Started from the bottom.
Music is an essential part of our lives. We listen to songs on the way to work, at celebrations and ceremonies, when we work out, on good days and bad days. When there’s nothing to do, we toggle through Spotify playlists and browse music videos on Youtube. But what does it take to get your tracks into the ears and minds of Bangkok audiences? We tapped into the creative brains of local musicians to find out.
DO ARTISTS EVEN WANT THE LIMELIGHT?
You may have heard the name “Uncle Pol.” The independent singer and media phenom has blown up the Internet with his straight-faced dances, surprisingly decent country-style drawls—and because he’s suspected of murdering his own niece. Regardless of Uncle Pol’s fame being a very “Thailand-only” kind of thing, it seems like anyone and everyone can get their 15 minutes in the spotlight these days. Thank you, Internet.
But what does it take for artists in Thailand to really make it, assuming they don’t want to commit headline-attracting homicide? From one-hit wonders to industry legends, the natural assumption is that all artists dream of crowning the airwaves and gracing award ceremonies, and that getting there means being an endless font of creativity, producing all your own songs. So it seems.
When you’re switching between Bangkok’s two go-to international hits stations, it often feels like you’re listening to prefab songs formulated to be hits. Simple, catchy, and repetitive, but about as deep as a kiddy pool. That might make you wonder how much sway artists really have with their songwriting when major labels are involved. Viphurit Siritip, better known as Phum Viphurit, whose tracks like “Lover Boy” and “Hello, Anxiety” have reached American and European shores, has an idea.
“I think it’s quite clear to see which songs or artists are being promoted by bigger labels and record companies, so it’s not really a secret,” muses Phum, who has been signed by Rats Records since his university days. “I’d like to believe that the artists’ own creativity and authenticity has earned them those spots. [But] the music, the performance, the things that are most true about [you] are what makes people remember [you]. That is the true legacy, not how many billboards you can land your face on.”
Palitsorn “Pud” Saubhayana, a promising independent producer who has worked with the likes of GMM Grammy and White Music, agrees. “Artists are certainly getting a lot more say than they used to,” he says. “The label accepts artists more as who they are and tries to bring out the best in them rather than convert them into something they’re not.”
As refreshing as that may sound, it’s not only the music that matters nowadays. It’s also the marketability of the artists. “Take Blackpink, for example,” says Kraisab Boonchoo, or “Gus Boon,” an independent artist from the blooming indie hub of Rangsit, who recently released his first single, “Ucloud,” on Youtube and Spotify, a not especially lucrative way to release music, but one that increases the odds of going viral. “When you think of Blackpink, it’s the four women who spring to mind. It’s not really their songs. Not that it’s a bad thing, of course, but I don’t think they’ll stand the test of time, unlike The Beatles with hits like ‘Hey Jude’ or Oasis with ‘Wonderwall.’” says Gus. “Shoutout to Lisa for putting Thailand on the map, though.”
Not all artists are prepared for the limelight, the constant barrage of media and PR attention, that a group like Blackpink experiences when they hit it big.
“I absolutely despise that shit,” admits Fiendsh, an independent producer who dislikes fame so much that aims to hide his true identity, a la Daft Punk. The up-and-coming artist was discovered via Soundcloud, helping him get his first album, “To The End,” released on California-based record label Cold Busted. Now, he gets paid by the record label for every stream his songs notch on Spotify. “Social media is such a huge aspect of music. Some famous musicians are known more for their social media persona than the music. It’s all about the status… and this is what I hate the most. I just want to continue to make good music without having to worry about what other people think of me.”
OTHER WAYS TO MAKE IT IN MUSIC
Palitsorn “Pud” Saubhayana
Raised in a family of musicians and music lovers, Pud grew up with Eric Clapton, The Beatles, and Thai legends like Asanee Wasan and Bird Thongchai. When he started his own band in the sixth grade, he never looked back. “Being surrounded by my father, my mother, and my brothers, who all love music, it has always been a dream of mine, I guess.” he says.
Like Pud, Fiendsh had always loved music when he was young, but he didn’t know how to play any instruments and could barely sing on-key, he admits. However, he soon discovered other avenues, particularly the “back scene” of it. “I just never thought to myself, like, ‘Hey, mom, I want to be an artist.’ It wasn’t realistic for me, so I wanted to discover the technical aspect of music. That’s why I went to Chicago to study audio engineering,” he says.
Working as an independent producer has given Fiendsh the autonomy to work on whatever he wants, whenever he wants to do it, he says. Pud also underscores this personal and professional freedom as a unique perk in today’s Internet-fueled music industry. “It’s different from working with a label, where they give you specific tasks with specific deadlines and you have to work against the clock,” he says.
As a “behind-the-scenes guy,” Pud has also enjoyed a unique perspective of the way the industry works. In particular, he has been able to witness how top artists carry themselves and interact with the media. “As an artist, you’re in the spotlight, people recognize you,” says Pud. “The work itself [as a producer] isn’t that different. [But] it’s nice for me because I don’t have to go through the trouble of conducting myself in front of others. Also, working behind the scenes... you learn from the bigger guys. A lot of famous Thai artists like Atom Chanakan and Oat Pramote started out from behind the scenes, for example.”
