Founder and CEO of Karma Studios in Bangsaray, just south of Pattaya, Chris Craker has been helping Thai musicians realize
their full potential at home and abroad since 2009. The BigChilli talks to Chris about his extraordinary introduction to Thailand
and his many successes since settling here.
You have worked with some of the world’s leading musicians and orchestras, but your first musical collaboration in Thailand was with someone rather special. Please elaborate:
Back in 1994 I was producing a record with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. A fax was delivered to me during the sessions, asking if I would be interested in recording the music of His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his reign as the Monarch in Thailand.
Initially, I thought it might be a prank being played on me by one of my colleagues in the orchestra, as the opportunity seemed so 'incredible'! However, after a few further exchanges it was indeed a sincere and true approach from The Rear Admiral, Mom Luang Usni Pramoj on behalf of The Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, who had heard some of my previous recordings and liked them. They wanted me to engineer and produce an album that was to be called 'Near Dawn', which was, essentially, a collection of His Majesty's 'Greatest Hits', expertly arranged by ML Usni, for symphony orchestra.
This recording, which was a joy to work on, was with the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and became very popular in Thailand and across the globe. It was the start of a relationship that saw me ending up making some eleven recordings of His Majesty's music, arranged for many different combinations of instruments. It was also the start of my love of Thailand, where I now reside and have made my home.
Corporate life in New York and London, as the Senior Vice President of Sony Music, became more and more arduous and bureaucratic for me, and I craved creative and commercial freedom again, much though I valued my time with Sony Music and their amazing world class artists.
But I really felt the urge to set some new personal challenges and to develop my own creative music complex and enterprise, here in SE Asia. Having worked in Thailand since the mid 90s, I was fortunate to be guided in buying some land down in the (then) sleepy village of Bang Saray, some two hours south of Bangkok, close to the sea in Chonburi Province.
We designed and built a world class residential recording facility that has actually ended up being three studios on a plot of two rai, with spa facilities and a place that provides the perfect environment for creativity and inspiration for bands and artists from all over the world.
The first acts to come over to Thailand and sample our facilities included some amazing talents from the UK, including the bands Placebo, Jamiroquai, Bullet For My Valentine and Enter Shikari, followed by Jessi J, Ellie Goulding and Young Guns.
Subsequently, we've looked after top acts from all over the world including huge acts from Korea, Japan, the USA and most European countries, too. We've also played host to the top acts in Thailand including Bodyslam, Big Ass, Tata Young, Palmy, Da Endorphine, Slot Machine, Singto Numchok, the DTK Boyband with Note Udom, Tilly Birds, Thaitanium, Da Boy Way, Violette Wautier, Valentina Ploy, Silvy, Silly Fools, 25 Hours, Phum Vhipurit and many, many others.
You must have noted the wealth of local Thai talent out there and realized the possibilities for collaboration, not just in terms of recording but other areas of the music business. Honestly, how good are local artists – and is there a chance for any of them to become international stars?
Thailand has many really very talented artists, and those who sing in English absolutely do have a chance for wider success abroad. However, that 'high end' global success has so far eluded the top Thai acts, largely because there's not been enough experience or cash spent on behalf of the local record labels who also manage these artists.
Without laying blame or wishing in any way to be disparaging, the level of expertise and the infrastructure here in Thailand doesn't really serve the artists in their best interests for global success. This is largely due to the label also assuming the role of Manager, resulting in there being no bona fide ‘independent’ management adding flair, strategy, creativity in commerce, or anyone really pushing the labels hard enough to achieve massive success.
The safety net of a monthly pay check and execs not wanting to risk losing face or losing one's job, results in a very much more cautious approach to business and an inevitable lack of innovative thinking. Also, many of the record labels here adopt marketing techniques that were relevant in the 90s; they just haven't taken the trouble to get up to speed with all the advantages that modern day digital marketing techniques afford.
I feel bad for the artists, a number of whom could do so much better. We try our best at Karma to open up everyone's eyes and ears to what's possible.
More recently Phum Viphurit had a pretty strong success with two neo-soul songs that did connect overseas and now, we see artists like Silvy and Valentina Ploy starting to garner some decent attention abroad. We await to see a homegrown Thai artist enjoying the huge success of artists like Adele or Ed Sheeran from the large pool of talent here in Thailand. Meanwhile, The Toys, F Hero, and a handful of other artists continue to enjoy really strong local success within Thailand.
What is a typical arrangement – studio time, residency, input from you and your technicians, even rewriting original material?
