Monday, 12 August 2013

“Developing an artiste is like building a brand,” says Belinda Ang, manager of regional artiste Joi Chua 蔡淳佳.

Ever wondered what is the role of an artiste manager? How is it different from being a mere promoter and what it means to manage an artiste’s career?

To find out, we spoke to Belinda Ang, artiste manager of Joi Chua, a homegrown songbird from Singapore who has delivered hit songs including 陪我看日出, 有一天我会,依恋,庆幸有你爱我,and 隐形纪念. Joi was also nominated for the Best Female Vocalist in Taiwan's prestigious Golden Melody Awards in 2008. Together, they conceptualized, marketed and released an independent EP " PERSPECTIVES" in Singapore & China in late 2012, and the album topped the charts more than 93 times, with 300 Top 3s and countless Top 10s over more than 500 charts in China alone.

During the in-depth interview, she shared on how a manager could value add to the entire process, how she succeeded in maximizing the limited resources she had to create a successful launch for Joi’s latest album, and her vision for her artiste. Even though she is unpaid, Belinda still puts in up to 70% of her time in this job, because she has absolute conviction in her artiste and friend, Joi Chua.

“I always think she can be better. And why I chose to dedicate myself to this role is because when I told her, 'Hey I think you can be better,' her reply was, 'That’s what everyone says.' So basically many people said the same thing to her but they would just say it as a passing remark. No one stepped up to say that they wanted to do something about it. At that split moment, I decided that I didn’t want to be one of those people, because it wasn’t a passing remark, because I truly believe in what I see in her, and this was further affirmed when I saw her perform on stage, for I felt that I was so lucky to be working with someone like that.”

Belinda Ang, social media consultant and artiste manager of Joi Chua 蔡淳佳

Describe your relationship with Joi. How do both of you work together?

My relationship with Joi is quite unique in the music circle today because we are exclusive. I do not manage any other artistes. It’s more like the relationship of the manager and artiste back in the ‘80s where it’s one to one. There are pros and cons, but this allows me to focus on her career. Apart from managing the label, there is also the career management portion. A lot of managers these days do not manage careers. They manage gigs, and it’s up to the artistes to market themselves. They are more like agents and earn commissions in between. They don’t manage careers because it’s more like a start up, and you never know when your ROI is going to be. Agents these days make a living connecting artistes to gigs and are more concerned with monetary returns. They are also more likely to manage a label and sign artistes under the label.

I have been managing her for three years. We started out as Internet friends. We knew each other on Twitter. Later we met up at Warner Music and became fast friends. At that time, I had a full time employment. After six months, she mentioned briefly about the potential of working together, so I planned towards my independence. It all quite a destiny thing, because I was her first Internet friend in 10 years, as it was not usual of her to make friends online. At that time, I wasn’t even her fan, and wasn’t familiar with her songs. It was only after knowing her that I realized that a lot of the songs that I know are sung by her, because a lot of her songs were in TV dramas.

How were you involved from the conception to release of her self-funded EP “ PERSPECTIVES”?

I basically cover the entire discipline of the traditional label, apart from the music production. We had partners in China, which were newly established, as I wasn’t originally from the music industry. It was my first time working on a music album. Although I studied film in China previously, the music industry and the movie industry are totally different. Moreover, China changes so quickly that a lot of the contacts that were established previously are not around anymore.

How did you make inroads into China’s music market?

There was a lot of work done in establishing contacts in the earlier part of the year before we successfully knew who are our partners. Fortunately I’m a social media consultant, so that’s my strength, and social media is my primary form of networking. Every night, I would spend time deciding who I want to talk to. I talked to as many people as I could, and I flew to China in May, just to visit the social media companies in China, because with very limited resources, no manpower, no label in China, it is quite difficult to do an onground launch. So our only and fastest avenue was through the Internet. And with so many web companies in China, or main social networks like RenRen. Sina, Baidu, they operate very differently from Western social media owners.

