PAUL AUGUSTIN is a man in a dilemma. The Penang House of Music (PHoM), which he was instrumental in setting up in 2010, has proven to be tougher to maintain and grow than he had anticipated in its present location in Komtar (L4-02, Level 4).
But moving to a smaller and more affordable space, which he has to seriously consider because of slashed funding, poor promotional efforts by players in the tourism industry and little financial support from private corporations, does not quite fit in with his vision of turning PHoM into a regional resource centre for music.
Despite the tough choices he’s facing, Augustin, who was also the main man behind the Penang Jazz Festival which has been on hiatus since 2017, feels PHoM has the potential to be a major cultural entity, especially for future generations interested in learning about the roots and evolution of the various genres of music and cultural heritage in this region.
When you envisioned this project, what were your objectives and expectations and have these been realised?
The initial project was to have a “Resource Centre” but took on a new direction when it grew to be The Penang House of Music. On our side, it was not something that we envisioned initially but took on the challenge when we were asked to do it.
The biggest challenge for us was that there was nothing like what we were going to do, so no easy way of the “copy-and-paste” method. We had to really think about what could work and what we hoped to achieve so we had to come up with a short-term plan (one-three years), a mid-term plan (four-five years) and a long-term plan (five-10 years).
From the start, though, there was the three-period plan. We started working to achieve all three periods, but of course, with focus on the immediate short and mid, and started “planting seeds” for the long-term plan.
I think I can safely say that we’ve managed to realise the short-term plan a little earlier than the time frame and have also achieved substantially more than half of the mid-term plans.
The eventual goals for the long-term plan we set were very high and it was very important to us that in order to achieve the long-term goals, we had to have a strong foundation as this would help to support us.
Note that, as this was something quite new, unique and never been done before in the country and possibly the region, as we went along, we encountered a number of mountains we had to climb and rivers to cross. Thankfully, over time, we have managed to weather a number of storms.
However, I am glad to say that there were also some positive things we did not plan or foresee that happened in the early years and when they did, it helped to push and encourage the team.
How long did it take to complete from the planning stages, and who were there other key people involved in generating ideas?
The real work started in early March 2016, when we had our first brain-storming session on what and how we were going to do this, and we opened on Nov 21, 2016. So the whole process of conceptualisation of ideas, creating the story board, formulating the design, creative production, building the resource, etc. and eventually have the official opening was in a period of eight-nine months. Looking back, I actually am not sure how we managed to do it!
We had a small team that embarked on this project – business partner Chin Choo Yuen; co-researcher/author/project initiator James Lochhead; creative design/concept advisor (who incidentally created our logo and is a very old friend of mine) Asri Ahmad; initial part-time project coordinator, Brian Kwan, who joined us on a full-time basis and oversaw much of the initial production and construction of the space; full time project/festival programme and administrator Kevin Theseira, who eventually had to relocate from Kuala Lumpur and handle all operations and administration; Ethnomusicology professor Dr. Tan Sooi, who advised on our Music of the Community section in the Gallery; creative designer Adrian Cheah, who incidentally was also the designer of our book Just For The Love Of It, of which much of the Gallery is adapted and is an extension from; initial resource manager, who helped set up our on-line library system, Sheila Julis.
Except for Adrian, Sheila and Sooi Beng, the others were involved from the beginning. We approached Sooi Beng to advise us on the types of communities to highlight in the community section as there was quite a number to choose from. Adrian and Sheila came in not long after that and were also much involved in generating ideas as we plodded along. Due to the tight schedule, sometimes, much of the work had to be adjusted very quickly. When production started, the designs changed quite often from what the idea started from to what it eventually became.
What were your main obstacles, if any, when you were setting up?
Am not sure if we can call it obstacles. On the positive side, we were given a budget and the freedom to use it anyhow and anyway to create what and how we wanted for the House of Music. Of course, it had to be justified. In a nutshell, we had total control over the budget and the outcome, which is a very scary thing as the delivery had to meet the expectations and also (we had to make sure it didn’t fall into) the wrong hands.
So I would say that it was not really obstacles but mainly challenges:
– Time as we had very little of and in a way, maybe it helped as we couldn’t afford to procrastinate. It was move and if it didn’t work, adjust and change and make it work. No time to over-think things.
