(06/5/11) Article - Paper on Thai Music Industry

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by L.S. The Great Marduk.

Thanks for the help to those who pmed me. I finally finished this paper and I have one more to go. I thought that I might share the paper with ya'll here since it relates to Thai stuff. If you do decide to read this, know that 1) The paper is mostly impressions that I made of the Thai music industry (in other words, my own opinions) 2) Artists like P'Bird is still going strong and I know that. He just didn't fit my main idea so I um...omitted him. Oops.

Also, feel free to input your opinions on the Thai music industry here. I'd love to hear your thoughts. But since I have already turned in this paper, I won't be adding to it.


The Thai music industry has enjoyed certain liberties that few other Southeast Asian countries can claim. By contrast, Laos and Khmer music have historically been tied into the folk culture and have hardly deviated. Malay and Filipino music is heavily influenced by their respective dominant religions – Islam and Catholicism. And the music of certain countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, and Singapore (although to a lesser extent) remained closely watched by their government. Thai music is what it is today because of its strong ties to the United States during the second half of the 20th century. And yet while it is heavily influenced by American music, a unique system has emerged within the music and entertainment industry that is clearly distinctive from that in America. This paper will give an overview of the Thai music industry as it evolved from an imitation of western music into a culture that is distinctively Thai. As such, it will compare the way in which Americans view their music artists versus how the Thais cultivate their artist and music industry.

The direction of the Thai music industry had largely been directed by the music preferences among the young people of the Gen X generation. These were the people that grew up during the turbulent time of the Cold War as it was played out in Southeast Asia. As a result of Thailand aligning itself early on with the United States in its war on communism, Thai youths came to heavily favor American style music as it was played over the airways. The American culture was dominant in Thailand at the time and most of the music played and sold there were American rock songs. With most of the Americans leaving Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, Thailand began to carve its own musical identity that showcased its own native talents yet was still reminiscent of the American style

The ethno-political situation in Thailand

Thailand was never colonized by Western powers, yet it was heavily influenced by European and American music. Its unique position of being relatively free allowed the country to selectively decide what it absorbed. This allowed the art and music scene to cultivate naturally without the pressure of conformation or the resentment of forced adoption of western values. The official religion of Thailand is Theravada Buddhism, which is not a particularly restrictive religion. This contrasts greatly with other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where their respective religions restricted what the country can imitate from the Western World. With its unique position, the stage was set for Thailand to determine its own future in regards to the direction of their music industry.

Along with the rest of Southeast Asia, Thailand was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. Unlike most of Southeast Asia though, Thailand developed a close relationship with the United States after the defeat of Japan in 1945. As a result, Thailand was a major ally of the United States during the Vietnam War. This close relationship promoted a cross-cultural exchange that was much more robust and came about earlier than with other Southeast Asian countries. Before the 1960s, jazz dominated Thai popular music. By the 1960s though, Western rock replaced the position of jazz and Thai popular artists imitated Western rock bands.

The establishment of an indigenous music industry

The 70s saw a rise in the use of Thai language in rock music. Before then, most of the rock music was just imitations of American rock songs. With the war still raging on in Indochina and Thailand increasingly succumbing to globalization, a rise of protest songs called pleng phua cheewit (songs for life) also came about during this time. While the pleng phua cheewit movement criticized Thailand’s alignment with Western societies (most notably America) and its lost of national identity, it is a little ironic that the music itself borrowed its stylistic aspect from American music like the Eagles and The Rolling Stones. One of the most notable bands of the movement was Caravan.

While the musical style of Caravan harks back to protest songs of Buffalo Springfield, The Rolling Stones, Six Feet Under, and others, it became a symbol of Thai music through its nationalistic messages. There was a growing sentiment among the people, particularly local farmers, that Thailand was no longer theirs and that it was succumbing to Western influences both politically and culturally. The pleng phua cheewit movement jolted the country into calling for popular music that was inherently theirs. Since then, a music industry has emerged as a result of numerous factors.

