SINGAPORE — Universal Music Group is pushing further into Asia, with a new Southeast Asia headquarters here that will feature hubs for Def Jam and Astralwerks, and a plan to pump up local assets in Vietnam and other countries in the fast-growing music region.
The label opened the doors to a new office this week that will support A&R and marketing teams in Malaysia, Indonesia, Indochina, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore — a territory that encompasses some 700 million people.
The sweeping plan includes launching hip hop label Def Jam in Southeast Asia, as well as a hub for dance label Astralwerks. Also joining the Singapore office will be Ingrooves, a B2B label distribution business, and Spinnup, which is focused on emerging DYI artists who are starting out.
Universal’s strategy signals an emphasis on localized A&R, and a shift away from the traditional way that music labels oversaw emerging markets, which usually entailed tight-fisted control from far-off offices in the U.S. or Europe.
“What we are trying to get away from is the colonial approach,” Adam Granite, UMG’s evp for market development, said in an interview. “The reality is you need people on the ground who have relevancy and understand the local culture, in a way I never will because I didn’t grow up here.”
While Granite will continue to be responsible for Asia and other less-developed markets such as Africa and India, the label’s strategy is to put more resources on the ground to discover and sign new talent in their own local languages.
“With the evolution of streaming we have an even better understanding of how and what audiences are seeking, and that is becoming primarily in local repertoire,” Granite said Tuesday in an address at the All That Matters entertainment and brands conference.
While Def Jam’s regional hub will be in Singapore, for example, the label will get additional A&R and marketing resources from UMG in individual countries, starting with Thailand, with Indonesia and Malaysia to follow.
On Tuesday a half-dozen hip hop artists Universal recently signed in the region performed at All That Matters, including Yung Raja from Singapore, A. Nayaka from Indonesia and Thai-American rapper DaBoyWay.
UMG feels confident expanding into Southeast Asia because the region has a young, digital savvy population where streaming is growing dramatically, along with smart-phone penetration and a healthy digital wallet system that facilitates streaming payments. “All the right ingredients are in place,” Granite said.
In opening the Singapore office, Universal is shifting its focus away from Hong Kong, which reports to Beijing.
Other major U.S. entertainment companies, including live events firm AEG, which announced its own move to Singapore last week, have recently done the same. Granite noted that several of Universal’s key digital partners, including Apple, YouTube and Spotify, have regional offices just a few blocks away.
The recent spate of political protests in Hong Kong did not play a role in Universal’s decision to establish the Singapore office, Granite said. “This was the culmination of a year of planning,” he said. Southeast Asia “requires its own dedicated and focused team.”
Calvin Wong, who joined Universal in May from Warner Music Group, where he was the president for Southeast Asia, will run the new Singapore office. Wong said Tuesday that UMG plans to launch its six Southeast Asia affiliates in Vietnam, a country of 100 million people, by the end of the year.
The bigger bet on Southeast Asia comes seven months after UMG unveiled a series of hires in Asia, most of which were focused on its growing operation in Beijing, which oversees China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Among the most significant was Ang Kwee Tiang (known as KT Ang), a lawyer hired to the newly created position of senior vp for Asia public policy. A key focus of the role is to lobby for anti-piracy efforts and the establishment of more than a dozen copyright collection societies for creators, publishers and producers in the region.
Challenges remain in the region, especially in China with respect to Western repertoire and copyright concerns. “We spend a lot of time and focus working with governments and trying to lobby effectively and make sure that those rights are protected,” Granite said.
“The big question mark, and something we have been working on as an industry for many years, is getting a public performance right in China,” he said. “And it is on the table. We feel that it would be incredibly important for our continued investment in artists in China.”