By Azzief Khaliq. Photos by Azzief Khaliq and Aqqashah.
Spend a decent amount of time in the Malaysian independent music scene and you’ll probably hear more than a few people, be it venue owners, musicians or gig organisers, complain about there not being enough people coming to shows. And it’s a justified complaint: for every well-attended show at a venue like Findars or Live Fact you’ll probably get five (if not more) where there are barely enough people to make the air-conditioning work up a metaphorical sweat.
On balance, there are probably enough well-attended shows to make up for the ones with only five paying attendees, but it’s obviously not quite, how shall we say, optimal. This isn’t a new problem and it’s definitely not something that’s going to be solved with one measly opinion piece. But allow us to put forth a few points regardless.
At the risk of stating the obvious, dedicated live music venues, unless they happen to have a strong alternative source of income, have to rely on shows to help pay the bills, whether it’s in terms of taking a cut at the door, a rental fee, beverage sales, or some other arrangement. FINDARS over on Jalan Panggung, for example, sells beer and takes a cut of the ticket sales.
The issue with having to rely on shows as the main way to stay afloat, though, is that oftentimes it falls on the venue operators themselves, or associated organisers, to keep putting on shows on a regular basis. And since it becomes almost an obligation, this can lead to shows having very similar, unadventurous lineups one after the other. The occasional interesting lineup is balanced out by far too many shows with lineups that we can see coming a mile away.
We’re sure that a lot of you have heard someone say that they can catch a band “next time”. You’ve probably even said it yourselves. It’s true; there’s almost always a “next time”, especially when you consider that a lot of bands here in KL don’t really evolve that much from show to show and it’s sometimes a struggle to hear bands play any new material. Seeing a band play the same exact songs at shows barely a week or two apart from each other is a great way to build up consumer apathy.
But at the same time, nobody wants to put on shows that people won’t come to, and since scraping enough money from ticket sales to keep the venue running and pay the bands is a pretty important thing, lesser-known bands that could possibly break the monotony can (and do) get passed over in favour of any combination of: a) flavours of the month, b) safe, regularly-gigging bands, or c) bands that the organisers know personally. None of this means that they’re bad bands, but it does lead to a distressing lack of variety given the pretty small pool of bands to choose from.
But does trying to bring through new bands and inject some more variety ever really pay off? Debatable, and not something we can really get to the bottom of here. It’s not hard to see that a large part of the gig-going demographic is well off enough to have an almost free choice when it comes to entertainment. Shows aren’t super cheap, nor should they be, so live music here in Malaysia will never be able to “win” any sort of value war if you want to look at it from a purely economic sense. And when you have a bunch of bands that nobody recognises, well, it’s pretty easy to decide to go watch a movie instead of taking a chance on something new.
It’s actually worth considering the possibility that we have too many venues for the number of regularly-gigging bands and the size of the gig-going fanbase that we have in KL. It’s probably preferable to not having enough venues, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that having independent venues all scrapping for their own little slice of the pie isn’t the best thing for the ecosystem as a whole, especially when it isn’t a very big pie to start with.
Where does all of this leave us, though? Honestly, right now, nowhere in particular. We were never really going to get to the bottom of anything here, since there’s just so many factors that come into play, many of which we don’t really have the space to discuss right now, such as the old chestnut of audience awareness or lack thereof.
It’s also possible that that this is all just a matter of perspective, that things aren’t that bad and we’re just coming from a detached, slightly jaded position off to the side. You could even probably make a reasonable case for this actually not being a problem at all, and that this is just how things should be.
Yeah, we might be, and things may indeed not be all that bad, but you know what? Just because things aren’t that bad doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be better. Whether they can actually get any better, though…
Azzief Khaliq mostly spends his days thinking about, buying or listening to music. He used to play music too, but finds that it’s something he’s not all that interested in doing anymore. You can find him on social media, although he may or may not approve your friend requests.