And the Beat Moves On: The Death of the University and the Rise of Chiang Mai’s Independent Music Scene
There has been much debate over the years about Thai education. The general consensus is that it pretty much sucks. Rote learning, unqualified teachers, out of date syllabi, overcrowded class rooms…We have all griped about it. Here especially. Repeatedly.
It is easy to complain, to point fingers, to shift and apportion blame. What’s hard is actually doing something about it. Taking charge, taking action and, scarily, taking risks.
That is exactly what Ajarn Bringkop Vora-urai, lecturer at the Department of Music at Payap University is, controversially, doing.
I first met Bringkop at a Chiang Mai Creative City meeting where he was asked to say a few words about his new commercial music project. It was an afternoon meeting, which never go well for me, what with, as the old Thai saying goes, ‘the skin of my stomach getting tighter and the skin of my eyes becoming looser’. Nodding off, I was jolted from my slumberous state when a new voice on the microphone said, “Only 10% of graduates from music colleges in Thailand are successful and only 10% of successful musicians finished their higher education. Obviously there isn’t much point in going to university when the students actually know more than the lecturers.”
Wide awake now, I continued to listen to Bringkop’s subversive yet insightful talk, making a note-to-self to find out what else this radical lecturer had to say for himself.
It turns out that Bringkop does more than talk. A stereotypical Chiang Mai boy, he went to Montfort, graduated from Chiang Mai University in geology and followed it up with another degree in commercial music at Payap University before accepting a music scholarship from North Illinois University. For many years he taught music at Payap, and still does, but in recent years he has branched out. Today, he is conducting his own experiment on both education and commercial music.
“Generation Y, plus or minus, is what I call the ‘restart’ generation,” explained Bringkop. “They have a very short attention span. If they go to university and they don’t like a course, they don’t persevere; they drop out. Everything can be restarted at a push of a button, like a video game. If they don’t like it, they simply quit. They don’t have the fear of non-conformity nor the pressure of formality that the older generations did… and do. What they often fail to understand is that a new course simply offers a new set of challenges; they may find the same problems over and over. What I find fascinating is that kids today are, in a large part, self-taught. They also think they know everything, because Google tells them whatever they want to know. The problem is that they don’t know themselves, because they are not on Google. Google doesn’t know who they are and since all their information comes from the media, they think that they are what the media tells them to be. There is a lack of concentration and introspection.”
“Technology makes people listless, lacking in attention,” the erudite ajarn continued. “Let’s use music, my specialty, as a metaphor. In the past we listened to tapes, there was a side A and a side B. You pretty much had to listen to the songs as they were sequenced, like a series. Of course we could fast forward or rewind, but we never knew where we would end up, so most of us listened to the album as the producers intended us to. Then came CDs. Suddenly we could skip songs, we could shuffle them around, set our own sequence. But we still had to listen to the entire song, so it was still presented in a series format. Now people release singles, and with playlists, it is like a buffet, there are no series anymore, you simply listen to a lyric, a chorus, a chord that you like and you skip to the next part. This leads to a very short attention span.”
At this point Bringkop turned to my young photographer intern and asked her if she listened to songs from start to finish. Butting in, I said “Of course, we all do, why would anyone not finish a song?” To which my intern replied that she didn’t remember the last time she listened to a song in its entirety. “When it starts fading out, I get bored and skip to something else. ”
“See?” Bringkop smiled. “Let’s talk about your world for a moment,” he turned to me. “We used to read books. It was tactile, we would hold it in our hands, flipping pages, eyes scanning sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. Today, kids read online or on various electronic devices. They read headlines, quotes, highlights, and when they are halfway down a story they get distracted by a link and off they go. Again, it’s like a playlist.”
