Tag Archives: copy songs myanmar

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

The path less travelled: An interview with Darko C. from Side Effect

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 9 January 2014

Darko C.
Darko C.

Side Effect’s vocalist and lyricist Darko C. talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about Myanmar’s fledgling indie music scene and the ongoing challenges he faces as a musician.

When was Side Effect formed and when did you first become interested in being a musician?

I started the band back in 2004 and we currently have four members – myself as vocalist and on guitar, Tser Htoo on drums, Eaiddhi on guitar and Hein Lwin on bass.

I learned to play acoustic guitar when I was in seventh grade, which was a very typical thing to do. I think almost every Burmese boy can play guitar. When I was a kid I used to listen to local rock music – it was all cover songs and I loved them, but when I grew up and started to listen to bands from Europe and America I started to notice there was a difference, that original compositions are much more important than covers.

When you make music it’s real. There’s passion. A cover singer might sing a song in the same way as the original but there’s always something missing because they didn’t write the lyrics. What I love about music is that it’s an art form – you can do whatever you want. I could write a song with just one, two or three cords but it doesn’t mean that song isn’t as good as those from the West. I found that I loved writing songs, though I wrote many shitty ones in the beginning.

Another thing is that when you say that you’re in a band in Myanmar, people have this picture in their minds of a group of musicians who perform for a singer. “Ok, who is the singer?” they’ll ask. That’s because musicians are usually hired on a one-off basis to perform for the singer. But the bands I love are a group that plays its own songs in own its style. But this is what makes it’s so hard for Side Effect to be recognised locally.

Side Effect played at the same concert as Franz Ferdinand in Malaysia – surely you’re being modest?

No, we really aren’t well known in Myanmar. Among expats, we are – the other day I was at a hair salon and the guy working there said, “Oh yeah, Side Effect – they’re the band that’s popular with foreigners.” But if you ask most locals, they wouldn’t have heard of us. I think that only those who don’t like popular Myanmar music would probably like Side Effect. That’s why Citymart doesn’t sell our CDs – because we’re not best sellers.

We’re not stupid, but we’ve been very stubborn about not following other’s paths. We’re doing things differently – trying to be a real band by only performing original songs, no matter what. Of course we’re happy if people appreciate our music but we don’t mind if people don’t like us. It’s the music we love and we’re expressing ourselves the way we want to as artists. My friends with successful bands told me to make the sort of music that people want to hear and then I’ll be free to do whatever I want once I’m famous. But for me, respect is more important than popularity or fame. I always tell people not just what Side Effect is doing but what we’re not doing. That’s important too.

What’s an example of a song that wasn’t popular among mainstream music fans?

Well politics in general isn’t popular. Songs can be happy, sad or even angry, but people simply aren’t used to political songs, to songs with a message. People think it’s dirty – there’s a perception that music and art should be pure.

We have a song with English lyrics called Meikhtila, which is about the violence that happened there. The first line – which just came to me in English, is “Look what you’ve done.” That was a message to those who started the violence and spread religious hatred.

Anyway, before we played the song at a gig at Tamwe Bowling Alley, I explained to the Burmese crowd what it was about and why we don’t hate people just because of their religion – but that we hate people who are bad and racist, no matter what religion they are. The next day, I saw on Facebook that one of our fans had posted something on his wall like, “Side Effect said weird things last night that don’t connect with the music.” I was like, “What???” But we don’t care because we are trying to express ourselves.

Is it easier to express yourself now that censorship has been lifted?

Yes – getting our lyrics through the censorship board was difficult. I knew what kind of lyrics had been censored in the past, so when I was trying to write songs, I already knew what would happen. I was censoring myself.

It was very predictable in terms of what would and wouldn’t get through – most of the time. The most sensitive stuff was obviously political and swearing wasn’t allowed.

The trickiest rules were those which were meant to protect traditional Burmese values or society. I couldn’t write about something like smuggling, which is commonplace in our society. The government didn’t want a song that acknowledged that – everything had to be positive.

There’s a song on our next album which doesn’t have a fixed title yet, but it will be something like “New Outfit.” It’s about the feeling I get that nothing has really changed in terms of politics – just the outfits have. We can still smell the dictatorship.

"We can still smell the dictatorship."
“We can still smell the dictatorship.”

What other issues do you write songs about?

Apart from the current political situation, I mostly write about personal freedom. Young people are pushed into conformity, so I stand for the young people by saying, “Do what you want and don’t be afraid of being different.”  Being a free thinker isn’t yet appreciated in Myanmar.

I wrote another song called “Lonesome Yangon Blues” which is about the feeling we had living in Yangon – time passes really slowly here. You can’t do much during the day and you can’t make many plans… For example, trying to set up a concert is very unpredictable because you don’t know if you will get the permit. The process has actually become more complicated now and that’s a problem. It takes between two weeks to a month and you need to go to six different offices to arrange it, regardless of whether the concert is big or small.

Is there any way around that?

In the past we often chose to do free shows because they didn’t require a permit, unlike ticketed concerts. But now we have to get a permit for every type of performance so it’s very hard to make any money. When we played a free show at Kandawgyi Lake about nine months ago, I broke my foot on stage while jumping. My mind was kind of wild.

A permit costs about K200,000 and it’s not legal money. Getting permission from the township authority is the worst. An official there said to me that an extension was being built in the back, and asked if I wanted to make a donation. I said sure, and gave him K 20,000 and he said, “People normally pay K100,000.” I apologised and said I didn’t have that much and he told me to come back the next day with more money. He didn’t give me the papers I needed. The Myanmar Music Association isn’t really helping with this stuff – in fact we also have to pay them to set up a concert.

Tell us about your tour through Europe last July.

We played seven gigs in Denmark and Germany and recorded an album in France. In Berlin we played in front of 20,000 people and it was great – the crowd was dancing all through the sets. They didn’t know what we were singing about when we performed in Burmese, but they seemed to really enjoy our music. We even saw some of our fans in Berlin, who had come to our gig there in 2012!

The main reason we went was because Germany’s most famous punk band, Die Arzte, invited us to come and they arranged for a booking agency to pay for our flights and performances, which was amazing.

Our manager Daniel Gelfer arranged for us to extend the trip by playing more gigs – we played three in Denmark and four in Germany. We also spent six days recording eight songs from our upcoming album in Normandy, France. We recorded it in a studio called The Digital Factory, which is owned by the director of The Lady, Luc Besson. I met him when he came to Myanmar right after the film was released and he offered his studio to us free of charge. And he kept his promise, three years later.

What was the recording process like?

It was so different from recording in a studio in Myanmar – here, what you see is what you get in terms of the instruments available. We rely on studios to provide the instruments and equipment but there’s often no choice about the drums, guitars amplifiers and so forth. The instruments and amps are what defines the tone and sound of music, so ultimately things turn out differently from what we want to create.  Studios in Myanmar are also really small – often the studio is so small that the drums and guitar are played in separate rooms. In Normandy we were able to choose the exact equipment we wanted to use and it was really professional.

When will your third album be released and what will it be called?

We haven’t come up with a title for it yet – it was meant to be released early this year but it won’t be until around June. As we only had six days to record in France, we still need to record some extra back-up vocals. We’re also going to include three tracks played live in Berlin – so it will be an album made in France, Germany and Myanmar, which is great.