When RS Promotions branched into luk thung music in 2001 with its R-Siam label, few people took much notice. But in the decade since, it has steadily gained a stronghold on the grassroots country music genre, and given it a facelift _ in terms of presentation, sound manipulation and content _ in the process. The offshoot currently houses more than 90 solo artists and groups _ the biggest stars of the luk thung circuit among them.
Soopachai Nillawan, R-Siam's managing director since its inception, said in the early days "not many knew of our existence".
"Only some industry insiders knew that RS had a luk thung label then," he said. "People thought that all the big stars belonged to other labels. So five years ago, we came up with a strategy to attach our label name 'R-Siam' to every single artist in the same way boxing camps do. It took only three months for the name to catch on. It's working wonders as now people recognise us, and our name carries a certain weight."
For those who are not ardent fans of the genre, the widely tagged "R-Siam" name is probably most associated with breakthrough sex symbols Baitoey R-Siam and Kratae R-Siam, or Blueberry, the first ever luk thung girl group. Baitoey, in particular, has been in the news as much as any A-list star due to her saucy dress sense, romantic links and social media activity. For serious lovers of luk thung and songs for life, R-Siam is also the home of megastars such as Jintara Poonlarp, Kung Sutthirat, Bow Wee, Noo Meter and Mangpor Chonticha among many others.
Recently, the YouTube sensation Ja Khun Hoo has just joined R-Siam and is now known as Ja R-Siam. The singer became a subject of heated debate last year over her lewd dance moves and risque puns. Now under the new label, she will have to at least tone down the lyrics. The label's latest star in the making, Kluay R-Siam, who's taken on a tomboyish persona, has a hit with her single Khon Mod Jai Rung Hai Tai Kor Pai Yoo Dee (If There's No Love Left, There's No Way to Hang On). It has become the most downloaded call waiting ringtone in two years.
To say R-Siam is on a roll wouldn't be too far off the mark. And it's just as well, since the offshoot was born out of a dire need to expand the business potential for its mother company.
"Back then the competition in the luk thung music business was very fierce, and we concluded that if we didn't put enough effort into this segment, we wouldn't be able to compete with others," said Soopachai. "From the beginning, R-Siam has always been a well-rounded, complete media company. We have our own radio stations, TV station and other promotional tools to push luk thung music forward."
Soopachai Nillawan, R-Siam’s managing director.
R-Siam began with what Soopachai terms "purist luk thung", but the returns and successes were not immediate due to changing demographics. Soopachai realised R-Siam needed to approach a new, younger fan base as well as prick the interest of those who love similar genres such as songs for life.
"We went around to a lot of song for life pubs, and we found that there were people who would be receptive to luk thung, songs for life as well as string combos," he said. "I thought by adding pop music factors in, it should work, and it should speak to wider audience."
The first artist to test the water for the combined style was Luang Kai, who went on to receive nationwide fame. Fellow southerners Bew Kalayanee and Bow Wee followed the same musical path. With other southern stars like Ekachai Srivichai in the mix, R-Siam was for a time branded a southern music orientated label. It got to the point that Soopachai felt the need to steer R-Siam away from such a perception. That was when Korean luk thung came to life.
''K-pop was all the rage then, and we wanted to latch on to the trend with a luk thung twist. We wanted to try to use new slang words, incorporating them into songs. But to be completely honest with you, we actually wanted to poke fun at K-pop by appropriating its beats and appearances as well as dance moves.''
The result was the girl group Blueberry. The trio's lead single Shimi was a play on teenage vocab, and the popularity of the track went beyond the luk thung world. ''K-luk thung'', albeit controversial, is now reluctantly accepted as another subgenre.
With the unexpected fame and attention, R-Siam enjoyed its moment in the sun for a short while before harsh criticism came pouring in from all sources. Serious luk thung fans couldn't get their heads around the revolution that seemed far from the music they were used to, while others either saw K-luk thung as a joke or attacked R-Siam for using sexual appeal and cheesy music merely for financial gain and exposure.
''There will always be criticisms,'' Soopachai said. ''There will always be people who don't like us. But if you ask me what luk thung really is, I can't begin to answer. To me, luk thung is folk history, written by regular Joes and plain Janes, and luk thung has an ability to change over time. It reflects the current society, and it recorded the past in music. Luk thung changes all the time; it has to because our lives are constantly evolving.
''Kru Surapol Sombatcharoen added blues to his luk thung, and that would have been viewed as a mutation then, but now it's a classic. So this whole Korean luk thung and sexy luk thung thing that we do now actually reflects how people think, live and view the world today. Also, I am confident that all my singers are of top-notch quality. They're amazing luk thung singers, so you can't really write them off as gimmicks.''
Then along came Baitoey with her provocative image, micro skirt, bosom-popping top and flirty lyrics as well as scandalous media appearances. The criticism aimed at R-Siam became even more intense.
''In the case of Baitoey, if I could lengthen the length of her skirts, I would do so in a heartbeat so that we don't have to listen to all the negative comments! But it's not who she is,'' Soopachai said.
''When she first started, we put her in outfits that would appear 'cute', but she wasn't comfortable, and it affected her career in the beginning. She wasn't confident with those clothes.
''Baitoey likes to dress sexily, and we just have to allow her to be who she is, and dress the way she wants. You know, even without us, without Baitoey, people will still wear short skirts and tight clothes anyway.'' Soopachai also reasons that the new tricks and turns R-Siam adds to luk thung music is an answer to the call of the youth who want something fresh.
''The kids want what they like, and if you don't feed it to them, they'll turn away from luk thung forever. I believe that by getting interested, there will be an opportunity to educate them of the history of luk thung music, gently pushing them to appreciate them classic, purist luk thung.'' Soopachai admits intellectual music is getting harder to market, but he insists R-Siam will never abandon any sub-segments that don't rake in as much cash. R-Siam has recently commissioned legendary luk thung master and national artist Lop Bureerat to compose two songs which are expected to come out later this year.
Even with quite a large artist roster, R-Siam is still looking for more. Soopachai says the demand is higher than the supply, and the label is looking into starting an art and culture school some time in the future.
''If you don't get the young ones interested in our music and our culture now, they might turn away from their own roots completely,'' he said.
''We try to get them to like luk thung through their own language and their interests.''
About the author
- Writer: Onsiri Pravattiyagul
Position: Entertainment Editor