“Now, back to my point,” he continued. “Formal education today is like a series, with a side A and a side B. It is not compatible with the singles digital lifestyle of students today. Kids are therefore not very motivated or inspired. I personally think that formal education at the university level needs to have a playlist system, custom designed so to speak, allowing kids to pick and choose, letting them teach themselves. Lecturers should stop lecturing, stop teaching; instead they should spend their time in research and development so that students can choose what they want to know. Let the lecturers bring forth, develop and throw out knowledge while students bring their enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge, allowing both sides to learn from one another. At the end it is society who will be doing the judging. Many lecturers – I am going to get some colleagues very angry now! – are not experts in the real world. They are experts at completing exams and writing good papers; these are the criteria in which they are hired. In many fields – IT, design, computer science, music commerce – each year’s syllabus is already out of date by the time it is implemented. This doesn’t reflect the real needs of the students. Testing well is not a requirement in the real world; we train people wrong. It is important for students to do it for real, hurt for real and succeed for real. This is the polar opposite of Thai education. Everyone I have talked to outside the university agrees. Of course, lecturers don’t,” he added wryly.
Let’s return to my initial introduction to Bringkop. After he shocked me awake with the musician statistic, he continued: “As I told you, and I have done extensive research into this, those who are successful in the music industry didn’t graduate. They failed at university, while those who graduated with honours are muddling along in mid-level jobs. Good grades today do not guarantee good jobs. Many kids become early entrepreneurs; they open a pub, a coffee shop or a small business with friends, and they drop out of college or get bad grades. The truth is they become far more successful than their peers who graduate with a 4.0 GPA but with no experience under their belts. Even though they don’t have any real profession, they are entrepreneurs. Obviously this is not for all fields. No one wants a Google-trained doctor to cut out their appendix or a Google-researched architect to build their house.”
Bringkop knows that change will come, but he is not waiting for it. He is instigating it. He began by setting up a dummy company for his students at Payap, but it didn’t work out. Students were still graded and expected to hand in reports, so the realities of success and failure were not experienced.
“So, I took the project out of the university,” said Bringkop. “The Ring on Nimmanhaemin Soi 17 donated a studio and many of my friends who believe in our shared vision are funding this project while numerous students and musicians are working here on a volunteer basis. What we have done is set up an online radio station, Nimman Station 107, where we mainly play Chiang Mai music. For a city this size I was shocked to discover that there are over 100 bands playing original music in Chiang Mai. Per capita, that far exceeds anywhere else in the region. I am talking about active bands playing rock, indie and pop. The lifestyle of students here, apart from partying, is music and sports. Ten years ago, young musicians would play in cover bands, no venue in Chiang Mai would allow for original music. Bands would aspire to be on Bangkok charts such as Fat Radio, so the talent would all seep down to Bangkok, and only when they gained success in Bangkok would they be invited back to play in Chiang Mai venues. The mentality of Chiang Mai business owners was that Bangkok was the litmus test for success. Once approved with the Bangkok stamp, they would be accepted here. What is amazing is that many of Thailand’s top bands, as well as musicians, are actually from Chiang Mai: Etc., Hum, Mild, 60 Miles.”
Nimman Station is set up to support local musicians. There is a practice room and a recording room which Bringkop and partners rent out. They also invest in producing records in lieu of future cuts. Bringkop admits that he loses money every month, but he believes in what he is doing because he is investing in the future. Apart from the station and the recording studio, he is also trying to set up a ‘Live House’ where local musicians can perform original music; no cover music allowed. So far, a few venues have expressed interest, though it’s still an uphill battle.
“My personal vision for what we are doing here – and yes, it is ambitious – is to be the starting point for changing the entire music industry of Thailand. Bangkok is too big for change, we are just about the right size. With the right enthusiasm, talent and support it is doable. If Chiang Mai can change then Bangkok will follow. What people don’t really know or acknowledge is that the Bangkok music scene today was inspired by Chiang Mai 10 years ago. The bands I mentioned earlier all went down to the capital with their own very unique and distinctive sounds and voices which have been emulated over and over.”
“The old and new world gaps are widening all the time; they need to tune in towards one another. The older generations are simply no longer equipped to judge what good music is, they can organise the structure of a music festival, but they can’t pick the musicians. Talent is recognisable to the young and yet the industry is controlled by the old. This has to change, and we are changing it.”
Bringkop’s next dream is to set up a musical academy for all. No degrees, no qualifications, no lecturers, no syllabus, but with shared quality control, knowledge and inspiration.
Watch this space.
Nimman Station 107 will be holding a Nimman-wide festival during the Nimmanhaemin Art and Design Promenade (NAP Fair). Various Nimman venues as well as street-side stages will showcase local talent.