The Indie takeover

The Indie takeover
Published: Jan 18, 2009

Brent Luvaas

   DIY record production at FastForward
   Brent Luvaas

When David Tarigan, founder of Aksara Records, first saw a Nirvana video on Indonesia’s state-run television network back in 1991, he felt like something big was about to happen. In those days, the New Order stranglehold on media was just beginning to let up. Content was still closely monitored by the Ministry of Information, and just about everything else on TVRI was crushingly, almost painfully saccharine, inflated with government propaganda and Pancasila optimism. Nirvana, the Seattle grunge rockers, with their stripped-down aesthetic, torn jeans and gruff disdain for pop culture conventionality, were a breath of fresh air. ‘Just imagine’, David said to me, as we chatted in his Jakarta recording studio a mile or so south of the Blok M shopping complex. ‘What happened in ’91 in Indonesia was probably a lot like what happened in the Western world in ’77, you know, the punk explosion.’

As David sees it, that first Nirvana broadcast made the independent music industry possible. Young people suddenly realised that they didn’t have to be professional-quality musicians to play in a band. Before ‘91, the whole concept of being in a band seemed really remote to David and his friends. But that all changed when they saw Nirvana on TVRI.

Birth of indie music

In the mid-1990s, thousands of middle-class Indonesian kids like David, inspired by alternative music coming out of the US and UK, pooled their resources, shared instruments, formed music collectives like Riotic and Reverse in Bandung, and organised massive, chaotic gigs, sometimes with 30 or more bands playing a single stage at a local high school or a sweaty gymnasium. Most of them weren’t very good, but then that was hardly the point. It was all about being DIY (do-it-yourself), making music on your own terms, or at the very least, making a sizable racket, driving off boredom with the clamour of a distorted guitar.

Young people suddenly realised that they didn’t have to be professional-quality musicians to play in a band

There were a lot of cover bands at first, replicating the grunge, pop punk and Brit pop hits they heard on the newly established MTV Indonesia or discovered through cassettes passed hand-to-hand through circuits of friends. But gradually, as their skill and their confidence improved, these bands began playing their own songs.

Puppen, Closeminded and Koil were among the ‘pioneers’ of this new music underground, belting out an abrasive assault of sounds to an audience of like-minded art students and college kids. Some of the best known of these bands, like Pas, went on to sign with major labels, but many others stuck to their indie roots.

Behind the scene

David himself has been in a band or two in his day, but his involvement has always been more behind the scenes. Along with Dendy Darman of the Bandung clothing label Unkl347 and Satria NB (Iyo) of the indie pop band Pure Saturday – two of his schoolmates at the Bandung Institute of Technology – David formed Ripple magazine in 1998. Today, the surf, music and lifestyle mag is Indonesia’s leading resource for all things indie, a go-to guide for what’s hot and what’s not among disaffected urban youth, with a readership of more than 10,000. But it started out much more humbly as a scraggly, six-page zine filled with surf stories. For the second issue, David had the idea of including a sampler cassette of some of the indie bands playing gigs around Bandung. ‘This’, he claims, ‘changed everything’. The indie scene finally had an avenue for gaining larger exposure.

When he finished university, David moved back to Jakarta, his hometown, and took a job as a designer for Aksara Bookstore in the trendy, expat-saturated neighbourhood of Kemang. He continued to make music, and kept his feelers out for new sounds and styles. Some of his childhood friends were students and recent graduates from Jakarta’s art institute. They introduced him to a variety of bands.

‘It was crazy how many great bands there were and how many crazy things were happening!’ he told me. Since he had last lived in Jakarta, the internet had stretched its tentacles to the furthest reaches of the archipelago. In the capital city, where connections were faster and more readily available than anywhere else, the ‘information revolution’ had ricocheted through the music scene. Bands drawing influences from all sorts of obscure genres were popping up. DJs were spinning everything from acid house to dub to space-age bachelor pad pop at local nightclubs. Music nights at bars were an eclectic mix of budding local talent.

Spreading the word

David wanted to record some of it, to preserve for posterity what he saw as a remarkable moment in Indonesia’s musical history. ‘I just wanted to let people know what’s going on in Jakarta’, he said. So he approached the owner of Aksara Bookstore to see if he would be willing to fund a sampler recording of local bands. The owner agreed, supplying David with a studio and the necessary funding. The result was an album called JKT: SKRG, or Jakarta Sekarang (Jakarta Now). The artists couldn’t persuade any music stores to distribute it for them, so they sold it themselves at Aksara and at a number of their friends’ distribution outlets – small shops, themselves owned by youth from the indie scene and specialising in such DIY productions.

