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How Much do Malaysian Musicians Actually Make?

We speak to some hardworking Malaysians to reveal the truth behind the glamorous industry they just can’t deny.

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How Much do Malaysian Musicians Actually Make?
"Aiya, where can make money doing music in Malaysia."

From a young age, Asian children are given two choices: you either become a working professional, or become a disappointment to the family. We're not sure if children these days are raised on different beliefs but that was the way for many of us reading this right now. With all that forewarning from our elders, you'd think no one would make music in Malaysia. Well, we spoke to full-time musicians who have laid it all on the line in pursuit of their dreams and asked them just how much can you actually earn as a musician here? Turns out, it's higher, and lower than you think.

For each of these musos we've broken down their income over the last three months (September, October, and November 2016) and given an average range of what they can earn through different avenues. Understand that your Ringgit mileage will vary depending on the type of music you play, the venue, the organisers, and many more. Invariably though, the advice that everyone kept telling us is that you need to make friends in the industry if you're going to have any chance in the market and that success doesn't exist in a bubble. To understand our breakdown, "Corporate" will refer to all large organised events, be it festivals, private events, or branded events. "Gigs" refers to intimate shows in bars, cafes, and lounges. "Voice Work" may refer to voice over jobs, radio commercials, and roles where their voices, instead of their singing, is used to put money on the table. 

We spoke to Brendan De Cruz first, a solo performer who has been doing music full time for the past three months: 

Brendan De Cruz, 27

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Image: Rojak Daily

"As long as you don't panic. Can-lah."

Brendan is probably the most connected musician on the list. He graduated with a Media Technology degree in 2012 but never fully realised his education. Living on odd jobs as a videographer and performer, he eventually settled down at local gig-haunt, Merdekarya, and worked there for awhile taking care of the bar as well as the audio engineering during live performances. He continued to dabble in the odd gig here and there before quitting his job in Merdekarya to focus 100% on his music in August. His EP titled Even So was 100% self-funded and is a collection of six songs. 

He is a self-taught musician who picked up the guitar when he was 17 years old. Influenced by his brother and father, who were both musicians in bands, he developed his skills with the help of his family. When we asked who he attributed his folk/pop sounds to, he told us a story about an audition he did for a General Manager of a hotel: "I played for 40 minutes for him. And it was a small room, you can probably fit a maximum of 15 people in there. And the general manager said to me, you know, you don't need to shout, I'm the only one here, I can hear you." After the audition, he transposed all of his songs to a lower key and the result is the folksy, Hozier-meets-James-Bay sound that you hear in his album. 

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Image: Rojak Daily
Weddings and corporate events are his bread and butter for now – not only for him, as you'll find later – while gigs and album sales provide connection with the community of musicians and some "extra money for him to eat" as Brendan says. These figures were extracted from the last three months and each month has had a different mix of these incomes. He talked about money he receives from his plays on Spotify but he says that they are negligible. He says that for every 1,000 plays you maybe get 80 cents. He's also subscribed to a service that promotes his music on platforms like iTunes and SoundCloud, but he hasn't seen any rewards in his PayPal account. "Some months you bring in enough to stay above the water, and some months you drown a bit." He says that if you're feeling overwhelmed, don't panic. You just never know when your break is coming; keep playing music. 

Support your local music scene:
Facebook @ Brendan
Spotify Even So EP

Rozella, 32


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Image: Rojak Daily

"Growing up in an Asian family you never think of music as a career option."

The Kota Kinabalu native came to Kuala Lumpur three years ago, leaving her job behind after a short sabbatical from work. She had had enough of "clocking in and clocking out" and music was her release. Coming to the Peninsular having a little training with the organ, Rozella had to make contacts the old fashion way. She attended every live show there was at the time. "I had to keep going out, making friends. Whatever gigs there were, I made it a point to go out." It wasn't long before she transitioned from spectator to participant at open mics with her band. Specialising in electro-pop music, Rozella had only started pursuing music three years ago. Her big break came in August this year when her friends persuaded her to join Tiger Jams, a music competition with a grand-prize of RM15,000 and the chance to have their music remixed by Scottish synthpop band, CHRVCHES.

Winning the competition took grit, ingenuity, and a little fate. She had started the hashtag #TeamRozella where she got other artists to contribute their own interpretations of her song, "Dark Side". The result of the campaign was a collection of poetry, art, and cover versions of her song, among others. The next two steps to the top required a little bit of fate as her electro-pop sound mixed well with her mentor Darren Ashley, and was just what the doctor ordered for synthpop band CHRVCHES. "Home to You" was the result of the collaboration between Darren Ashley, Rozella, and CHRVCHES. With the money she gained from the competition, she upgraded the equipment her band used for live shows and she's set aside the rest of that money to produce her first EP.

