Interview With C-pop Industry Veteran Billy Koh
Founder & former CEO of Ocean Butterflies sets up Amusic Rights Management Company in China
A Singapore songwriter, composer and music producer, Billy Koh is one of the most instrumental and influential figures in the Asian Chinese-Pop (C-pop) music industry. Founder & former CEO of Ocean Butterflies, Billy transformed Ocean Butterflies Music into one of the leading independent music powerhouses in Asia for the last 20 over years.
In his 30-year long music career, Billy has produced more than 200 albums for singers from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China & the US. He is best known for discovering & producing many successful Asian acts including Kit Chan in 1994, A-Do in 2002, JJ Lin in 2003 and BY2 in 2008.
In 2014, he quit as CEO of Ocean Butterflies to pursue his new business, Amusic Rights Management, a rights management business that exploits the "publishing rights of a musical work and all other rights resulting from the reproduction of it". In particular, Amusic focuses on digital marketing of music, using an investment/ revenue sharing model with artistes that it works with.
We reached him to find out what exactly Amusic Rights Management is and how it works differently from a traditional music publisher and record label.
What have music publishers and record labels failed to do in the current state of the music industry and how does Amusic seek to improve or work differently?
In digital platforms, music is uploaded sometimes not by creators but users. Large flows of content are mostly "self-driven" instead of pre-selected by editors in the old days. It'll be much more effective to administer copyrights of songs and sound recordings together via metadata encoded as a thumbprint of the digital tracks. Amusic does exactly that, and this is what I mean by a "rights management" company, where it invests and markets music as one.
The artists and producers are free to decide who they want to work with and they are pretty much their own boss. They don't need to be tied up with the majors, whose once powerful and exclusive physical distribution networks have now become obsolete. Heavyweight artistes like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Linkin Park all have their own music companies. The major labels would only sign distribution deals with them. These majors have hardly created any music content themselves any more for the last five decades.
As digital platforms matured, especially in the last five years, music companies who really create, produce and own music can now go to digital platforms themselves, bypassing the majors. Moreover, the majors do not own any digital platforms, especially not in China.
Amusic's core business is in the digital realm but certainly not the only business. We are also involved in offline activities, such as helping clients pitch their songs for ads or placements in TV or film too.
Amusic doesn't sign any artistes. It only works with the artistes. The artistes will employ or own his/her management company which decides what he wants for his/her career. The management company will then work with Amusic Creative Team, an A&R expert arm of Amusic Rights, to develop the repertoire of the artists. Amusic Rights is responsible for the quality of the products & taking care of the investment of the products including marketing it digitally.
The internet has levelled the playing field for all big and small companies to be able to gain a foothold in the fragmented music market, because even with smaller investment budgets, a substantiated level of awareness and interactive personalization can still be achieved between artistes and fans. So from an artiste's perspective, instead of working with a major label using cookie cutter "template strategies", they have the freedom to work with different partners via a modular business model to customize a plan according to their needs.
What does it take for an album to be successful, other than making sure that the product is of high quality?
High quality can only guarantee a long-lasting listening pleasure if the song even has a chance to be a hit in the first place. But how can a song be a hit? Well, that's what A&R for. It's a matter of harnessing and capturing the best of the humanities, fashion, social, aesthetic, emotion, culture, life-style etc.
How are listeners consuming music now, particularly in China? In such a big but fragmented market, how do you ensure that your songs and artistes are heard?
Listeners in China consume music mostly through the internet, be it on PC or mobile. Marketing is about capturing focus within a specific time frame among all the rest of the competition. Using creative ways to capture attention can be the first step. However, once the crowd is pulled in, the interest level in the content will decide if the mass would want to re-generate it and amplify its reach.
In another interview, you mentioned about how the future of the music industry would and should be looking at how to maximizing its long tail. How do you think a relatively smaller company like Amusic can achieve this? Also, what are the advantages of being small?
In the older days, most people do not have access to the old hits that they wish to recall as most players for the yesteryear's carriers or physical formats are not available any more.
Now with random accessibility provided by the digital era, everything can be made easily available by uploads generated from the users, not creators. Good music which can withstand time is in the long tail now. It's always easier to make a one-time hit than a long lasting hit.
Of course, there's no guaranteed continuous success, but a good music team that has proven its acts which can last at least a decade or more must certainly possess some kind of know-how within. It's a science, not a miracle.
Being small allows us to be independent, integrated & interactive, especially in the internet age. This will make every elite work for himself. It's more incentive driven and it cuts down all the nonsense of unnecessary meetings and reporting of the majors.
In recent years, many music industry professionals in China have given up or left, due to paper thin margins and a lack of a strong and cohesive ecosystem amongst the major players in the industry, including telcos, internet operators, music labels and the government. How do you think this is changing or improving? What more can be done?
At the legislative level, for sure it needs to speed up, especially when China's economy is reforming towards growing their own innovation driven industries rather than staying merely as the "world's factory". Again, we must not take any present copyright practices for granted. Let's see it this way, what exactly are "copyrights"?
Copyrights do not exist by virtue of God. It's a result of negotiation between creators, co-workers, platforms, media, traders & end-users. There needs to be a fair deal so that the business model can be sustained. In the last 20 years, we witness how the internet has digitised all media industries. Music is no exception, like it or not. I'm open for new negotiation for a new music business model as long as creators receive enough to make music a good living. It need not be the same way as during the old school days but it definitely needs everyone to sit down in a round table to discuss. Everyone, not just the westerners.
What do you think would the future of the music industry in Asia be like, particularly in China?
The priority now is to build super strong content and make an influential impact first. We need to create a super strong demand then the money, format and business model will surface naturally. In China, a new format that you never could have imagined will emerge.
Stop predicting and start working, on-the-ground not under-ground.
The future is a land that we've never been.