be concrete and everyone is just left hanging,” she says with a sigh.

Musicians and artistes aren’t the only ones feeling the brunt of the policies that have been implemented. The music industry encompasses a wide range of professions from lighting riggers, sound and events crew – and venue suppliers.

Many venues are just managing to hold on. “It has already damaged me to such a degree that I thought D’Loovi’s would be a goner. More than half my crowd expect live music,” says owner Kelvin D’Loovi. The restaurant also doubles as a watering hole of sorts for the local music community.

PenangPac, Penang’s vanguard venue is not exempted either. I am involved in the industry, and used to run the IndiePg concerts at a capacity of over 200 pax, but due to the MCO SOPs, this has been reduced to an audience of 33. The number is barely enough to breakeven a full-fledged production even with full attendance, unless the tickets are priced uneconomically.

“Uncertainty” may be the keyword here, but it is unlikely that the community will be resting on its laurels. Various associations have rallied together to help mitigate financial difficulties within the community. Persatuan Pemuzik Pulau Pinang has been organising fundraisers, and successfully collected some funds to help the less fortunate musicians. This commendable initiative is ongoing. Recently, I attended a show and noted that even comedians have taken to fundraising to keep their venue open.

Malaysia may have a ministerial portfolio created for the sector, but in the end, it is sadly up to NGOs and individual artistes to keep things going. For example, at a time when basic needs are not met, the minister’s department recently shockingly organised a singing competition to reward winners with a holiday within Malaysia.

No concrete reform or project in support of musicians have been announced so far, and one has to wonder if there will be any economic cushioning for the local music industry at all. Venues are still prohibited from hosting musicians, even though most have already returned to full operation. Musicians who have left the industry may or may not return.

There are good reasons for the authorities to look into the matter seriously. In these critical times, we may need music more than ever before to get by and to keep sane.

Siva ventures into the realm of photography to supplement his income.

Proficient in multiple creative disciplines, Kelvyn Yeang is a musician by night and media content creator by day. When he is not writing, designing, or creating, Kelvyn wanders the streets of George Town in search of a good story and a cup of coffee.

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