Cambodian foundation #IAmOriginal is aiming to make its mark on the country’s music scene by providing an open platform to push the industry across the country. Editor Marissa Carruthers speaks to co-founder Hang Sokharo to find out more.

It was while studying in Bangkok in 2013 that Hang Sokharo started forming plans to play his part in transforming Cambodia’s music industry and public perception towards the artists involved.

“A Thai friend asked me what kind of modern music Cambodians like and it got me thinking,” he recalls. “Back then, there were very few original artists. The majority of the mainstream music was singers copying songs from abroad, translating the lyrics, re-mastering the music and selling it. I was embarrassed. Why don’t we have original content in our country? This stayed with me.”

After graduating with his degree in media management in 2015, Hang noticed an independent music scene starting to emerge. Wanting to help nurture the niche market, he got together with three friends to launch #IAmOriginal, a non-profit music foundation that promotes creative Cambodian music.

It provides training, legal consultation, financial support and marketing services to not only musicians but those working behind the scenes, such as songwriters, producers and engineers. “We felt a lot was missing from the music scene, such as branding, marketing, promotion and management,” says the 26-year-old. “A lot of young artists are also mismanaged and scammed, so we provide legal support to give advice about contracts and other deals, we can link artists with our networks, or help organise events.”

It has also been working hard to push the industry to become more professional by helping its artists produce top-quality music videos, carry out professional social media and marketing campaigns and up their game during live performances by putting on a show, rather than simply singing on stage.

“We’re trying to break the status quo so everything we do, from the design and content to the video, is always of a high standard,” says Hang. “Sometimes the public doesn’t get it because it’s not like what they’ve seen before on TV, or they think foreigners are behind it. But we are 100 percent Cambodian, and all are young. I don’t actually like the term original because nothing is totally original; everything has its influences. Here, it’s more about innovative content. That’s what original means to me.”

Since launching two years ago, #IAmOriginal has garnered huge public interest, with it securing an organic digital reach of more than five million. It has also helped organise album launches for SmallWorld SmallBand, hosted music festivals and helped carve space in the market for this new wave of music.

At the end of last year, it held an album launch for Stronger Together – a creative collaboration between 10 musicians, including Nikki Nikki, Adda Angel, Van Chesda, Sia and Psand, who have crafted their own songs.

A further 10 directors have created videos for each of the tracks. Topics tackle domestic violence, young love, travel and the untold story of depression.

“We wanted to encourage artists to work together,” says Hang. “A lot of original artists work independently and don’t collaborate. This is something missing from the industry and why the album is called Stronger Together. This also isn’t just about the music, we have the videos as well. This was a good place for young directors and crews to experiment with their ideas. All together, these are the people who are working hard to define this generation of music.”

#IAmOriginal has been releasing one track and video a week on Smart Music – another move in its attempt to reshape Cambodia’s music landscape.

“Another of our aims is to place more value on musicians,” Hang says. “In Cambodia, people won’t pay for local content. They won’t buy music or concert tickets. They illegally download music or see artists for free at corporate-sponsored events, often beer companies. This is bad for the music industry as a whole. If people want good content, then they have to be prepared to pay for it and this is a perception we are trying to change.”

With the successful album release marking the end of #IAmOriginal’s first phase, it is gearing up to move onto the next step. As part of this, it plans on sniffing out promising underground stars and teaming them up with established artists for another collaborative project. And, as discussed in this month’s cover feature, it is creating a Crowdfunding-style platform to help stimulate the growth of the country’s creative content and providing artists with a form of income.

“We want to see it that artists no longer have to depend on sponsors,” says Hang. “This means they can create the content they want to. That is our goal.”

Follow #IAmOriginal on Facebook.