The yellow padauk flower has traditionally announced the arrival of Thingyan but for the swarms of young people looking to soak each other this water festival, a more recognisable giveaway of the impending water-soaked madness might in fact be the thumping beats that blast — without compromise — from every pandal, tea shop and jeep in the city.
Thingyan is big business for the music industry and also a rare opportunity for emerging artists to grab their breakthrough moment thanks to the rash of compilation albums that flood the market. At least 25 have already been released this year, with more than a dozen still on their way to shops — and tea shops — near you.
In fact, record sales are so important that the Thingyan build up begins at least six months in advance when songwriters begin putting pen to paper in the hope of writing the biggest hit of the year.
“We need to arrange [the lyrics] from November and start to record the songs in December because [the albums] are time-sensitive,” says composer Soe Lin, who has written more than 30 tracks for nine Thingyan albums this year. So far, the third and fourth volumes of the April Queen title are selling well, so too Yarthi Sar 2 (Seasonal Tracks 2).
But not everyone is happy with albums such as April Queen, which make use of up-coming singers and are decidedly pop in tone.
“It’s in the news right now that some record labels and producers are asking up-coming singers for money as some kind of entrance fee to allow them onto their albums,” says Soe Lin, “but for me, since I work as a composer, I’ve never done anything like that,” he adds hastily.
“I choose vocalists that have sung my songs before, but I also invite new singers with great vocal talent. And I never ask for money.”
Some also criticise the lack of tradition in contemporary music, arguing in favour of musicians such as U Kyaw Nyein, who is more commonly known as Myo Ma Nyein after his band Mandalay Myo Ma, which played in the 1920s and 30s. Myo Ma Nyein is credited with creating the signature Thingyan drumbeat called “doe” back in 1931.
“In the past, composers wrote their songs for chorus girls to dance to but later they began writing just for solo performers,” says academy award-winning composer D Yar Moh, who is content to see music change provided lyrics pay some lip-service to classic festive elements such as the padauk flower and the common feelings associated with a good soaking in the heat of summer.
“People don’t like to listen to albums full of new vocalists but we can’t always determine that the established [singers] are better than the new ones. There are a lot of talented-singers and we were also in their position once,” says D Yar Moh.
Nonetheless, he agrees that “some [singers] think that Thingyan songs can make them famous in a very short period”.
Despite efforts by the music industry to pursue revenue streams outside of album sales, concern also persists about the effects of music piracy. D Yar Moh, who has been writing Thinyan songs since the mid-1990s, argues that pirate music sellers are forcing producers to limit their investments in albums and this is having a knock-on effect for singers, composers and quality.
“We can’t say who is right or wrong because [music] piracy has spread throughout the whole country and even developed Western countries face such troubles,” he says.
“The driving force is consumers; if they bought the original albums there would be no mix-ups.”
However, U Chan Hein, owner of Yadanar Myaing music production says that although “piracy is a big issue, some customers are buying and listening to the official albums”.
Yadanar Myaing began releasing Thingyan albums in 1996 and has put five out this year. He argues that record labels have adapted their marketing strategies successfully and piracy no longer poses such a threat to the industry.
“Audiences like vocalists so we arrange for them to meet [each other] and we have also created split pricing,” he says, referring to the practice of selling two versions of an album, one with extended cover art for about K1500 and another, basic album package, for K500, which directly targets the pirate sellers.