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Story by Anna Lawattanatrakul

Roses were placed in front of a picture of singer and YouTuber Prakaifa Pooldoung during a gathering by the parliament compound on 1 July 2021 to demand assistance for musicians who lost their jobs during the lockdown.

“I am a professional singer who has been unemployed for 2 months. Every event has been cancelled. Income = 0” wrote Prakaifa Pooldoung, singer and YouTuber, on her Facebook page on 20 May 2020.

It was a few months after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when performance venues and nightlife establishments were closed by government order during the lockdown. The post was followed by messages offering encouragement to other musicians who, like her, were facing unemployment.

On 26 June 2021, Prakaifa jumped from a shopping mall building in Bangkok’s Saphan Mai district. Her family said her unemployment and lack of income caused her stress and that she had attempted suicide once before.

But Prakaifa is not the only musician to lose their job during the pandemic and may not be the only life in the music industry lost to the lockdown.

On 25 March 2020, after the Thai authorities declared Covid-19 a dangerous communicable disease, the government imposed a nation-wide State of Emergency. Nightlife and entertainment venues like bars, theatres, or massage parlours 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 – early 2022.

The sudden unemployment caused musicians and others the music industry to lose their income. Musicians have had to sell their beloved instruments or resort to finding other jobs to make ends meet. Many left the profession entirely.

The first to go, the last to return

Mongkol Smorban speaking during a gathering at Misakawan Intersection on 23 November 2021 to demand that the government reopen entertainment venues on 1 December 2021.

“Everything was closed down, even rehearsal rooms or whatever. It meant we couldn’t do anything,” said Mongkol “Joe” Smorban, who over a decade has made a living from playing music in bars and restaurant.

With musicians unable to perform, every other part of the music industry collapsed. Mongkol said that not even guitars in instrument stores were selling, and because the venues were closed so suddenly, people were unprepared. Many of his friends were living off their savings, and once the money ran out, they had to look for other jobs. Some had to sell their cars or houses, or even take out informal loans.

“It was the most tormenting time for me, because I have been part of the scene for over ten years, playing music. It was the best thing I could do,” he said.

Kuljira Thongkong (centre) performing at the DEMO Expo music festival on 20 August 2022

Meanwhile, Kuljira "Aey" Thongkong, lead singer of the alternative pop band Beagle Hug, said she managed in the early days of the lockdown by trying to economize as much as she could because she didn’t know how long she would be without work.

A former contestant on The Voice Thailand, Kuljira’s full-time job is performing in bars and at events like weddings, while producing songs with her band. Before the pandemic, she performed at least 4 – 5 times a week, but after the lockdown, she could only secure an event or two in a year.

The loss of income meant that she had to find other options. She said that she tried running a bakery with a friend, sold some of her belongings, and when her savings eventually ran out, she had to borrow from her family. Meanwhile, her musician friends were selling their instruments or changing their profession.

But the most painful thing for her was being told that she wasn’t trying hard enough, or that musicians should look for something else to do.

“I’m not saying that I wasn’t struggling, or some people said you’re still not trying hard enough,” Kuljira said.

“People have different backgrounds. They face different responsibilities. Some people have to take care of their family. Their income for their entire lives came from playing music, and they could have a lot of monthly expenses, and then you say, here, what’s going to solve your problems is baking brownies.”

Itkron Pungkiatrussamee performing with TaitosmitH at a music Poongtai Fest, a music festival in Hat Yai, on 18 March 2023. (Photo by Nattaphon Panudomluk).

For Itkron "Jaii" Pungkiatrussamee, lead singer of the band TaitosmitH, the Covid-19 pandemic was unexpected and something he wasn’t prepared for.

“At the time, we didn’t know what we were facing,” he said. “We didn’t know if the epidemic was going to last this long, or that it was going to be so easy to get infected.”

Not even TaitosmitH, now one of Thailand’s most famous rock groups, could escape the impact of the pandemic. Even though the band had been saving money for emergencies and future investment, and was able to use the money to support themselves and their backstage team when performances were cancelled, as the money slowly decreased, the impact of the pandemic on the industry became more and more apparent.

