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When the music’s over: Pop stars take on day jobs

Raka Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, February 24, 2021  /  01:01 pm
When the music’s over: Pop stars take on day jobs

Once, the sight of these two rock gods could bring an entire stadium to heel. Now, Candil (left) and Dinar (right) are coffee merchants. (Dinar Hidayat/Courtesy of Dinar Hidayat)

Perhaps once you’ve mingled with the stars, it’s only right to speak so much of divine intervention. For there really was a time when Ramah Handoko’s reality exceeded even his wildest dreams.

In 2004, his band, Seurieus, was on top of the world. The rock band toured the country, played to adoring crowds of tens of thousands and lifted themselves out of lower-middle class monotony. They flew perilously close to the sun. And then, of course, there was the fall.

“I think it was God’s way of pulling me out of that life,” the 46-year-old said. “It was His way of molding me into a more responsible person.”

These days, Ramah lives a quiet life. His job at the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) takes him around the country, much as his past did. Yet his story, and that of many mainstream musicians in his generation, tells a larger tale of an uncomfortable period in Indonesian music history. As their careers peter out and the bright lights of stadiums and concerts begin to dim, former celebrities are forced to move on.

Former Seurieus guitarist Ramah Handoko says the early days in his new job at the KPK were tough. “I wasn’t used to this austere life.” Former Seurieus guitarist Ramah Handoko says the early days in his new job at the KPK were tough. “I wasn’t used to this austere life.” (Ramah Handoko/Courtesy of Ramah Handoko)

For some, civilian life has given them the opportunity to rebuild their lives, far from the spotlight’s violent glare. For others, though, their return to earth has been an altogether more arduous journey.

Violent delights

Carlos Komari Cepash remembers the early days well. He was making ends meet as a day worker in a hotel while attending night classes in college. Stranded in Jakarta with his guitarist, he would commute to Bandar Lampung on weekends to meet the other members of Beage, his pop rock band. Playing to minuscule crowds and busking to pay for their demo recording, stardom seemed a world away then.

Only old friends know of his illustrious past. “I just want to be known as Carlos from the office,” he says (The Jakarta Post/

Only old friends know of his illustrious past. “I just want to be known as Carlos from the office,” he says (The Jakarta Post/ (Carlos Komari Cepash/Courtesy of Carlos Komari Cepash)

It’s a story Ramah knows well. After forming Seurieus in 1994, it took ten years before fame finally arrived in the form of a major label deal and a smash hit, the sardonic power ballad “Rocker Juga Manusia”. Led by charismatic vocalist Dian “Candil” Dipa Chandra, Seurieus quickly cemented its place as one of Indonesia’s hottest bands.

Unfortunately, its heyday coincided with the crumbling of an empire. The Indonesian Performers, Composers, and Arrangers’ Union (PAPPRI) reported that, in 2006 alone, at least 400 million pirated CDs and cassettes flooded Indonesian markets. In 2007, this number increased to 500 million copies, leading to losses of up to Rp2.5 trillion. 

For an industry long reliant on physical album sales, this was the death knell. “Major labels at the time didn’t have the means to gamble on a new artist. To make matters worse, labels haven’t transitioned to monetizing new revenue streams like ring back tone (RBT),” recalled musician Irfan Aulia Irsal.

This meant that when Universal Music Indonesia signed Irfan’s band Samsons in 2004, it could only press and distribute the debut album. “They couldn’t even pay to produce our music videos,” the 37-year-old said. Samsons, a young band of eager 21-year-olds, would have to record, mix and master its album with its own money.

Undeterred, Irfan and his bandmates concocted a proposal and offered it to various investors – basically pitching their band as they would a business. “We managed to raise Rp250 million to record our first album,” Irfan revealed. Crucially, they set aside a portion of that money to set up Massive Music Entertainment, a company dedicated to managing their masters and their career.

For Samsons, it was a way to gain control of their recorded output from the very start. For their label, it meant not having to finance an album by a newcomer that might not even sell. The gamble paid off. Propelled by hit single “Kenangan Terindah” (Most beautiful memory) and vocalist Bambang “Bams” Reguna Bukit’s soulful singing, Samsons’ debut album Naluri Lelaki (2006) sold north of 900,000 copies.

The gamble paid off for Irfan Aulia Irsal of Samsons. Forming Massive Music Entertainment early in its career, the band is now in control of its entire catalogue (The Jakarta Post/Courtesy of Irfan Aulia Irsal)
The gamble paid off for Irfan Aulia Irsal of Samsons. Forming Massive Music Entertainment early in its career, the band is now in control of its entire catalogue (The Jakarta Post/Courtesy of Irfan Aulia Irsal) (Irfan Aulia Irsal/Courtesy of Irfan Aulia Irsal)

However, as music store chains continue to sink amid rampant piracy and major labels lost their easiest distribution channel, some bands had to take an even more circuitous route to the top. In 2006, Beage was signed by Music Factory, a newcomer with an unusual business model. Instead of offering its music to record stores, it would sell CDs through the fried chicken chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).

“Their idea was to bundle music CDs as part of certain menus in KFC, and counting that as one album sold,” Carlos explained. “For labels, it made business sense. It’s easier to predict how many fried chickens will sell in three months than how many CDs.”

However, it presented an obvious risk. “Before Music Factory, people would buy CDs because they were a fan of that band,” Carlos pointed out. With this new business model, any new fans of the band are incidental. Most people simply buy the package because they want their fried chicken.

But after the debut album Love Story was released in 2009, it seemed that those doubts were unfounded. Beage’s stupendously catchy ditty, “Sendiri Lagi” (Alone again), ruled the airwaves. Album sales soared above 400,000 copies, strong numbers for an unknown band. As it basked in the spotlight, Beage was paraded around as proof that the new model works.

However, Carlos admitted that even then he had doubts. “I felt like they wanted the profits but neglected to develop us as artists,” the now 35-year-old said. “We knew nothing about being celebrities. We had no direction and nobody to tell us how to manage our career.”

He knew nothing of it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end.

This is part 1 of 2. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.