The numbers don’t lie, Nutdanai (Billy) Chuchat is Thailand’s number one YouTuber when it comes to music. Over 500,000 subscribers, 30 million views on a single cover, and tens of thousands of views on each new video, his channel’s stats are impressive.
Equally impressive is how young he is. Currently 21 years old, he started on YouTube when he was 14, and has featured a long list of local talents, notably many contestants of The Voice Thailand.
But Billy’s dream has always been to make original music, and he’s now pursuing that dream with his band, Tilly Birds, a 5-piece band that has just recently been getting more involved in the live music scene here, notably playing at Sanamluang Music Play Time at Rockademy, opening for Somkiat and Polycat.
We caught up with Billy and Anuroth (Third) Ketlekha , the lead singer of his band, to talk about Billy’s transition from YouTube covers to original music and get their thoughts on Bangkok’s music scene.
What stood out to me most as we talked and got to know each other is how it’s very much a level playing field here. For Billy, regardless of his success on YouTube, building a fanbase of people who love his original music presents the same challenges faced by any other indie band here.
Read on to get an in-depth view look at the challenges and struggles Billy has faced while transitioning from covers to original music, as well as a glimpse at the hopes and dreams and hardworking attitude that we believe will take him and his band far.
Tell us a little about yourself and the band.
Billy: My name is Billy and I’m the guitarist at a band called Tilly Birds. I’m currently studying at Chulalongkorn University. I’m in my senior year, studying film.
So, you’ve been one of the key YouTubers in Thailand for quite some time now with over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube. We read in a 2014 interview that your dream has always been to play original music. When did that start for you and when did the transition come into play?
Billy: The transition started since the first single on the 1st of November, 2014. That’s when we released that single. It was just me and Third at first, but then the band started to form with people starting to join at the end of last year, at the time that we released our third single. So that’s the point where the band actually became a band and not just the two of us.
How did the band come together and how does everyone know each other, who joined when?
Third: Billy and I have known each other for up to 9 years now.
I’ve seen you in some of Billy’s YouTube covers!
Third: Yeah! We started around 10th or 11th grade, he created a piece of music and he wanted a melody and lyrics so he let me try and write some. So I wrote them and sang them and it worked, and we’ve been doing this ever since. When I was studying at Thammasat and was at this music club called TU Folksong, I met lots and lots of musicians – bassists, guitarists, drummers. So I brought some of my closest friends. He was already at Chula and I transferred a year later and I brought a bassist, a drummer and another guitarist to the band.
“Since it’s my dream I’m going to try everything to make my band come to life and I’m going to try to make a living out of it, but I don’t want to quit what I started on YouTube, because that’s where it all started and that’s what has made me become who I am today.”
So Billy, you talk about how you’re a big part of the songwriting as well and how you do lyrics as well, and I know that you currently have 3 originals on your channel, with one of your songs saying that it’s dedicated a “Ms. R”. So my question is, what’s the story behind the music? Is it from all of your personal experiences?
Third: (Laughs) Every song is from my personal experiences.
So who’s the main songwriter? How does it work?
Third: We come up with songs in two ways, either I write them first or Billy creates the music first.
Billy: Concerning the direction and meaning of the songs, I just ask him personally what it’s about and we decide what point of view we should talk from.
So it’s very natural.
Third: I ask him first what he wants the song to be about and I start from there. I relate the songs to my personal experiences, so that maybe other people can relate to them as well.
So just good old band stuff? Sometimes it starts with lyrics, sometimes it starts with melody. Whatever the case is right?
Billy: Yeah just random.
So how many songs are you guys sitting on now? I know you guys played a full set recently.
Billy: We have a total of 12.
So are you working to make that into an EP or an album?
Billy: We’re trying to make an album.
Third: We’re trying to finish our album soon.
Billy: Our bassist is studying in the UK, so things are getting hard.
Third: Yeah, that’s an obstacle for the band.
So what’s your dream? Are you gonna stop doing covers Billy or are you going to continue doing that? Traditionally, YouTube stars have a difficult time transitioning to original music, but it seems like it’s going well for you. So what do you see happening and what do you want to happen?
Billy: Since it’s my dream, I’m going to try everything to make my band come to life and I’m going to try to make a living out of it, but I don’t want to quit what I started on YouTube, because that’s where it all started and that’s what has made me become who I am today. So I’m going to keep going with it, but on a smaller scale.
So you want to be true to your current fanbase and your future fanbase?
Billy: Yeah but I’m going to try to separate the two.
Third: The thing about Billy’s fanbase is that we have the band’s fans and the YouTube fans, but they are not the same people.
Billy: Yes, we’re trying to separate them.
I feel that in other countries, when starting something completely new and separate, there’s pressure when you’re originally a YouTuber. Do you feel that the music scene here is inviting and that the scene gives opportunities for new artists to come and share their songs, on platforms like Cat Radio, and get fans through that, and do gigs like your recent gig at Rockademy? As a new artist, what are your thoughts on the scene here?