I flew there to say hi and to understand their business operations and how they could support us and what are the resources available. I also spoke to some managers in China, and strategized my launch from there. We launched on Sina Weibo exclusively for 48 hours, and the deal came together with free placements of banners and picture links on the other sites that they owned including Sina Music, Weibo Music, Sina News, and it was quite a challenge negotiating for those placements which otherwise would have earned them revenue. Because of our exclusive terms and special relationships that we and our partners had with them, we were able to garner many featured spaces. It was purely a digital launch during the first phase. They linked to the music sites in China. Sina owns their own music site, just as Baidu and QQ too. So we need to provide exclusivity to each of these giants so that they do not discriminate you, because if you only work with one of them, you may end up discriminated and they may not play your new songs. We have to be fair to everyone and give each owner a different form of exclusivity, for example, to keep different images for different sites.

How did the launch turn out?

We topped the 24-hour charts in Sina, we also topped many other radio charts. In China there are the live charts and the 24-hour charts, and ranking is measured by the number of listens within that specific time frame. To be honest, anything can be bought, including listens, so to be able to achieve that kind of results with zero marketing budget, we were quite surprised and very happy. But we knew that we could do more if we were under a label. There will always be tradeoffs for that. Without resources from the label, we are forced to become more creative, and we were fortunate to be able to find partners who were passionate enough about your product to work with. Our partners are also not paid. We all came together with a vision and the same passion. The entire team worked 24/7 just for a vision.

What was it like working with your China partners?

We were working with DP Music, which is a small independent label in China, but they do work with some big names, promoting concerts for Sandy Lam, and they have been around in the market for a long time, previously under another label and eventually they came out and started their own company. They see our vision, and they are as passionate about Joi as I am, so they committed the entire team to the project. This meant that the owner had to feed the entire team without profits in mind. They worked on the project for close to 9 months:  we started in May 2012 and only finished the China promotions only in November. Their specialization is in A&R and promotions. They helped us cover a lot of on-ground work, including sending our songs to over 800 radio stations, clearance with publishing because foreign companies cannot claim publishing rights in China hence a local publisher is required. We worked with them to clear legal requirements.

Contrary to the thought by most people that there is a lot of piracy in China, actually all the major online sites that you see are legal, but there is an entire process of clearing your copyright, and every platform requires a unique clearance. In China, there is no one-stop service, because they are not united, so even if you are from the publishing house, you still need to go to each media owner individually to clear the rights.

There are agents who have access to X number of companies, and you need to pay these agents. If you were to go through agents, you would be able to distribute your music but we would prefer going to media owners individually so that we can negotiate for marketing resources or better placements in the different platforms. We might talk to their marketing staff and not the distribution staff. But of course, it is a very tedious and long process, and I was burnt out. It took me six months to recuperate from then!

What was the biggest challenge that you faced?

Publishing rights were the biggest challenge and it was the one thing that took me a really long time to understand. There was no mentorship or help out there on understanding publishing rights. Publishing rights differ from one country to another. They are different in different platforms. Contracts come in all shapes and sizes. I asked a lot of questions, begging them to explain to me what the clauses meant. Clearing the rights for CD, digital and via a thumbdrive had different implications. We had to authorize our publishing rights to our partners in China, and in turn, they had to authorize the rights to the local platforms, and the distribution had to be cleared through the COMPASS equivalent in China.

Joi is a writer under Warner Chappell (WMC) Taiwan. WMC will clear the publishing rights for the writers for Joi Music, and Joi Music will authorize the rights to WMC in Taiwan. WMC handles our distribution in Taiwan. Joi Music is a label that Joi started which handles production and artiste management. I manage the business part of Joi Music. The company is set up for accounting purposes and collect royalties. It also allows us to better structure our contracts.
What are your thoughts on consumers buying music?

If you are not a fan, you will not spend a single cent to buy music. Even if music was within reach in legitimate digital platforms, you would simply download it for free. But if you are a fan, even if I charged you $100, you would still buy it. So we were willing to spend quite a bit in creating a box set for Joi’s EP. It included a lyric book, a thumbdrive, a set of 7 cards of quotes that were written by Joi on perspectives of life. We wanted to make it a collectible for fans, something that adds value to them. We chose the thumbdrive because of a few reasons. No point using a CD because nobody uses this format anymore and they would simply rip the tracks off and put them into their phones or mobile players. The thumbdrive was in a shape of a pair of spectacles, which links back to the concept of “Perspectives”. inside the thumbdrive we included an entire suite of content: the mp3s, ringtones, SMS message tones which were recorded with her own voice, lossless formats for the tracks, exclusive videos that has not been exposed, desktop wall papers, iPhone wall papers, Facebook covers, Weibo backdrops and more. So when the fan receives the package, it’s very big and exciting for them. The great thing about selling the box set to fans is that they don’t leak the content out. The content was so confidential prior to the launch that we hired our own line of production because other factories refused to sign an Non-Disclosure Agreement. It’s definitely more expensive, and I deeply discourage anyone from following so. But I was stubborn because it was my first album.

