Liyana Fizi answered most of my questions before I even got the chance to ask them. I’m not sure what this signifies – my strengths (or lack of) as an interviewer, the limit of my knowledge of music and the local music scene, or her shrewd and humble personality. Maybe all three.
Perhaps it’s my lack of involvement in any musical endeavour, let alone the local music scene, but I still often naively think local musicians can’t be making enough money to survive purely on their art alone. You’re either a struggling artist doing gigs on weekends after your workweek, or you’re Yuna, doing covers of Frank Ocean songs in some fancy international studio. And even when you’re Yuna (with all due respect to her and her work), you’re not yet, say, at the level of recognition of Beyonce (but really who is, other than Beyonce?) I guess looking at it as an outsider, I neglected to notice all the different possible definitions of “success” in the business of making music, and speaking to Liyana readjusted my lens.
We were all four of us – Liyana, myself, ISSUE editor Lutfi Hakim and ISSUE pal Lynam Matjeraie – cloistered in a corner of Artisan Roast in TTDI. We were there to talk about the music “scene”, the experience of being a local musician, and money. Liyana was patient enough to lead us or follow along on any one of our long-winded questions, generally warm and open in our meandering conversation.
Liyana started out as part of the three-piece band Estrella, which started in 2005, after her former lecturer Azmyl Yunor invited them to perform at a gig. She speaks of Estrella with nothing short of deep affection, talking fondly even of being flat out juggling full-time jobs even as the band kept growing and becoming more successful.
“We all had office jobs. We didn’t really have weekends, so the more famous the band got, the busier we were getting. I actually liked having something else to look forward to other than my job in corporate communications. To have something to look forward to – jamming, practice, performance – it was good for me.”
Four years after that first gig at La Bodega KL – “I remember the date, it was May 7th!” – her shift to solo artist came not so much from any turmoil from within the band itself but rather from a contractual hiccup with their label when the band’s initial contract ended in 2009. Parting ways with her band’s label taught her even more about the intricacies of fine print, about the potential sacrifices that come with signing contracts. Liyana was free to go, but her label retained ownership of the band’s name and all its uses.
“A very typical thing for people who have never seen a contract is that they think, ‘They’re not going to screw me over. Okay, I’ll sign it.’ There are a lot of clauses in there that say my band or my music is owned totally by them. They took my MySpace, my Facebook – those are communities that I had built for the band, but I gave them permission to [take them over] by signing the contract.”
Thankfully Liyana had laid down some groundwork that allowed her to retain ownership of the work she and her band produced. She is still allowed to sing Estrella’s songs, because she had signed herself up under Music Author’s Copyright Protection (MACP), which granted her author rights, and allowed her not just to perform her songs but to earn royalties from them. Her attitude towards the entire experience is a pragmatic one.
“If I didn’t go through all this stuff, I wouldn’t know about these things. It made me a driven person, like okay, it’s fine, keep the band name, and I’ll grow a fan base that’s bigger than the band. It’s something I had to put behind, but I still get to perform the songs, so I’m very happy about that.”
The work didn’t stop there, of course. How do you go from being in a band to being known just by your name, when people still thought that your name was “Estrella”?
Liyana was caught between being unable to use the band name everyone knew and recognised, and not having enough name recognition herself to have enough pull as a solo artist. “To re-brand as Liyana Fizi took me two years. Basically nobody wanted me. I couldn’t even get my name printed on the flyer. They said Liyana Fizi, nobody knows who that is. But you just have to keep doing it. I kept playing at free shows, charity shows, shopping malls, God knows what else.”
As with anything, patience paid off and over time, she started making a name for herself. She did “a lot of interviews” in those early days, and miraculously managed not to get sick of her own story. “I kept telling myself – I don’t think you should get tired of explaining. Because that’s how I transitioned, that’s the foundation of it.” The affection she has for her band and how she started comes through again as she tells us, “There was a time where people were like ‘Eh, don’t mention Estrella in front of Liyana, it’ll be insulting for her.’ No, I want people to remember me as part of Estrella! Because that was my baby.”
We started then to discuss the music scene, and what it was like having been a part of it for the years she’s been around. It was a funny push/pull, us cynics lobbing her question after question about the possibility of “making it” here as a musician, and making it in a way that ensured a good livelihood. Liyana displayed an unflagging belief in the diversity of everyone’s voices, style and talents, to the point where it made our cynicism seem naïve.