“It was very painful. I saw musicians selling their instruments. I saw many people change their profession. Some people even lost their house,” he said.

Varittarat Tawanwiwattanagul performing with Hope Family during the 23 April 2023 memorial concert for murdered indigenous rights activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen.

But it wasn’t just musicians who were affected by the pandemic but also other workers and business-owners in the industry.

Varittarat Tawanwiwattanagul grew up in a musical family. As a child, she and her sister toured the country with their parents as members of Hope Family, a folk band whose songs have long been part of the grassroot movements in Thailand. Now, she works as a professional singer and vocal coach, and runs LOXON Sound Systems, a small sound equipment rental and sound engineer service, with her husband.

Varittarat took a break from her singing job soon after the pandemic began due to a chronic health condition and because she did not feel comfortable working outside at the time. Meanwhile, her equipment rental business had virtually no customers, as most of their customers before the pandemic were foreigners.

“Everyone lost their jobs all at the same time,” Varittarat said.

And after her singing students cancelled all in-person classes, Varittarat began teaching online. It was not something she likes or is good at, she said, but she has to earn money. For her, the chemistry between teacher and student is an important part of music lessons, and is something that is lost when classes move online.

She also decided to sell some equipment she used to rent out, thinking that she would have no need to use them for a while. Meanwhile, her father, Suthep Thawanwiwattanakun, had to sell his beloved guitar because he did not know how long he would be without a job.

“I wasn’t really hung up on it, but I thought I had a connection with these things,” Varittarat said, “and really I don’t see it had to get to the point where we would have to sell our belongings to make ends meet.”

A network of musicians and independent artists filed a petition on 23 November 2021 calling for the government to reopen entertainment venues on 1 December 2021. The petition was received by Sompat Nilapan, then advisor to the Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister.

Most musicians working in Thailand’s nightlife scene are independent workers and tend to miss out on assistance from the government. Kuljira said that, during the two years of the lockdown, she received a total of 10,000 baht after a network of musicians and night-time entertainment business workers demanded that the government compensate them for the loss of income caused by the lockdown.

However, she said that this is still not enough and did not cover everyone. While venues began to reopen in late 2022 and musicians began going back to work, the effects of the pandemic, such as the debts they accumulated during the lockdown, still linger.

Meanwhile, Mongkol said he was paid 15,000 baht in assistance during the two years, 5000 of which was paid by the Social Security Fund to freelancers or informal workers who opted into the fund. The rest was paid by the government after a series of protests by workers in the music industry.

For Mongkol, the government was trying to do anything but reopen entertainment venues so that he and his colleagues could go back to work, and despite demands to reopen these businesses on 1 December 2021, the government did not allow this until 15 January 2022.

“We want to work. We don’t want handouts,” Mongkol said.

An unstable profession

Puntapol Prasarnrajkit performing during Cocktail's performance at Monster Music Festival on 27 November 2022.

The Covid-19 pandemic also brought to the surface issues faced by workers in the Thai music industry, from precarious employment and unfair working conditions to lack of 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 a sustainable profession.

“How do we create a new culture of listening to music that isn’t tied to entertainment venues. I’m not saying we need to destroy the old culture, but we need to add to it to include other genres that are coming,” Puntapol said.

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. For Puntapol, musicians need to be paid more for the profession to be sustainable, and the market needs to expand for this to be possible.

Meanwhile, Itkron noted that most musicians don’t have welfare, and while their time in the profession may be short as the trends change, they do not have a pension scheme that would support them after they retire. 

Towards a fairer work situation

Audience standing in front of North Gate Jazz Co-op, a jazz bar in central Chiang Mai.

Cultural exports could be the key to expanding the market, Puntapol said, since it would not only mean that musicians will have the opportunity to earn more but also that there would be more space for new generations of musicians to join the industry.

“[The music scene] would only be lively if everyone is there and everyone is happy, and everyone is competing to work because they feel that it is useful that everyone is working, that they can support themselves, and that everyone has their own space,” Puntapol said. “How good would that be?” 

Nevertheless, 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.

