Rueang Khong Faen Phleng (Story of Fans): Social Politics in the Vintage Thai Music Revival.
I believe it is significant that the vintage Thai music revival has remained centred on nostalgia for luk thung of the so-called 'golden age' (yuk thong) of Thai song during the 1960s (Jintana 1990, p. 48). The surge in interest in the traditionally working-class genre of luk thung by middle-class professionals is a phenomenon that has potential to shed light on issues such as perceptions of masculinity, the position of the middle class in a changing Thailand and the question of online communities as a reflection of 'real life' society. In the wider context of fandom studies, the apparent need for an almost military ranking, regulation and discipline within some record-collecting communities problematizes the seeming egalitarian aura of Internet fandom. Furthermore, the experiences of one young collector, Anakun Songkhla, demonstrates that the online vintage record communities were not free of the political realities of contemporary Thai society, and did not ultimately offer the "refuge from the destruction of human communities" (Rheingold 1994, p. 15) so often identified in fandom studies (see also Matusitz 2007, pp. 23-26; Stenger 2006, pp. 27, 38; Reagin and Rubenstein 2011, 1.7).
So, while purporting to provide refuge, online vintage Thai record communities discouraged, resisted and expelled opposition elements, just as successive Thai military regimes have used a range of soft and hard, or rather legal and lethal, power options to restrain and eliminate opposition. In the 2019 elections, the new Future Forward party won eighty-one seats, but now its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit faces sedition charges, investigations into loans and sales of shares, and indictment over the use of Facebook to criticize the military (Montesano 2019). Over the past four years a growing number of anti-junta activists have been murdered in Laos or deported from Vietnam (Cochrane 2019). Thus, the threat posed by Anakun to the stability and hierarchy of a fan forum and the dramatic resolution of that threat mirrors the Thai military's solution to the political unrest of 2005-14, suggesting a cyclic mimesis is in play on the social, cultural and political stages of the Thai body politic.
As demonstrated by recent work in behavioural science (see Routledge 2016), nostalgia for a historical period is a potent political resource. Rather than interpreting nostalgia as a simple retreat into the past, Routledge asserts that nostalgia brings "the past to the present to help with current stressors and goals" (2017). Over the past fifteen years, music has been employed at Thai political rallies and concerts as a stimulus to trigger nostalgic feelings which provide access points for the emotive speeches of politicians, activists and military leaders. The current use and continuing appeal of phleng pluk jai (nationalistic marches), written during past periods of military dominance, supports this interpretation. In the same way, the channels of memory to a partially real and partially imagined past evoked by luk thung were exploited by both Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protesters and also by the military government post-2015 (Mitchell 2015, pp. 163-69, 175).
Historical Background of Thai Popular Music Genres and Summary of Vintage Thai Music Websites and Their Fan Objects
Following the 1932 coup that overthrew the absolute monarchy, the new leaders of the military regime, including Luang Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) and Luang Wichitwathakan (Wichit), sought to weaken the monarchy's hold on Thai society by intensifying modernization. Popular culture, especially music, theatre and film, became a significant arena for such modernization projects. Phleng Thai sakon (international Thai song), a new popular song genre that combined Thai lyrics and melodies with Western accompaniment and instrumentation, had begun to develop as part of the lakhon rong (sung drama) and motion picture industries during the 1910s and 1920s, and the Fine Arts Department under Wichit used the new song style as a hegemonic tool (see Barme 1993, pp. 110-12). Phibun served two terms as prime minister (1938-44 and 1948-57), and the end of his second term is an important dividing line for the period 1945-75 because the new regime of Sarit and Thanom (1958-73) began to restore the cultural symbolism of the monarchy and much of its power. The political turmoil of the past fifteen years has resulted from the unwillingness of this royal and military partnership to allow power to devolve to the Thai body politic.
By the late 1940s, phleng Thai sakon included the subgenres of phleng chiwit (life songs), with rural themes and accents, and the elite phleng phudi (good people's songs). In the 1960s these two subgenres became known, respectively, as luk thung (country songs) and luk krung (city songs), although it is more accurate to consider luk thung as a hybrid of phleng chiwit and ramwong, and luk krung as a hybrid of phleng phudi and Western pop. Ramwong, in which men and women dance in a circle, dates back to 1944 when Phibun's wartime government introduced official dance songs to compete with the popularity of Western dances such as the tango. During the 1960s, the sustained impact of rock 'n' roll musicians such as Elvis and especially Cliff Richard and his backing band The Shadows led to the development of string, referring to Western pop with Thai lyrics. In the 1970s the explicitly political genre of phleng phuea chiwit (songs for life) combined Thai folk melodies and singing techniques with the folk-rock sound coming from the United States. By far the most significant genres in the vintage Thai music revival have been luk thung and luk krung, but phleng Thai sakon from after the Second World War also has a fair number of devotees.
