Che Mokh, or Mokhtaza Ahmad, started his career as a primary school teacher with a great love for music. He was an English teacher by training.
“While I was studying to be an English teacher, a lecturer discovered that I had other talents – I could play instruments and sing,” Che Mokh said.
“Around the same time, they were working on a pilot project to introduce music in schools. So, when I ended my English course, I was selected to be one of the music teachers in Kluang, Johor.”
Che Mokh taught music in a few primary schools from 1983 to 1985. He rose through the ranks and became a music lecturer at a training college in 1988.
During this time, Che Mokh got the opportunity to be part of an industry training programme at BMG Music. “I was comfortable where I was, but I wanted to do more. I was so in love with the music industry,” he said.
After the year-long attachment, he decided to quit his job as a lecturer and join the music label in 1995. “A lot of my friends told me, ‘You are not a composer or a lyricist, why do you want to be in the industry? Who are you?’”
He was in his 30s then, and was surprised to be offered the job, thinking it would go to someone younger.
“I met Frankie Cheah, who was the managing director of BMG. We spoke on the same wavelength because he was a teacher before too. He said he had confidence in me and asked me to head the Artistes & Repertoire (A&R) department.”
After three years, Che Mokh left BMG and joined a small, independent label, NAR Records. It was here that Che Mokh’s work as an A&R manager truly shone. He worked on Siti Sarah’s debut album, Sarah, which won Best Album at the 2003 Anugerah Industri Muzik and catapulted the powerhouse vocalist’s career.
Che Mokh was also responsible for reviving the careers of bands like Exists and Spider in the early 2000s.
“Spider’s first album was with another label but it wasn’t successful. They were working on this new song, Aladin (which became a radio hit), and I saw a way to make the band work. I believed I could make them big.”
Che Mokh is now an A&R manager at Warner Music Malaysia.
1. What is the role of an A&R manager?
An A&R person scouts talents and chooses who to sign to a music label. Back in the 1990s, we would go from town to town to discover talents.
There would be singing competitions, and we would judge them. Sometimes we would hold auditions at our studio and people would come to us.
After shortlisting a few names, we would sit down with them and get to know them and find out what kind of singer they want to be.
Besides signing them, we look for materials for the artistes to record. An A&R manager knows a lot of songwriters and composers.
I will meet with them and announce that we have a new talent and we’re looking for two pop ballads, for example. These songwriters and composers will then pitch their songs to me.
Right now, the trend in music is every song has an EDM touch, so things like these will be taken into consideration.
2. How do you groom an artiste?
You don’t only sign them as a singer, you have to coach them on how to interact with the crowd. Some artistes aren’t talkative.
The first vocalist of Exists was Mamat. After Mamat left, a second vocalist, Ezad, came on board. He was shy. Mamat had already helped the group find phenomenal success and Ezad felt like he was just there to replace him. That inferiority complex was in him for a couple of years.
When Exists was recording Jesnita, I told Ezad that this song will be the one that will make him popular (the song eventually became one of the band’s signature tracks).
So, when he performed it in public, we taped it and we would go back to the office and do a post-mortem. We reviewed how he engaged with the audience. We taught him how to tease the audience before he sang the song.
3. Has social media changed the role of an A&R manager?
Social media is another avenue for us to scout talent. We can do it with just a click now. We used to run around attending singing competitions so the A&R department needed about four people back then. Now, we just have one or two people doing the job.
(When scouting for talents on social media), we look at your song, and we look at how many hits you have gotten through your song. Even if you’re performing covers, if they hit millions of views, it means people love your vocals. We recently discovered Andi Bernadee through Smule and Tysha Tiar on Facebook.
4. Why is the backing of music labels still important today when aspiring singers have so many avenues to release their music independently?
You can have your own followers, millions even, but you still have to work with a label in order to succeed.
For example, you start your own company and you partner with a music label. Somehow when your music goes into a streaming service, that really matters.
Your music is available in all parts of the world and when they see a label they know, it will help your music more, the music service could feature you more prominently.
5. What were your first impressions of Elly Mazlein, Faradhiya and Siti Sarah?
Elly had this gentleness about her and I remember thinking her voice sounds a bit like Siti Nurhaliza.
Faradhiya came to our office without an appointment.
My reception called me up and told me there was this beautiful girl here. I came down and I heard her singing; it was a Whitney Houston song, and I thought she had potential.
I saw Siti Sarah when she competed in a few singing competitions. She was good. I met with her father Raisuddin Hamzah, who was also a singer, and talked to him.
She was only 17 at the time and coming from a teaching background, I needed her to finish her studies first. So, after she sat for her SPM, we recorded her first album.