The team from Thibi shares their process of creating their groundbreaking data-driven explainer on Myanmar’s “copy thachin” or copy songs movement. This is the first time that Kontinentalist is collaborating with Thibi, a data and design consultancy, on a story. In this article, Thibi breaks down how they pulled it all together.
“Copy thachin”, or copy songs, highlights a lesser-known musical genre that has shaped popular music in Myanmar for more than 50 years.
This is a story of many firsts. This is the first time we are partnering with Kontinentalist to produce a bespoke story of this scale and ambition. This is also the first time anyone has ever covered the copy thachin phenomenon using data.
Why copy thachin?
If, like the author Lu Min Lwin, you grew up in Myanmar, you’ve probably heard copy thachin everywhere. Though we may have criticisms of the genre, we know many of these songs by heart and have fond memories around them.
Unfortunately, not a lot is written about copy thachin outside of academia, save for international press coverage that mainly focuses on the issue of plagiarism. This doesn't do justice tofor a genre that is still significant for millions of music fans in Myanmar and the diaspora. Moreover, news from Myanmar these days are inundated with reports of conflict and hardship.
We knew deep down that there was more to the story. We wanted to shine a light on the creativity and ingenuity of the Myanmar people despite the many challenges we endure.
Collaborating with Konti
Thibi is in its fifth year of operations. In this time, we’ve been honing our skills on a variety of exciting projects—developing data-driven products to running months-long environmental data journalism training programmes.
We wanted to showcase these skills by crafting a story on a topic we cared deeply about. We’re huge fans of Konti and felt that its platform for showcasing local stories with a strong visual and data focus was perfect for bringing our passion project to fruition.
Over the course of about six months, we worked closely to bring the story to life. Konti gave us access to their content management and design system, and also shared their whole process of putting a story together.
Piecing the data together
Before we began this story, there was no dataset, official or otherwise, on copy thachin. Thanks to a 55,000-strong community of Myanmar music fans, we now have some sense of just how big the genre was.
In the Facebook group “Original/Copy သီချင်းမှတ်စု” (“Original/Copy songs notebook”), members actively discuss Myanmar pop music, and share lists of copy thachin and their corresponding originals. The group, which started around 2013, still has active contributors.
The general attitude toward copy thachin is a mix of nostalgia and curiosity. Members of the group post questions like “May I know the original song to May Sweet’s Achit Binkara Tat Phwe?” to which group members respond with helpful comments such as, “I believe it’s an old ABBA song, but let me look into it more”.
Thanks to the group’s careful cataloguing of copy thachin lists using the legacy Facebook “notes” feature, we were able to extract over 7,000 lines of text from the lists and, with some help from ChatGPT and regular expressions, pull all the information together into a spreadsheet, creating a database of copy thachin for the first time. This process yielded a dataset of over 3,000 copy thachin and their originals.
To fully understand copy thachin, we must take into account the entire Myanmar pop music repertoire. For this, we turned to MyanmarMP3.net, a free streaming site for Myanmar music with listings of tracks, artists, and albums, complete with extra information such as an album’s release date, the backing band for the album, and the recording studio used.
The site features information on a whopping 17,000 songs released between 1960 and 2017, which, combined with the Facebook data, shows us a never-before-seen picture of copy thachin.
Telling an audiovisual story
Just as copy thachin localised international hits by situating them within Myanmar's local settings, we wanted to immerse readers in the story by giving them a sense of time and place.
For this, we start off in the halls of Yangon University's Marlar Saung dormitory, an iconic building which is the subject of the ‘80s copy thachin hit also named Marlar Saung. The reader's journey is accompanied by a recording of the song that plays by default (by design) and gets louder as they scroll, finally reaching the gates of the dormitory. Here they encounter two students playing and singing the love song, presumably to serenade one of the dormitory's residents.
All of this is captured in a beautiful hand-drawn scene illustrated by Thibi's design lead Zune Ei Htet, who also doubled as the story's UI designer and art director. The scene includes clickable visual elements that expand to explain more of copy thachin's historical context. The idea here: we invite you to delve deeper into the context, but you'll still learn something even if you scroll past.
With a story about music, we felt that audio needed to be an integral part of the experience—like how you would introduce a friend to your favourite band.
However, meaningfully incorporating audio into an interactive visual story was uncharted territory for us. Luckily, our developer Li Jia Li, who also has an extensive background in UI/UX design, managed to lead this effort towards a beautiful result.
We dove deeper in the next section by inviting the reader to listen to snippets of both Marlar Saung and the original song it’s based on, Darling, accompanied by Genius-style lyric annotations, all to show how Myanmar lyricists have innovated to situate the original song within a uniquely Myanmar context.
Visualising the data
Then we zoomed out to ask the question: how big was the copy thachin phenomenon? This was exciting, because although we knew anecdotally how omnipresent copy thachin is, we didn't know to what extent… until now.
Inspired by the interactive discography of legendary jazz double bassist Ron Carter's works, Yan, Thibi's founder and the data visualisation developer for this story, put together an interactive timeline of copy thachin albums where readers can get a bird's eye view of releases over the years while being able to zoom in and peruse the details of each album, including which artists the tracks were copied from.
We were also excited about another aspect of the data that we got "for free", by cross-referencing copy thachin lists on Facebook with metadata on MyanmarMP3. This gave us information on which bands backed which albums, and which artists they collaborated with on each track. The data confirmed what we knew to be anecdotally true: that just a few backing bands were behind large numbers of copy thachin performed by a rotating cast of solo vocalists.
All this culminated in a network diagram, which was probably the most workshopped and revised visualisation in the story.
From editorial to accessibility and user experience, we learned a lot from working closely with Kontinentalist. This project gave us the space to apply all the skills we've accumulated throughout the years working on client projects while experimenting with the form of the interactive visual story.
We learned the most from the smallest details. Konti's designers, Joceline and Amanda, have eagle eyes for accessibility in our UX, often picking out interactions we’d overlooked which would've made it that much harder for folks using screen readers or navigating the story with their keyboards. Editors Nabilah and Gwyneth provided much-needed focus to the drafts. Our Google Doc comment threads saw us debating details such as whether "copy thachin" is plural or singular in Burmese (spoiler: it can be both). Samira helped us craft a social media campaign and showed us how much attention to detail goes into promoting a single story. Finally, front-end tech lead Aishah supported us through developing the story UI using Vue.js, sometimes taking questions late at night on how one of Konti's in-house components worked.
We felt very supported throughout the whole process. We wouldn't have been able to publish this story with this level of polish if it were not for the Konti team pushing us to produce our best work.