Billy: I think the opposite. I don’t think Thailand has that many channels for new bands to approach.
Third: Original artists in Thailand don’t have those opportunities or the space to express themselves or perform and make themselves well known in the country, because as Billy said, there aren’t many channels and it’s difficult.
Billy: That’s actually one of the reasons I created my YouTube channel but the marketing was wrong as I was really young. I just realized that people are different. People who listen to YouTube stars, to covers, they tend to listen to a different type of music from what out band makes.
Third: Most of his subscribers won’t support the band because it’s not the music they want to hear. They like covers, they like pop songs, and what we make isn’t like that.
Billy: It’s different.
Third: It’s two different things, two different genres of music.
“The nature of Thai listeners is that the don’t like hearing what they are not familiar with, they like to hear something that they’ve already heard. They’re not really that open for something new, for original stuff.”
Py from Fungjai recently noted in an article titled “Bangkok Music City” that the majority of music gigs here – whether in bars, clubs or restaurants – are cover music gigs and that if that changed to be original music it would change everything for musicians. Do you think it’s possible for that to happen?
Billy: I think there’s a very slim chance that it could happen. I try to be optimistic.
Third: The nature of Thai listeners is that the don’t like hearing what they are not familiar with, they like to hear something that they’ve already heard. They’re not really that open for something new, for original stuff.
Billy: And they like repetition as well. They like to listen to one song all day. It is changing though.
You said in 2014 that Thailand’s music scene hasn’t change is 12 to 13 years. Do you think that recently things have improved and that things are changing?
Billy: I guess I’ve just been exposed to different people recently and I’ve seen the community, I’ve just entered it with Tilly Birds and I think “alright, there’s a small community”. But it’s just too small. The big community hasn’t changed for 20 years, but this one is growing. I don’t think it’s not changing, I think people from the big community aren’t transferring to this community, but that new people are just coming and getting involved.
Third: We thought we could do anything, that anything is possible, but now we realize it takes time and it takes really hard work to get to somewhere because the road is filled with obstacles.
Do you think over the next 3 years things will improve to the point where Thai’s can make a living off music? Because right now the majority can’t really, it’s not good enough.
Billy: 3 years? No.
Third: Maybe 5-6 years.
Billy: It’s not for everybody. I think it will take one generation, maybe two, to make it stable.
“I guess I’ve just been exposed to different people recently and I’ve seen the community, I’ve just entered it with Tilly Birds and I think “alright, there’s a small community”. But it’s just too small. The big community hasn’t changed for 20 years, but this one is growing.”
Do you guys want to go regional with your band?
Third: Of course we want to go regional.
How do you see that happening, do you see yourself touring?
Billy: Yeah, that’s our big picture, touring and playing big festivals.
Third: Currently we also realize that to make it here in Thailand first, we have to make Thai songs first. We have to engage with the Thai people first before branching out internationally because there’s only a few artists in Thailand that can do that, all the way, before making Thai songs.
Billy: If we’re gonna stay here, we gotta make Thai songs. But if we’re not, then we can continue writing English songs.
But this is what I find interesting, so many Thai indie bands here make English songs, it’s their bread and butter. With all this English music being created, do you think there will be a wave of Thai indie bands hitting the region and taking the region by surprise? With markets like Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong having primarily English audiences do you think that Thai music that hasn’t being heard before hitting those markets is the future?
Billy: Could be.
Third: Possibly yes.
Billy: It’s really hard to get out into the region.
Third: One problem too, Thai people listen to English songs, pop songs, but if those songs are made by Thai people, they won’t open up their minds and experience it. But if it’s by an international artist, they would.
What festivals would you like to play?
Third: That’s the dream!
Billy: Yeah. Also Reading, Fuji Rock.
“We thought we could do anything, that anything is possible, but now we realize it takes time and it takes really hard work to get somewhere because the road is filled with obstacles.”
What have been some of your favorite moments as a band and favorite gigs?
Third: Recently, playing at Sanamluang Music Playtime.
Billy: It was great!
Third: It was the first time we were exposed to audiences and people that were actually open to different music or original music. Because in the past we’ve played on stages that didn’t have those sort of audiences.
Billy: And didn’t have that much energy.
Third: Yeah. We were at the wrong gigs every time, every stage, until Sanamluang Music Playtime.
So has that set a precedence for you of what you want to do from here on out?
Billy: Yeah. We would be happy to play that gig again and again and again.
Third: Yeah that was the best moment for the band.
Billy: Everyone was happy after that.
Do you have any festivals booked for this festival season?
Billy: Not sure yet. We’re waiting for confirmation.
So final question, what do you think are some solutions for the music scene here?
Billy: Just for people to open up, I think if people just open up to new music, to original songs, more and listen to live music more, things can happen.