DIY indie artists record a yearful of success

By Linh Do    December 24, 2019 | 08:45 pm PT
Platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud and local NhacCuaTui are helping independent musicians hit the big stage.   

With sold-out shows and consecutive releases, independent artists like Den Vau have proved their mettle. 

In October, 5,000 tickets to rapper Den Vau’s 10-year anniversary show in HCMC titled "Show Cua Den" (Den’s Show) sold out in just eight minutes. 

A still from music video Confessing Over Wine.

A still from music video "Confessing Over Wine".

With tickets priced at VND400,000-750,000 ($17-32), "Den’s Show" formed part of several major pop shows in 2019 to sell out, though not profit. 

The lack of revenue could be ascribed to the costs of organization. Yet despite losses, Den Vau told media he did it for the fans. 

For Vietnamese indie artists who write and record their own music, distributed via streaming platforms such as YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud, gaining an audience is essential. 

Often inspired by real-life experience, experimenting with less popular musical styles like chamber pop or post rock, shooting inexpensive MVs, and operation sans managing company, indie artists depend on talent alone to access a small following. 

In the past decade, some have achieved considerable commercial fame like Le Cat Trong Ly and Den Vau, with numerous hits boasting tens of millions of YouTube views. 

Others include bands Da LAB, Ngot, Ca Hoi Hoang, Bluemato, Lon Xon, and singers Mademoiselle, Trang, Thai Vu, Thai Dinh, Jack, Wowy, Tao and Thinh Suy.

Despite numerous live shows, indie artists have consistently churned out new music. For instance, 2019’s biggest hit with almost 240 million YouTube views is "Song Gio" (Ups and Downs) by K-ICM and Jack, who started out as indie singers before turning commercial.     

Released in July, the track has outpaced even pop star Son Tung M-TP’s only single this year, "Hay Trao Cho Anh" (Give It To Me) featuring rapper Snoop Dogg with over 174 million views. 

Other indie hits this year include Jack’s "Hong Nhan" (Beauty), "Muon Ruou To Tinh"(Confessing Over Wine) by Big Daddy and Emily, "Ex's Hate Me" by B Ray and Masew, Phuong Ly’s "Anh La Ai" (Who Are You), and Thinh Suy’s "Mot Dem Say" (A Drunk Night). 

19-year-old college student Thinh Suy’s earlier version of his first single "A Drunk Night" captures the quintessential attraction of contemporary indie music: catchy acoustic guitar music, a precocious well-written lyric about love, and a simple clip featuring an animation rather than beautiful actors in expensive sets often found in commercial equivalents. 

True to their title, contemporary Vietnamese indie artists, most of whom born in the 1990s, tend to care about the music itself, rather than the look. Their works stand in relative contrast to the more polished productions of the better invested generation of singers and artists born out of reality television singing contests and shows such as Van Mai Huong and Truc Nhan. 

Often describing with humor and intelligence ordinary boys and girls in their daily life, many indie songs are praised by young viewers for their genuine emotion and sweetness that bland commercial works often lack.  

There are also darker, more sophisticated tracks that capture global themes of human loneliness and cynicism, drawing Vietnamese music closer to international pop. 

Catching up with a global culture 

With more fame and bigger projects such as "Bai Nay Chill Phet" (This Song is Quite Cool) with almost 85 million views, and "Loi Nho" (Small Path) with over 38 million views, Den Vau’s MVs have become more commercial in content and sophisticated in technique.  

Rapper Den Vau in his music video Loi Nho (Small Path). Photo courtesy of Den Vau.

Rapper Den Vau in his music video "Loi Nho" (Small Path). Photo courtesy of Den Vau.

However, the 30-year-old rapper’s songs, often about poor, rough, reckless heroes longing for love and freedom still retain a sense of, whether genuine or exaggerated, simplicity and grittiness that many Vietnamese find refreshing. 

A recent song titled "Hai Trieu Nam" (Two Million Years), attracting over 40 million YouTube views, features simple shots of Den Vau swimming alone while rapping about his two million year loneliness and search of a like-minded girl.  

Den Vau’s background fits his hero’s image. From Ha Long Town, the rapper, real name Nguyen Duc Cuong, worked as a beach cleaner for seven years before risking a career in music. 

Compared to Den Vau’s recent releases, 4-member band Ngot’s latest MV "Chuyen Kenh" (Changing Channels) depicts more of a jadedness commonly found in global pop culture. 

The MV features smoking, blank faced Vu Dinh Trong Thang viewing layer on layer of television screens flashing before his eyes, singing about human alienation. Labelling people "urban parasites", the track has been compared to the pathos evoked by recent Hollywood hit Joker.  

To seasoned musicians such as Nguyen Quoc Trung and Duong Thu who describe indie artists as "beautiful people with beautiful music", this young generation provides the Vietnamese music scene with a fresh and inspiring kick. 

Indie music is considered on par with international artistic culture, attractive to urban audiences, and removed from coarse calculations about monetary gains and popular success. 

In 2017, musician Quoc Trung devoted his Monsoon Music Festival to indie artists from all over the world, inviting bands Ngot and Da LAB to represent Vietnam. 

Besides Monsoon and other local events, Vietnamese indie artists have become part of the international community by receiving invitations to perform on regional stages.

For his part, musician Duong Thu recently helped produce a new album titled "Di Va Di" (Just Go) featuring six songs by four indie artists and groups from Hanoi:  HUB, Mac Mai Suong, Mademoiselle and Bluemato.  

As Duong Thu suggests, for indie artists, the challenge lies in protecting individuality and remaining free of market pressure.

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