This lifestyle can be unforgiving, though. There are many talented musicians out there who have not been discovered by labels or received recognition from the public. For some, the road to relative stardom can be too tough to continue.
“I guess [our] dreams were wilder when we were younger, you know,” mutters Gus with a pang of nostalgia. “Now, you have other things to worry about. The pandemic, the shitty economy, life responsibilities. There were days when I just didn’t want to grab my guitar.”
Even for Phum, who has become Asia’s fresh-faced indie posterboy, there were days when achieving the dream felt all too difficult. “You have those thoughts when you’re riding a bus or a van with your guitar between your legs to soundchecks,” he admits.
“Everybody gets into a rut sometimes, and things don’t meet your expectations, and you feel down,” Pud adds. “But it’s a part of what we do. Not everything is going to work out. You have to accept that not everyone’s going to be recognized. But if you love it, just grind through it, because in the end, it’s your passion.”
Fiendsh, being so unapologetically himself, doesn’t mind the struggle, however. In fact, he thinks it’s a blessing. “I’m happy with what I’m doing. I’d be way more miserable working an office job, even if I earned more [money]. That’s more stable, but you’re relying on someone else,” he says. “I was struggling to find cash just to eat for a better part of a year, but it didn’t matter as long as I was self-sufficient through my music.”
THE NEXT BEST THAI RECORD
Kraisab “Gus” Boonchoo
This begs the question: why keep battling when the odds of success are so slim? And how can you continue to be creative when success is so uncertain?
“I’m hungry. I’ve still yet to make it,” says Pud, who adds that creativity is a matter of putting himself in the right environment. “I like listening to different types of music. It gives me the drive. I also like to travel and talk to new people. A lot of the stories in my songs are from conversations I’ve had while drinking and talking to people. I’d like to believe that there’s a story for everyone.”
“You just have to open your mind a little bit. Even a luk thung song can inspire you,” adds Fiendsh.
For Gus, emotional support keeps him on the grind. “My girlfriend has been a big help. You need someone to tell you to believe in yourself if the voice inside your head is telling you negative things.”
But does every artist even want fame? Why bother making music if no one’s going to recognize you for it?
“Self-satisfaction always comes first. Fame is a bonus,” Gus says. “If you strive for fame, there are so many ways to [attain it]. Make a trap song. Heck, you can even become famous for murdering someone these days,” a blunt reference to aforementioned memelord Uncle Pol.
For Pud, wealth and status never drove his desire to break into the music business. “It was never about the red carpet stuff. I want people to recognize me for my music,” he says.
Even Phum, arguably Thailand’s top indie export to date, didn’t enter the industry to make it big. “It [music] was just a nice way to spend my spare time. If I made it, great, if I didn’t, that’s also chill, at least I got to pursue my hobby,” he says.
But he did make it, and maybe subverting expectations wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “It was euphoric at first, the rush of fame,” recalls Phum. “Then comes the anxiety, the changes and compromises you have to make as a working touring artist. Lastly, you’re just content, happy, and calm with all that’s happened and whatever will happen next.”
But for aspiring musicians out there—whether they’re like Gus, who’s just now dipping his toes in the waters, Pud or Fiendsh, who are working behind the scenes, or Phum, a rising star who feels lucky to be where he is now—the question remains: what can you do to be like them?
“Do what makes you sleep well at night. You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night thinking you’re shit,” says Gus emphatically. “Don’t be discouraged if things don’t turn out the way you expect them to be. Just do it, get it out there, and have fun. You’ll never know what happens in the future, so just keep pushing,” adds Pud, with a side of life-coaching. “You’re going to have a million reasons why it’s a bad idea to commit to [music as a career]. All the art that’s out there, it’s because of the people who are brave enough to do it, so start and commit to it. Be brave enough to put something out there,” declares a motivated Fiendsh.
In the end, music brings us joy as listeners, and it’s no different for creators, and so the obsession to create as an independent artist will always trump the desire to “make it.” As Phum says, “The moment you stop comparing yourself to other artists, or anyone in general, is the moment that you will find true joy in creating and sharing.”
How do you find new music to listen to nowadays?
Viranpat “Knight” Vongsawasdi, 25
Entrepreneur & quasi-professional drummer
“It’s easy to find new songs with a press of a button, but it’s hard to find new songs that are truly meaningful. Meeting new people is the greatest way to find good, new songs. Their stories make those songs even more interesting.”
Chalita “Kat” Borirakpanich, 25
Self-employed & indie music enthusiast
“I find that streaming platforms [like Youtube and Spotify] are great channels for discovering talented underground artists worldwide. I like how the algorithms and personalized playlists lead me to new subgenres I never knew existed.”
Chen-An “Owen” Wu, 24
Live guitarist for Phum Viphurit
“Most often, I take advantage of Youtube’s algorithm to browse for new music in the recommended section. Other times, I watch movies, TV series, or anime and look up the genres incorporated in them. I’ve also, surprisingly, discovered new music added to my playlist through viral memes.”