Six years ago, when Sam Rocker first picked up a guitar, she was with friends, fellow musicians, who hung out at the Home Du Pain coffee shop in Phnom Penh. It was 2011 and they were still in high school.
They would text each other to arrange “music time” in the evenings after school and sit around a large wooden table at the cafe where they would spend hours watching Youtube videos of guitar tutorials and karaoke songs.
“I hang out with the community who are fond of rock music. I saw them playing so cool, and I look up to them. It was like the grassroots of rock and hardcore lovers joined together and they play their favorite songs. It was the first music community I knew.”
Rocker, who is now recognized as one of the foremost emerging solo singer-songwriters in Cambodia, started a hardcore band which lasted two years.
Her song, “You’re the One”, was recorded for the BBC Media Action series Love9, bringing her more exposure.
Last week, Rocker performed at the Chinese House, an upmarket restaurant and bar on Phnom Penh’s riverside.
She describes her journey to fame as “serendipity” and says it is critical in a country such as Cambodia to have space for emerging independent artists to find support for their work.
“In the music industry, it is important to enlarge an expanding network, but this is a very challenging task for independent musicians and artists in Cambodia, who mostly have no other better way than social media to interact with audiences and become known.”
Established in 2009, the Leng Pleng website aims at building a community for independent artists, where live music fans can keep track of their favorite bands, DJs, and musicians.
“Mostly, they are fusion bands, which is like a fusion between Khmer music from the 60s together with western music and basically it was a meeting of musicians that just wanted to play and people that just wanted to hear it,” said Ken White, managing director of Leng Pleng.
The site developed from its early days as a platform for mailing lists to a full-fledged website covering all things music in Cambodia, in 2011.
“At that time, that’s when the music scene in Cambodia is really expanded and we got a lot of really great bands together,” White said.
After moving to Cambodia in 1998, White discovered there was no centralized way to find jobs in Phnom Penh, leading him to create the job listings website Bong Thom. A passionate harmonica player himself, the Australian expat created Leng Pleng in a similar vein.
“And then it became like ‘okay we just put it together and it’s easy enough,’ we should also start a conversation about different things, about where to buy music instruments, what good music to play, you know, all about the different things about music,” White said.
Over the past few years, Leng Pleng has expanded and morphed into a larger community, tracking data from artists’ and musicians’ Facebook pages.
Teng Piset, a senior content manager at Leng Pleng, said the website focuses on “bands who start small.”
“It doesn’t mean that they are new, they cannot play well. Some of them play well and are very creative. We want them to be more exposed to the public via our platform so that our subscribers who never see them will want to see them once and more and more.”
Every weekday Leng Pleng sends out an email to musicians, DJs, and venues, to get hold of their schedules. Piset then arranges the data on Leng Pleng and the new lists are emailed out to more than 8,000 subscribers.
The diva lead singer of the Cambodian Space Project, Chhanthy Kak, also known as Srey Thy, said the band regularly makes use of Leng Pleng to gain exposure.
“The [Leng Pleng] team came to capture our live performances. They wrote our story and published it. We send them our performance schedule regularly. I believe they do take part in promoting Khmer musicians and musicians in Cambodia.”
“I don’t read English, but its bilingual website helps. It is updated every week, so I can see all the list of the bands so I can follow them.”
Rocker believes Leng Pleng helps spread the word of Cambodia’s growing live music scene.
“It would be great when artists post by themselves [on their social media channel], and Leng Peng also helps by featuring more about the band via their page. It will help them become well-known, and this is the best thing to do to be a musician.”
About a third of the 300 live music venues registered with the site actively use it for outreach and White hopes to continue to grow the site to become a “Mecca for musicians” in Cambodia.
“The finished venue in terms of something that’s set up for musicians to create music and new music, and create something that means something to people. That is what is missing at the moment that takes somebody to put something together, and then it will happen again.”