Scene Report: Post-Coup Myanmar

Written by Zwel Mun Wint aka Heft,
Audio essay reporting by Max Alper

On an early morning in February 2021, the Myanmar military known as the “Tatmadaw” deposed the democratically elected government that would turn the country under a coup d’état. As the playbook of every fascist leader, the Tatmadaw has been hunting down anyone who has the power of influence, ranging from politicians to musicians, social media stars, filmmakers and so on, which ends up encouraging almost everyone to escape the country.

Before reporting about recent music scenes under the military regime, I would love to explain the music scene in the pre-coup period that can be divided in two: The "pre-democracy" period and "democracy" period.

“Pre-Democracy Burma, Pre 2008”

The first era started off with the industry, known as the generation of “copy songs.” Artists part of that generation were encouraged to rip off the Western songs, turning them into local hits for several decades. Most of the musicians happened to perform at charity events and school fairs more than proper concerts due to the difficulty of obtaining a permit from the local government. There were only countable numbers of bars - but no clubs - and the gig economy in the late night industry was not thriving; people also hadn’t heard of “busking” yet.

Later, around the mid-00s, the Hip-Hop movement began to rise within youth culture, which contributed to more frequent concerts than the previous generation. It was an exciting and interesting few years with heavy expectations to revolutionize the whole concept of music industry here. Slowly, clubs began to pop up in the capital city of Myanmar - Yangon, where every teenager went to see their favorite rappers. In the meantime, the metal and punk scene was emerging in the underground where alternative kids with heavy piercing and edgy clothings could be found, moshing out their anger. Despite having the accelerated emergence of youth culture appearances, the concerts were usually discouraged by the burden of show permits and other unnecessary restrictions.

Democracy Period Myanmar - Post 2008

The later “Democracy Period” provided a brand new chapter of music scenes in Myanmar. Industry cronies who were interested in clubs and started to pour money into them by opening more clubs around the big cities, and booked the top tier EDM artists at that time such as Alan Walker, Afrojack, Armin van Buuren, Hardwell, Skrillex and so on. EDM festivals were celebrated every three or four months and sometimes, ironically, two festivals at the same time. The kids of this era were really inspired to become DJs and the scene was thriving with a continuous stream of clubbers who were new to the late night experiences every week.

At the same time, as global Hip-Hop domination grew, the current rap scene transformed into commercial trap-pop songs. Local audiences start to hear more 808 driven songs, accompanied by auto-tune vocal performances on most pop songs heard on the radio, TV, and the internet. The common practice of busking also began slowly in this period.

2021 Coup D’etat

The post-coup Myanmar music scene started off with boycotting Chinese owned businesses including the biggest music streaming platform, JOOX, Tencent Holdings Ltd. After the departure of JOOX, no other local streaming platforms could yet fill in the gap of the market as musicians here depended on the income from JOOX and live performances. Due to Covid, and now the Coup, the majority of musicians were forced to transform their social media influences into promoting their non-music businesses and goods such as selling food, clothes and so on.

For a year, there was no new music coming out, including shows, and the period was heated as every musician was scared to make music or perform live for the sake of being “canceled” by the public and the government. During that time, artists were not allowed to make art that didn’t resemble any type of political message.

Slowy, the scene began to revive, with the musicians starting to perform at Karaoke bars (KTVs) due to financial desperation. With the anxiety of being "canceled", musicians cautiously took frequent secretive and exclusive gigs at KTVs and bars. The shows were not promoted on social media to save the PR nightmare for musicians. Clubs began to open again and fill the crowd slowly with resident DJs.

In late 2022, the EDM scene started booking international DJs such as Wolf Pack, GRAVEDGR, Softest Hard, P!nk Panda, Wiwek and Mike Cervello to help accelerate the return of club scenes. There were also pop up events at small cafes and venues, with minimal setup for bands to perform. Beside KTVs, bars and club gigs, and some pop up events, the Myanmar music scene is set to have a massive struggle to return to its previous phase. Fortunately, musicians began to start releasing more music and promote frequently on Facebook again after almost two years.

The only primary platform to promote music and connect the fans was through Facebook. During the post-coup era, the platform became a wasteland full with toxic communities, followed by cancel culture. Myanmar also hasn't made the monetization function available on Facebook, Instagram or Youtube yet. Under all these unfavorable conditions, JOOX was the only platform that generated revenue and income for musicians more than Spotify and Apple Music. With the lack of decent music platforms, the musicians here were and still are struggling greatly to earn a living from music. Since Youtube is still not a number one platform for Myanmar audiences, promoting on the platform is not quite effective or reachable like Facebook or JOOX.

My personal prediction for the future of this industry in Myanmar is that some of the local record labels and production companies with legacy catalogs will start making streaming platforms and there will be a rivalry of new streaming platforms to dominate the market. For live gigs, it will not be much better anytime soon due to the lack of consistent music releases to keep the scene interesting and fresh. Both the global and local economy continues to discourage people from making music as a living in Myanmar, and yet still not enough to discourage upcoming artists from either the mainstream or underground Myanmar music scenes .

Zwel Mun Wint is a composer and producer from Yangon, Myanmar who releases experimental electronic music under the project name Heft.