Before Thailand’s Copyright Act became law in 1979, “the small recording business was concentrated on two aspects: the sale of imported records and the manufacture of popular, mainly Lukthoong music, and classical records (Siriyuvasak).” The problem after the passing of the Copyright Act was that imported records became too expensive for Thailand’s youths to enjoy. This reason, along with the coming of cassette technology, turned Thais away from imported music and forced them to establish their own popular music. The result was that lukthoong music became popularized throughout the country instead of just in the countryside and major music companies were established within Thailand.

The birth of GMM Grammy and RS Promotion

The establishment of the Thai music industry saw the birth of two major music companies – GMM Grammy and RS Promotion. GMM Grammy was established in 1983 by two legendary pioneers of Thai music: Paiboon Damrongchaitham and Rewat Buddhinan. Rewat Buddhinan was actually one of the few who started using Thai melodies with Westernized rock music. RS Promotion was founded much earlier as Rose Sound Ltd. by Kriengkai Chetchotisak. Its original purpose was to help developing artists record music in its studio. It was not until 1992 when the company was renamed R.S. Promotion that it played a major role in the Thai music industry through its music, media, and television departments. While music companies may see limited roles in western societies, in Thailand RS and Grammy (for short) play a larger role in the entertainment industry than its western counterparts.

These two music companies represented a new era in Thai music entertainment. The country was no longer just composed of local artists who had their own small group of fans. With the advent of cassettes and the distribution power of these two companies, the country could now have national music stars. This is especially important because aside from the King of Thailand and other major politicians, there were no national faces before. There was hardly a film industry at the time and radio was still the major media outlet despite television having been invented for decades. The radios played mostly foreign music so there were no national Thai music stars. So when the opportunity finally came for there to be a national music scene with Thai artists, an explosion of Thai music occurred. One of the first types of music that took the national stage was pleng luktoong, or country style music. Before, this type of music was usually limited to whichever village the artist lived in. Soon after the founding of Grammy and RS though, a few good artists of pleng luktoong were able to spread their music throughout Thailand.

The problem with pleng luktoong was that the music identified mostly with the peasantry, the urban poor, and the lower middle classes. It did provide the country with music that was inherently Thai, but it did not elicit the same excitement like Western rock and pop music. Thus, an attempt was made to create Thai music that was an imitation of westernized rock and pop music. The result was a new genre called String, which comprised the mainstream of Thai popular music. It may seem a little oxymoronic but the result was that for the first time, Thailand had its own modern music industry. Taking a cue from the pleng phua cheewit songs of the 70s from groups like Caravan, Grammy led the way in using Thai melodies with rock music in the 80s. The result was that Thai people started composing and listening to their own music instead of just being fans of American or European music.

The emerging music industry was furthered along by the Japanese Stock Market Crash of 1989. Its result was a huge decline in the market economy of Japan and other Asian nations. The Government then encouraged its people to “buy Thai” in order to help the situation. Fans responded by turning to popular Thai music. The subsequent recovery from the crash and the new demand for indigenous Thai music pushed the two music companies to look for new music stars. It was a critical period in the development of the Thai music industry. While talent was valued, it was much more important to find artists that would appeal to the general public. Perhaps it is a statement about the modernization of Thailand, but the artists that appealed the most were attractive western looking people. This eliminated the pleng luktoong crowd, and teenie bopper artists like Bird Thongchai, Nat Myria, and Tao Somchai emerged. The interesting consequence was that most of these artists were rich people to begin with who were educated outside of Thailand. In fact, artists like Nat Myria were only half Thai and looked less Thai than Anglo. This trend of having celebrities that look more farung (white) than Thai would continue to this day.

Thai entertainment industry in the 20th century

The modern Thai music industry revolves around the two music companies Grammy and RS. In the 1990s, the two companies essentially monopolized the market. Then they did something that went beyond what other music companies of other countries did – they dominated the country’s entire entertainment industry. From music, they branched out into television. Then they bought up radio stations to play their music and television stations to broadcast their shows. What one company did, the other had to do to follow suit. To find talent to feed their entertainment business, they establish schools to train celebrities.

