Archive for February, 2004


Friday, February 13th, 2004

By Matt Wright, OEBase

The phrase ‘not your average singer-songwriter’ long ago became journalistic cliche, but there still exist artists who genuinely qualify as such. Pete Teo is one of them. A gifted and fiercely independent singer-songwriter from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Teo’s latest album Rustic Living for Urbanites conveys poignant personal insights with a unique mix of traditional Malaysian and pan-global instruments and styles. But Teo’s vision extends beyond his own music to the state of Malaysian music in general. To that end, he founded and continues to present one the first songwriter’s showcases in his country to feature local Malaysian talent. He also writes damn good emails, which is why we asked him to share his unique experiences with our readers in an email interview. His responses were thought-provoking, articulate, and, well, pretty lengthy. We hope you enjoy this peek into the trials and tribulations of this talented and hard working independent musician.

We’re not in Portland anymore, folks!

Q: You’ve spent some time in the United States and Europe. How is the music scene in the West different than the Malaysian scene?

Big differences. Most of it springs from the fact that the market here is tiny. We have 20 million people, but the music market is divided into 4 major language segments (Malay, Chinese, Indian and English), each with vastly dissimilar attributes. As a result, very few industry players are able to attain scale economy. It also means fewer than 10 recording artists here are able to make a good living solely from music. Add this to the fact that Mariah Carey was paid millions to not make records, then you’d get the conclusion that Malaysia is very much a backwater of global popular music.

Another thing. The media domination of MTV and its ilk means that folks here often know more about music in Los Angeles or London than music in their own backyard. This in turn means that the local live music circuit is filled to the brim with kitschy bands playing kitschy top-40 covers. The scarcity of venues to play original material therefore makes it even harder for Malaysian musicians to depart from the cookie-cutter MTV sensibility than it is for their western counterparts.

Having said that, things are beginning to change. Lately, a few promoters and underground clubs have begun to promote local original music with encouraging results. Even major consumer brands are beginning to endorse emerging home grown acts now. For instance, Levi’s has just sponsored a compilation CD of local indie bands, and I played three Heineken-sponsored concerts at the end of November 2003. Such deals for Malaysian artists would not have been possible as recently as a few years ago. Much of this is owed to the emergence of a new independent scene, occupied by players who are a lot more aggressive than their predecessors, and in some ways, much more willing to share resources. With a little luck, things should continue to improve.

Q: What about the difference between music in Kuala Lumpur – the major metropolitan center – and the rest of Malaysia?

Popular music in Kuala Lumpur doesnít sound too different from popular music in major urban centers in the West. In fact, the US Top-40 (as well as Cantopop, J-pop and Taiwanese pop) is massively influential here – thus most local artists sound like the latest MTV sensations or their Asian equivalents. A few are trying to forge along with non-generic sounds, but not many – and those who try often come away bruised.

Things are more complex out in the countryside, where a strange and intoxicating mix of traditional and contemporary music tends to be the norm. In the Malay rural heartland states of Kelantan or Terengganu, for instance, popular music is a combination of traditional Malay music (e.g. gamelan, or dikir barat) and kitschy rock ballads (e.g. Scorpions or Gun N Roses). I once heard this traveling carnival band play Scorpions’s Winds Of Change with gamelan and electric guitars. It was cool beyond belief.

Q: Is Western mega-label popular music very popular in Malaysia? Do these labels have local subsidiaries and, if so, do these subsidiaries put out music from local musicians? Put another way, how do you feel about Britney Spears?

Apart from gratuitously citing her name in a lot of my writing, Britney doesn’t do much for me – but she is big to a lot of Malaysians. Not unlike Linkin Park really, who recently packed a 30,000 capacity stadium in Kuala Lumpur. I was told that it was the biggest gig they’ve ever played. Anyway, for some very strange reason, Scorpions is huge here too. So are boy-bands.

You would have gathered from the above that Western mega-labels are as dominant here as in the rest of the world. And they do put out music by local musicians, though such investments have drastically declined as record sales plummeted in recent years. I must say though, that putting out local music is one thing, successfully promoting local music is quite another. In spite of our small domestic market, and for reasons only known to themselves, these labels have never made more than sporadic efforts to export Malaysian music elsewhere. As a result, label returns for their investment in local music have tended to be pretty limited. And when piracy decimated the domestic market in the 90’s, re-investment into local music all but dried up. The industry is in a pretty fucked up state at present, I’m afraid.