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Image: Rojak Daily
Being an electro-pop band, weddings are almost never an option for her but like many other musicians, corporate events offer the most returns. In her case, she has to split whatever she earns with her band mates. Although this has its drawbacks, having a full band at your side is good for booking larger shows for bigger crowds. Having released her single and hooking airplays, Rozella signed up for the MACP or Music Authors' Copyright Protection license in Malaysia. The license guarantees that she will receive royalties for the amount of times her music is used, be it on the radio, etc., but she doesn't know exactly how much she will receive until the end of the year. The license is free, but the amount of paperwork is a killer. Being from publishing, Rozella also supplements her full-time musician gig with her writing and she also does voice over work for commercials. The pay for V/O depends on many factors and is one of the many tools she has as a musician earning money in Malaysia. Some of her band mates are also part-time music teachers and have flexible sources of income.

Support your local music scene:
Facebook @ Rozella
www.RozellaMusic.com

Lea Ismail, 26

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Image: Rojak Daily

"I always had the thought that 'One day, I'll have a job and I'll do music on the side' ."

From obscurity on the streets as a busker to a signed artist with a record label, Lea Ismail is the poster child for old school determination and hard work. Lea is an absolute fire-cracker in person and has a magnetic personality that easily pulls you in. Perhaps it's a skill she picked up from always trying to grab people's attention on the street as a busker. Lea found her calling singing for money only three years ago when she couldn't even play an instrument. She had started singing for her friends who were buskers in the heart of KL and eventually picked up a guitar to do it on her own. She's busked in and around Bukit Bintang, Penang, Malacca, and Johor Bahru. After completing her studies in Hospitality, Lea found a pocket of three months in her schedule before her next job in the hotel business. Three months turned into three years of full time busking.

She credits her father for her chosen genre of music: soul with a reggae influence. She was brought up on Zainal Abidin, The Beatles, Sheila Majid, and Bob Marley. This unusual mixture fuelled the covers that she sang while busking and informs her choices in the kinds of original music she produces today. "This kind of music fits me like a glove. It makes me feel the most honest." She was signed to a record company after a friend of hers invited her to sing at a music event he threw for fun. Her friend invited managers and music labels and after her performance, three record labels approached her. She chose one and that was that. 

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Image: Rojak Daily
Being around buskers, she's been exposed to quite a number of music industry talents. Her connections have landed her writing opportunities for jingles as well as backing vocal work and voice over work. She's done vocal recordings for other artists and you might have heard her voice dubbed over some cartoons. She admits that she doesn't busk anymore and focuses more on corporate shows and bigger gigs. We asked her about the benefits of being signed to a label and she says that the money for shows were much higher while she was signed. A label can manage the booking of shows and they're able to provide higher paying jobs. Creatively though, your ideas and what your label thinks you should do may not always coincide. A label's job is to tap into the market and sell a sound that people want to listen to and you will have to decide for yourself if you can accept their vision for your music. 

Support your local music scene:
Facebook @ Lea Ismail
Spotify her single Langkah Baru

Nita and Mbek Firdaus, 24

Image: Rojak Daily
Street buskers Nita and Mbek have been busking full-time for the past four years. They are friends with Lea Ismail and know the lay of the land well. Mbek is an accomplished guitarist that hails from Terengganu and sings while Nita provides percussions and sings as well. They mostly perform together but sometimes they find an odd gig here and there apart from one another. They tell us that it's the rainy season right now and busking is difficult. In these seasons, Mbek has a permanent gig at a cafe doing three sets a night for 45 minutes during each set. It pays between RM100 and RM200 per gig.

Mbek used to work at KLIA cleaning the planes for RM4.30 an hour and one night he tried singing on the streets in Nilai. After two hours, he got RM60 and he decided to quit his job. Nita on the other hand, worked as a barista in KL and was surrounded by buskers. Her interest in the art grew and four years later she hasn't stopped busking. 

"Some people think busking will bring them mainstream success but that's not the case," Mbek says. "Some of the newbies think it's glamorous," says Nita. A lot of factors play into their income and they agree that you get as much as you put into your art. Sometimes buskers are misunderstood as beggers and they've had to fight the stereotype. They've also had to fight with newbies who are looking for fame on the streets and they reveal that the amount of musicians busking "for fun" have increased recently. 

If any of their stories have sparked your interest to pursue a career in music, why not check out these five open mic nights in KL you can join? You might find these very musicians playing there and you can say "hi" to them for us. 
 
 
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