Penang in the 90s. Independent music had just exploded onto the scene and the air was electric with Nirvana and Metallica.
“Every other kid had an electric guitar and the secondary schools were littered with rock bands. It was the coolest thing to play music and be influenced by the culture of the day. We did not have a lot of shows, but we did have many bands scrambling for shows,” says Kelvyn Yeang, guitar maestro and founder of Indie Penang (IndiePG) Festival, a platform for local songwriters and musicians to showcase their original music outside the usual creativitylimiting mainstream venues.
“Indie music” is a recently popularised term. “Back in the 80s and 90s, ‘underground music’ was the word to use and when we attended a gig, it was called an ‘underground show’. Live music then was very different from what it is today. Bands performing commercial music were few and far between, and we definitely did not have the now two-piece acoustic duo singing cover songs in cafes. In fact, most hotels only had Filipino bands and that was basically the only live music we had back then.
Indie music pretty much means original music that is funded and written by likeminded individuals.
Live houses were scarce for rock bands, and gigs were organised under the radar and often without a permit. “We’d go to a bar or a pub and ask the owner if we could use the space for a show. The set-up was very garage, very DIY-like. We’d bring the instruments and the crowd, and from the ticket sales, a certain percentage would be given to the owner and the rest distributed among the bands.
“Everybody talked about getting themselves under a record label because that seemed like the only way a band could fund a record – if we played enough shows and had a strong following, the higher the chances are for a recording exec to spot us. And mind you, rates for recording were steep because very few people were doing it. The cheapest you could find was about RM150 an hour and we were only school-going kids then. A record deal was the only way to market our music.”
Home recordings today boast phenomenally better results, says Yeang. “Musicians can mix, master and make music on their own now and because of that, they’ve become independent artistes. That’s a big shift. It also means we’re no longer at the transitional point; we were ‘underground’, but now we’re ‘indie’.
“I guess during that in-between period, it was easier because bands were coming up and musicians were getting more known. There was a little bit of interest and curiosity there, but now, everybody is on the far right and making their own music. It has become very saturated and poses a different kind of problem. Today, people can listen to music at home so they no longer feel compelled to go for live shows and pay for the music. You can pretty much have access to your favourite bands online. Back when most indie musicians had few recordings in-between, you needed to either watch them live to experience them or get a hold of their CDs because there weren’t any streaming platforms available."
IndiePG as a Rite of Passage
The brainchild of blues veteran Dr Raghbir Singh, master sound engineer Engbok, music equipment and training company Samwise and Yeang himself, IndiePG started off as a humble festival in 2013 but soon grew into an event that became a pilgrimage for independent musicians, both within and without Penang, to immerse in the “festival/tour” rite of passage that many amateur and budding artistes rarely have the chance to experience.
“Everybody who plays indie music works very hard – to want to do your own music and play for an audience takes a lot of courage and dedication,” says Yeang. But even so, the allure of indie music isn’t very strong: “I think the genre is more of a passion project; it’s really an uphill climb. Maybe indie music has not reached its full potential yet. I’m unsure if Penang is going to move into a golden age where indie music will become a big thing.
“The general perception about indie music is that it’s noisy, but it’s so much more than that. Indie music pretty much means original music that is funded and written by likeminded individuals. We do way more genres than just metal or ‘noisy’ music.”
Every other kid had an electric guitar and the secondary schools were littered with rock bands. It was the coolest thing to play music and be influenced by the culture of the day. We did not have a lot of shows, but we did have many bands scrambling for shows.
It is important to put up an accessible platform for these musicians to showcase their music and expose what they are doing to a wider and more varied audience, says Yeang. “The festival has created opportunities that allow Penang musicians to experience music outside of Penang and vice versa. But just as important, we want to promote our local indie bands.
Indie music pretty much means original music that is funded and written by like-minded individuals.
“We have plenty of good talent, but there is an unfortunate saying that ‘Penang bands mostly stop at the bridge’. Very rarely do they travel to KL to play, and this could be for a variety of reasons. Logistics is one of them: to make a trip down to KL, most of the time the bands don’t make money. It’s either a break-even or they’re probably going to lose money, especially when you’re talking about indie music – most venues are not going to pay you a lot and some are only going to pay you based on the cut of who comes to your shows.
“I like to think that IndiePG has given these bands value in their journey. I have musicians telling me that the festival has become a bucket list for them, and that makes me very happy.”
As the genre is niche, attracting sponsors for IndiePG is rather difficult. “There are so many other things that you could sponsor which could translate faster and easier. That said, we do have sponsors that have been with us since day one such as Roland Asia Pacific and LBS Music World because they believe in what we’re doing.”
We have plenty of good talent, but there is an unfortunate saying that ‘Penang bands mostly stop at the bridge’. Very rarely do they travel to KL to play, and this could be for a variety of reasons. Logistics is one of them: to make a trip down to KL, most of the time the bands don’t make money.
A team of five is usually needed to put together the festival. “Individually, each of us will handle a section and we can get it up and done pretty fast. But of course, we need a lot of manpower during the event itself, i.e. volunteers to set up the stage, to run the security and logistics. We’ve been in partnership with penangpac to host IndiePG at the performing arts centre, so venue-wise, it has taken a lot of the guesswork away.”
To add a different dimension to the festival, IndiePG also hosts free-for-all workshops featuring notable speakers, including Music Biz 101 by Jennifer Thompson, Indie Music as a Career by Orita Sinclair and Metal vs. Jazz Drumming by Fariz Azmi and Tett Lim. “We have demonstrations, from teaching people how to play an instrument to learning about the business side of music. We want to give some value to the festival-goers in hopes that they will embrace original music with an open mind.”