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LETTER | How to support the M'sian arts ecosystem in a time of Covid-19

LETTER | Most recently, my friend and long-term musical collaborator, Ashwin Gobinath, wrote an impassioned reflection and testament to the importance of the arts in our daily lives.

In a nutshell, the arts are essential in its contribution to the creative expressions of humanity. Imagine all the countless hours we have spent, peacefully, indoors during this unprecedented global pandemic, watching movies, TV series, perusing photos and illustrations on Instagram, enjoying dance videos on Tik Tok and avidly listening to music on Spotify.

As a parent, the arts play an important role in helping me care for my four-year-old. Children’s screened entertainment, alongside enriching activities such as drawing, colouring, painting and crafting make for the many artistic elements of my daughter's daily life in this period of Covid-19 quarantine.

Likewise, after a long day of work-from-home inundated with screaming and crying kids (we also have an eight-month-old baby boy), my wife watches her favourite docu-series on Netflix while I listen to my favourite 1980s Malay tunes on YouTube. A much-needed ritual for winding down the day. The arts bring balance and even normalcy to our lives now upturned due to the current global pandemic.

Yet, as Ashwin has highlighted earlier, there seems to be worrying signs of the state of understanding and support from both the government and the Malaysian public for local arts.

With that in mind, I hope to provide an outline of how the arts survive and thrive within a creative and economic ecosystem. I then highlight a recent initiative by the Malaysian government that is promising. Finally, building on this initiative, I will present some ideas on how the government can effectively support the arts, while also considering the challenges of the "new normal" that will complicate the previous practices of Malaysian artists for earning a living.

The answer for me lies in the development of the arts through digital content.

Support the arts, support its ecosystem

The arts, much like a living organism or modern industry, operates, survives and thrives within a specific ecosystem. If we take the example of the music industry, its ecosystem is reliant on a host of players such as record companies, promoters, publishers, venues, studios, events/festival organisers, online streaming platforms, government bodies, educational institutions, producers, audiences/consumers and of course, artists. And thus, when one aspect of this ecosystem is "malnourished", other components will be equally disadvantaged.

Let’s say my daughter chooses to be a full-time singer-songwriter by the time she's a young adult. She obtains a diploma in music and starts composing her own songs. She then records some of her original songs at Uncle Ash’s recording studio. However, she can’t earn any significant income from this if her recorded songs aren’t published and distributed on online streaming platforms. It would also help to be promoted to an events organiser who can get her on a concert or festival.

However, what if she receives a government scholarship for a degree in Arts Management? She would attain the skills to manage and promote her music. But in this age of digital and visual content, the best way to get her music across a wider audience is through a professionally-produced music video (and not just using her camera-phone). She may need to access a video production company and also additional funds to script, shoot, direct and edit her video content.

Last year, my band, Nadir (led by Ashwin), was very fortunate to receive sponsorship from professional video production house Casa Ferdestro. We recorded a live video of our single “Nafas” at Bsync Productions in Seputeh, Kuala Lumpur. Within a day the video was shot and ready for editing. Using a team of professionals with high-end video equipment, this five-minute video would normally cost RM30,000. But not everyone has opportunities like this.

So, unless the hypothetical singer-songwriter mentioned earlier has these kinds of opportunities, she may have to stick to her camera-phone for her music videos. This, in turn, creates a public perception of local music lacking in quality, when in fact, all that was needed was some funding to produce some high-quality digital content.

I’m not insinuating that Malaysian artists can’t produce quality artistic content with limited resources. The funding required varies depending on the artist and the art form. Speaking from the perspective of a musician in an eight-piece band, I can tell you that any form of financial support would help the arts in Malaysia soar to greater heights both locally and abroad. Henceforth, here are some precedents and recommendations for empowering our arts ecosystem in a time of Covid-19.

Empower artists to create digital content

The Malaysian government, in particular the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, should be applauded for their recent programme, #MuzikDariRumah, which sponsors a total of 136 local artists and groups on the Muzik Malaysia YouTube channel. The programme features daily releases of mini-concerts recorded by a wide range of artists from their homes. Nadir was fortunate to be included and stepped up to the challenge to record five songs for the program. One of the criteria for this programme was to cover at least two songs by other Malaysian artists. Such programs must be continued.

As musicians approach the new normal, their regular sources of income, namely live performances, will be greatly reduced or even non-existent due to social distancing measures that prohibit large gatherings such as hotel banquets, concerts and festivals.

Thus, artists must now adapt their art to digital content creation. However, the means to make money through these platforms are challenging and usually dependent on a high volume of followers, subscribers and viewing hours. Corporate sponsorship or government funding would greatly help artists in promoting and producing high-quality content.

If music is starting to receive support, what of the other arts? Similar programmes like the one above need to be implemented for other performing arts such as dance, theatre and comedy. In fact, all these performing arts are deeply intertwined and compatible with each other.

For instance, stand-up comedian Prakash Daniel frequently emcees live performances for Nadir. Digital content programmes can combine different forms of performing arts. These can be recorded by individual artists from their homes/studios and presented as a collaborative form of entertainment. In short, the possibilities for flourishing the arts through digital streams, screens and speakers are endless and indeed, exciting.

Videography, photography, visual design and visual art are important in the professional and creative delivery of performing arts content. Professionally edited videos, accompanied by striking visuals will enhance the media consumer's experience of digital content produced by Malaysian artists. This is what the arts ecosystem is all about.

The immediate recommendation here is for all related government agencies in Malaysia that pertain to and intersect with the arts, such as the Ministry of Arts and Tourism, The Ministry of Communications and Multimedia and Cendana (The Cultural Economy Development Agency), to start talking clearly with each other.

These agencies need to engage with a diverse range of representatives from the arts community. Cendana is already approaching their arts funding with creative ecosystems and digital content in mind with their very recent Create Now Funding Programme in light of the nationwide lockdown. This is encouraging and there should be more funding provided to such programmes.

In developing well-planned and effective funding mechanisms, such agencies must engage with all aspects and players of the diverse and dynamic Malaysian arts ecosystem. This is especially needed to allow local videographers, comedians, dancers, designers, illustrators, actors, photographers and musicians to provide much needed high-quality and inspiring entertainment for Malaysians, if not the global community, who are confined to fighting this pandemic from their homes and through their digital devices.

ADIL JOHAN is an academician and musician.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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