Recent work on Thai 78 rpm discography (see Mitchell 2016a, 2016b and 2017) divides the development of the Thai popular music industry into three periods of record production: Early (1903-40), Middle (1948-57) and Late (1958-69). In Thailand, production of 78 rpm records continued until 1969, more than a decade longer than in the developed world (Mitchell 2016b, p. 417) and some years longer than comparable Asian markets such as Indonesia and Malaya (Tan 1996/7, p. 34). According to Manuel (1993, p. 267), Indian companies also continued to produce 78s throughout the 1960s. In both countries it appears that the rise of tape cassette mass production finally gave small independent recording companies a cheaper alternative technology. After the 78 rpm format was abandoned in Thailand, some shellac records were melted down for a variety of purposes, including making vases and also as an adhesive to connect knives to their handles. However, government radio stations and temples continued to make use of their 78 rpm libraries and later preserved them to varying degrees. As a consequence, records have survived in far greater numbers than could have been expected.
According to collector and radio DJ Khanueng, the first Thai website to reflect the resurgence of interest in vintage Thai music was 'zedoboard' (see Table 1), a now defunct general music site that existed from 2007 to early 2009. When it closed, the participants who shared an interest in Thai vinyl records banded together to launch 'saisampan' (relationship), which was intended to be more focused on early luk thung, in February 2009. After about a year, extreme regulation and personality conflict caused a number of the founding members to leave in order to start 'baanfasai' (clear sky house/village) (June 2010), but it was not long before another group splintered off to form 'banplengthai' (Thai song house/village) in September 2010. 'Banjan' (Jan's house) began concurrently with baanfasai (June 2010). Of these early sites, only 'banplengthai' still operates. 'Plengpakjai' (peaceful heart song) and 'sakidjai' (heart stirring) are two current sites, but they have limited membership and their focus is no longer on 78 rpm records. There are also two major online trading points for collectors--thaigramophone (www.thaigramophone.com) and pisutshop (www.pisutshop.com). Thaigramophone entered the crowded trading market in April 2011 and quickly gained popularity by concentrating on vintage records and audio equipment.
The fan objects of the websites addressed in this article can be summarized as phleng Thai sakon (Early and Middle), luk thung and luk krung (Late). The term "vintage" refers to records, genres or songs from any period prior to 1969. The changeover from phleng Thai sakon to luk thung and luk krung roughly corresponds to the technological advance from shellac records (phaen khrang) to vinyl records (phaen wainil), circa 1960--although it should be noted that the names luk thung and luk krung were not adopted until 1964-65 (see Mitchell 2015, pp. 26-27). Individual fan appreciation was often restricted to just one or two of the three genres, and the various online communities reflected these preferences. For example, banjan concentrated on shellac phleng Thai sakon, whereas baanfasai and banplengthai particularly targeted early vinyl luk thung. Saisampan originally focused on luk thung but, due to the exit of key participants, became more of a general music website.
Rules, Restrictions and Conflict in Vintage Thai Music Fan Communities
The music websites proved to be microcosms of contemporary Thai society, particularly in terms of conflict and the inability to resolve problems. Perhaps the source of disagreement cited most frequently by Thai music website users has been excessive regulation. Saisampan was probably the most extreme in this regard, accepting new members only on the first day of each month. The prospective member was warned: "You have only one opportunity to join each month--make sure your information is clear and correct. If it isn't, you will have to wait until next month." Then, eleven rules, all beginning with the word ham (forbidden), were spelled out, which included banning posts that are "sexually obscene or contrary to Thailand's good morals" and any posts "not beneficial to others, or irrelevant or repetitive" (Saisampan 2011). Foreigners and anyone who could not read Thai were not welcome--the application form includes a series of questions written in Thai, including "Which day is Father's day?", requiring the answer "5 December", and the prospective member had to provide their Thai ID number. My own attempt to join failed, even though I supplied a Thai ID number and was able to answer the Thai language questions. Thaigramophone also requires an applicant to have a Thai ID card, although there the emphasis appears to be on ensuring that fraud does not take place.
Moreover, even though the extreme rules of saisampan contributed to the schisms that led to the creation of baanfasai and then banplengthai, both of these websites also had what might be regarded as obtrusive regulation. Regarding the posting of 78 rpm records, banplengthai forbade members to repost on other websites (in every case)--"ham jaek tor (thuk korani)". Baanfasai restricted valuable information to members only, and members were required to thank the 'owner' of the information effusively before they could gain access to it (see Figures 1 and 2)--a member had to log in and post a comment before the restricted content could be viewed. Such rigorous regulation continues in the few sites still operating. Plengpakjai has a banner on every posting that advises new members to read the site rules or risk being banned (see Figure 3).
To a historian or discographer, the choice of which content to restrict seems odd. Photos of records and singers were not normally restricted, but MP3s and lists of songs by a particular singer often were. Perhaps this shows that most of the activity was genuine fan activity rather than scholarly use, in that most members of these websites were more interested in hearing the songs and compiling lists (as amateurs) than knowing what was inscribed on a record (discographical details).