We had a run of 3000 copies, but each copy was sold at a premium price. My point of view: music should not be cheaper, it should become more and more expensive. The difference lies in adding value. If a Starbucks Frappuccino can be sold for seven dollars, or an empty notebook can be sold for forty dollars, I don’t understand why you can’t buy music for more. I think the only difference is that there needs to be a re-education into the entire system. Music formats have changed, but the re-education does not come overnight. No one thought that we would sell a single copy, and although we did not manage to break even, I think we need to start changing the perspectives of people. It’s how you add value to your fans. It’s not about how you should price your music. Music is a product on its own, but people don’t sell products, they sell brands. Yes, there are instances that good music can go very far, but how often do we see that? We also see terrible music going very far. Why? It’s because they have terrible products but good brands. And if the good brand comes with a very good product, then the sustainability is longer. If I were to sell you an aluminum can with cola inside for 10 cents, you still wouldn’t even buy it, but if it had a red label outside that says Coca-cola, I could sell it to you for a dollar. I come from a branding background, so I deeply believe in creating brands, and I see Joi as a brand; all her songs are products. So creating an EP or box set is basically packaging the product, but it needs to bring up my brand, that’s why I’m spending so much effort in it. Joi feels the same way, but obviously it’s quite painful for her because there is a lot of money involved! haha

We sold the box set for USD28, exclusively online from her website . In China, we worked with the e-commerce sites to sell the box sets at RMB149 each. We kept the quantity very small because we did not expect it to sell like hot cakes, especially at such a high price. I’m very grateful that there are many supporters from Singapore, and surprisingly we had orders from Japan, Spain, Australia. So the great thing about doing your own distribution is that you get to know where your fans are from. The interesting thing is that the box set was selling at USD28, but the postage to Japan was USD30, so the total for that box set was USD60, and they still didn’t think it was expensive.

What is it like managing Joi without the backing of a major label?

Prior to our stints in Singapore, no one thought that, without a label, we would not be able to step out of Singapore. Most people would think, why don’t you sign with a major label, especially since there are labels coming to her? But she has certain insistence with the quality and ownership of the music. She wants better control over her music. So when she were to join another label, that would be part of what she would negotiation terms. Joi is not a 18 year old girl, so she is at the part of her career that it is time to make decisions for herself. Although running her own label would be a lot harder, especially since we did not attempt to find investors or VCs. We wanted to work with brands but did not have the time to do so. There are some business decisions that weren’t the smartest to make, but we did not want to compromise the quality, and that was the one agreement we knew we had.

We clearly understood that you could not have one EP and, boom, you make it big. Brands need to be built over time, but at least we have started somewhere. For me, if I’m going to invest X dollars to create three songs and launch it for Singapore’s market, the cost is going to be the same even if I include the China market. So I might as well create the album for 3, 4 ,5 markets. Similarly, if I’m going to spend three months marketing the album in market, might as well spend the same time marketing in several markets. So it doesn’t make sense to be localized, especially when I know that the local market it small, and the sad truth is, we do give more respect to musicians who make it out of Singapore. It’s the truth that a lot of us don’t want to admit, but that’s the truth. However, we do not compromise with the Singapore market. We work very closely with the local media, and to be honest, I’m really touched by the local radio stations who have given us a lot of support although we have nothing to offer.

What were your considerations when deciding which market to focus on promoting her album?

Because of time and resource constraints, I was making my bet on either focusing on Taiwan or China. I could only choose one of the two. The reason why people go to Taiwan is because if they are popular in Taiwan, they would be able to sell in China. So to me, it does not make sense to go to Taiwan, because the end destination is still China. We actually bypassed the entire Taiwan for this particular launch. A lot of people think it’s quite silly because many of the music awards like 金曲奖 are all based in Taiwan, but the ballgame is very different in Taiwan as compared to China, and I had more confidence in China because of my previous experiences and personal network there.

