Island's Eric Wong Talks Promotion, New Signings as the Label Turns 60 and Asian Representation in the Biz

Eric Wong
Annie Tritt

“We have new signings from Darcus [Beese]and our A&R team that will be announced very soon,” says Wong, photographed on Sept. 19, 2018 at Island Records in New York. “Our staff is of great importance, and I make sure everyone feels supported in their role at the company.”

The marketing veteran on his new promotion to COO and leading the label into its next chapter.

After revealing in April? that president/CEO David Massey would exit when his contract expired in June, Island Records named Island U.K. chief Darcus Beese as president of its U.S. counterpart. Beese’s first order of business: promoting Island’s longtime marketing maven Eric Wong to COO. 

Moving up after three-plus years as Island’s executive vp/GM, the New York-based Wong, 42, is a nearly two-decade veteran of the venerable label whose rich legacy includes Bob Marley, Grace Jones, U2 and Bon Jovi. In the past year alone, Wong’s marketing savvy has secured branding wins for Bon Jovi (Lyft, Google), newcomers Jack & Jack (Samsung) and Fall Out Boy (supplying music for Gameloft’s Asphalt 8 racing game). The newly minted COO also has played a pivotal role in crafting success stories for Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas and Shawn Mendes, the latter of whom has released three No. 1 albums in the last four years and is "gearing up for a huge tour next year," notes Wong.

Wong joined Island in 1999, when Universal Music Group merged the company with a dozen other labels to form Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJ). The New York University graduate segued to Bad Boy Entertainment in 2006 as chief marketing officer and simultaneously to Atlantic as senior vp, working with Sean "Diddy" Combs, Jay-Z, Janelle Monáe, Toni Braxton and more. After founding Wong Management in 2009 with a roster that included Mariah Carey, Wong returned to IDJ in 2011. "Artist management felt like a very natural progression as far as working closely with artists," recalls the Brooklyn native. "But I missed the record-label aspect."

Annie Tritt
An Elton John fan his entire life, Wong received this bobblehead in 2015 when he attended the artist’s Million Dollar Piano residency in Las Vegas.

Now, alongside Beese and newly appointed executive vp/GM LaTrice Burnette, Wong is ready to shape Island’s ongoing evolution. Here, the 2018 Billboard Branding Power Player discusses the evolution of his career, his obsession with the charts, Island’s upcoming 60th anniversary and Asian representation in the music industry’s executive suites.

You credit Billboard for getting you started in the music business. How so?

I landed my first music business internship when I was a high school sophomore in Brooklyn. I’d been flipping through Billboard magazines, looking at the charts for my favorite artists and songs, and found an opportunity at WEA Distribution through Y.E.S. [a jobs program for minority students]. I loved keeping track of where records were as far as chart positions, so I was always consumed with running to the local newsstand every single week. I still love looking at the charts. I grew up listening to the radio, so music has always been my salvation, my escape for all things.

What are your new responsibilities now in your role as COO?

My focus is overseeing the ongoing day-to-day business operations of the company and developing strategy for the label and artists. My role includes being responsible for our release schedule and the strategies needed for success.

Annie Tritt
Signed Playbills from the 2016 Tidal X: Bon Jovi set of four intimate shows at historic venues around the world.

One of your early career mentors at Island Def Jam was now-Atlantic chairman/COO Julie Greenwald. What advice from her do you still use today?

She taught me to always speak my mind, think big and take risks. Those are the things that I put into every artist campaign that I touch at Island. I’ve applied this whether it was when we first started working with Nick Jonas, bringing back Mike Posner, launching tastemaker artists like Jessie Reyez and Bishop Briggs or to the longevity of artists like Bon Jovi and Elton John. It’s important to challenge ourselves to think bigger to come up with innovative and creative strategies that have never been done. 

Back in the day, artists worried about appearing as sellouts if they aligned with a brand. What changed that perception?

For me, it was when I started working with Puffy [Sean Combs] as CMO at Bad Boy. He’s a brilliant marketer. Whether it was dealing with the TV show [MTV’s Making the Band], helping him with the launch of  the Unforgivable fragrance line [via Estée Lauder] and other entities at the time, it opened up a different world as far as just how important marketing/branding is as it pertains to an artist and his rollout.

What comprises a successful marketing campaign in the age of streaming?

Obviously, the music business has changed so much. But it’s still about utilizing the ways consumers listen to music that caters to how marketing plans are developed. And the other constants are quality music and artistry. That’s why the A&R process is essential. Marketing has to be true to who that artist is: spending time getting to know how the artist sees himself artistically and who the artist views as his initial audience. Then, with the artist and his or her team, we can develop a more authentic overall strategy that introduces who the artist is and can help take him or her to the next place. The touring side and the visual side play big parts as well. At the end of the day, artists are brands, labels are brands, and the partners that we work with are all part of the brand integration. We talk about that more than ever now.

Annie Tritt
A Killers record player commemorating the group’s LP box set this year; and a newspaper featuring David Bowie. “From his lyrics, his music, to his bold fashion, Bowie is the epitome of a creative musical genius,” says Wong. 

With R&B/hip-hop’s streaming dominance, many in the industry are calling the genre the new mainstream. Where does pop fit in now?

Pop means popular. It’s that simple. As different sounds continue to make waves, I think pop will always encompass genres across the board. I grew up listening to the radio, and as a music fan, I have a love for all genres. Whether it is hip-hop, rock, pop, R&B, dance, etc., there is always a place for each genre in the mainstream. This is also reflected on the most popular playlists. Pop is inclusive of all formats.

Is adding more R&B/hip-hop to the roster part of Island’s agenda?

There are new artist signings in the works, and those will be revealed shortly. With Darcus here, the roster is growing, which I’m very excited about. Next year, Island will be celebrating its 60th anniversary, and it’s a label rich in history, from Bob Marley and Grace Jones to U2. Our history is also a big part of the conversation of what Island represents. Since becoming a stand-alone [label] again [after IDJ was broken up in 2014], Island is able to have its own identity. Artists joining our roster over the last five years have included Shawn Mendes, Demi Lovato and Tove Lo. Darcus really puts the artist first, which allows endless creativity, opportunity and success.

Speaking of Lovato, how is she doing since her hospitalization in July?

She is taking all the time she needs to get better. Her health is the number one priority, and that’s the focus for her as far as making sure she has everything she’s going to need to be in good health. It’s about providing support systems for all artists and being able to have honest dialogue as far as what they may need.

Annie Tritt
“I’ve had the privilege to work with so many amazing artists,” he says. “Jon Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey are superstars that I have so much love and respect for.” 

Rumor has it you’ve kept ticket stubs and laminates from every show you’ve attended. Is that true?

Yes, my storage place is running out of room. It’s insane how much stuff I have in boxes since I started going to shows as a teenager. And every week I’m adding a handful more. I have two young children right now, and I hope they will enjoy music as much as I do. Going through all my stubs and laminates will tell a lot of history about me, what I’ve seen and what I’ve done during my career.

It still seems like the Asian community is an underrepresented minority in the music business. What are your thoughts in the wake of your promotion?

Personally, I would love to see more Asians in the music business. There’s exciting stuff happening with K-pop now, so I think things will continue to grow and evolve. For me, however, the focus isn’t on my being a poster boy for anything, really. In my career, it’s always been more about how I could be the best marketer in the music business, whether I’m working with The Killers, Jay-Z, Demi Lovato, Shawn Mendes or Kanye West. Now I just want to be the best COO for Island Records and develop and break artists that sign [here].