While there are still more collectors of 33s than 78s, the latter fetch much higher prices per song due to the relative scarcity of the format. The ongoing base rate for a 78 rpm record is THB300 (USD 10), but the price varies considerably depending on quality, customer interest and rareness. For example, in 2013 the Public Relations Department (PRD) museum negotiated the purchase of Odeon OB5001 from a reclusive Thai collector. This record has particular significance because it contains the very first recordings of the Thai National Anthem and was the first document of any kind to be issued by the newly created PRD (in 1933). The sale price of THB15,000 (USD500) reflected the age and special significance of the record. Newer records can fetch almost as much if several collectors want to outbid each other. This will usually only happen with luk thung records--for example, a copy of "Kampaeng ngoen" (wall of money) by Sak Koson (Prakai Dao PD11) sold for THB10,000 (USD330) after extended bidding. An auction on 3 February 2013 for "Khadi Khao Phra Wihan" (the case of Preah Vihear) by Khamron Sambunnanon and Suthep Choksakun (Sawangsin SS106) quickly reached THB5,000 because of the subject matter of the song--the issue of whether Thailand or Cambodia owns the temple of Preah Vihear is an ongoing controversy which has particular resonance for the royalist and nationalistic Thais who constituted the Yellow Shirts (see Mitchell 2015, p. 13). Less spectacular, but instructive, was the auction of "Na dam na don" (seeding field, dry field) (Tukata Ja RB10) on 28 November 2012 in which one bidder asked why the price was getting so high (finally selling for THB 1,678) and another explained that it was the first song that Maen Neramit ever recorded. Luk thung records will usually sell for a minimum of THB500 and an average of THB800. The demand for luk thung 78s is now so high that Bok, the owner of Rider Records in Talingchan, Bangkok, said he does not need to post them on the Internet anymore because they sell so quickly. Overall, Thai 78s sell for much higher than Western 78s, even though the latter are often much older. For example, in one transaction from April 2012, pre--World War II British and French shellac records were offered unsuccessfully for THB140 each, including a set of rare 12-inch 78 rpm records.
The spectacular revival of the Thai 78 rpm market has already resulted in several mini bubbles whereby prices have risen dramatically before settling to a more appropriate level. Professional sellers use multiple websites to try to shift difficult-to-sell or overpriced records, and sometimes less professional sellers are unaware that prices have fallen. For example, one seller at first tried to sell two Chang Samsian records (No. 60 and No. 70) (see Figure 4) by 'the king of luk thung' Suraphon Sombatjaroen (see Mitchell 2014) for THB5,000 through baanfasai and thaigramophone. When he was unsuccessful, he posted them on the general antiques website siamtakeang, but received no response apart from the sarcastic comment, "A bit high isn't it? Do you mean 5000 or 500?" His inexperience was shown not only by the asking price (THB2,500 would be a more realistic price) but by his claim that the records were shellac when it is well known among Thai collectors that Chang Samsian from No. 17 were on vinyl. As in the West, collectors quickly take offence to price gouging. In 2012 an online auction of an early Suraphon Sombatjaroen record (Ma No. 1005) with a reserve price of THB1,500 attracted one bid only, a number of frown faces and the comment, "in my opinion an auction should not start at too high a price".
All around the world, vinyl records have rebounded in popularity since 2010. Yet, in Thailand, the market for second-hand 45 and 33 rpm records was driven by the revival of the 78 rpm market. In 2011 one informant stated, "four years ago people were giving 78s away or throwing them out but now they are collectors' items. And so 33s and 45s have also gone up (in price)." (1) When the vintage Thai song revival began, 45s were often given as a bonus when a 33 rpm record was sold. By 2013, however, they were selling for THB 100 to THB 120 each, and rare copies for much more. For example, "Nao lorn thi Renu" (cold wind at Renu) by Sonkiri Sribprajuap sold for THB6,000 on account of its beautiful cover and the song's enduring popularity. (2) Long-play records usually fetch between THB300 and THB1,500 depending on their age, but a mint condition cover adds significant value.
When saisampan first launched, some members would post the picture and sample of a 78 rpm record and then would offer to sell MP3s of the original song. However, this practice was abandoned as the 78s collectors' market expanded and a hierarchy was established. Collectors with high status denounced those 'who were only in it for the money' as 'low class', and one very influential collector named Nedo began to post digitized copies of songs for free download. It soon became the custom on most websites for payment to be rendered via congratulations and compliments and also by the promise of future uploads. Another marketing opportunity or service was the fan practice of making mix CDs of songs originally recorded on 78 rpm. The accepted price of THB 1,200 (USD40) was reasonable considering the time cost of digitizing the 78 rpm tracks.
