In 2001, Tony Fernandes — who had spent over a decade at Warner Music, rising to vp for Southeast Asia — bought struggling Malaysian-based airline AirAsia for about 25 cents. As CEO, he transformed it into Asia’s biggest low-cost carrier, and in 2019, with his company holding steady, he felt ready to return to music.
At the 2019 Grammys, Fernandes’ friend and colleague Hassan Choudhury connected him with Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge. “[Tony] came back and said, ‘Go and find a name, we’re starting a label,’ ” recalls Choudhury, a 30-year music industry veteran who has held senior positions at all three majors and now heads AirAsia’s music division. In December they unveiled Asian pop label RedRecords, a joint venture between AirAsia Group and UMG based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “We want Asian talent to follow their dreams,” says Fernandes, “and if the artist is the right fit, we will do our best to make those dreams a reality.”
Under Fernandes’ leadership, AirAsia went from two to 250 aircrafts — and not only got out from its $11 million debt, but generated net sales of over $2.5 billion last year. To promote the airline and bring in more revenue, he’s expanded the business into lifestyle and e-commerce markets. And when he connected with Grainge at the Grammys, he knew it could prove beneficial for both parties; this year, UMG added Southeast Asia headquarters in Singapore. Choudhury, CEO of RedRecords, says that though he and Fernandes fielded pitches from other labels early on, “what Universal can offer on a global scale was apparent to everyone.
Jannine Weigel, a 19-year-old Thai singer, actor and influencer who in 2018 signed a recording contract with Universal Music Singapore, became RedRecords’ first signee — when Universal agreed to move her over with a new contract. Born in Germany, Weigel moved to Bangkok when she was 10 and started to post covers on YouTube — where she has 3.6 million subscribers. “She has broad appeal beyond Southeast Asia, and that’s the goal with every artist we sign,” says Adam Granite, UMG’s executive vp market development. The label is in talks with “two of the world’s top producers” for Weigel’s RedRecords debut, due this spring.
AirAsia currently flies 100 million passengers annually, while its website brings in 65 million unique visitors every month and 3.5 billion a year, according to Granite. The label will use that preexisting audience to grow awareness of RedRecords through in-flight entertainment provided by the label and targeted online marketing. “With the right creative, it could help propel Asian artists across the entire region, and beyond that, the rest of the world,” says Granite.
Choudhury wants to keep his team lean for now; RedRecords will have an initial staff of four: Choudhury, a marketing manager, an A&R manager and a general office manager. Beyond growing the label’s roster — Choudhury says he has already been “inundated” with local artists wanting to sign — there are plans to build a recording studio in Kuala Lumpur. “The room for growth [in the Asian market] is greater than any other part of the planet,” he says, pointing to the global popularity of K-pop as an example of how Asian pop can similarly cross borders. “The world is one now — and we want to be part of that.”