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K-pop remains the most successfully marketed music brand in Cambodia
K-pop remains the most successfully marketed music brand in Cambodia. AFP

Imported music lines local pockets

Demi Lovato’s concert is a prominent example of the growth of international partnerships

Pop star Demi Lovato arrives in Phnom Penh for a one-off concert next week. The show – expected to attract as many as 40,000 fans – will be one of the biggest Western musical performances hosted in the Kingdom.

The Lovato show signals an emerging shift in the country’s music landscape, with Western music gaining popularity in a largely K-pop driven market. Businesses too, recognise the rise, with many attaching themselves to Western pop-stars, whose appeal helps boost a brand’s image among Cambodia’s youth.

“[Young professionals] have strong buying power in the market since they are now starting to earn a [better] living,” said Carlos Philip Bamba Gatulda, public relations and marketing manager at music channel MyTV.

The increase in spending power, and the pull of the glitzy production that both K-Pop and international performers like Lovato have, means brands are increasingly looking to associate themselves with young performers, Gatulda added.

“With this, most advertisers target these audiences, thus making our monthly booking for TV spots a decent number.”

Businesses are aware of Cambodians' love of music, evident in small-business sponsored concerts in the provinces and the blaring street-side music used to attract consumers to stores, said Laurent Notin, managing director at Brains Communication.

“Concerts are very popular on TV too: TV channels often record peak audiences when they broadcast concerts,” he said.

“A good association between the music and the brand can definitely help brands resonate into the minds of consumers – like a song can remind you of a particular personal souvenir,” he added.

Universal Music entered the Cambodian market last year and has a partnership with Smart to distribute and resell the US label’s music and digital content. The Lovato concert, born out of the Smart-Universal venture, allows the telco to position itself as a youthful brand, extending its appeal among young Cambodians.

But where music production and sales are concerned, the local market still has many challenges.

Sandy Monteiro, president for Universal in Southeast Asia, said that in the past in Cambodia, like other regional markets, international music was made popular by local musicians playing cover versions of Western music.

While other markets, he added, have moved on from this trend, Cambodia is only starting to develop an ecosystem for original music, where listeners are encouraged to access and pay for music.

“It’s also about creating an environment and bringing best practices to the country, where Cambodian artists and songwriters get the kind of rewards for their work that artists around the world receive,” Monteiro said.

It is difficult to put a figure on the Cambodian music sector, according to Monteiro, given its current informal nature, and the challenge for his company is how much to charge – $1, 50 cents or 25 cents per song.

Smart Brand ambassador Laura Mam
Smart Brand ambassador Laura Mam. Hong Menea

In a move to protect intellectual property rights, the Cambodian government last year registered more than 180 songs of golden age singer Sinn Sisamouth, so that his family could claim rights to the songs.

The family claimed that Sisamouth’s songs were being reproduced without permission, depriving them of much-needed royalties.

Cambodia’s music sector has recently seen many local music labels, like Town Production and Sunday Production, increase their focus on music production.

Meas Sokrattanak, general manager at Town Production, said professionalism in the industry was limited and certain issues, such as a lack of human resources and piracy, made it more feasible to just “cover international songs with lyrics of our own language”.

“We have some good, talented singers these days, but producing our own music will need some time in the future, unless the piracy problem is solved,” he said.

Piracy of CDs means labels make barely enough money to cover the costs of their production, making original music creation even less feasible, Sokrattanak added.

But while local Cambodian music grapples with building a more formalised and professional framework, there are some bright spots, albeit moulded on the appeal of international production.

“Cambodia is an open playing field, there is so much room for the “never been done before”, said rising Cambodian-American pop star Laura Mam.

“Marketing and promoting yourself is important, more than ever. But what’s more important at this point is growing your skill level as an artist.”

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