Masculinity, the Military and the Middle Class: The Status of Luk Thung
It is somewhat curious that the working-class genre luk thung has been able to become a fan object for middle-class professionals. However, as originally noted by Amporn (2006, pp. 35-38), luk thung has risen in status considerably over the past two decades. For the Thai record collectors and websites that constitute the subject of this chapter, luk thung is overwhelmingly considered to be the music that is of highest interest. A survey of collectors at the Rider Record Three Year Celebration meeting (to be discussed later) ranked the genres from most to least interesting in the following order: luk thung, phleng Thai sakon, Chinese songs, Western popular music, phleng phuea chiwit, luk krung, Japanese songs, phleng Thai doem and Western classical music. There were no responses for morlam, Central, Southern or Northern Thai folk songs. Apart from the top choice, the list is what might be expected from middle-class Bangkok professionals. It is particularly significant that such collectors now value luk thung far higher than luk krung, which in the past was considered more sophisticated and high-class. One respondent, Khanueng, humorously observed that "now if you try to give someone a luk krung record they will run away and you'll have to chase after them" and then explained that the high value placed on luk thung records was the real reason for the proliferation of the vintage music websites:
On websites luk thung causes arguments because luk thung is in people's hearts, particular[ly] those that were on 78s, they want to have them. 78s are attractive because they are the originals. Some people collect 78s but don't even have a record player for them. (3)
The implication made by Khanueng is that the premium now placed on luk thung records has created divisions among website communities, as the original records have become a kind of currency or source of status.
On siamtakeang, a website that specializes in antique lamps but occasionally deals in records, the ranks were somewhat reminiscent of computer fantasy games, with newbie, full member, senior member and hero member. However, the websites devoted solely to vintage records generally had a much stricter and more martial stratification. On Thaiboran, members collected military medals to mark their seniority and rank. For example, a Mr Korngtri, with the rank of Khon Boran (ancient person), displayed the impressive collection of medals shown in Figure 5, whereas a newer member, Mr Muato, had only the first two and the rank of Khon Banna (farmer).
Saisampan took this ranking a step further and gave members a military-style insignia. Apart from those of the first rank who were merely bukkhon tua pai (general person) and had no insignia, the rankings and accompanying insignia are shown in Figure 6.
The similarity to genuine lance corporal and master sergeant Thai army insignia is obvious. Thus, a love of vintage Thai popular music was equated with a martial and nationalistic masculinity, a connection less likely to be made by fans of modern Thai pop or songs for life. Homage to the bravery, heroism and virility of the ordinary Thai soldier has long been a significant theme of luk thung songs. While Yodrak Salakjai adopted the long-term persona of a soldier (see Ubonrat 1990, p. 69), it should be remembered that luk thung developed out of the military bands of the late 1950s when many influential musicians were actually soldiers. Benjamin, Loet Prasomsap and Bunchuai Hiransunthon served in the Korean War, and Suraphon Sombatjaroen was a teacher before he joined the navy, air force and army bands in turn. For older collectors who know their history, the connection between luk thung and the military would seem natural.
On baanfasai the ranking system emphasized status through education rather than the military, with the projected atmosphere being one of serious learning. The levels followed the Thai education system: prathom (primary school), mathayom (high school), barinya tri (undergraduate), and then phu sangsan baanfasai (creator of baanfasai), phu song khunawut (full qualified), and phu song kiat (honoured). Masculinity was still emphasized: Another separate and somewhat curious rank, presumably for the few female members, was mae khrua (cook) baanfasai. To each of these ranks was attached 'luk thung', emphasizing the focus of the website and the rise in status for luk thung. For one to be able to gain a degree in luk thung, it must first be considered worthy of being studied. Thus, the baanfasai hierarchy linked devotion to vintage Thai popular music with education and social status, a connection also unlikely to be made by fans of modern Thai pop.
An intense awareness of status was also revealed in the practice of posting and accessing recordings of old songs. As already outlined, such recordings were usually reserved for members, who were expected to express their appreciation to whoever posted the song. When expressing thanks, the language used differed according to the poster's rank and the rareness of the song. Merely saying "thank you" was obviously considered insufficient. On plengpakjai, posting an emoji or simply writing "thank you" after downloading a song was 'forbidden'. One of the original members of zedoboard and saisampan stated, "the internet world is a fake world. On some websites some people give ridiculous compliments--'you are a god of luk thung'--just because they want to find a particular record." (4)
On 12 October 2012, I attended a collectors' meeting at Rider Records in Talingchan, Bangkok (see Figure 7). The purpose of the meeting was to celebrate the third anniversary of the opening of Rider Records, a shop that specializes in vintage Thai records. The meeting was advertised through thaigramophone and pisutshop and attended by forty or so collectors, who each paid THB350 to cover food and alcohol. Although there are certainly Thai women who are record collectors (janicha.net was proof of that), the nature of the event, the online advertising--which featured pictures of scantily-clad pinups and accompanying ribald comments--and some of the pieces for auction (see Figures 8-10) ensured that no women attended, apart from the two beer company 'pretties' (5) and two of the owner's friends who welcomed the guests and collected the money.
