Burma’s Pop Music Industry: An interview with Heather MacLachlan

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 22 February 2014

Heather MacLachlan
Heather MacLachlan

Heather MacLachlan is an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Dayton in Ohio, United States and the author of Burma’s Pop Music Industry – the first book to be written about Myanmar’s pop scene. She talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about some of her most interesting findings, as well as what’s changed since her book was published in 2011.

What triggered your interest in Burmese pop music?
I first came to Yangon to conduct research on a traditional form of Karen poetry and song. However that tradition no longer exists in Yangon – all the Karen singers I met were involved in pop music – so I decided to study the pop music industry instead. Scholars are always under pressure to publish “original research,” that is, to write about something that no one else has written about before. So it was partly a strategic choice, because no other scholars had written any serious, book-length, English language study of Burmese pop. I came to know a lot of people in the industry, and they have been incredibly kind to me and I consider them my friends. So I became deeply interested in their issues and wanted to represent them accurately and respectfully.

Did you find anything unique about Burma’s pop music scene and in what ways is it distinct from say, the American pop scene?
Yes, the differences are something I discuss at length in my book. The Burmese pop scene is structured very differently, as are the concepts of a band, a composer, a producer and so forth. While I was conducting research from 2007 to 2009, there were no record labels – at least not in the US sense of the word. Crucially, the “Big Four” oligarchic recording companies (EMI, Universal, Sony, Warner) have no presence in Burma. There is no Billboard Magazine, which calculates album sales and the like, and there aren’t any organized fan clubs – and so on…
Secondly, Burmese pop musicians have rather different perspectives and value systems. In the United States, “selling out” is a terrible insult – good artists are supposed to value “originality” and “independence” above all else. But in Burma, commercial success is an index of artistic quality, and it is an honourable thing to closely imitate excellent (which translates to “commercial successful”) sounds.

Has pop always been political in Burma, in terms of musicians trying to convey a message through their lyrics?

“Political” is such a nebulous term and it’s debated by pop music scholars along the lines of “What is political?” or “Is it ever possible for pop music to challenge power structures?” What I would say is that Burmese pop musicians do label some songs as “political” and others as not so. So-called “political songs” were banned before 2010, so they were rarely heard. Musicians now claim that it’s easier to record such songs, but from what I can tell, there’s not a ton of explicitly political songs being created.
How would you describe Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein’s place among Burma’s pop music industry?

She is a major figure. She has made many recordings which have sold well and – as I understand – commands a high fee for live performances. She has also performed abroad for the Burmese diaspora communities in other countries [such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom].

She is also the first democratically elected General Secretary of the Myanmar Musicians Association. She would not have been elected to this position if members of the MMA (which is dominated by pop music industry people) didn’t broadly support her.

How did censorship impact the creative process for musicians and do you think it will take some time for there to be a creative blossom

Burma's Pop Music Industry
Burma’s Pop Music Industry

ing of sorts?

Musicians tended to adopt one or more of four strategies in response to censorship: submission, defiance, subversion or avoidance. It’s important to remember that musicians see themselves as autonomous agents, and strongly assert that even if they had to pay bribes or change their lyrics, they still take pride in their artistic product (that is to say, the music wasn’t written just to please the censors.) Chapter 5 of my book is devoted to this topic.

However the whole idea of “creativity” needs to be questioned: What constitutes creativity? All artists, across all fields, work with pre-existing tools and ideas. In pop music, for example, we talk about “licks” and “beats.” So my question to you would be: Why assume Burmese pop musicians are not creative? How much of their work would have to be “original” (which is another problematic word) for it to be considered “creative”?

My book discusses three examples of fusion, which is music that deliberately includes elements of international pop sounds and Maha Gita [Burmese classical music]. Ethnomusicologists, like journalists, tend to focus on fusion genres, seeing these as more “creative.” There wasn’t a lot of fusion work happening when I wrote the book – there may be more now. However one thing is certain: censorship was not the reason why fusion was uncommon. In fact, government functionaries sometimes required pop songs to include the sounds of local instruments and what not, in songs commissioned for government purposes.

Some reports in the media have claimed that until as recently as the 1990s, it was difficult for people inside Myanmar to obtain Western CDs. If this is correct, how could the “copy” industry have come about?

Prior to 2010, Burma was less of a closed country than is popularly supposed. Musicians cultivated contacts with foreign ambassadors, sailors and the like, and these people brought LPs and later cassette tapes, into the country. That’s how recordings could be copied. I describe this in more detail in Chapter 4 of my book.

The distribution industry was also well-developed in Yangon by the 21st century, when high-speed computers became available in Yangon. Distribution companies hired staff to fly to Bangkok or Tokyo and to spend a week buying mostly English-language CDs. They flew back to Burma with these CDs in their suitcases. The distributors would then burn copies of the CDs, photocopy the cover art, and print dozens or hundreds of copies. These copied CDs were sold legally, in retail stores like [Citymart]. This wasn’t considered piracy, as the term “piracy” referred to a different phenomenon, in which criminals made illegal copies of Burmese albums and sold them on the sidewalk or on the black market.

What impact do you think the lifting of censorship has had on the Burma’s pop music industry?

I’ve recently given a couple of papers on this and I’ve stated that musicians are cautiously optimistic about the new freedoms. They are glad they can record “political” songs, although they are mostly not doing this… They are in the business to please fans, after all – and fans want to hear love songs, as they always have. There is a fair amount of concern that the new freedoms will be abused and the MMA, under Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein’s leadership, is trying to deal with this. Some are worried that uncensored recordings will promote socially destructive messages (such as smoking or prostitution) or that which is racist (especially against Muslims). So the MMA has come up with a couple of different schemes, essentially making it a kind of replacement for the old government censors. As can be imagined, a significant number of musicians don’t want to cooperate with this.

Has Myanmar’s pop scene undergone significant change since your book was published in 2011?

Yes – musicians are dealing with new payment structures (such as the royalties to be paid by radio stations), new understandings of intellectual property and copyright (which affects their opinion of the viability of copy thachin), the new market of the Burmese diaspora, and new non-Burmese players in the industry (especially Westerners who are promoting new bands on the international stage) – to name just a few off the top of my head. None of this is in my book, so even though it’s very current by scholarly standards, it’s in fact a kind of historical study. Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein has said she wants to publish a Burmese-language version of Burma’s Pop Music Industry because it will provide “a history of our industry.” She’s right – although that wasn’t my intention!

Click here to buy Burma’s Pop Music Industry on Amazon

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