Despite its humble roots, the album was a big success. Several of its featured artists went on to high-profile careers, outselling many of the commercial pop acts that dominate the Indonesian charts. Among them were The Upstairs, a new-wave revival group who single-handedly brought white-framed sunglasses and leg-warmers back into Indonesian consciousness, White Shoes and the Couples Company, a retro band mixing ’70s film soundtrack instrumentation with crooner jazz and Japanese pop, who recently signed to the indie label Minty Fresh in Chicago and played last year’s SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

David’s newly launched Aksara Records then went on to record the soundtrack for the hit film Janji Joni (Joni’s Promise) for David’s former classmate, film director Joko Anwar. It too was a big success, and Aksara Records used the momentum of the film’s popularity to launch the careers of many of the soundtrack’s featured artists, including such staples of the indie scene as The Adams, Ape on the Roof, Sore, and Goodnight Electric.

Today, Aksara Records is among Indonesia’s best-known indie labels, releasing many of its most exciting bands. They have become a model for indie production, fusing their DIY ideology with good old-fashioned business sense. ‘At the end of the day’, says David, ‘of course we’re a business. But we’re first and foremost about promoting our ideals. We want to share the music that we love with other people. That’s all.’

Meanwhile, back in Bandung

David Tarigan has become one of the most prominent advocates of Jakarta’s indie music scene. But he’s never lost his ties to Bandung. The ‘city of flowers’, he explains, is where it all began, and it still produces some of the indie scene’s best-known bands.

Bandung is known as a hotbed of musical experimentation

Bandung has a well-earned reputation for innovation and entrepreneurialism. Home to the Bandung Institute of Technology, it was the first city in Indonesia to develop an infrastructure for the internet, and David, along with his friends in the Bandung indie scene, took full advantage. ‘We could use it to get information and download audio files’, he said. ‘In fact, I even have friends who used nothing but resources from the internet to establish their own record labels … All of that stuff helped us, and its influence is still visible today, in the quantity of music [being produced in Indonesia] and especially in the variety of styles.’

In the indie scene, Bandung is known as a hotbed of musical experimentation, featuring such diverse acts as minimalist garage rockers The S.I.G.I.T., along with ‘post-rock’ sound architects Polyester Embassy and the hugely popular rock, pop and jazz combo, Mocca – all of which are produced and distributed by local indie label FF/WD (Fast Forward) Records. For Marin and Helvi, two of the label’s founders, Mocca was the act that put FF/WD on Indonesia’s musical map. They sold close to 150,000 copies of their first album, My Diary, in 2002. Their songs were routinely played on local radio and MTV Indonesia, and they have gone on to tour Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. One of their songs was featured in a Korean television commercial. They also did the soundtrack of the hit film Untuk Rena (For Rena).

‘This was a new wave of indie pop’, said Marin. Whereas the sound of the 1990s indie scene had been hard, abrasive and intentionally inaccessible, the Bandung indie scene of the early 2000s was characterised by its diversity, improved musicianship and a certain ‘easy-listening’ quality that made it infinitely more marketable. The scene, it seems, was growing up.

‘These days, it’s way better’, said Helvi. ‘In every sense, from the quality of the music to the appreciation of the audience. Maybe 3 or 4 times better.’ It used to be hard to get gigs, let alone recording contracts, he explained. No one wanted to take a risk on bands like Mocca. But today, they no longer need mainstream endorsement. Friends of theirs who own indie clothing labels sponsor their events and stock their albums when bigger record stores refuse to. The scene has become essentially self-sufficient.

‘And it’s already gone national’, says Helvi. ‘Some 95 percent of radio channels broadcast indie programming now, and if they don’t, they just can’t be successful anymore. Their listeners won’t allow it.’ The days of major label dominance, Helvi believes, are rapidly becoming a relic of Indonesia’s past. The indie scene is on track for a take-over.     ii

Brent Luvaas ( is a PhD in candidate in Anthropology at UCLA.

Inside Indonesia 95: Jan-Mar 2009