Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 22 February 2014
Glam rock stalwart Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about the ups and downs of life as a celebrity and the toll piracy is taking on musician’s livelihoods.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on two solo albums, both of which will be released this year. One album will be similar to what my fans are used to, while the other will be a little bit different – you could call it an underground, new alternative to my music. I don’t have a title for that album yet, but it will be released after Thingyan [the Burmese New Year in April].
I’m working on the other album with the Lazy Club band and the album will be more like my last album, Damsel in Distress [released in August 2012] – it will have a mix of ballads, pop, rock and retro.
All songs on both albums will have original lyrics.
You’re often compared with Lady Gaga – how do you feel about that?
I was performing before Lady Gaga became famous but I think people say this because my sister designs my outlandish, glam rock outfits – she kind of tests me as to whether I have the guts to wear them! But I am a poor girl from a third world country so I dare not compare myself with her.
How much of a problem is piracy for you and the entire music industry?
Myanmar’s music industry is breaking down as a result of the uncontrollable piracy. Let me start with an example of how rampant it is – my best selling album took two or three years to sell just 10,000 copies – and that’s among a population of 60 million people. The amount of official CDs I sold is about the size of a single township’s population, but I believe that more than a million copies of my album sold were pirated versions.
Piracy is a big business and there is no rule of law to control it. It provides jobs for poor people, selling pirated CDs, and most are unaware that it’s a crime. But it’s also a big business for the rich people who own the factories that make the pirated CDS. Due to the fact that an official album costs $2 while it’s possible to buy three pirated albums for $1, musicians here have to make their money from live performances.
The Myanmar Music Association (MMA), of which I am the general secretary, is campaigning for tougher laws against piracy. But we’re not the authoritative organisation to actually bring about change. Under current laws, the penalty is either a one or two month prison term or a fine of no more than US$200 or $300. Of course the criminals opt to pay the compensation because it’s such a small amount. The big guys in the piracy business can make about $10,000 a day – that amounts to millions over a year. Plus there’s a lot of bribery and corruption – we get threatening phone calls and the judges are bribed. They will even bribe our own lawyers!
Can musicians make money from royalties?
The first radio station that signed a contract to pay musicians royalties was in 2008, and in December last year, City FM was the last station to come onboard. We had to meet with them many times to get them to agree to pay us royalties.
What’s the payment per song?
[Laughs] It’s a 600 kyat. And most of the time, it works out to be about 100 kyat per person, because we split the money in various percentages among the vocalist, musicians, composers, the producer, and the sound engineer. For a solo song, I’ll get a little more than 100 kyat, but if it’s a duet it will be around 50, 60 or 70 kyat.
In Thailand, the amount paid is fairly similar, but Thailand has so many more radio stations than Myanmar, which only has seven. We don’t have local stations, so the situation for musicians here is very different in terms of the money we can make from royalty payments. But things are better now in general because the MMA is made up of elected members. Prior to 2011, there were some musicians who were members, but they had to fight a lot with the members who were from the government or ministry. The government appointed the MMA members and often discussions would just come to an end with, “You have to do this or that – and don’t complain.” So the musicians belonging to the MMA were quite powerless to support us.
Were you affected by censorship?
Yes, of course. I was often told to change my lyrics. There was one song I performed called “Phensidyl” [a stimulant cough syrup containing codeine that’s produced in Myanmar and illegal in some countries] that is actually against the drug, and it’s also a love song. It was created by a legendary composer, but the censorship committee seemed to have an allergic reaction to the mere mention of the word “phensidyl.” They asked me to change the words and I didn’t want to, but I had to for the official recording. The composer had passed away by then, so one of his best pupils changed it for me. Then in 2010, just before the elections and the democratic reforms, one of my concerts was aired on a state-run TV channel. Before I sang the song live on air I pleaded to be allowed to sing the original lyrics. Although they didn’t exactly say yes, they didn’t cut transmission and I’ve been allowed to sing the original lyrics ever since. Even my plea was aired.
Does the media in Myanmar give celebrities enough privacy?
Yes, very much so. We have no paparazzi here in Myanmar and sometimes the media actually covers up drug scandals or what not from the public. Of course, people want to know about the lives of celebrities, but it’s possible for us to choose how much information we give to the public. And I don’t have much to lie about anyway [laughs].
Do you feel that success is tied to flaunting good looks?
I always try to look beautiful within the local cultural context. I don’t reveal too much – it’s just not my style. Being sexy in Myanmar is different from say, America. Take Shakira – she used to be a simple girl singing in her own language but when she went to America they sexualised everything about here. Here it just doesn’t sell. But that said, there’s some pretty revealing outfits among Myanmar’s hip hop scene!
Do you have any issues when you’re in public?
I hear a lot of “Oh my Gods” every day, but that’s okay for me. It’s become normal and I’m used to it. Even when I’m not wearing makeup, people still recognise me and follow me around. Sometimes I’m not even able to shop because people are asking for autographs and pictures, and of course I have to allow them. It’s a combination of boys and girls – and sometimes even really, really young kids!!
Have you thought of going out with a disguise – such as by wearing sunglasses?
No one wears sunglasses in Myanmar so that wouldn’t work. [laughs]
Have you had any stalkers?
Yeah I have. I was in Mandalay last year and was meant to be taken to a concert venue from my hotel. The hotel told me to go down and get in the car, so off I went with my makeup crew. By the time we reached the venue I realised it wasn’t the same chauffer that had driven me on other occasions because he clearly had no idea where to drop me off when we arrived. He was meant to take to me via a secret route so that I could get inside. It turned out that he was a creepy fan, but he wasn’t trying to harm me. But the concert organisers were shocked and security came as soon as I called them on my mobile and grabbed me out of the car. That’s been the only incident in my 10 year career.
You’ve said that your Christian faith is an important part of your identity, and you’re also a successful businesswoman, having achieved so much during your decade long career. Where do you see yourself headed from here?
It’s funny, you know – people call me a “doctor-singer” because I’m a qualified doctor, and when I release music clips, I’m an “actress-singer” – even though I’m not at all into acting. When I sing different styles of music, I come to know that I have different types of Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein inside me. There are a lot of other parts that I don’t even understand yet. I think I might be at the beginning of an underground, alternate version of myself as a musician.