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Thursday, March 31, 2022

Brian Gomez's new single and the challenges of being a troubadour

Folk singer Brian Gomez has cut a new song entitled ‘Should I?’, and it’s a witty rumination on the challenges facing music makers in these troubled times.

Armed with nothing but a trusty guitar and some arty lighting, he sings: 

Should I go to work or should I take a nap,

And wait for the day they replace me with an app

All these hummed out rhymes, all these strummed out rhythms

Will soon be nothing but algorithms.

His latest song, while not directly about the challenges he has faced as the operator of Merdekarya - a live music restaurant in Petaling Jaya - does convey the frustrations of a singer-songwriter who is thwarted on a number of levels.

“The way I write songs, and anything I do artistically, is not about direct inspiration. I start off just trying out some chords and tunes, seeing what develops. 

“My views on things and my activism eventually found their way into my work, but it didn’t start off with the idea.

Singer-songwriter Brian Gomez

“I wrote the song probably two to three months ago and I think it’s about the struggle of growing old in this industry. 

“Music in the mainstream industry - the artist has a short shelf life, by the time you are 25 you could be on your way out. It’s also about how technology has changed things and the uncertainties that you face as a creative artist in this time,” he told Malaysiakini.

Gomez first opened Merdekarya a decade ago, but his quest to provide an affordable venue for local original music has been fraught with challenges.

The Covid-19 challenge

His book ‘Devil’s Place’ (2008) and album ‘Gun Inside My Brain’ (2012) are examples of his creativity, but fewer and fewer people are buying original music and since the pandemic took root in 2020 and live music has been largely off-limits.

Does he ever feel tempted to chuck it all in - quit writing, recording and performing music, and close down Merdekarya?

“Never the first three, that never really crossed my mind. Merdekarya has been a very big challenge though.

“Even pre-MCO we knew it was tough, but maybe overestimated our ability to deal with it. On a bad day, we tell ourselves we have to carry on because we have dug such a deep hole already,” he said.

According to Gomez, the good days are not even about financial rewards.

“It’s most gratifying when a new band comes to play and catches on, the audience response is great to see. We play 100 percent local grassroots on our speakers, even having people react to that is great. 

“Those moments make it seem like it’s worthwhile carrying on doing what you do but it does need to become sustainable at some point. 

“What we are hoping for is that when we restart properly during the endemic phase there will be a lot more people looking for something new.”

‘Confusing’ rules

Gomez said that the rules on live music thus far have really been very confusing. 

“The National Security Council (NSC) seemed to be against bars and pubs, but there were loopholes allowing buskers to play.

“What happened with us was that we made sure we crossed all our ‘T’s and dotted all the ‘I’s, got all the paperwork done and submitted it. But the local council didn't seem to know what to do.

“Until a month ago, everything was a mess but the NSC took bars and pubs off the prohibited list on April 1, so theoretically we are back, but now we have a problem with the licence.

“We are appealing for a full-year’s licence exemption for RM3,600 in tax and RM4,700 in licence fees for the times when we were open but could not allow live music,” he said.

He also addressed another issue that cropped up in recent times saying there was a dispute as to whether or not establishments such as Merdekarya needed a licence to play music on its speakers. However, the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) had just issued a statement denying that it ever made such a claim.

Increased costs

Another trend is as the scene awakens from its long-dormant period, a number of music clubs and shows that are going ahead seem to be much more expensive than before.

“Yes, significantly. it might be because of social distancing - the crowd size is significantly reduced. Many of these places also run as F&B outlets and the price of food has gone up like crazy in the last six months. That is likely affecting things as well.

“We tried to do a membership drive - RM20 all access - to keep prices down. In principle, we need a balance - fair wages for the artists while at the same time the price must not make the music inaccessible to its audience.

“We need to get to the point where supply and demand match as it is unlikely that someone will pay RM30 to hear a band that they have never heard before.

“It needs to become cultural in the way that coffee and burger joints became cultural,” he said.

Gomez said it was the F&B side of things that kept Merdekarya afloat for the last two years. 

“When the first MCO started, we knew it was going to be totally closed and 18 months was our guess, so we tried to up our game on the F&B side. 

“So much so that 70 percent of our customers had no idea that we are more than just an F&B joint.

“Sometimes we would give diners brief tours of the unused stage area like it was a museum relic. I hope those days will be over soon.” - Mkini

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