Charted Territory - Interview with Bryan Christopher Tan

There’s a well-known philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Infallible conjecture or not it has had sages and thinkers spend inordinate amounts of time pondering over it, with mixed results at best.

Not quite similar, but should a singer who is signed to a record label but has never made it beyond local radio stations, still be considered successful? Plain as it is, the representation of Malaysian talent on the international arena leaves plenty to be desired, but 28-year old Bryan Christopher Tan appears to be proving that he is privy to the secret formula to chart-topping success.

Bryan Christopher Tan, CEO of Lakefront Records

Over the Christmas weekend last year, the US Billboard Top 40 played host to the music industry’s big names such as Imagine Dragons, Lorde, One Direction and other multi-award winning musicians, singers and songwriters – all backed by household-named record labels like Interscope, Columbia and Capitol Records.

If you are one of those keen-eyed music enthusiasts and chart watchers, you would have also picked out a new and unfamiliar name which is Lakefront Records, who are the people behind the breakout by the American siblings, Hip-Hop/Pop duo, Chrome Cats at number 35 on the US Billboard Top 40 indicator chart.

Which is a first for a Malaysian record label. Yes, Lakefront Records was formed by its CEO, Tan in March 2010 with the objective of producing and sponsoring noteworthy artistes, both locally and internationally. But like all business ventures, not everything was smooth sailing. More so, when you’re trying to run your operations on different continents.

“When you’re trying to break into foreign territory, you are bound to come across individuals and organizations who make empty promises with regards to their services. Some of the most expensive lessons I’ve learnt come from hiring the wrong people, which were made all the more painful because of the dollar-ringgit exchange rate,” says Tan. 

Since then, with Michael Sims (father and manager of the Chrome Cats duo Jamila and Korland) having come on board as chief operations officer at Lakefront Records US, Tan and his team are confident they have found their footing, and possess what it takes to help clients achieve success of the international stage.

Chrome Cats duo - Jamila & Korland

With the US Billboard dominating airwaves in almost all countries across the globe, the fact that an independent label based in Malaysia is able to compete alongside the likes of RCA, Island Def Jam and Capitol Records must mean at the very least that they are moving in the right direction.

Even then, Tan is keenly aware of criticisms that he should show more support for local talent. “I do get a lot of flak for it but I try not to defend it too much. I can only say I know the business, the structure and what works. With an American duo, it would guarantee better financial returns, and it did.”

“Sending a Malaysian into uncharted territory would have been overly ambitious. With Chrome cats, we were able to embark on a steep albeit expensive learning curve that has proven to be both fruitful and educational. Now we can replicate the formula with our local artistes,” he adds.

Tan began his career at 18, working with event management companies. From helping to transport and set up equipment, he went on to work as a sound engineer at live shows, observing that there is wealth of talent ready to be tapped in Malaysia.

However, he is saddened to find that a large number of singers and musicians, young and old, tend to be complacent and adopt an attitude of self-importance, like demanding to be seen and heard but not willing to put in the hours to practise and perfect their skills.

They also do not pay enough attention to finding out what the audience wants and needs. Still, Tan has not lost faith. “The original plan for Lakefront Records, where our local artistes are concerned, was to take them out of the country, give them the exposure they need, and create the demand, then bring them back. It is still what I want to do.”

A sound plan, indeed.

Take local singer/songwriter Yuna, for instance. Despite being active on the local indie scene for six years, she only gained wide recognition, locally and internationally, after she released her debut US EP Decorate with American records label and management company, Indie Pop.

Still, “giving an artiste exposure” is kind of vague, though Tan insists he knows what he is doing. “From the moment we understood how Billboard works, we decided that with every artist we push through, we will target a spot on the charts because Billboard opens up many doors."

“The exposure that an artiste receives from the charts is unmatched. If you get on Top 40, not only is there an increase in sales, but suddenly you are also receiving requests to feature your songs in movies, TV shows and commercials,” he explains.

Next in line to attempt their shot at international fame are local pub musician Gerard Singh and former street-busker Daymien Nathan, who are being trained and coached under Lakefront Record’s Artists Development Programmer, which is headed by producer and musical director Jhingles Derek.

Gerard Singh is leaving the pub for the charts

Stressing the need for record labels to provide and invest in adequate training and artiste development, Derek is currently conducting regular vocal classes for Jamila via Skype while helping Gerard and Nathan to sharpen their guitar skills and learn new techniques.

Tan is in full agreement, noting that artistes need to be developed to reach the international level of production and quality and presence, and that collaboration with skilled producers, composers and writers is a good way to help artistes achieve their full potential in the shortest time possible.

This article was published in the Unreserved on March 7, 2014.