Typical bookings (pre-pandemic) used to be around three to four weeks, during which time the artist or band would record an album. And since we are a residential recording facility, quite often the band stays at Karma in our guest bedroom suites and enjoy a 24/7 approach to creative freedom, which is what was I personally craved - the ability to make music and record, whatever the time of day or night and to enjoy luxurious facilities and great food in order to give of one's best.
However, some bookings have been for just a few days, while the longest extended to seven months, in the case of Peter Doherty from The Libertines. We typically just used to produce and engineer the recordings, but increasingly, now, we get asked to write songs both with and for solo artists, which has been further fuelled by the arrival here of my son, Richard Craker, who has had global successes at the very highest level over the last five years, including writing and producing the largest selling single of all time in China, by a female artist.
Richard’s creativity and level of production skills also helped Liam Gallagher from Oasis get to No.1 globally, and so to have someone here with that talent is a game changer for many local Thai artists too.
Yes, we've worked closely with several Thai record labels including Warner Music, BEC Tero and What The Duck among many others. I have also worked on projects with GMM Grammy, Singha, Channel 3 and Channel 7.
We've proudly made many, many, No.1hit records here for local Thai acts. We've had our best success, however, when we've worked independently with an act and collaborated closely in both the creative process and in the marketing and distribution of those songs, utilizing my contacts at Spotify and Apple in Singapore, the USA and the UK - such as with the recent blockbuster hits with The DTK Boyband and Singto Numchok, that have now achieved literally hundreds of millions of streams, way out performing releases by the major labels, locally.
Please name some of the Thai musicians have you advised and helped over the years?
Starting out with Tata Young and P' Bird Tongchai, we've assisted innumerable Thai pop acts including Palmy, Big Ass, Slot Machine, Da Endorphine, Sek Loso, Montonn Jira, Singto Numchok, Tor Saksit and, more recently, both Silvy and Valentina Ploy at Warner. Also some wonderful classical musicians, perhaps most notably a young Pattaya resident Yuqiao Chen, who is destined for life in the fast lane, as a top classical pianist.
Of those who subsequently succeeded in the music business, which ones have given you the most pleasure?
It's true to say that my core ethos in this business is to 'create opportunities' for people. That's my personal context in business, and I've derived a lot of pleasure from helping everyone. If I had a gun at my head and absolutely 'had to say' who the very most enjoyable creative relationships have been with here in Thailand, I would say that first project for His Majesty King Bhumiphol Adulyadej and Mom Luang Usni Pramoj was incredibly fulfilling and a true privilege to have worked on, followed by projects with Singto Numchok, Silvy, Valentina Ploy, the violinist Tasana Nagavjara and the young pianist Yuqiao Chen. And, of course, it was a huge honor and a lot of fun to work with Big Ass, Slot Machine and Da Endorphine, too.
Yes, that's true... our approach has simply been to provide the most inspirational, high end recording facilities alongside solid proven experience and innovative thinking to assist artists with their own personal journeys in the music business.
This industry is tough! No one, anywhere in the world, is brought up knowing the exact blueprint to success, but we try to help people with all the latest information, technology and marketing techniques to assist them achieving their dreams. We always are seeking artists with the wildest BIG dreams, as that's when really magic can happen.
There's 100,000 tracks a day being uploaded to Spotify, so artists wanting to cut through need to be very special. We like to help super-talented and genuinely ambitious artists, rather than those just seeking fatuous fame as social media influencers.
Any local musicians or bands we should look out for in the near future?
Watch this space for Silvy and Valentine Ploy - both half Thai and half Italian. They are both very different but have great voices, great inherent songwriting abilities and the right 'hard work ethos'. Tilly Birds are a great Thai band who I think will continue their successes and be a mainstay of the Thai music industry for a long while to come. I'm also really impressed with Bowky Lion, who is another protege of the What The Duck record label. And the young female rapper Milli is also great fun.
How much of Karma’s time is taken up nowadays with local vs foreign clients?
Since the pandemic, when we basically had no clients coming in, we've reviewed our business model and made significant changes. The studios are now available very much more on a 'by invitation only' basis, as we set up our own record label in May 2020, creating our own music on the Karma Sounds label. This has been a runaway success.
We elected to specialize in music to help people sleep, relax, meditate and study. We write and produce 90% of the music ourselves and we've achieved in excess of 200 million streams in just 18 months. So we make time for artists who we are really passionate to work with. However, since we have now developed our own highly successful operation, releasing in excess of 100 tracks a month, there's almost no time available for random one-off bookings. This has given us focus, and assured our success.
Pre-pandemic we were probably operating on an 85/15 basis, with 85% of our clients being foreign. Post-pandemic it's much harder to put any numbers on this, since we are now fully self-sufficient as a business doing our own thing!
