This month we speak with Cindy Gu, the head of Astralwerks Asia, Universal Music Group’s label division dedicated to electronic music within Asia. Based in Singapore, Cindy oversees Asian operations, helping Astralwerks’ international artists expand in the region and finding home-grown Asian talent to sign. Prior to Astralwerks, Gu worked for Warner’s Spinnin’ Records and Ultra Records. Cindy shares her insights and experience with Mixmag Asia on the trends in the market, opportunities for Asian artists.
Otto Clubman: Cindy, thanks so much for being here. So, starting at the beginning, how did you get into the dance music business?
Cindy Gu: I’m from China originally and I studied music business at New York University. Honestly, I never thought I’d end up in the dance music business. My musical background was more focused on classical voice and piano, and I didn’t plan to specialize in any particular music genre during my college study. However, when I was on a study abroad program in Paris in 2015, I had a course that required me to write a research paper on international company expansion to France. I realized that Ultra Music Festival wasn’t in Europe at that time while Dance Music was booming here. So I dove in and did researched on this, writing a paper — essentially a business plan — for Ultra Music Festival to enter the European market.
When I finished the paper, my professor said she had a connection at Ultra, and I should present my paper to them. She introduced me…but it turned out it was an introduction to Ultra Music, the record label, not the Ultra Music Festival. This mistaken introduction led to a summer internship at Ultra first and then led to my internships with the dance booking agency AM Only (now Paradigm) and Warner’s Atlantic Records. I ended up getting my first full time job at Ultra Records in New York. In 2018, I moved to Hong Kong to take a regional marketing role at Warner’s Spinnin’ Records and finally ended up here in Singapore at Astralwerks Asia.
What surprised you when you came back to Asia?
When I first came back to Asia from New York, I was really surprised about the infrastructure for music exploitation to the West. Or, the lack of infrastructure, I should say. The tools and channels to exploit music seem to be quite limited for Asian artists to grow out of their home territory.
You’ve worked at pretty much all of the major dance labels. Do they all see Asia as a tremendous opportunity? How do the different labels approach Asia differently?
Asia is definitely very important to all the major dance labels. As the market was developing early on, they were all here doing what they could, learning the market… However, over the last few years or so, as the market has matured, the strategies of the labels have changed – each focusing their strategies to play into their local and international strengths. So now, we are seeing much more new initiatives in the market, as the labels strive to differentiate their strategies and services, and some also signed Asian acts, for example. It’s a really interesting time now, as this divergence is taking place.
"I really believe you need to put in commitment and time, if you want to enter a new market. You need to get to know that market better, from the inside. If an Asian artist is really willing to put in the commitment in the international markets, I believe they can gain traction there."
In your role at the label, do you focus more on breaking Western acts in Asia or signing regional talent?
We focus on both. For me, breaking an Asian artist regionally and internationally is one of my ultimate career goals! But it won’t be easy. Luckily, dance music lends itself well to this potential, due to the lyrics and universal sound, but still, it’s quite a challenge. With or without COVID, there are lots of roadblocks. Some Asian artists have taken the initiative moved to the States to try to break there. I really believe you need to put in commitment and time, if you want to enter a new market. You need to get to know that market better, from the inside. If an Asian artist is really willing to put in the commitment in the international markets, I believe they can gain traction there.
What do you look for in an act when you sign them?
There isn’t a standard and every artist is different. We’re keen to find ways to work with Asian artists. In terms of signing, we always believe in a good match. We want to find artists who has a sound that makes sense to our brand and also are ready to take the next steps to look for a global label and go outside of their “home territory”.
Speaking of pre-existing fan bases, is having one — including a large social media following — crucial to you when you make a decision to sign an artist?
It’s a factor; but not the key factor, and definitely not the only factor. It’s not like we’d automatically sign someone with millions of followers. And we wouldn’t reject someone incredibly talented because they haven’t yet achieved a critical mass in social media. It’s a reference point; but not a deciding determination.
What about genres? Do you sign artists based on their sub-genre within dance?
We don’t weight towards a certain sub-genre. These days, fans’ tastes are expanding, and trends change all the time. So as a result, we don’t want to judge a specific genre or a piece of music. Instead, when a record comes out, we just find ways and market the music the way it makes sense to reach its fans.
Geographically, which countries are the most exciting to you in Asia at the moment?
I love all the markets, to be honest. I’d love to live in each country in the region for a while to soak it in and understand it better if I have a chance. I’m really excited about Vietnam, to single out a market. One of my most inspiring recent trips was to Hanoi last year. I visited 1900 Club — it was really eye opening. The producers and industry people in the country were really engaged. It’s such a young, exciting and creative group. It has such potential for the coming years. Also, they have amazing food and great coffee!
How has the pandemic affected the Pan-Asian scene?
It’s been mixed, based on the specific market. Of course, there have been a lot of challenges for the industry especially the artists… and touring is just not possible now. All the parties are looking at the market and figuring out what can be done. We are really trying to be creative and find ways to bring music to the fans – like streaming events and online artist M&Gs, for example.
Also, one positive note is that there has been opportunity for domestic talent to grow during this time. The streaming platforms have been supporting domestic dance talents more and more. And recently, domestic talent has had more chances to play in their own local markets, given the absence of international acts. We might see some changes in the dynamics of the int'/domestic dance acts in a few Asian countries in the coming year, which will be interesting.
"We are realizing some of the physical on-ground traveling might not be as important as we once thought. In truth, a Zoom call may be just as effective."
Anything that has become more efficient in the market or changes for the better during this period?
Actually, one interesting change is that we are realizing some of the physical on-ground traveling might not be as important as we once thought. In truth, a Zoom call may be just as effective. So, we are learning to use our time and budget more efficiently and these lessons learned will last beyond the pandemic.
What do you love about the “business end” of the dance music?
I love the dance music business because, in the end, it’s about a certain creative process and bringing different elements together. Finding the right top-liner, and the right producer – putting the pieces together. Also, the definition of a “dance track” itself can be very broad. It could touch on K-pop, or hip hop... There is no limitation to language and lyrics either. This also makes the business very exciting and ever-changing.
Any final thoughts on the future of dance in Asia?
With music globalisation and glocalisation, Asian markets will continue to grow, and Asia will become an increasingly important region in the overall dance music world. It’s one of the most promising places to be in at this time.