There’s a very popular narrative we have as a society about “chasing and achieving your dreams” and “doing what you love in life.” We asked her if she thought this was realistic for everyone, if there’s enough of the pie to go around to everyone who wanted to make a name for themselves as musicians and artists.
“It is. I really think it is. You can say that acts are the same genre-wise, like Liyana Fizi and Reza Salleh tu lebih kurang, but that’s not true, sounds and styles are different. Nobody has the same voice when they perform; when you come up with a song, nobody is going to come up with the same kind of song.”
Liyana also believed in the role of the scene in cultivating enough space for everyone who wants and earns it. “From the point of view of an independent musician, we push each other. We have a sense of community. You’ve got to celebrate diversity, instead of being competitive. You’re not going to get anywhere with that attitude.”
This assuredness translated not just in her belief in others – she spent some time asking about and encouraging all three of us to keep pursuing our own creative endeavours – but also in herself as an artist. One of Liyana’s mantras that reoccurred throughout our conversation was “Know what you want.”
“From the start I’ve already positioned how I want to be as an artist – which is somebody who uses [music] as expression. Also, I have a passion for travelling. I wanted to be a travelling musician, to be in festivals all over the world.” She stuck to that and has played in various countries, both as part of Estrella and on her own. Halfway through our interview, she swapped passport photos with her tour photographer for visas for an upcoming 10-day tour in China, starting on the 19th of April.
Her travels also brought her to Bandung where she recorded her debut album, Between the Lines. Here we got into some heavy numbers, unpacking the driving force behind her decision to record abroad: finances.
“The reason I recorded in Bandung was because of my limited resources. I asked around everywhere here [at various studios] and everything was too expensive for me, about 70 bucks an hour. Or a good studio would be 100 bucks an hour, 110 for a different room for specific instrument recordings, like the violin and piano. So I couldn’t afford that, especially since I wanted to do it properly; I didn’t want to do it like a live thing, I wanted to do it layer by layer.”
The math was brutal. She worked out that she might need about 10 hours per song, and added to that mastering and producing costs; she figured that one song would cost RM2,500. And she was aiming for 10 songs. “I didn’t have that kind of cash,” she shrugged.
Providence came in the form of a gig with Volkswagen, a road show from Penang to Johor that paid a very good amount of money. After kicking in some of her own savings, she found she had enough money to make an album, if only not in Malaysia. Not only could she record her album at the fraction of the cost, the experience itself also sounded a bit romantic, replete with anecdotes of “ghetto” studios tucked behind restaurants.
“I flew all my boys down, and the sound engineer. Five boys and myself. For two weeks, we were like studio vampires, bangun 9 pagi, record; by the time we came out it was dark. I rented an apartment nearby so we could walk to the studio. It was cheap, nice rental for two weeks.”
So cheap that what would have ended up costing RM25,000 to RM30,0000 ended up costing half that. And Liyana ended up with a complete album. For distribution in Malaysia and Singapore, she signed a deal with Soundscape Records’ Mak Wai Hoo, and managed to secure distribution in Japan on her own. Her distributor then took care of the printing and the album launch, and split the profits with her 50/50, which she calls “a sweet deal” made possible by Mak, who she says is on the same wavelength with regards to pushing the music scene. It was this type of decision-making that Liyana considered a luxury that independent musicians have, “If I’m governed by a label, I would be unable to do these things.”
Being an independent artist, in Liyana’s experience, requires a lot more steps, a lot more of a DIY ethic in not just making the music but getting it out to the people and making sure you and your musicians are paid.
“[Certain artists] who have people looking after them, they will not learn what a headache it is to come out with an album, to have a showcase, to have a media preview, to write the media invite, to send it to all the editors you know. To email them and wait for the RSVP. And then the album itself, to get the barcode and hologram, so that it can be put in music stores.”
The upside to all the nitty-gritty is she gets as much as she puts in. “It’s my money, so I’m not tied to anyone. And I get to take all of my royalties, because I published my own album. So whatever sales are being made, royalties come back to me.” But the catch (sort of) is, “To have another album, I need to save up more money!” She didn’t seem too fussed as she said this, and one can believe she’s got enough hustle in her to make many more albums in exactly the same way she’s done so far.
Beyond her music, we asked what other avenues she’s explored in terms of earning revenue. What about merch?