Q: Your album was released independently of any label. Is there an alternative localized network of independent labels and musicians in Malaysia? Is it common for artists to take the independent approach?

The steady growth of the independent movement in both music recordings and live music has arguably been the only encouraging development in the Malaysian music scene lately. I’d also have to say that local independents have been responsible for much of the best work Malaysians have produced in recent years. This is particularly so for local English music, where independent artists have consistently won the ‘Best Local English Artist’ award at Malaysia’s version of the Grammies. However, most indie artists and labels struggle to survive because even modest commercial rewards are illusive. I guess this is not so different from the situation everywhere else.

Q: During the creation of your album you were approached by several regional labels. What prompted your decision to release the album on your own instead of working with one of these labels?

Well, there were lots of reasons. Chief amongst them was the fact that I was looking for a label that had suitable resources to help develop my career, as opposed to one with wide distribution power per se. Besides, going with a regional label does not necessarily mean that my record would be effectively distributed. By itself, the ability to place records into shops regionally means little without an accompanying strategy for inter-territory promotion and artist development. In the case of the labels that were interested in my work, I didn’t feel that they had the right vision. Put simply, they love the stuff but had little idea how to develop it other than in the most generic way. Let’s just say I didn’t think my weird little record could be marketed in the same way as Britney’s. Anyway, after waiting 12 months for the right deal to happen without success, I found private investors and went for it independently.

Q: You sing in English on the album. Were you afraid that this decision would alienate Malaysian listeners?

Not really. Malaysia is largely an English speaking country. Rather, the more pertinent worry was the common Malaysian public and media perception that local English acts are inferior to their foreign counterparts. I remember my Malaysian distributor label asking me if I would change my moniker to something less obviously local (‘Teo’ is a fairly common surname here). Reason? They didn’t want a manifestly local tag to get in the way of a potentially successful record. I resisted and held out in the end, convinced that it would be chicken-shit and wrong to be so spineless. Either way, it is not uncommon for Malaysian radio listeners to assume that I am a foreign act even now, after I’ve had a no.2 hit in the local charts. In a twisted way, such misperceptions can be flattering – but I also think it is not healthy to be so insecure.

Q: The spread of the English language and multinational major labels is a symptom of our increasingly globalized world. Do you feel that musicians have a responsibility to uphold local musical traditions, or should they feel free to embrace foreign influence?

I am conscious of the fact that it is fashionable to argue against the homogenizing effect of globalization. But the truth is, modern social life in all but the most isolated communities is an intractable mixture of both the modern and the traditional. In fact, to urban communities all over the world, the traditional can actually be more alien than the modern. Why?

Well, let’s have a look at a city like Kuala Lumpur – it is filled to the brim with imported cars, Big Mac, MTV, CNN, BBC, Shakira’s gyrating hips and other paraphernalia of modernity. Thus, one has to ask this – does a traditional tune about harvesting rice in the fields hold any relevance to modern urban existence? The answer is ‘no’, unless you happened to be a tourist. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that undiluted local music traditions is as alien to modern life in tropical Kuala Lumpur as Britney Spears, if not more so. Admittedly, if I were an ethnographer or anthropologist, it would be very cool to make records of those wonderful and noble traditional forms. But if I were to take my role as an artist seriously, my life-long conditioning as an urbanite would mean that it’d be artistically dishonest to express myself purely in that way. By doing so, I wouldn’t be regarded as anything other than an irrelevant curiosity, and justly so.

As such, much of my music constitutes an attempt to reflect my state of being culturally displaced, i.e. neither east nor west, neither truly modern nor truly traditional. And I am not alone in this preoccupation. A new generation of artists has emerged in this region not caged by the past nor barred from the future. These artists are as cosmopolitan as they are parochial, and as earnest as they are hard-edged. Few of them readily fit into the quaint image of Asian culture so prevalent in Western tourist brochures and trashy novels. Think of them as the bastard children of Wong Kar Wai, Ang Li, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. I believe you will see them break into the mainstream in the next decade. As a Chinese filmmaker friend is fond of saying – ‘we no longer live in Cathay’.