Aside from eating, drinking and listening to music, the evening included lucky door prizes (mostly string 45 rpm records), a jap chalak, (6) as well as an auction of rare and mint condition records, most of which were 33 rpm--45 and 78 rpm records did not feature prominently, presumably because 45s were considered too common and mint condition 78s were difficult to come by. The 33 rpm records sold for an average of THB3,500 (USD 115), with the racy covers for Suchat Thianthorng's Waen wiset (magic glasses) (see Figures 8 and 9) and Raphin Phuthai's Khun Nai P.4 (see Figure 10) fetching THB4,500 (USD 150) and THB5,500 (USD 180), respectively. (7) The highest bid was for Caravan's iconic songs-for-life album Khon Ti Lek or Blacksmith (see Figure 11). which sold for a staggering THB8,500 (USD275), but overall most of the records auctioned were luk thung. Only two 78s were on offer, with Khamron Sambunnanon's 'Sin lai suea' selling for THB1,200 (USD40), well above the average price for 78 rpm records.
More than THB47,000 (USD 1,550) was spent at the auction, and altogether approximately THB180,000 (USD6,000) was spent on records during the night. These very large sums and the inner-city location demonstrate that most collectors are not from the traditional working-class fandom of luk thung. At the meeting, I spoke to two lawyers, a dentist, a bank manager, an accountant, a high school teacher and a television producer. In fact, I have only come across one major collector whose profession is farmer, the traditional audience of luk thung--Nedo Lamnalai, from Narai near Phetchabun, uses the Internet to maintain contact with other collectors because he is so far from Bangkok. As the Rider Record meeting demonstrates, the majority of collectors are male, middle-aged and middle-class professionals. They enjoy listening to vintage music, but their fandom is clearly more about the elusiveness of the artefacts they collect and the special, almost mystical, knowledge that accompanies those artefacts.
Vintage Thai Music as Sanctuary from Political Turmoil
Yet, I am still convinced through this research that the consumption of vintage Thai music also represents a seeking of refuge. A clear theme among collectors, whether at the Rider Records celebration, through private communication or online, is that vintage music and the collecting of vintage records provides a respite from life's troubles. Likewise, vintage Thai music fans regularly cite luk thung of the 'golden era of Thai song' (1960s) as representing rural peace (chonabot/santiphap). In 2006, Amporn argued "that the images and institutionalization of authenticity in luk thung music have been shaped by a larger cultural quest for authenticity in Thai society" (p. 26). There is undoubtedly a disconnect between Buddhist expectations of frugality as expressed through King Bhumibol's sufficiency economy and the equally Thai characteristic of displays of wealth. Feeling the pressure and guilt of urban living, many Thais have sought a return to rural innocence, at least in part of their lives. After the disillusionment of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, luk thung was gradually accepted as the most authentic Thai popular music genre because it employed rural singing styles and imagery (though not universally), even while continuing to absorb and reconstruct myriad outside influences. In Luk Thung: The Culture and Politics of Thailand's Most Popular Music, I detailed the history of the use of Thai music for political purposes and found that a significant factor in the cultural unity of the Red Shirts was that their favoured genre, luk thung, allowed for regional and ethnic differences while maintaining a high degree of Thainess (Mitchell 2015, p. 178).
Thus, the authenticity of luk thung can be employed as a political weapon, as in the case of the Red and Yellow Shirt movements, or it can serve as an escape for those who have become weary of the political and social unrest. Tausig has written convincingly on the trauma experienced by those on all sides of the political divide (2013), and I propose that the revival of interest in vintage Thai music is a symptom of the largely imagined social trauma experienced by Bangkok's middle class in recent years. Thaksin's tenure as prime minister was supposedly marked by massive corruption on an unprecedented scale, a desire to supplant the role of King Bhumibol, and wasteful populist policies. None of these particular accusations have been substantiated, (8) but they were the key drivers of the anti-Thaksin protests between 2005 and 2006. The concentration of entertainment and media outlets in the hands of the Bangkok establishment meant that these charges were given prominence and consequently gained credibility. When Thaksin was deposed in 2006, news reports dwelt on the lack of negative reaction by Thais (see, for example, Kornchanok 2006). Although it is now apparent that the negative reaction was present but that the Bangkok-based media rendered it invisible--certainly, among Bangkok's upper and middle classes there was wide satisfaction that Thaksin had been ousted (see Pasuk 2007).