“I’ve been lacking on that! I don’t know how to do it. My fans have told me to put my face on boxers, Liyana Fizi boxers.” She laughed as we coaxed her for more of her fan’s suggestions. “Someone said clip-on fringe. Stationery, t-shirts, hair clip-ons. Those things you put in cars? Bobbleheads. I know that would be a very good source of income for me, but I haven’t done it.” I contemplated my own grown-out bangs, and thought about how much I’d be willing to spend on a Liyana Fizi clip-on fringe.
There’s a discomfort to discussing money sometimes, especially in relation to artistic pursuits. We want to believe the satisfaction of creative expression is enough to live off, and balk at the notion of capitalism in art, of “selling out”. But it’s all business, isn’t it? Everyone’s got to eat. Liyana doesn’t turn her nose up at corporate gigs or corporate endorsements, seeing them as just another aspect of life as a working musician that has to be undertaken with due consideration.
On endorsements or sponsorships, she said, “I’m not against it, it’s still earning money and you’ve worked to get that kind of presence. If someone offered me 3 million for a year to [represent a brand], I would do it. Especially if the brand is in line with who I am as an artist.”
Liyana spoke of friends and fellow artists she knows who are in the mainstream, who like her, knew what they wanted, and also knew they would find it down different, maybe more conventional paths. To her, she doesn’t see this as a “bad” way to do music, as they’re “not minimising [their] passion.”
Passion aside, is financial security and stability a pressing concern for her, especially in the light of others doing more lucrative things?
“My girlfriends all know what a job is going to offer, what kind of studies to choose, what kind of pay to expect. They plan that sort of thing. I never look down on people who like that kind of structure. Of course I think about security and stability and all these things, but in what sense? Not money-wise, I guess, but more in terms of satisfaction.”
“I remember being paid the first time, 400 bucks. ‘Wey, diorang bayar! Fuyoh! They’re paying us for the show, really?!’ (laughs) We get dinner AND money? If you’re on that track, you’re on the right track, because if you think of it as a secondary thing, somehow, more will come. When it’s not your main purpose, like ‘I have to make money from this song to make me rich.’ You’re not going to get rich from that song. Nobody’s going to like that song! We have to keep ourselves grounded. But I do worry about security, and I worry about being stable, but I don’t think that far. I mean, I might die, who knows. I might cross the road to buy something from the shops and die, you know?”
A rhetorical question both morbid and refreshing. It was a nice cap to the business aspect of things, having seen now her awareness of the sharper edges of the scene and industry, while still retaining as carefree an attitude as one can manage. One thing was for sure: Liyana Fizi is no tortured artist.
Nearing the end of the interview, we asked her for some wisdom to pass on to all the aspiring up-and-comers, strumming guitars in their bedrooms and hauling instruments to open mics. What fanciful notion should someone starting out immediately rid themselves of if they want to make it?
“Get rid of fame really, fame is overrated. You can get hooked on fame, and it’s nothing really. Those who are new to it might be taken in but you have to stay grounded. Fame is a whole illusion and at the end of the day it’s nothing. You have to be very careful with it.”
And if she could provide an absolute survival kit for anybody hoping to become a successful independent Malaysian artist, what would that kit be made up of?
“First and foremost they have to know what kind of musician they want to be. Think big, what is the biggest thing you want to be? And then you research – everything you need to know about publishing, recording, about labels, about contracts. If you have lawyer friends, have them read through [of your stuff], that’s probably a good idea.”
She was really adamant about the next thing:
“Don’t let anything limit you, from your own thinking or your skills or whatever. With skills, you have to practice. You can’t just sit back and say, ‘Oh, I’m talented.’ You can always learn from someone. Don’t limit yourself when it comes to opportunities, either. If someone says that you’re an opportunist or a sell out, it doesn’t matter. Don’t limit yourself from opportunities, from growth or from anything. If you say, ‘I want to play the keyboard, I want to play drums and sing’, don’t limit yourself, don’t do it to yourself.”
“Don’t be sombong, don’t be stingy in sharing, in pushing your friends, pushing people on board. Don’t be an island; don’t be like ‘the world is against you.’ Change your mindset from that, from a limiting mindset.”
After having shared so much of her experience and her hard-earned knowledge on not just how to survive but how to flourish as a local musician, we asked one last question, a bit of a sentimental one. At the end of the day: how do you, Liyana Fizi, want to be described as an artist?
“It would be, ‘she wrote good songs’. I want to be remembered by my songs. I like when people don’t know that I sang my songs, I like it. It elongates my life in their life.”
All photos taken by Lutfi Hakim, for ISSUE Magazine.