What a delightfully loaded question, haha. Whenever a foreigner enters any market anywhere in the world, they're welcomed by some with open arms, and by others with a degree of suspicion. Naturally, we've experienced both in equal portions.
On the business front, we like to be totally transparent with our artists and provide timely statements and account to our clients correctly. That's unusual in the music industry, and unheard of here in Thailand. But it's been wonderful to see our acts achieve much stronger financial success than they used to.
On the creative front, I think we've been very warmly welcomed, as we've consistently raised the standards of songwriting, production and film score construction, which will have long term benefits for all. Artists love Karma Studios. Being able to record using amazing equipment, in inspirational surroundings, operated by experts, is every artist’s dream. Our studios also, uniquely, have silent air conditioning, so we've been very well received from the artistic community as everything is pretty well perfectly set out from the minute they arrive.
What’s next for you and Karma?
We will continue to develop the local and international acts that we love working with. We will be holding more songwriting camps and one or two camps to help educate both artists and labels in the industry. My son and I have more film projects on the go for 2023. In the last two years we created the soundtracks for the new George Michael biopic and The Making of Star Wars for Netflix. And we want to see our Karma Sounds label (doing the health and wellness music) grow into a multi-million dollar business, sharing the best content to help people relax, sleep and meditate all over the world.
Karma’s star parade
Chris Craker is the founder and CEO of Karma Studios, Asia’s premier luxury Residential Recording Studio, inspiring some of the world’s top songwriters and producers.
A multi-Grammy nominated producer, Chris has operated at the forefront of the music industry for over 35 years. He produced the soundtrack for Director Christopher Nolan’s movie “Interstellar”, with the Oscar nominated score composed by Hans Zimmer, as well as producing the 2017 Annie Award Winning score for “The Little Prince” for Paramount, directed by Mark Osborne of Kung Fu Panda fame.
During the 2020 Covid lockdown, Chris remotely co-produced the soundtrack to Harry Gregson-Williams‘ colourful score for Disney’s “Mulan” from the control room of Karma Studios, Thailand: Sessions were undertaken in London, Los Angeles, Prague, Thailand and Singapore!
Chris splits his time between Thailand, London and Los Angeles, undertaking high profile production, supervision/management, composition, conducting and recording projects, alongside his duties as an Artist Manager of a select group of uniquely talented acts.
Chris has won numerous awards and received acclaim for his activities as a performer, recording artist, composer, arranger, producer/engineer, record label founder, artist manager, author, critic, industry commentator and strategic advisor.
He has produced over five hundred and fifty classical, jazz, soundtrack and pop recordings. His wide experience across many disciplines has helped him gain and maintain a unique position as respected producer, manager, pundit, and performer who is also responsible for selling tens of millions of records, and helping to shape the careers of literally hundreds of artists.
He was General Manager and Senior Vice President of the International Division of Sony BMG Masterworks, maintaining offices in both London and New York until April 2008, a position he vacated to fulfillk his life dream of creatuing one of the world’s most extraordinary recording studios- Karma Sound Studios in the tropical paradaise of BS.
Karma Studios’ first guests included three iconic global bands: Placebo, Jamiroquai and Bullet For My Valentine. More recent guests have included Sigala, DVbbs, Yellow Claw, Sido, IAM, The Libertines – Peter Doherty and Carl Barat, Dingwei, Young Guns, Enter Shikari, Hellions, In Colour, Da Endorphine, Singto, Myra, Tata Young, Cho Yong-pil, Big Ass, Bodyslam, Palmy, Slot Machine, Sek Loso, Jay Montonn, The Chills, Heroes for Hire, Dagny, Absolution, Wyclef Jean, Zom, Two Cartoons, The Mirror Trap, As Paradise Falls, Lyra, Zom Marie, Dominic Miller (Sting’s guitarist and co-writer), Andrew Hale (Sade’s keyboardist and co-writer).
Recent other visitors have included pop icon Jessie J, Tiesto, Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Grammy Award Winner Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran and One Direction), legendary producer/mixer Tony Maserati, Kipper, Phill Brown, Guy Massey and many other truly amazing producers and engineers from all over the world.
Karma Sound Studios is proud to have hosted multiple major Number One international hits, including the biggest selling single of all time in Korea, the biggest selling single of all time by a female artist in China (‘Ugly Beauty’ from Jolin Tsai) as well as the Best Single of 2015 as voted in the Q Awards for ‘Gunga Din’ by The Libertines, produced my multi award-winning producer Jake Gosling.