It is thus evident that nostalgia for the music of yesteryear can indicate a dislocation and/or dissatisfaction with the present. In 2005, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement that deposed Thaksin drew widespread acclaim among Bangkok's conservative middle class. A sense of discomfort, however, began to surface when the PAD occupied the airports in 2008. And after the first major pro-Thaksin demonstrations in 2009 there was an increasing tendency towards political disillusionment by many elements of Bangkok's middle class. For many, this was reflected in a decline in support for the Yellow Shirts, anger at the Red Shirts for their incursions into the capital, and a retreat into a Thailand--especially a Bangkok--from a previous age, untroubled by political and social unrest. The 1980s and 1990s were of course too commercial and too recent, while the 1970s was the decade of protest when all of the present problems started. However, in public memory the 1950s and 1960s represented an era of political stability (albeit due to military dictatorship), and the songs of the period seemed to be only about love and traditions (because they were heavily censored). In fact, vintage luk thung offered solace to all sides of the political divide--Red Shirts considered it their music, Yellow Shirts yearned for a decade when peasants knew their place and station, and those who wanted to ignore or forget the political struggle found an idealized rural nostalgia. Therefore, the names of the websites--saisampan (relationships), baanfasai (clear sky village/house), banjan (Jan's village/house), banplengthai (Thai song village/house), baanbaimai (leafy house) and plengpakjai (heart at ease)--create a collocation that evokes the rural lifestyle that most Thais still aspire to but can only briefly partake in on the annual visits back to the familial village during Songkran. Such rural nostalgia was referenced by the wood panelling decor of banplengthai, which resembled the outside of a traditional rural Thai wooden house, as well as the motto inscribed on banjan's homepage, "If you love old songs too we are friends". In addition, the homepage of pisutshop (now defunct) appropriated the famous His Master's Voice Nipper illustration of the dog listening to the gramophone, thus referencing a romantic age when everything was simpler. These online communities purported to provide a sanctuary where politics and social disorder could not intrude. However, the following case history of one of the most active and influential record collectors demonstrates that the online vintage record communities were not free of the political realities of contemporary Thai society.
A Refuge and a Mirror of Political Realities of Thai Society
According to informants, the person most responsible for the revival of the 78 rpm market was Anakun Songkhla. Anakun was much younger than most other collectors, and this generational difference and a brash approach inevitably resulted in conflict. He was part of the team that began saisampan, but after the initial falling out he helped to launch baanfasai. When he was in saisampan, the best records posted were all from Anakun's 78 rpm collection, and when he left, according to one informant, the website lost its focus on vintage records and also much of its vitality. (9) The key reason cited for the next split that led to the creation of banplengthai was that certain individuals wanted to hoard information. Whatever the circumstances, informants agree that Anakun was the first person to grasp the commercial possibilities of 78 rpm records and the first to begin collecting them professionally. (10) Unlike other collectors, Anakun had the idea to find old 78s and post a sound sample on the Internet. People who wanted to buy the song as an MP3 could contact him. He would make the buyers promise not to start their own website or to give the songs away for free before he would sell to them. Once he started to find doubles of 78s he began to sell them too, initially for about THB200 but later his rare offerings were over THB2,000.
Anakun's commercial vision was doubly upsetting to some older collectors, such as Nedo Lamnalai, who believed that music should be free and available to all. A key informant, Khanueng, suggested that Anakun and Nedo's competition for the best records was a major contribution to the revival of interest in Thai vinyl and shellac records. That Nedo would post his records for free forced Anakun to abandon the practice of selling individual MP3s. As the original music became more accessible, more people began to collect the actual records. (11)
Since Anakun's Facebook page linked to other pages such as "I support PM Abhisit", "khon thai ruam jai pokpong Nai Luang" (Thais come together to protect the King), "We love king" and "ku mai ao suea daeng" (I don't want red shirts), it is fairly safe to assume that he was a royalist Yellow Shirt. A number of high-profile collectors, such as Professor Phunphit Amatayakun, P.T. Somchai Hormjit and Pluethipol Prachumphol, have significant ties to the royalist establishment and would certainly fall into the category of ardent royalists (see Mitchell 2016a, p. 51). For openly royalist record collectors, participation in online vintage music communities might be interpreted as taking refuge from political turmoil, especially the insults of the Red Shirt occupation of Ratchaprasong and the burning down of Central World shopping centre. It is significant, however, that not one of my survey respondents identified as being interested in politics--a common Thai response--even though in conversation several commented negatively on the Red Shirts and Thaksin. A large majority of Thai record collectors nominated participation in online communities as taking a break from the realities of daily life--whether social or political. Furthermore, all survey respondents viewed record collecting as a non-political activity. Thus, while it is not possible to draw a causal link between the political turmoil and the revival of interest in vintage Thai music, it is possible to suggest that the online communities were intended to provide refuge from the disturbing political reality of contemporary Thailand, even if that was not the only reason for their creation.