– Controlling the budget costs even though the budget was quite substantial, and as things went on, we started to realise that it was not really enough so in the end, so we had to cut a few corners and make do with what we had and or push it to a later time.
– Getting the right personnel for the right job was not easy.
Did the process of acquiring material and exhibits go as smoothly as you wished?
No, it was not easy especially for the Resource Centre. We realised early that to be a Music Resource Centre of some standing and be taken seriously, we needed to have a substantial amount of material and much of what we were looking for has been lost, destroyed or gone missing.
However, there is a lot of material out in the market and we have managed to acquire quite a bit. Some of them add to the quantity of our Resource Centre and we have also managed to find some real treasures. It is sometimes not only about acquiring material but also to know, recognise the right materials and the importance attached to them in terms of heritage, research and also to the stories we want to and can tell. In terms of acquiring material, the priority was for the Resource Centre and from there use whatever material we have acquired as exhibits or to enhance the exhibits. This way it was easier. We just added as and when we found new “old” material to the existing exhibits.
What are the exhibits you’re most proud of acquiring and how did you go about finding them?
Most of the stuff we’re glad that we’ve managed to acquire (or rescue) are not being exhibited, like vinyl of early Radio Malaya/RTM recordings, old local cinema flyers (such as the Rex Theatre 1947 flyer), old movie magazines from 1950s, photographs of musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. etc.
Finding them? From all over the place… junk shops, old musicians, hoarders, people getting rid of their things. Basically from everywhere.
Since PHoM opened, what were the challenges you faced to meet the objectives you had in mind?
Location was a major problem for us as we’re in a shopping complex. Our “official” address is listed as 4th floor but to get to us is through the ICT Mall on the 3rd floor. There are restrictions on signages we could use and also placements of signages.
Another challenge was people did not know what we were – many thought we were a music store selling music equipment or a shop selling CDs, records, etc. due to the name of the place.
To overcome the above, we had to use creative methods like video guides, floor signages etc. and also we organise as many events as we can, and in the first year alone, we had 58 events over 52 weekends.
Even organising events, we were restricted to finishing early and only on weekends or public holidays as we’re located in a shopping mall. Timing was a problem as the events we organised had to finish by 8pm to allow the audience to leave before the shopping mall shutters go down at 9pm. We could not organise events on weekdays as we’re next to PBA’s finance department and the noise spill was quite loud.
When we opened, we had certain objectives we wanted to achieve and tried to focus on achieving them but sometimes, due to circumstances beyond our control as we are being funded by a third party, we had to shift our focus to other objectives which were not bad and sometimes justified as we did not think about these new objectives which we had to take into consideration.
But I think the biggest challenge was trying to convince the state and federal governments, the agencies, ministries, foundations, etc. about the importance of collating, documenting and preserving the intangible history and heritage of music, arts (in all forms), all things related to the industry over the years and also to document current events, performances, etc.
And also it is a big challenge trying to convince the powers-that-be on the important role of PHoM is doing in documenting and preserving intangible heritage as not much emphasis is placed on conserving intangible heritage not only in Penang but throughout Malaysia.
What are the current challenges you face and how can supporters and music lovers help in overcoming them?
The current main challenge is finance as our start-up and initial funding (2016-2018) came from PBA Holdings Berhad (PBA). The funding finished last year (June 2018) but we received an additional one-year extension.
The rental and operating cost is way too high and we realise that to maintain and operate without funding from whatever sector is impossible. So without funding support from the government (state and/or federal), government-linked companies (GLCs), heritage and art foundations, philanthropists, etc. we might have to cease operations in the near future.
How has the support of the state government been since you started and are there any individuals or supporters whose contributions have been pivotal in keeping it going?
The establishing of PHoM was with the support from the state government, specifically through PBA and Penang Chief Minister’s office.
PBA’s CEO Datuk Jaseni Maidinsa played a major role in getting us started as he was the one who asked what we were going to do with all the material we had gathered from the research of the first two exhibitions and the book. I can say that without him, we might not have started PHoM and be where we are today.
On contributions, it has mainly been in kind with a number of individuals donating and contributing to our collection of vinyl, cassettes, CDs, recordings, books, photographs, radios, etc. This has enabled us to develop a sizeable collection of intangible history of the music and entertainment industry.