Pakornwut Udompipatskul

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 without support from the government. Even musicians selected to compete overseas have to use their own money to travel, Pakornwut said, explaining that he believes the government should support them by covering their travel and accommodation.

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 300 million baht per year – a very small amount compared to other countries, such as South Korea, where the government allocates 15 billion baht per year to supporting 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 seen as 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 still not being paid fairly.

“If we can solve the employment issue to make it fair, and can fix the contracts and the copyright, I think it will increase the bargaining power for the musicians who belong to a label,” Pakornwut said.

“As for the artists who do not belong to a label, I think, like I said, open lots of stages for them. It’s a way of giving them more platforms, because one thing that a label can give you is a platform, but if we add many platforms to artists with no label, it’s increasing their competitiveness so that they’re close to musicians who belong to a label. We have to do both together.”

Protecting workers’ rights

The Thailand Nightlife and Entertainment Business Association (NEBA) went to parliament on 1 July 2021 to follow up on their previous demands for assistance for workers in the nightlife and entertainment industry who have been affected by the Covid-19 lockdown.

Many say that organization is important in demanding rights for people in the music profession.

For Itkron, 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.

Meanwhile, Puntapol said that having a union means workers’ rights will be protected, since a union would be able to negotiate and protect members of the union if they are being exploited. A union could also build a database of music being produced, which he said would mean more exposure to people working backstage.

And other than basic welfare, which he said is needed, Puntapol also 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,” he said. 

Puntapol said that alliances formed during the pandemic helped people in the music industry see each other, as they had the opportunity to come together and talk about how they were being effected by the pandemic. He hopes that it would be the beginning of building an association to ensure benefits for workers in the music industry, or at least to building a database of what is being produced, which he said should be managed by a non-profit organization to prevent the information being used for someone’s gain.

As part of a network campaigning to solve the issues faced by musicians during the pandemic, Puntapol found that it was difficult to identify workers in the industry to compensate them, while persons in authority may not care about these issues equally or at least have different levels of awareness. For him, this raises the question of whether or how musicians themselves should be working with the government to solve these issues.

Musicians marching with the Workers' Union during the 2022 Labour Day march.

But it may not be so easy for music industry workers to unionize. Mongkol, whose experience during the pandemic pushed him to join the labour rights group Workers’ Union to build a network of night-time entertainment workers, said he found while surveying for the group that workers in these industries are very vulnerable to exploitation, as they are hired on an informal contract, and are afraid of demanding anything from their employers out of fear that they will be let go as a result.

Musicians performing in bars and restaurants are often hired without a written contract and on terms set by business owners who hired them. There are also no standards about how much they should be paid or what else the establishment should provide them, like whether they should be fed while on the job. When two bands compete for a spot at an establishment, one may also ask for a lower payment than the other to get hired, bringing down the payment rates for everyone else. Meanwhile, Mongkol said, demanding a contract could mean not getting the job for being troublesome in the eyes of the business owner.  

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 increasing their leverage and protecting 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.

“We are determined to prevent these bad things from happening again,” he said.

Welfare for all

“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.

Meanwhile, Kuljira said that having welfare for all would mean more security for everyone. Access to welfare like healthcare, education, or public transportation would mean that people would live more comfortably and have a better quality of life. She also said that Thailand’s music industry would grow even more if people lived good lives, had access to art and music, and had time for themselves – all of which, she said, is the result of a good welfare system.

For Varittarat, independent workers like musicians should not have to prove that they are struggling to receive welfare and compensation, but it should be the government’s job to compensate them immediately after everyone in the industry lost their jobs all at once. Because there was neither welfare nor compensation, Varittarat said, people struggled to survive, while those who had savings or other jobs had more chance.

State welfare would lighten the load for workers, such as herself who has a chronic health condition but can’t afford to take time off, Varittarat said. Others lost out during the pandemic not only because of Covid-19 but also because of mental health issues caused by economic problems and family issues. For her, it is the government’s job to help the people and not let them struggle on their own.

“I think there should be state welfare,” Varittarat said. “It helps lessen the burden a lot.”

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