Making sense of the music industry

Ariff originally wanted to be an athlete but soon realised that music was his passion


THE music industry is definitely one mystery that is not easy to unravel.

As many in the business would tell you, talent alone would not get you anywhere if you are not supported by other elements that could complete the whole big picture.

Some might say that looks are equally important, while many believe that a sound marketing strategy could also be the key to success for any musicians.

These days, there’s no sure fire formula that can assure one’s popularity or longevity in the music business.

Singer-songwriter Ariff AB, who is now trying to carve his niche in the UK, knows this too well.

The musician who initially made his breakthrough in the UK in 2012 after being discovered by Patrick Lyons, a New Musical Express who heard him on Soundcloud, is not about to be discouraged by any hindrance.

The 29-year-old who has two albums, Transmission and Blue Skeleton, is currently working on his third project.

Despite all the hardships he has to go through to be noticed, he said he is very blessed to be where he is today.

He told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) that he found himself in that very position as a young singer, who entered the scene in a new genre that he coined as “alternative freak-folk”.

“When I started out, I did not have much support from the local industry at all. It was more of quality control from their side, but I played every night at many venues hoping for a break,” he said.

The Journey
Ariff started writing songs at the age of 13, after watching music legends like Johnny Cash and Oasis performed.

He had originally wanted to be an athlete but soon realised that music was his passion.

He credited his songwriting from reading old local poetries and said that this interest helped him in blending both the local and British culture into his songs.

With the help of his younger brother Aiman Abu Bakar, he learned the guitar and began practicing nine hours a day.

“In 2009, I stumbled on a contest called Acoustic Showdown in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and there were five heats. I didn’t make it through but kept coming back until I won the fifth and final round,” he said.

He then realised how tough the industry was and began practicing diligently to improve his own style and writing.

Winning the show launched him onto the international arena as he was invited to perform at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China.

“I then played shows in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia as an independent artist. I came back to KL in 2011 and began recording my first album, Transmission, which has six tracks,” Ariff said.

He invested about RM8,000 for the first album, an amount that he somehow managed to recoup slowly.

“After releasing my first single ‘Bye Bye Baby’, Lyons contacted me. That was the giant leap that propelled me to the UK.

“I received many offers but I chose Patrick because he had a long-term plan for me, he believed in my music and wanted to see me go far,” Ariff said, adding that in 2013 and 2014, he played shows both in and out of London.

“That is when I got scouted for ‘The Voice’. Looking back, I didn’t want to be in the industry for fame but rather because I love what I do. So, I turned them down.

“I’m so grateful for that opportunity though because I got to meet so many people from the industry like artists and repertoire (A&R) and people from the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) radio,” Ariff said.

Lyons took Ariff under his wing, showing him the ropes and encouraging him to find an image for himself, where his fans could connect with his music.

Ariff said they tried to brand him to be like the “Johnny Cash” of Malaysia, wearing all black when he performs.

“I wear black shades when I sing, this brings out my alter ego. I used to be very shy on stage but would practise in the mirror. I wanted to perform differently, to make it lively and not dull.

“A unique side of my showmanship is where I sing and twist my legs,” he said.

The UK Scene
Ariff said the music industry in the UK was very accepting of him, but he needed to blend in because he was breaking into a foreign market.

“When I first arrived in the UK, I had so many doubts, I kept thinking if I didn’t make it in Malaysia, why would they accept me here? But surprisingly, they looked at and heard my music differently. It was a form of art to them,” Ariff said.

Being a foreigner did have its challenges because he had to work harder to prove he wanted to be someone.

“It was a different crowd every night, I used to play shows twice a day because you never knew who could be listening,” he said.

The Local Scene
According to Ariff, there are so many young new talents in Malaysia but sadly, there is a certain lack of originality and prospects to carry these talents through.

“It’s like a copy-paste system, where younger artists are recruited to be and sound like international pop stars, so it almost sounds repetitive,” Ariff said.

He added that there is not enough funding and opportunities for artists starting out.

“It is about who you know in the industry…it can be very power-oriented. The competition divides the industry, instead of everyone supporting each other to make it grow.

“There is also a lack of scouts looking for new fresh talent, instead, at big gigs we see the same artist year after year. This doesn’t help new artists finding their footing here,” Ariff said.

Biggest Achievements
Ariff said one of his biggest achievements is winning the Young Malaysian International Achiever Award at Top Asia Corporate Ball in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2018.

The award was given to him based on recognition and his achievements in the last five years.

“To be in the same category with other local acts I looked up to was inspiring, I felt like it closed a chapter of my life from when I started out, and I was ready for the next one,” he said.

He was also the first Malaysian male singer-songwriter invited to perform at YouTube-Google headquarters in London in 2016.

He added that hearing his songs played on BBC Music Introducing, which showcases fresh acts globally, was another highlight.

“My fan base started increasing as more people across Europe heard my songs on the radio,” he said.

Ariff said one of his songs, “Paris I’m in Love” has received plenty of offers for international projects and could be featured for the Visit Paris France Campaign 2019.

“We had offers for the song to be used in distribution plans, like in movies or games. If it is used in the French campaign, it will be a huge honour for me,” Ariff said.

Future Plans
Currently signed under Decca Records, which is under Universal Music, Ariff said his touring schedule will be out soon where he will return to the UK.

“I have shows in Norway, Germany and the UK this year. I want to record another three albums including the one I’m working on right now within the next two years,” he said.

Ariff also hopes someday in the future to open his own record label in Malaysia, to help young local artists go international.

“I definitely have not forgotten about Malaysia and want to give back when I can,” he said, adding that he would love to collaborate with more local acts here.

Two Brothers, One Goal
Not surprisingly, Ariff isn’t the only star in his family.

Younger brother Aiman, 27, found his footing as a professional Malaysian boxer after beginning his training in the Philippines in 2014.

He caught the eye of world champion Manny Pacquiao who invited him to have a homecoming fight in KL last year on his undercard.

“It was a huge honour to have that kind of platform but also because I could show the rest of the world what Malaysia was capable of,” Aiman told TMR.

At the beginning of this year, the two brothers opened TAB Fight Club, aiming to use it as a hub for both music and boxing.

Aiman said he trains people who are interested in learning the fundamentals of boxing every day and hopes the industry will continue to grow.

“The ultimate goal is to train in the US, if you want to be a world champion you need to train with the best,” he said.

He hopes to secure two more trainers this year, from the Philippines and Uzbekistan.

Meanwhile, Ariff plans to use the boxing ring as an avenue to play his shows which will allow both their fan base to connect with them.

“As brothers, we definitely want to represent our country abroad. Everything that has happened has been a blessing but our roots are here,” he said.