How has support from the private sector been so far and how can they help?
The private sector’s support since we opened has mainly been in-kind from musical instrument companies and also others for events hosted at our place.
As mentioned, besides contribution of materials for our Resource Centre for us to document and preserve, we need funding to maintain and sustain and possibly grow. Another way of support would be creating awareness on what we are and what we are doing.
What are the main difficulties in ensuring that PHoM is self-sustaining, if that is one your ultimate goals?
Presently in our location, it is finance. Main bulk of monthly expenses is the rental cost and utilities. Having said that, even if the rent is waived, we would not be able to survive as the revenue we get is not enough to pay for staff salaries, let alone all the monthly and annual expenses. As an estimate, the annual budget for PHoM is currently about RM1 million and revenue (and potential revenue) is less than RM100,000 a year.
At the moment in the present situation and present location, I don’t think we will be able to be self-sustaining. However, being based in an area with higher foot traffic, lower operating costs and potential to increase other revenue streams, we might stand a chance but this would be a big MAYBE.
PHoM’s strength is its resource, collection and knowledge – somewhat in the vein of being a library or museum which I feel should be completely funded by the state or federal government or a foundation.
As a commercial venture, it is very difficult and if it continues to be a commercial venture that cannot be self-sustained, it will have to close eventually and everything has to be sold, and this would be a great loss as to try and get everything back would be very difficult and too expensive.
How successful has PHoM been as a cultural resource centre?
When we started the Resource Centre, there was no focus on any specific area or type. What we wanted was to source/purchase, collate/procure/obtain and document/preserve whatever materials/documents/recordings there were in the world of music, performing and visual arts, designs, etc. in Malaysia, the surrounding areas and anywhere for the centre.
However, I think we are growing in terms of being a cultural research centre because there are so many different cultures and traditions not only in Penang but throughout Malaysia and our focus is to try and get as much information as we can source and/or find and document. We are not where we would like to be but I feel that with time and support, we would get where we want to be as a cultural resource centre.
It is not only getting the material but also understanding the significance and importance of whatever we managed to obtain and put the pieces together in some cases. Slowly but sure….
How important a role can it play for academic research?
In the short time that we have been in existence, we have attracted quite a bit of attention from academics and researchers of music and arts, not only from Malaysia but other countries as well such as Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Australia, USA etc.
We’ve come to also realise that we’re not only a source for information and material for them but we’ve also starting to be a “dumping ground” for them as they are glad to have a place where they can share whatever information and material with us.
So the role that we’ve adopted is of one as a connecting point (nexus) in providing whatever information (if we have) and also to connect them with whoever might have or be able to assist them.
Being a public resource centre and gallery has its advantages in that information and material are shared, given and provided for not only academics but also the public. We’ve heard some amazing stories from visitors, from those who lived through a particular period and people who knew stories behind the scenes, so yes, PHoM can play an important role for academic research as we continue to collate and document materials and information that is slowly being lost and/or destroyed.
What does the future hold and what kind of expansion plans do you have in mind?
Though we know what we would like to do, what we would like to be and how we would like to expand, we have had to put things on hold as of this moment. We really are not sure as to what’s going to happen, though there a couple options. Nothing is confirmed but we hope to settle on a direction (and confirmation) soon. We are hopeful…
In what ways can the public contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage?
– Donate whatever material (recordings, photos, books, magazines, newspaper articles, posters, etc.). We scan all material and return the original as we understand that some of the material might be of sentimental value to the owners. We only take possession of materials only if the owners themselves give/donate the material to us.
– Share information (and stories). We would be more than willing to record the stories on audio or audio-visual.
– Recognise, acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of the older generation of performers/artistes/musicians, understand their limitations in doing what they did with whatever little they had. It’s a “domino effect”. By understanding, one will learn and appreciate and this appreciation would lead to wanting to know more. In this way, there will (might) be appreciation for preservation and hopefully also lead to the continuity of the culture, art and tradition.
How can people who wish to contribute, especially those with historical musical items to donate, contact you?
They can contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the following persons: Kevin Theseira (email@example.com) / Jocelyn Ng (firstname.lastname@example.org).