Sony Music's Shridhar Subramaniam on the rise of Asian music, working with NFTs, and what it takes to make it

Sony Music's Shridhar Subramaniam on the rise of Asian music, working with NFTs, and what it takes to make it

In the last couple of years, we've seen the rise of Asian music and entertainment across the world. From the meteoric success of BTS in the West to the major global influence of shows like Squid Game, the spotlight's slowly moving toward our side of the world. 

With music specifically, the wave's only growing bigger with more and more Asian acts gaining recognition worldwide and major music companies, like Sony Music, planting their roots in the region. 

Following the launch of Sony Music's Southeast Asia headquarters in Singapore, Bandwagon sat down with the  President of Corp Strategy and Market Development in Asia and Middle East, Shridhar Subramaniam, to talk about what it takes to make it big in music and the growth of the Asian music scene. 

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So, you just came in from New York which is where you're based. Why is that, considering that you're more focused on Asia and the Middle East?

The future of the music business, whether you like it or not, over a 10 to 15 year period is going to pivot towards Asia. Why? Because we have many things—the population, the demographics, the creativity. 

If a global company is to succeed globally, it needs to succeed in Asia. Until the headquarters and the people who are sitting and making decisions understand Asia, we can't succeed in this part of the world. 

In the presentation earlier, you mentioned how COVID really affected the music business. Could you elaborate more about that and the figures you shared with us?

The music business has gone back to being almost close to a $26-$27 billion business, right, and at its peak in 1991, it was a $30 billion business. It came down to 8 billion but it's now, it's back to 28. Most of this growth has happened in the last five years and every year, the global growth is 20% so the industry has grown by 5-6 billion just last year. That's the first number.

The second number is that from close to 60 different markets. Out of the 60 markets, 50 markets have grown by double-digit numbers and every one of the 60 markets has grown—not one market has not grown. The Middle East is the fastest-growing region at 35% while China, which is already a billion-dollar market is growing at 35% and the US, which is the world's biggest market is growing at 18%. All of this is being driven by subscription streaming services. 

Every major market is growing, not of like 20 to 25% so these are all staggering numbers and we still are still the tip of the iceberg. Out of the 28 billion, Asia is still only 2.8 billion, we're still only at 10% but there are public reports that predict we'll grow up to 60 billion by 2028. When you look at that kind of predicted growth, you have to ask what we're doing and what kind of infrastructure we have?

The only way to grow with the market is in the local repertoire, because as the internet penetrates everything is going to be in local languages, right? Instagram, TikTok, social media celebrities and fan followings are also very local. So, now when you combine all these trends, it is imperative that you need to have your feet on the ground. So, that's where this office and all of our central operations—like our data analysis, human resources, and so on—come in. 

In Singapore, we have some major players here like Universal and Warner, and now Sony Music. What's the sell of Sony? Why Sony, especially for aspiring artists?

We always ask ourselves this question, that's a huge question. The question is not what you say but how to execute it. Our money is as good as anybody else's so that's not even a differentiator. 

The first is actually the creative process. When you write a song, it is the loneliest and most insecure experience, where you feel a lot of doubts about your music. So that's where our creative partnership comes in and we guide them to make the right decision. We'll also be there to accept blame if it isn't—if a song doesn't become a hit because sometimes it doesn't, we take that. So, we become that support function for artists, whether it's good or bad. 

The short answer is we have to be their partners. It's cliche but in reality, that's what it is—if you're not that, you cannot succeed. And when an artist comes in here and we pitch them, they pitch us, they have to feel that these guys can deliver that. 

Compared to the US and Europe, Asia is a very fragmented market, it's a very diverse region with so many different languages, cultures, styles, and even different relations with music. How are you and your team strategising on dealing with the different nuances of Asia?

I think that's the biggest challenge in Asia. I mean, there's the economic challenge in some of the markets in Asia but the big one is really what you mentioned.

When you're in a creative business, there's always going to be diversity—and diversity is not only language and geography; there's also diversity in culture and heritage. The only way to address it, and I think you're seeing that reflection here in Southeast Asia, is launching multiple labels, which are targeting specific genres of music that fit the different cultures and needs of different countries. The only way to do this is to have specialisations that address the specific niches that you're talking about.

How do these sub-labels operate?

When you start a label, it's not just lip service or some paperwork. It needs to be substantiated by actually having people, the budget, and the resources.

More importantly, they need to be able to make sure that this is viable. Typically, it takes a while for a label to start becoming profitable or have momentum so you need to have patience. It's not going to be overnight so that's why a big company like us which have deep pockets and a longer vision can have the staying power to deliver that in Asia. 

You've mentioned NFTs earlier, what are some of the Web3 plans that Sony Music has moving forward that you can share with us?

Everybody's trying to work through what needs to happen and in fact, in the last couple of days, we've been discussing a lot about that.

To form a strategy to deal with this, you have to be nimble in observing which way things are going, to be alert and aware of the direction in which things are going to happen, and to actually participate and work with different things so you can learn how these things go without fully committing to it. That's the only way to do it.


Sony Music's Shridhar Subramaniam with Clarence, founder of Bandwagon Asia

If you sit out and don't see what's happening, you can't jump in because you don't know which one is going to win. You have to stay engaged but you can't fully commit. So that's what we will be doing, we'll be making experiments and we will be busy. If there's someone who has a clear strategy right now, I wouldn't trust that guy.

What's your personal vision for Asia and the Middle East, what would be your tangible marker of success for these regions?

Personally, it's not going to come from financial metrics. I think the measure of success, from what I believe and what has done a great job for us, would come from two things—the day Asia stops being seen as a market that just consumes other people's cultures and when we become a market that can actually influence global culture. That's when I think we've succeeded cause otherwise, why are we here?

What do you think it takes to get there?

You have to look at the ingredients for success. One is the talent, which we have and sure, it may not be polished or sophisticated enough but that's something that we can add to, as a global company who knows what 'polished' and 'finished' enough looks like in the US and other markets. 

But what we don't have, to me, is these enablers who can enable this transition from local to global. This goes back to an earlier point of the creative partnership of what we can do to explain, convince and motivate artists to deliver that talent. Another thing is people. The reality is you need to have people who believe that, who can deliver that, who can who have that. 

With that, when you see acts like BTS, BLACKPINK, and all these other amazing Asian artists who have reached a huge level of success in the West and have such immense influence around the world, what do you think are the factors that work in their favour that can maybe also help other Asian artists?

The simple message is you have to be you, play you better than anyone else can. That's how it works. 


This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

Interview by Clarence Chan