Ohrwurm, one of Kuala Lumpur’s most active underground scene leaders recently celebrated their fifth anniversary with not one, but three weekends of underground music madness to commemorate this milestone.
They treated their regular party punters to a live set by The Echonomist, and DJ sets by DJ T. and Till Von Sein but alas, as much as it was a celebration, it was like most of their club nights over the years. As always, the crowd attendance was inconsistent. Not all the three gigs were packed with people, and this has been the norm for them for the last five years.
Ohrwurm have been paving the way for the underground scene since 2010, but, five years of operations does not mean that it has been fully successful for them. As promoters and organisers of the brand, they themselves are unsure if their efforts over the years have been profitable or simply in vain. But why would anyone want to operate a business without making profit?
Three experienced and highly respected individuals in the scene form this collective and they include, Callen Tham, one of the pioneers of the Malaysian electronic music scene, Kenny Wee, music label owner, and Alam Shah, a respectable DJ in the scene. Their passion for underground music binds them together to nurture this niche market in the capital city. This is their story.
From top: Kenny Wee, Callen Tham, and Alam Shah.
The underground scene in Kuala Lumpur thrived during the mid-90s up to the first few years of the new millennium. As the electronic dance music scene in Malaysia progressed, the commercial sounds of trance and eventually, EDM has been dominating the scene. While a vast majority of party punters swayed to the more commercial side of things, the rest of the electronic dance music community stuck to their preference of indulging in non-mainstream music, namely, house and techno.
By 2010, big room house manifested into EDM, and it pretty much dominated the festival and clubbing scene here. Many began reaching out to Callen and Kenny voicing out their frustration on the lack of underground music offered. They listened to these feedback despite of their hiatus in organising and promoting events for almost a decade at that point of time. Callen has been cultivating his career as a visual artist, while Kenny shifted all of his focus into running music label, Pure Substance.
“The underground scene was dying and we wanted to salvage whatever was left of it. Repackage it to something nice like how we used to do it before with a proper venue, sound, and proper music policy,” Callen explains. “We knew that we would be catering to a niche market and that is why in the beginning, we looked for smaller venues to host our gigs.”
They knew they had to start humbly and targeted smaller venues to host their event because they didn’t have anything to offer to the clubs. “We didn’t know what our crowd was going to be like so smaller venues that could fit 200 people was perfect. Most of the clubs we worked with was very supportive of what we were championing,” he continues.
Their first event was held at a club called Frangipani, which has been shut down since mid-2015. They brought down Australian DJ, Kasey Taylor for the occasion but it ended up being a one off event at the venue. It wasn’t until their third event that they successfully scored a semi-permanent playground for their nights. It kicked off with Zombie Nation's gig at Mist Club.
Ellen Allien performing at Mist Club in June 2010.
“When we worked with Mist and their sister club, Milk, they supported us when it came to the artist fees as well. Clubs supporting promoters is like a future investment for them at the same time. The club wanting to work with trusted promoters gave us a lifeline to try and build a concept that we wanted,” he elaborated. They have Jet Law to thank for their collaboration with both clubs. Jet was part of the marketing team and fully understood the significance of nurturing the underground scene.
While looking for venues was one thing, looking for sponsorship meant that they had to seek those who were opened minded enough with the idea of endorsing underground events. The idea was to get small sponsorship to subsidise their fees. Fortunately the fees for underground DJ’s was pretty decent. They were either booking DJ’s is either already going on tour, or they would put them on tour so the fees won’t cost as much.
Mist wasn’t exactly the intimate kind of venue they were looking for. It was a huge venue. They had two club nights there, the first had Zombie Nation on the decks, and then Ellen Allien made her Malaysian debut the following month. “We had a good crowd to fill up the room, but we couldn’t assess who they actually were because we had never encountered half of them before,” Callen recalls.
The club had their regular patrons who weren’t necessarily fans of the DJ’s that were spinning. Ohrwurm moved their nights to Milk, which was adjacent to Mist. It was then when they shifted that the realisation that the acts played a vital role in that kind of venue. Not many knew that both clubs existed for one, and if they did, it was out of the way and not like other clubs in the city centre.
“Parking was an issue and it was very well known as a ‘Chinese’ joint. The décor was over the top but again, we were working with Jet and he was running those clubs,” Callen says. “When he eventually left for Vertigo, we followed suit. We thought it was a good venue. It could fit 500 people, and the sound system was okay.”
It was a proper club, but eventually it didn’t work out either because it lacked certain vibes. “I’m not too keen on clubs situated in a shopping mall. It kills the mood when you have to take an elevator from the carpark and pass all this white florescent light on the way to the venue. It will kill your mood.”