So, to answer your question, I don’t think the issue is one of upholding local music traditions or not. Rather, I believe the greater challenge is for artists to reflect in their work the conditions of their existence, whatever it may be.

Q: Do you feel that your music retains a particularly “Malaysian” character?

Rustic Living features a mixture of ethnic and contemporary instruments – from the Chinese erhu to the guitar, from the Indian harmonium to the Fender Fhodes. You’d also find in my lyrics the footprints of Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison right next to those of Chinese literary greats like Jin Rong and Lu Hsun. The stories themselves are very personal. As such, it is not really a culture-specific record. But insofar as Malaysia is a nation with both modern and traditional aspects mixed up in a weird cultural brew, my answer would be ‘yes, the album has a particular Malaysian character’. But that’s not really saying very much because most communities in the world are facing a time of rapid social change and cultural hybridization, not just Malaysia.

Q: What role does the Internet serve for you as an independent musician, particularly one operating outside of the Western world?

A huge amount of my work is done over the net – maintaining my website and mailing lists, keeping fans informed, dealing with publicity, organising gigs and co-ordinating album production. In fact, there is a rumour going around that I actually live on the net. I think it is not far from the truth. I’ve been a complete net addict for years.

Anyway, what I love about the net, apart from the sheer amount of information available, is the leverage it gives to someone with limited resources. I find absolutely astounding the fact that I can theoretically build a fan base anywhere on earth all by myself. Moreover, the possibility of applying little more than great ideas and hard work to beat the odds is amazingly inspiring. I don’t think I am gushing here (ok, I am), but as an independent musician working out of a small and isolated market like Malaysia, I’d have thrown in the towel a long time ago if not for the Internet.

Now, imagine trying to get your music ‘out there’ in an environment where very little independent infrastructure exists for exposing your music to local audiences, let alone foreign ones. That’s the place I’m in. So, if not for the Internet, I shudder to think how it much harder it would be to do this. As it is, the net is not only my principal tool for building a fan base at home, but it also allows me to make in-roads outside Malaysia. For instance, my 3 cities Japan Tour in September 2003 was organised by Japanese fans, many whom were introduced to my work via the net. I also got to play in New York a couple of years ago through promoter contacts made on the net. As said, I don’t think things would have happened for me in the way it did if not for the net.

And I’m gushing about it not because I move a lot of CDs online. I don’t – and I don’t think many people do – certainly not as a proportion of overall sales. Rather, I happen to think that the key to the net for an independent musician like me is – ‘networking’. By that I don’t mean ‘networking’ as in squeezing flesh and kissing babies. What I mean is that it allows me to build specific relationships with a wider community at a very nominal cost. As such, the principle condition that the net liberates me from is not so much bottlenecked distribution models or unfriendly gatekeepers; put simply, it liberates me from isolation.

Q: But isn’t the bottom line important to you? To keep making music, you’d need to sell your music. What does online music distribution mean to you as an independent musician?

Of course the bottom line is important. But I think that, for the time being, if independent musicians expect the net to be the panacea of all music distribution ills, then they’d be disappointed. I certainly don’t expect the net to deliver me from having to work hard at establishing traditional distribution and promotional channels. And I don’t expect that it’ll be realistic to think otherwise for many years yet. Rather, I look at the net as an extension of the traditional distribution model, and not necessarily as a substitute for it. Thus, beyond keeping myself abreast of latest developments and making sure that my music is available for online sale, I don’t really lose sleep over the issue of online distribution. On the other hand, this whole arena is changing so fast I’d probably change my position next week…

Q: So what’s next for you? Any tours planned?

The Japan Tour last year was amazing fun. I’d crawl my way back there next summer if I have to. I might be playing in Singapore in a couple of months. If the opportunity comes up, I’d also love to tour the States or Europe. I keep thinking that if I work hard enough, perhaps I’d get a chance to do that someday. For the moment, I’m busy trying to sort out distribution in Japan, USA and Europe for Rustic Living. I am also hoping to start working on the next album sometime mid-2004. As it is, I hear the sound for my next album in my head constantly. It’ll probably feature multi-lingual lyrical content, a new palette of sound colors, and be considerably less suicidal in narrative tone…

Less depressing? Now, that might be something that will alienate my fans! Anyway, I can’t wait to get cracking on it. May be I’ll go grovel in the general direction of Brian Eno and see if my luck holds.

Wish me luck.