Some of you may recognise Razlan Shah as a singer, which is great because that’s how the man identifies himself first and foremost. However, little did we know that this young fellow manages three eminent local acts, namely jazz fusion band Bassment Syndicate, soul singer Najwa Mahiaddin, and rock quartet Kyoto Protocol. The Berklee graduate started his management career while still studying in Boston. Razlan works hard to push the artistes under his care to reach their goals, and along the way, he strives to do the same for himself too. JUICE caught up with Razlan to talk about how he stepped into his career as manager, the difference between managing in Boston and in KL, and also touched upon how he started being a singer-songwriter himself.
Why did you decide to study Music Management in Berklee? What were some of the subjects that entailed from the course?
I decided to study in Berklee because I wanted to take my pursuit of music seriously, and I thought that Berklee would provide the education I sorely needed at the time to learn in-depth about music and the industry surrounding it. After two years in Berklee, I decided to major in Music Business/Management because I was fascinated by the many moving parts/roles that are responsible for making a killer show/album/tour; it really is an amazing thing to see when you see all the cogs in the machine work synchronously. Some of the subjects I took in Berklee (specifically in the Music Business courses) were Business Leadership & Ethics, Creative Promotion in New Media, Advanced Management Techniques, Concerts & Touring, and Emerging Music Business Models.
You told us that you managed some artistes while you were studying. How did you manage to get that job?
I had the great opportunity to help manage the Berklee Neo Soul Ensemble in 2014 with their Musical Director, Jamahl Smith. It was a great ensemble that performed with the likes of Bilal and many other reputable neo soul artistes. Jamahl and I shared the same vision and headspace, he asked me to jump on the ship, and I didn’t even think twice. Some of the other opportunities I had back then were to help manage classmates’ bands performing around Boston; it was a hell of a wild ride that I’m glad I got to experience.
Which experience was more enriching, the one you gained while studying or from managing artistes?
I draw different lessons and experiences from studying and managing artistes. Having a formal education in the field definitely prepped me to understand the mechanics and principles behind all the nitty-gritty, but actually being in the field managing artistes is just a whole different ballgame.
Each artiste is different; they have different wants and needs, dreams and goals. And working in the music industry, there is a huge variety of personalities, some unforgettable ones, and some you wish you could forget. Actual experience is the greatest teacher, and without it, my education would mean nothing.
The story goes that you started singing to impress a girlfriend, but you discovered that you were tone deaf, which ultimately led you to busking in Bangsar. Have you always wanted to be a singer, or did you just see it as a hobby?
I’ve always wanted to find an avenue for self-expression ever since I was an angsty teen playing in Blink 182 cover bands. I play the bass and the guitar, but I found that singing, at least for me, was the best way to express myself. I love music, but I have a bigger love for art in general; I’m experimenting with film on the side right now, and I find so much beauty in that art form. Singing and songwriting aren’t just a hobby, [they] resonate to me. It’s the only way I know how to vent; lest you want me to puke out my feelings on Twitter (we all don’t need any more of that on our timelines).
From an interview on BFM, we discovered that your band, One Night Service, had a record deal which unfortunately didn’t pan out. Why were you still not dismayed by the idea of pursuing a career in the music business?
I wasn’t dismayed because I didn’t want to take up the offer. Sometimes the carrot that is offered to you is tied to a much bigger stick. I didn’t want to take on a deal that I knew I wouldn’t be happy about. I wanted to make sure that when I do enter the music industry, it would be on my terms. I’m happy it turned out the way it did, life worked itself out.
How did you end up managing Bassment Syndicate, Najwa, and Kyoto Protocol?
Najwa is a senior of mine from Berklee, and though we kept in touch every now and then after her graduation, it wasn’t until my final year did we begin to really talk about possibly working together. Fook (Bassment Syndicate) offered me to manage his band around the same time, and after a few months of working with Bassment and Najwa, Fuad approached me with Kyoto. The common theme around the acts I manage is that I am a fan first. I will only work with artistes whom I believe in their work and passion. I mean, look at them – they’re awesome!
How would you compare managing bands in Boston versus managing bands in KL? We’d imagined it’s tougher here, but we’ve also heard that Boston people aren’t the nicest…
Working in Boston was a dream; most of the Berklee faculty were award-winning veterans – they knew their stuff. There were bigger teams and we could really do some awesome things together. It’s tougher here because the Malaysian music industry is much younger and smaller– that means there are less money and less people working in the industry compared to America or the UK. On top of the lack of governmental support and music knowledge/appreciation of Malaysia(ns), we certainly have our work cut out for us. Back in America, a manager would strictly work in the lines of a manager, but here in KL it wouldn’t be surprising to see a manager play the role of PR, booking agent, etc. Basically, here almost everyone in the industry works two, three jobs simultaneously (hello, Ahmad Maslan). I don’t say this as a bad thing; Malaysia is just younger, it’s vital that the youth take an active role in expanding our industry and encouraging local talents to dream bigger and push further. Bostonians are the best, I can say nothing bad about the people who helped me grow up; Boston Strong forever.
We presume that being a manager in the music industry has helped your career as a singer-songwriter too. Could you tell us what some of the advantages or benefits are?
[Actually], I find that being a singer-songwriter first has helped me understand what an artiste wants/needs more than someone who is just familiar with the business aspect of the industry. I can empathise with the stresses and anxiety that artistes feel because I am one myself, yet I also realise what can/should be done from a business/marketing sense because of my education. I’m very glad I started off as a songwriter first; it has definitely helped me with my work.
Which one of your careers do you prioritise — artiste manager or singer-songwriter?
Both mean different things to me. I love every artiste that I work with because I am a fan first, and as a fan, I want to see them reach their potential. Being a manager means I am responsible for doing my absolute best in achieving the goals/dreams of my artistes. It is very important for me to make sure they get to where they want. Being a singer-songwriter allows me to decompress and relieve any emotional stresses that I have – it’s the best cigarette. I prioritise both highly, but I’m glad that the managerial side brings the bread to the table; that way I can really liberate myself to do anything I want musically, which you’ll hear in Hounds, because I don’t really care if it’s on radio or if it wins awards, I get to write and sing for the sake of writing and singing.
And how do you juggle these two jobs?
I’m still learning how to do that (laughs). It’s a learning process, and though I do strike a nice balance at times, for the most part, I’m still getting used to it. Recently, I was the artiste liaison for Raising the Bar Festival ‘16, and having Bassment Syndicate as part of the roster for that festival was certainly interesting – I had to represent RTB and handle about 30 artistes but also make sure my boys are cared for.
Busy as you are, how long did it take for you to conceive and finish your forthcoming EP Hounds?
I wrote and recorded the music for Hounds during my final semester in Berklee and it is currently being mastered. The music in there is certainly different from what you’ve heard from me (‘Flowers’ was actually written in 2010, well before I left for Boston). It’s just honest music, you can check out one of the songs and my first MV — ‘Jungle’ feat Darren Ashley. It took me about a year to conceptualise and finish my EP, and once I release Hounds, I’ll be giving it away for free for the first three months.