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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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Myanmar’s Lady Gaga: An exclusive interview with Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 22 February 2014

Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein on stage
Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein on stage

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.

She takes a good selfie!
She takes a good selfie!

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!

Glam alert!
Glam alert!

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.

Never a dull moment...
Never a dull moment…

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!

She leaves so many star-struck
She leaves so many star-struck

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.

Queen of the one-piece
Queen of the one-piece

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.