“Also, Vertigo was situated further from everything else. It wasn’t in a specific nightlife area so people who went there had to plan their night properly because if you were going to Vertigo, that’s where you’ll be spending your whole night at,” Alam interjects. They had a good run with some of their club nights in Vertigo. Danny Howells, Yousef, and Cristian Varela were some of the names that successfully packed the club during their two year stay there.
Guti performing at Vertigo in January 2013.
It still wasn’t garnering them a consistent audience. They took their brand to the heart of the city. Nagaba in the bustling area of Changkat Bukit Bintang became their next home. They spent their first year hosting events that featured local Malaysian DJ’s as headliners. “We had a lot of international acts when we were in Vertigo and when we moved to Nagaba, we wanted to re-build our audience. We didn’t have a regular fan base when we were in Vertigo.”
With their presence felt in Nagaba, they continued to book international DJ’s for their shows. Again, the response was inconsistent. Some gigs did so well while some failed to pack up the venue. “It has been just ups and downs with our nights in the last five years. It isn’t easily predictable. Even when we bring international DJ’s for our shows, it is always a hit and miss,” Kenny explains.
One good example was their recent anniversary party that featured DJ T. An influential name like that should have packed up the room, but, that wasn’t the case at all. “There was a bomb scare on that particular day and it deterred a lot of people from coming over and that was quite a disappointment. It hasn’t been easy for us to gauge whether it will be a good night or not,” Kenny says.
“We are like a football team. We have target players that we want. It is a matter of which one is within our budget, and which one works for us in general,” says Callen. There are acts that they thought wouldn’t work turned out differently like when they brought down Canadian duo, Blond:ish. But there are DJ’s that they thought would work just didn’t in the end.
It was a full house at Nagaba when Blond:ish took over the decks of Nagaba in April 2015.
The thought of taking a break has occurred many times but every time an offer comes in, they can never resist saying yes. “During the DJ T. gig, I spoke to this PR person and he asked me, ‘Don’t you want to make this bigger? Don’t you want to target the Zouk crowd?’ I simply said to him, no.”
“When the commercial crowd come, they tend to spoil this certain vibe that we want to create. Everybody comes to an event knowing each other is what we want. We aren’t aiming to fill up an 800 capacity venue. We want people who come to know what we’re doing, and understand what we’re doing. It is pointless to cater to too many people. If they spoil the vibe, I’d rather have ten proper fans than 100 of non-fans,” Callen stresses.
Promoting the brand to a larger scale isn’t what they want. The brand has to grow organically and not forcefully. “I feel that every city needs to have an underground scene. It needs to exist to balance things out. We might get a smaller crowd but we know they are true believers in what they listen to,” he explains.
When Ohrwurm moved to Nagaba, they decided to try something different, which most club promoters hardly do. Not giving out guestlists. “When we were in Vertigo we could afford to give out guestlists because we were subsidised by the club. It takes less ticket sales to break-even but when we moved to Nagaba, it was totally at our own expense. If we can afford we would give out guestlists,” Callen says.
They decided to put it on test run when they had Guy J down last year in June. “We were quite worried that not many people would show up because they are used to getting their names on the list. We were dead wrong because even the club owner’s brother wanted paid the cover charge,” Alam recalls. “RM50 is an affordable price for cover charge. They typical Malaysian mentality is they would rather not pay that fee to enter a club. It’s all about status. If one person finds out their friend is on the guestlist, and they are not, then they won’t even bother to come because of that,” he says.
Osunlade unexpectedly packed up Nagaba earlier this year in February.
“That’s why we target our own crowd because they understand what the event is all about. Contributing RM50 is like a donation to bring their favourite DJ’s. It is a kind of crowd funding if you may,” Callen says. As long as they are subsidised, giving out guestlists isn’t an issue. What matters most is a packed room of passionate party punters. “Underground parties isn’t about making profits. It’s all about building this vibe. We want the DJ to go back to his country and tell everyone that Malaysia was fucking excellent,” he stresses.
While they wait to find their perfect venue as a new home, Ohrwurm will be moving all over the city with shows featuring local talents. Another agenda on their minds is organising a round table discussion to conduct a survey involving people who love to go out, and they don’t necessarily have to like the underground scene. “Right now, we can only measure a success of a certain night but after five years we want to know if going Gung Ho has made us successful or have just been wasting our money,” Callen says. Eventually, their aim to get people to trust them as a brand. “The market is devised in such that no one wants to sell the company or brand anymore, they want to sell the act."
The Ohrwurm guys will be taking a break from bringing down international acts until early 2016. While the lads plan and assess their new strategies, you can still indulge in their in their upcoming gigs featuring the best Kuala Lumpur has to offer. Keep yourself up to date with their latest gigs and such on their Facebook page.