The Contemporary Thai Pop Music Industry
Since the 1960s gaining access to the Thai market has been extremely difficult for multinational companies, partly because of complicated Thai laws for foreign investment and partly because of the stranglehold Thai companies have on distribution and promotion networks. EMI tried, failed and tried again. In 1998 BMG pulled out of their three-year investment citing “the high costs and relative risk of producing Thai songs.” In 2002 Sony launched a joint venture with BEC (Bangkok Entertainment Company) which has been quite successful, now holding an 18% market share. However Thailand stills ranks second last behind Hong Kong (36%), Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, China, the Philippines and Malaysia as a destination for Japan's music exports.
Extending back to T. Ngekchuan's Kratai or rabbit brand, the Thai music industry has always been dominated by Sino-Thai businessmen. More recently both the founders of Grammy, Rewat and Phaibun “Aku” Damrongchaitham (Aku is a Chinese nickname), are of Chinese ancestry, as is Hia Hor of RS Promotions. Before Grammy and RS were launched in the early 1980s most of the small companies, such as Nithithat, were run by Sino-Thai businessmen.
Since forming a business arrangement with pioneering J-Pop talent agency Johnny's Entertainment, Grammy has adopted the Japanese long term development approach. The G-Junior artist development initiative is obviously modeled on Johnny's Entertainment's signature program Johnny's Jr. In an attempt to improve the quality of the Thai-pop product, G-Junior performers undergo singing, dancing, acting, personality and language training for years before possibly debuting as artists. Phaibun Damrongchaitham admitted that Thai artists were still far from the quality of their J-pop and K-pop counterparts: “Japanese and South Koreans are disciplined in practicing. They dance seriously and sing seriously. But our artists bunk off the classes.”
RS Promotions has recently copied the Japanese and Korean models by launching its Kamikaze label, a name that surely shows that fears of Japanese Imperialism are well and truly over . Young stars on the new label include the boy band K-OTIC comprising of two Thais, two Thai-Japanese and one Korean. The make-up of K-OTIC reflects the rise of inter-Asian pop – singers and groups intended to have appeal throughout East Asia. In a 2008 release, Freestyle, the band sang in four languages, Thai, English, Japanese and Korean. There is nothing particularly Thai about K-OTIC with lyrical content such as “I could be the new boyfriend that you never wanted” (“Faen mai”) but the brevity and simplicity of the Japanese and Korean raps suggests that K-OTIC is targeting Thai teenagers familiar with J-pop and K-pop.
Figure. K-OTIC perform at a regional school in Khon Kaen, Northeast Thailand.
Thus Thai companies have been successful in applying Japanese talent identification methods, production and marketing to the Thai market. Indeed it appears now that J-pop has become the single most important influence on Thai pop music, replacing the earlier influence of Western genres. One customer commenting on Thai band Clash remarks on this change of influence:
They are talented yes. The lead singer has powerful voice and technique yes. The music production is international standard yes. BUT, pls be aware this is not thai music! The music and the way the lead singer sings them they are trying very hard to copy J-pop. It's sound a bit funny cos' it is very distinctive that they have lots of Japanese influences in their music, even the way they pronounced the thai lyrics you can tell they are pronouncing it in the way of Japanese....i must say i i find this combination weird!! (sic).
Here the issue of authenticity is raised with the curious implication that Japanese-influenced string (Thai pop) is less authentic than Western influenced string.