Anakun's tenure at baanfasai eventually came to an acrimonious end. On 24 July 2012, I happened to be online when an invective-filled argument broke out between several baanfasai members. Although initially the argument was about the price of one of Anakun's records, it quickly became about status and respect. Anakun's signature paragraph (used by the website to identify members), which was filled with curses and offensive language such as [phrase omitted] (your parents are still fucking each other), was posted by one of the other members accompanied by the sarcastic comment [phrase omitted] (This is the golden paragraph of literature of luk thung in this era), again referencing education as the baanfasai measure of status. Anakun replied that using such language was acceptable in ancient times, alluding to the previous common usage of pronouns such as ku ("I" or "me") and mueng (you), and then exploded in his final two posts at baanfasai:
I want you to reconsider. In the past did I do anything to you? I bought the records and I collected records. I never asked for anything from you and never disturbed you all. Suddenly you want something and you contact me. I ask what do you have to exchange. You don't have anything except your shit face. Then I said "I have to sell". You accepted the agreement then when you got it you blamed me. Say that I am stingy [na lueat--means "sell exorbitantly"]. Come post the forum and nagging me all the time. I read all of that. I want to ask you did your mother teach you or do you shit by yourself. Did your mother teach you how to get things from other people for free? If your mother taught you like that it means your mother was fucked for free. I used my money (don't know how much per month) some months almost THB 100,000. You are crazy or stupid. The ones I sell I sell, the ones I give I give. Enough to make you look good. You borrowed some records from me just to make you look good. I let you borrow. I thought it was a lot, information, books, picture, easy no cost. You bastard [khot hia]. Wasting my time. Using my time to take care of my dog would be better. Even though you say to me that I use a gun to point at your head or your father and mother, answer me. If you delete this forum or the information please delete me too. I consider there is no justice and the bad people are glorified. I consider that this society doesn't accept straight people. This society prefers liars. I'm telling it straight. It's intolerable.
The next day the thread and the whole buy-and-sell forum had been deleted. Anakun's ranking had been changed to guest and another member had been put into his previous administrator position of the 78 rpm forum. It was as if he had never existed.
After Anakun's departure from baanfasai, the number of 78 rpm records being posted reduced to a trickle, and within a year the website had closed. Baanfasai had been the most active of the vintage music websites, and the virtual community of collectors seems to have been irretrievably fractured. Today, only three of the music websites are still operating (banplengthai, sakidjai and plengpakjai). All have reduced memberships, and new postings of 78 rpm records are extremely rare. Collectors of 78 rpm records who want to maintain an online presence have moved their fan activities to private Facebook pages and, far more successfully, YouTube. (12) A majority of collectors and fans of vintage Thai music decided that the limited and relatively sterile interactive environment provided by YouTube's comment function was preferable to the highly charged and status-conscious atmosphere of the website communities. In follow-up interviews in 2017, one collector expressed satisfaction that those behind the vintage websites had lost their perceived positions of power. (13) Another was pleased that regulation had been reduced in the websites that still functioned but affirmed that YouTube was a far more convenient way to consume vintage music. (14) Although none of my informants cited increased oversight of the Internet by Thai police as a reason for abandoning the music websites, it is possible that the chilling effect of the present military regime on other parts of Thai social life is also being felt in online social interaction between vintage music fans. During 2016, I noticed many of Anakun's records from his postings on baanfasai appearing on sale in the buy-and-sell forum of thaigramophone. Perhaps he had enough of the vintage record scene, or perhaps it was just business as usual.
Anakun's last posts on baanfasai confirmed several points about the vintage Thai music scene. First, the amount that he claimed to have spent on records provided evidence that vintage Thai music had become both a considerable market and financial opportunity. Second, his accusation that the unnamed member borrowed records for the purpose of building face illustrated that the cultural currency of fandom can be measured in status as well as baht. Third, despite the anonymity and relative freedom from social customs promised by the Internet, Thai customs of face and social status actually exerted greater influence on website participants than on collectors who met face-to-face at the Rider Records social gathering.
Anakun made enemies because he was open about the commercial aspect of his fan activity and was perceived to have put himself above the station he deserved relative to his age and language use--like an imagined Thaksin whose lust for money disguised a desire to be king. Yet, Anakun honestly believed that he deserved high status because of his success in collecting luk thung 78 rpm records--the most sought-after genre in the oldest format. When that status was not acknowledged, he lost face and lost control. The resultant language placed him outside the accepted cultural and social boundaries of the baanfasai society in much the same fashion as nak leng (gangster) position themselves outside Thai society (see Mulder 2000, pp. 63-65). The supposedly egalitarian environment of the Internet did not permit him to escape the strictures and censure of Thai custom. For the administrative clique of baanfasai, to save face and preserve order, the irritant and the disorder had to be deleted.
From this episode it could perhaps be inferred that it is easier to reassert social order on the Internet than in real life. Yet, deleting or cleansing was also the path chosen by Bangkok's middle class when confronted with the aftermath of the military crackdown on the Red Shirt protests of 2010. The day after Red Shirt camps were cleared out with great loss of life, teams of volunteers turned out to wash away any trace that the protestors had ever been there. Moreover, referencing Thongchai Winichakun's "Remembering/Silencing the Traumatic Past" (2002), in which he showed how the 1976 Thammasat massacre had been deleted from Thai history and social memory, perhaps this more mundane episode involving Anakun demonstrates that the Internet does, in fact, reflect real life. The comparison could also be extended to the idea that this episode is only remembered in this academic article, reminding us of the role that researchers can and do play in restoring deleted history.
