Hidden away in a nondescript shop lot in Kepong, one would never guess that Starmount Studio – the brainchild of ICOM (International College of Music) graduate Alex Tan – houses one of Malaysia’s best kept secrets. Eschewing the well-tread path of relying on lucrative commercial projects, advertisements and jingles of many sound studios, Alex has kept his eye firmly on the goal – music. A peek at the Starmount Studio website sees his mantra proudly stated “Music. Passion” and Alex has been steadfast through the many obstacles, and trust us, there were many.
Sipping coffee and scoffing down homemade scones at the in-house Starmount Café, where Alex’s spouse Ann-Marie holds court, we sat down with the unassuming 34-year-old to pick his brains on Starmount Studio’s success.
Tell us about how you started Starmount Studio and your vision for it.
I started Starmount Studio when I was still studying in ICOM, mainly because the studios in my college were never available when I needed to use them. I had also thought of getting my own space when the opportunity came by - this used to be a soya bean factory full of pipes and tiles! My vision for the studio is for it to be a chill place for musicians, and that hasn’t changed. I want more people sharing quality music, to raise the bar, as we travel we know that Malaysians are not lesser than anyone else in the world, but for some reason we are not out there enough, and I want us to stand proudly on the world stage. We are slowly, but surely getting there.
You chose to focus purely on music instead of lucrative commercial projects, why is that?
I love music, and I want to be focused on doing just that. A lot of people say jingles make money, and it’s true but my passion is music and music only. It wasn’t easy of course, even now, and you have to be prepared to make a lot of sacrifices to live on less. But that isn’t the biggest challenge - I can sacrifice anything, but when you have commitments to others, for example to my ex-girlfriend who is now my wife (chuckles), it gets difficult. You literally have no time to spend with the people you love, and when you are in the music industry, you have no money so it’s very tough for the people around us. But I’ve been lucky that I managed to pull through, and find a balance.
How did you find that balance?
Keep doing what you love and believe that it will happen. Be grateful for all that you have, gratitude always draws me back to the centre. A while ago, we were working on the first Maldivian jazz album when the computer shut down. We were scrambling for a replacement and it suddenly hit me that money isn’t everything. What's the point of money when the goods weren’t available? Luckily the revenue from that project was used to invest in a new computer. Everything happens for a reason, so you have to have gratitude.
"Be grateful for all that you have, gratitude always draws me back to the centre."
Share with us some highlights of the musicians you’ve worked with.
We’ve always had interesting musicians come through the studio, a lot of touring international ones too. The one that sticks out to me the most is this pianist from Qatar, he flew into Malaysia in the morning, I picked him up from the airport, we started recording at 11am, finished at 6pm, and by 7pm the same day he was back at KLIA for a flight back to Qatar! What I love about Starmount is most of the time our clients become our friends, like an extended family, and I think it’s because of the food and wine, in which Starmount Café plays a big part. For example, I had some clients come in from Shanghai, we had a good time at work, which I always give 110%, but it’s after work when the wine comes out where it becomes 130%! After they returned home, I get a call out of the blue asking me for some pointers to set up their own studio in Shanghai. Other designers were not interested because the space wasn’t sizable enough for their fee, but I was happy to do it pro bono, drawing up schematics. I loved the experience especially when it came to buying the equipments; it was like purchasing my dream items without using my own money! In the end they were so happy with it they said "why don’t we just call it Starmount Shanghai?"
You have been very generous in supporting many artistes with your resources, nurturing them without monetary return, why?
I think it comes back to the passion. Everyone has a dream, I have mine, and I don’t like to waste things, but I see a lot of wasted talents. It made me think ‘what if we had given them this pointer?’ or ‘what if I had given them this platform?’, then maybe they would be focused on music and not doing other things. I had a very talented friend who gave me a call and asked to meet up. I agreed but I had a feeling that he would sell me some sort of financial plan. I was right. He was forced to do it to fund his music dreams. In the end, instead of him persuading me, I persuaded him to come work at Starmount. That’s also why I started Starmount Dynamics, it’s an incubator project open to all creatives, be it sound engineers, musicians, videographers, anyone. I’m opening this platform to school leavers, my students or anyone who’s interested to come start their career here because I know how hard it is, especially right now, to own the proper set up. I just want them to start off on the right foot, to provide them with the resources to carve their own career.
Earlier you mentioned wanting to see Malaysian talents succeed in the international arena, what do you think is missing?
The missing link is that people aren’t talking to each other enough. I’ve gotten into a few different pools of people in the industry and everyone’s doing something, thinking it’s good for the future, but we aren’t leveraging enough on each other’s resources, sharing the burden, creating synergy. We need to talk to each other more.
What do you consider as the keys to your success? And would you change anything in hindsight?
I think the keys to success are to not think so much, believe in yourself, and just do it! As for changing anything, I’m definitely smarter in making choices now, and more careful with who I work with. The main thing that changed is my perspective on time, I used to think I had so much time to live but it hit me that my time is not infinite. If everything goes well, I have another 20 or 25 years to do what I want to do so that kind of drives me. I also won’t be as fearless in my reinvestments as I used to, although that’s how we grew so much in these 8 years, but I am a father and husband now and I am responsible for them.
What advice would you give musicians or students who want to follow in your footsteps?
For musicians, if they want to improve, they have to keep an open mind. You can’t just play music and expect things to happen, self-evaluation is very important. You have to ask yourself ‘what do I expect to achieve with what I’m doing right now?’. Also stay away from love relationships as long as possible! (laughs) It’s a very big distraction! It does drive me, yes, by you have to be ready to sacrifice, and have the heart to accept these sacrifices.
"I think the keys to success are to not think so much, believe in yourself, and just do it!"
8 years on, he, and the studio, have gained a reputation for quality music production driven by pure passion and the Polaroid wall at the studio boasts of powerhouses like Chinese pop celebrity Aniu, American rapper and producer B.o.B, and Malaysian starlet Bell Foo, not to mention local jazz stalwarts WVC+1, indie darlings Jumero and many others.
"For musicians, if they want to improve, they have to keep an open mind. You can’t just play music and expect things to happen, self-evaluation is very important."