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Smells like indie spirit

Updated on 21 July 2009 at 5pm

IN his years spent organising independent music gigs, singer-songwriter Azmyl Yunor has learned many lessons. One of them is that ticket prices are not negotiable.

Azmyl on the challenges of the music industry (0:37)

Azmyl tells The Nut Graph he’s argued with concert goers who feel entitled to free admission. “You’d get people coming in saying, ‘Oh, we’re friends with so and so, we should get in free.’ I’d say, ‘If he’s your friend, you should pay, support [him]!'”

More and more people in Kuala Lumpur are opening up to music outside of mainstream record labels. But the more fringe the style of music, the more difficulty musicians have with cheapskate concertgoers, red tape around permits, and a revolving door of venues closing and opening.

There are also skirmishes with religious moralists to watch out for. But despite the challenges, which are formidable, more and more indie musicians are getting empowered to get their work out to the public.  

Izzy (Pic courtesy of Izzy Mohamed)
Acoustic singer-songwriter Izzy Mohamed says she’s seen a big improvement in the last five years. As more people get interested in music outside of the commercial mainstream, it gets easier to find places to play, she says.

“I guess it’s kind of like a trend,” she tells The Nut Graph. “Society, I guess they accept us more now, because it’s growing faster than ever.”

Izzy has played at No Black Tie, Alexis Bistro & Bar, and the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. The turnout depends on the event and who else is playing, but she draws between 30 and 200 people for her performances.

Venue troubles

Joe Kidd, who plays in punk band Carburetor Dung, has had to deal with a lot more headaches. In 2006, Joe Kidd opened Ricecooker — a music, merchandise and printing shop — at the Annexe of Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market. It was during the year that Central Market transformed the space formerly known as Central Square into the Annexe. It was a strategic move, because since the 1980s, Central Market has transformed into a hub for underground music.

Because of financial issues and disputes with management, however, Ricecooker got kicked out. For Joe Kidd, this was the end of an era.

“The whole idea of that space just kind of dissolved. The only thing that’s left is the art gallery, and that’s it. We had a lot of good stuff going. And personally for me, that’s a sad thing,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Joe Kidd is currently looking for a new home for Ricecooker after getting kicked out of a temporary space due to noise complaints. In the meantime, he says he’s concentrating on writing and regrouping. “It’s like a sabbatical or something,” he says.

Carburetor Dung. Spot Joe Kidd (Pic by Rizzie DDT)

Even if independent musicians didn’t have angry neighbours, and even police raids, to contend with, they would still have to deal with financial issues. By definition, small and independent acts draw smaller crowds than bands signed to major record labels. Azmyl says this means musicians rely on venue owners who are interested in promoting their music, not just making money.

Azmyl has helped to create one such space called the Studio in Cheras KL (SicKL). The studio hosts experimental and fringe acts that can’t find a home anywhere else. Concert tickets are sold by donation with no fixed price. But bands shouldn’t have to rely on studios that are hard to find and hold a limited number of people, Joe Kidd says.

“When there are no venues, the scene dies out. There’s always a lot of bands coming out, but they don’t last long, because there’s nowhere to play,” he says.

According to Azmyl, part of the problem is that people see music as entertainment, not art. This makes it hard to get sponsors and venue owners to understand the value of music created for reasons other than selling as many CDs as possible.

“People think, this [is] entertainment, why do I have to pay for it? There’s no pyrotechnics. There’s no stadium,” he says. “We’ve got a very skewed concept of culture.”

Saved by the internet

The internet has also been a mixed blessing for independent musicians. On the one hand, bands can promote themselves on social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook and network with their fans. On the other hand, free downloads eat away at CD sales.

Musicians can’t sell their CDs at the iTunes store unless they have a distributor, Izzy says. That means independent acts have to get creative and sell their work online by themselves.

Izzy, on international exposure (0:35)

But for networking with fans, the internet is a big improvement, she adds. “Most of us, we have nine-to-five jobs. We don’t really have time to do a lot of things. So the internet is the easiest way for us to connect with everyone else.”

Joe Kidd says in some ways, he thinks the internet has made fans less connected with the scene. In the past, people involved with the punk and do-it-yourself (DIY) subculture would make fanzines. These were homemade magazines about bands, politics, and whatever else they felt like writing about.

Because of blogs and social networking, zines have all but died out, Joe Kidd says. But that doesn’t mean the punk and DIY subcultures are dying out, he adds. It’s all over Malaysia, even if it’s a lot more underground in areas other than Kuala Lumpur.

(P)reaching to the unconverted

Joe Kidd’s band experienced an unlikely publicity boost when they played at a Pakatan Rakyat rally in July 2008. The rally ended with segments of the crowd throwing water bottles and storming the stage when the lead singer finished a song by turning around to show a few inches of his boxer shorts.

The incident generated a lot of discussion, Joe Kidd says. The violence was mostly attributed to PAS supporters, but some PAS leaders themselves came out in defence of his band’s criticism of corruption. Among them was PAS’s then vice-president Datuk Husam Musa.

Joe Kidd rejects the criticism that his band should have toned down the performance to cater to the audience at the rally. Carburetor Dung embraces any opportunity to expose new places and people to its message, he says.

Joe Kidd on the politics of punk (0:41)

“They’re not necessarily going to like it, but we play anyway. So many times we’ve got a lot of stuff to say, and it’s just going to the same people that we know. And I do believe people should hear what we are trying to say,” he says.

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2 Responses to “Smells like indie spirit”

  1. ThePandaHeadCurry says:

    Nice interview selection.

    Dung and Yunor are two acts that stand out in a fetid swamp of talentless indie wannabes and manufactured reality show mannequins.

  2. azizbuta says:

    SiCKL’s current blog is at

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