My experience in doing business in China is more robust than my experiences dealing with the Taiwanese. The Taiwanese and the Mainland Chinese are quite different when it comes to business negotiations. The way they communicate is different. When I communicate with Mainland Chinese, the experience is a lot richer. When they speak, I am aware of their communication nuances. But I don’t understand the Taiwanese. They are faster, smarter and quicker than Singaporeans. Both countries are. But if I cannot guess what they are trying to say, I’m definitely on the losing end. On the other hand, the Mainland Chinese have a lot of respect for Singaporeans, and they love working with us because we are a man of our words. Their perception is that Singaporeans are very organized and systematic, we mean what we say, and we are very honest folks. So when they are talking to us, they try to do that as well. Personally, I am more at ease dealing with the Mainland Chinese than the Taiwanese. Hence, I feel that I would have a better chance in dealing with the Mainland market.

Of course, it’s also because the Taiwan market is very saturated. Its population and media would be limited, as compared to China, which is so huge that there are no rules to it. No rules seem to be a bad thing to many Singaporeans, but it’s a very good thing for business, because you can create your own rules. There will be gaps and loopholes which are opportunities that you can use to penetrate the market. Even if you cannot make it to the top 3 stations, you can always make it to the fourth, fifth and sixth station because there are over a thousand radio stations there! There are so many ways that you can plan to succeed in China, whereas in the limitations of an island-city, there will always be monopolization.

As an artiste manager, how did you bring out the best in her? What was your value add?

The success of artiste depends on how the manager can make things happen, so you would feel guilty if you are not working hard enough. We analyzed the gaps based on whatever was established earlier, and we recognized a few flaws that needed to be filled, including the need for people to recognize her face. Her songs are popular in China, people recognize her voice but we found that there was a lack of recognition of her face, and it’s a very big problem for artistes. Her previous songs have been used in many dramas, even in Taiwan and China, so we did not have to re-introduce her songs, and we could use the songs as a penetration point, but people don’t know much about her: what she does, what’s her background and her personality.

Hence, we tried to arrange for promotions or work that she had the opportunity to talk about herself, and not about her voice or the songs. We also structured our press kit in such a way that it focused all towards her perspectives of life. Most of the interviews that we did were focused on her personality. We capitalized stronger exposure on magazines for visibility. We had some magazine coverage such as Cosmopolitan and covers on a few other local publications. However, we did not have time for TV because TV promotions were blocked off in slots. TV recordings are usually done back to back in three days, and they would do record all the episodes for the month in one shot. But our previous promo schedule did not allow us to make it for TV, so it is something that we are hoping to do in the months to come, together with events.

Our partners in China are very well connected to the media, but no company should be totally dependent on their partners. I created an entire list of DJs and I talk to them every night on Weibo during that period to ask them if everything was ok, and whether they have received the songs, and asked if there was any help that they needed, and they came back saying, “You know what, no other managers have done this.” It is the type of connection that you create: through the familiarity of the connections from our china partners, coupled with the level of personalization through the effort you put in, then they are more willing to push your songs, and when they play your songs, they would say a little more about you. When they need a favor like recording a radio ID, they would just come straight to me, and I would get it done for them. These are very small favors, but it’s very important to show sincerity, especially when you are not a diva, people don’t come begging at your knees, but at the same time, you are not a new comer, so we are somewhere in between. The DJs know her, but we just wanted to humanize her a little.

How do you arrange her promotional work?

When we travel, it’s always starting with Beijing first, because that’s where all the major media companies are. Shanghai houses the major fashion brands, so you need to know what you are up for, then you would plan your route that way. When we plan our route, other than Beijing, we would also plan some work in other cities, and the other promotions that are alongside those work. There are hundreds of media platforms in Beijing alone, and two weeks are not even enough to cover Beijing alone.

We try to promote her material with movie companies, but a lot of them have exclusive relationships with labels, so it’s a little tougher, unless the director happen to like her song so much. This is a totally different track to take, and it also depends on how much time I have!

Any advice for someone who’s interested in becoming an artiste manager?

