This edited article by Anna Lawattanatrakul was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and an edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.
On March 25, 2020, after the Thai authorities declared COVID-19 a dangerous communicable disease, the government imposed a nationwide State of Emergency. Nightlife and entertainment venues like bars, theatres, or massage parlors were ordered to close. Workers in these industries, from waiters and masseuses to musicians, lost their jobs en masse. Many did not return to work until late 2021 or early 2022.
The sudden unemployment caused musicians and others in the music industry to lose their livlihoods. Many musicians have had to sell their beloved instruments or find other jobs to make ends meet. Many left the profession entirely.
In the documentary titled “Unplugged: Music in Crisis,” Thai musicians talk about their lives during and after the pandemic and the future of the creative economy in Thailand.
An unstable profession
The COVID-19 pandemic also brought to the surface issues that many workers in the Thai music industry face, from precarious employment and unfair working conditions to a lack of state support for the creative economy.
Puntapol “Ohm” Prasarnrajkit, lead singer of the band Cocktail and a founder of Gene Lab, a music label under GMM Grammy, said that part of the problem is because Thailand’s live music scene is tied up with performing in nightlife entertainment venues like bars and restaurants, and while this means musicians have more opportunity to perform, these spaces are not open to some genres of music that also deserve space. Despite recent trends of busking and outdoor concerts, it is still not enough to make for the profession entirely sustainable.
Musicians are also not being paid enough to sustain a living, he said, while the public does not have a good enough understanding of copyrights and intellectual property to allow artists to still earn money when they cannot perform live.
An artist’s rise and fall in popularity also depends on social trends, and in a small market like Thailand, this means a precarious working situation as they may not last long on the scene. Puntapol believes musicians need to be paid more for the profession to be sustainable, and the market needs to expand for this to be possible.
Working toward a fairer work situation
Cultural exports could be the key to expanding the market, Puntapol said, since it would not only mean that musicians would have the opportunity to earn more but also that there would be more space for new generations of musicians to join the industry.
Puntapol said that the Thai government does not care enough about contemporary culture and cultural exports because the authorities tend to prioritize a form of culture that fits their definition of Thainess or traditional Thai culture.
Former Move Forward Party MP Pakornwut Udompipatskul, a former bassist for the rock band Basher, said during a panel discussion on the future of the Thai music industry during Future Fest, a music festival organized by the Progressive Movement that creative workers in Thailand remain unsupported by the government. Even musicians selected to compete overseas have to use their own money to travel, Pakornwut said.
He also said that the Creative Economy Agency, a government-funded public organization with a mission to support Thailand’s creative economy, received a budget of TBH 300 million (USD 8.6 million) per year — a very small amount compared to other countries, such as South Korea, where the government allocates about USD 431.9 million per year to support its creative economy, while the bureaucratic system makes it difficult for anything to get done.
Pakornwut said that the authorities should put the people first and allocate a budget accordingly. It should also change its mindset and see that every profession is important. Art and culture build Thailand along with other professions, he said, calling on government agencies like the Ministry of Culture to support all kinds of culture, not just what is deemed “traditional.”
Pakornwut also said that the contracts between artists and labels need to be made fairer, as most labels own the right to the work produced by the musicians who sign with them, meaning that those who leave their label do not own their own songs and must start over. Meanwhile, other workers involved in a performance, like sound engineers or artists’ drivers, are also not being paid fairly.
Protecting workers’ rights
Many say that organization is important in demanding rights for people in the music profession.
For Itkron “Jaii” Pungkiatrussamee, lead singer of the band TaitosmitH, without a professional organization, it will be difficult to put forward demands to the government because it will not be possible for the government to listen to every musician in the country. It is, therefore, necessary to have an association to collect opinions from workers in the industry to start a campaign and protect their interests.
Puntapol hopes that having a union or an association will support workers in the industry by giving them information about how to manage their finances, such as how to do their taxes, or setting up a co-operative to help them save money.
What I really want to see, in my dreams, is the day someone can proudly write down that I am a musician without worrying about being looked at as someone who just sings and dances for a living, when it is clearly an honourable profession.
Puntapol said that alliances formed during the pandemic helped people in the music industry find each other, as they had the opportunity to come together and talk about how they were being affected by the pandemic. He hopes that they can eventually build an association to ensure benefits for workers in the music industry.
But it may not be so easy for music industry workers to unionize. Mongkol “Joe” Smorban, whose experience during the pandemic pushed him to join the labor rights group Workers’ Union to build a network of night-time entertainment workers, said he found that workers in these industries are very vulnerable to exploitation, as they are hired on informal contracts, and are afraid of demanding anything from their employers out of fear that they will be let go.
Although he said it is difficult to invite night-time industry workers to join a union, Mongkol said it was not impossible. For him, unionizing is a way for workers to campaign at a policy level, as well as increase their leverage and protect those campaigning for their rights.
And even though he said he understands the workers’ concerns, Mongkol said he would like them to know that joining a union is not wrong or dangerous and that organizing is done to protect their rights. He noted that unions always take their members’ safety into consideration.
“In the end, I think we will win,” Mongkol said.
Winning for Mongkol means there will be state welfare for all. He said that the effect of the pandemic was felt by everyone, and the situation in other countries led to comparisons as to why they were able to compensate their citizens and if people in those countries are cared for because they have state welfare.