The last concept is very different from what occurs in Western countries. For the most part, it seems that anyone with talent has a chance of becoming a star in countries like America or England. In those countries, music companies are there to serve the artist. Music companies still do a lot for their clients but it seems that they would not exist without the artists. In western societies, they make or break depending on who they sign. In Thailand however, there seems to be a reversal. The music companies are the established regime. It does not really matter who they sign. Their school system allows them to decide who they feel would fit the mold of what they want.

The music school itself is an interesting concept. It is like a private school that offers classes in singing, acting, and social skills. The costs for these schools are also significant and the competition to get in is very fierce. However, once a person gets in, he or she is pretty much guaranteed to eventually become a star. With the cost required for the schooling though, only rich adolescents are allowed the opportunity. Thus, ordinary people rarely get the chance as compared to western societies. The competition also focuses quite a bit on physical appearance. The school wants attractive people, which is understandable for an industry that creates celebrities. However, in western societies, there are people who make it big based on talents alone. It is rare to see that happen in Thailand. Another physical attribute that they highly value is also how farung you look. Those who are half farang usually stand a better chance of attaining stardom.

Once someone completes the music school, their next step is to release their first album. Depending on how well the album does, the artist then has a chance of entering the music companies’ film department. Thailand has television shows called lakorns, which are somewhere between a sitcom, a drama, and a miniseries. They follow a certain recipe plot-wise and the show does not stay on the air very long even if it has good ratings. There is a scheduled beginning and end. Most lakorns are only 15-20 episodes long and each episode is about an hour. Thus, the turnover rates on these shows are high, and music artists-turned-actors are recycled constantly. This allows fresh faces to always be in the industry and it keeps the music school going.

Thai artists usually do not have everlasting fame because of the ways they are treated. Their music is usually constructed by the music companies and there is not much room for flexibility. Thus, most of the music sounds very similar and it usually depends on what the general public wants. In contrast, American artists have more freedom in what they want their music to become. There is still the generic music that goes along with the current trends, but at least American artists can usually decide to change their music if they want to (ie. Jewel, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers). Because the music companies have so much say in what goes on, they usually write the songs themselves and the artists are just an extension of the company, not the other way around.

While Thai artists are limited in how they can express themselves, the music industry has been free to experiment. The result was a formula for Thai music that is somewhere in between American rock and pop, C-Pop (Chinese), and J-Pop (Japanese). What started off as an imitation of American music have deviated into something that is in a way, inherently Thai. Just like their lakorns, Thai music follows a certain recipe that focuses more on the image than the music itself. Their system for developing these artists is also unique and one that seems to work for their society. Their journey from countrystyle pleng lukthoong to imitations of Western rock bands and finally to “String” music in its current form have helped define Thai music. As the 21st century starts, being a nuk rong Thai (Thai musician) has stretched to encompass a certain image where one rolls out a decent album, stars in a couple of lakorns, and then fades away for the next generation of singers. In that way, Thai music has come to define its own genre.

Reference Cited

1. Clewley, John. Songs for Living. 2000. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books.

2. Siriyuvasak, Ubonrat. Commercialising the Sound of the People: Pleng Luktoong and the Thai Pop Music Industry. Popular Music, Vol 9, No. 1 (Jan 1990)

3. Ho, Wai-Chung. A Cross-cultural Study of Preferences for Popular Music Among Hong Kong and Thailand Youths. http://www.immi.se/intercultural/nr7/waichung.htm . 4/19/2006

4. Uabumrungjit, Chalida. Coming of Age of New Thai Cinema. Thai Film Foundation, 01/01/04

5. RS Promotion Company Profile. http://www.set.or.th/set/companyinfo.do?ty...ofile&symbol=RS Accessed: 05/02/06

6. GMM Grammy History http://grammy.co.th/en/ourbusiness.html Accessed: 05/02/06

I've decided to protect this page since it is a personal essay and should not be edited for corrections. --Darvil 23:20, 27 June 2006 (CDT)

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