A manager’s job is actually full-time, yet I do not invest 100% of my time to her career, just as she doesn’t either. I have my own company to handle as well, partially because of bread and butter, and partially because of my passion (as a social media consultant). But if you wanted to be a manager, you would really have to be whole-heartedly devoting 110% of your time in this, because there is so much networking and conceptualizing to do. I spend a lot of time thinking, strategizing, and talking to people. You have to buy the air ticket, fly over, and just spend the time renewing yourself with the market and your networks.

For anyone who wants to embark on a career managing artistes, there is a lot of thinking involved behind. Artistes are usually more passive, you cannot expect them to go out and meet these people, so that’s why she hires a manager for all this. I need to make those visions come true. Whether an artiste performs well depends a lot on her team. An artiste’s report card comes when he/ she performs on stage, but that passageway to the stage is a long route that depends on the efforts of the entire team.

Building relationships need time. It’s the same for all businesses. You don’t create your networks when you need them. Create your networks before you need them. You can’t have an agenda then go meet people. They would be more willing to see you. When I went to visit the social media companies in China (Youku, Sina, NetEast, Baidu), I simply brought my bakwa (roasted pork) and pandan cake to them just to say hi and simply just understand who I’m talking to and how we can help each other. You need to add value to people, and even if you don’t get to work with each other, never mind, in the end you get to know a friend. And if you ever get to work together in the future, you wouldn’t be strangers by then. Today, many of the business contacts that I have are people whom I got to know from ten years ago. Trust is also built with time, and hence networks need to be built ahead of time, and not when you need it.

In Singapore, people are generally brought up in a system to follow, and not to lead or initiate. Yet in the entertainment industry, there is no system, and you have to create it. So you will need to be flexible and versatile. There are many musicians with ideals and dreams, but are not willing to work hard enough to fulfill them. If you’d to compare ourselves to those in China, you would feel so guilty and absolutely embarrassed. If anyone were to step up to say they are willing to learn this, I would be happy to teach, but I can tell you it’s not easy at all. You carry bags, clear the shit, do the things that the prince and princesses in Singapore are not used to doing.

Locally, there are simply not enough talents to support these musicians so that they could concentrate on honing their craft. I feel that musicians should be left to do what they do best. They should not deal with things like accounting, book keeping, or drafting of contracts. They should share their ideas, then let other people do it for them.

What is your vision for Joi as an artiste?

Joi’s vision is very simple. She just wants to continue singing to a lot of people and she wants to spread her positive messages to them. I have larger visions for her.

My vision is to put her in front of an audience of 10,000 people. It’s not hard, but for her, she is not ready yet.  We want people to come because they want to listen, not because of a marketing stunt typical of that from a big label where concert tickets are given out to sponsors. I want her to be a household name not only in Singapore, but also in China and Taiwan. I’m not saying that I can make it come true, because for every singer, at some point in time, they may need someone else to bring them higher. I’m not saying that she needs to stick by me. Funding may be a challenge, but It’s not impossible. I can’t tell you the odds yet, until I spend time working on that part. I’m more of an idealist though, and as long as I see there’s a potential, even if the chances are slim, I would still do it. Opportunities are there for people who are prepared. Even if it doesn’t happen, so what? At least you don’t ponder in your life, what if?

What do you think of the future of the music industry in Asia? What are the top three trends that you’d predict?

I may not have enough experience to make a very impactful statement on this, but my take on the top three trends is:
     1. Digital  - the popularity of buying digital music will increase with the maturity of the market. I feel that those who don’t buy digital music yet is not because of its cost but because of the maturity of the market, and that will improve.
     2. We will all go back to the basics of A&R and conceptualization. People will start to realize that it’s pointless making seven filler tracks and three good tracks, and you’d rather spend more time on that three tracks, and that’s why in Japan and Korea, EPs and mini albums are more popular, rather than full albums. You can see that trend happening in Taiwan and China now.
     3. There will be more popularity on live performances. So people who can’t sing are gone. People who don’t improve themselves will be taken over by the market. There won’t be any more of the 偶像派 Idol types. If you want to be in idol type, you would need to be an 偶像实力 artiste with real talent, so there is a lot of stress on musicians trying to better themselves, and only the strongest can survive. The market will become like what it used to be, it’s going to narrow down, rather than expand. The expansion will come from your Youtube stars and other options of entertainment, but if you are talking about the music industry as a career, there would be a cleaning up of trash in the market.