Thus, the nostalgia for vintage Thai music as expressed in the online communities that thrived between 2005 and 2015 should be interpreted both as seeking refuge from an unpleasant political environment and as an expression of those politics. As the story of Anakun reveals, the essential lack of freedom and inequality within Thai society permeated even online communities promising a refuge. In addition to the routine expulsion and elimination of irritants by Thai establishments, Anakun's experience demonstrates that a further degree of similarity between the 'virtual' and 'real' Thailand is the invisibility of the poor. The past fifteen years have repeatedly demonstrated that the Thai establishment is consistently deaf to the voices of the silenced majority. It is important to remember that Thaksin and Thanathorn did not begin as members of the anti-establishment. As scions of wealthy Chinese Thai families, they were certainly not members of the 'phrai' (15) class for whom they have become political symbols of hope. Analogously, despite the egalitarian promise of Internet communities and the wide availability of Internet facilities in Thailand, the poor were excluded from or at least marginalized within the vintage Thai music communities by the fact that high status stemmed from the expensive hobby of record ownership.
The title of this article is taken from Suraphon Sombatjaroen's famous song in praise of his fans: "Rueang khong faen phleng" (story of fans). The lyrics of the chorus are well known by most Thais, even if they were born after Suraphon's death in 1968: "Fang, fang, fang, siang phleng roem dang ik laeo... Suraphon ma laeo" (listen etc., the loud sound of song has begun again... Suraphon has come). As the most famous musician of the golden era of Thai song, Suraphon is a symbol of a remarkable period of creativity, and these lyrics today take on new significance. Increasing numbers of middle- and upper-class Thais have returned to the popular culture of their youth and that of their parents, with the rural nostalgia and lack of overt political commentary offered by 1960s luk thung proving especially appealing in a time of political uncertainty and class insecurity.
James Leonard Mitchell is Online Professor of Ethnomusicology of The School of Creative Expression, Missional University, USA and Adjunct Research Fellow of The Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University, Australia; email: email@example.com.
(1.) Interview with Khanueng, 27 December 2011, Phetchabun, Thailand.
(2.) See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyka8JDKwE8.
(3.) Interview with Khanueng, 27 December 2011, Phetchabun, Thailand.
(5.) 'Pretty' has become a Thai noun describing the profession of young, beautiful female presenters. Beer companies employ pretties to ensure that private parties consume as many products as possible.
(6.) Literally "take a ticket", this Thai version of a lucky dip or Secret Santa involves everyone bringing a gift, and recipients being drawn at random.
(7.) These covers are typical of luk thung LP cover artwork from the 1960s, which, unlike luk krung albums, emphasize the sexual content of the lyrics and Thai masculine virility.
(8.) Thaksin's sole conviction was a minor conflict of interest charged in 2002. Far from being wasteful, Thailand's Universal Coverage Scheme was widely lauded as efficient and sustainable (see Center for Global Development 2016). The proposition that Thaksin was trying to displace King Bhumibol is not credible.
(9.) Interview with Nedo Lamnalai, 14 February 2012, Suphanburi, Thailand.
(10.) Interview with Khanueng, 27 December 2011, Phetchabun, Thailand. Interview with Nedo Lamnalai, 14 February 2012, Suphanburi, Thailand.
(11.) Interview with Khanueng, 27 December 2011, Phetchabun, Thailand.
(12.) See, for example, my own YouTube channel Thai Music and Dance, which has over 20,000 subscribers and 9 million views: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_cfW4kLMUaiRqPukK9w-Pw.
(13.) Interview with Ken Lamyai, 20 March 2017, Bangkok, Thailand.
(14.) Interview with Somchai, 25 March 2017, Bangkok, Thailand.
(15.) Originally denoting 'peasant' class but used by Red Shirts to differentiate ordinary Thais from the amat or aristocracy.
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TABLE 1: Vintage Thai Music Websites Short name URL Inception date zedoboard not known 2007? siamtakeang www.siamtakeang.com 2006 pisutshop www.pisutshop.com 2008 saisampan www.saisampan.com February 2009 baanbaimai www.baanbaimai.com September 2009 baanfasai www.baanfasai.com June 2010 banjan www.janicha.net June 2010 banplengthai www.banplengthai.com September 2010 thaigramophone www.thaigramophone.com April 2011 plengpakjai www.plengpakjai.com July 2011 Thaiboran www.thaiboran.com June 2012 sakidjai www.sakidjai.com April 2015 Short name Focus of website zedoboard general music siamtakeang trading post (antiques) pisutshop trading post (music) saisampan luk thung/vintage Thai baanbaimai general music baanfasai luk thung/vintage Thai banjan phleng Thai sakon/luk krung banplengthai luk thung/vintage Thai thaigramophone trading post (music) plengpakjai general music Thaiboran luk thung/vintage Thai/ general music sakidjai luk thung/vintage Thai/ general music
[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
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|Author:||Mitchell, James Leonard|
|Publication:||SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2019|
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