Mon. May 27th, 2024

TaP Music Co-President Wendy Ong Wants to Be the AAPI Mentor She Never Had: ‘K-Pop Has Changed Things’

By Michael May 1, 2024

As a former executive at music companies in Singapore, Hong Kong, New York and Los Angeles, Wendy Ong certainly has the globe-trotting credentials to help a roster of music artists including Lana Del Rey, Ellie Goulding and Noah Cyrus navigate an increasingly global business. But Ong charted the flight path she took to her current role as global co-president/chief marketing officer of the artist management and publishing company TaP Music largely on her own because, she says, mentors for an Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) music executive were virtually nonexistent then.

As a result, Ong — who was raised in Malaysia and Singapore and worked at BMG, Arista, RCA, the Metropolitan Opera, EMI, Capitol, Interscope and Roc Nation — says she makes it a priority to be one herself, particularly for Asians and Asian Americans. Her mentorship has been aided by her participation in Gold House — a community of Asian Pacific entrepreneurs, creatives and other leaders — after, she says, she was invited to one of the organization’s dinners “by accident.” She adds that when opportunity presents itself, “it depends on what you do with it.”

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Ong sat down with Billboard to discuss the continued importance of music festivals, the work of Gold House and the promise of artificial intelligence (AI), among other topics.

Lana Del Rey returned to Coachella this year as a headliner. Do festival bookings still move the needle?

When you’re strategic about it, it allows you to make getting into smaller markets cost-effective. It’s hard to do proper global touring these days, and even in the U.S., festivals allow an artist to complement their overall touring strategy. From the TaP perspective, it’s still a very key component, especially for developing artists. It’s the same reason that collaborations work because it’s crossing over to other artists’ audiences. And not just for young people. I’m supposed to be the jaded music executive, but I’m not. The Justice set [at Coachella] blew me away. I actually went and checked immediately [to see if they’re touring] because I wanted to see it again.

Prior to Coachella, what other major wins has TaP scored in the past 12 months?

Ellie [Goulding] is one of the most multifaceted artists anywhere. She had a No. 1 single and album last year [with “Miracle” featuring Calvin Harris and fifth full-length Higher Than Heaven] in the same week in the U.K. That was stunning. And Caroline Polachek’s album [Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, which debuted at No. 9 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart]. I love that Caroline and Mookie Singerman, who manages her, have been together since the beginning of [Polachek’s former band] Chairlift. There’s something to be said for loyalty. Sometimes when an artist gets bigger, they feel they need to switch up their teams. They are the CEO of their own company, so they need to make tough calls sometimes. But it’s nice to see those that remain loyal.

From the Desk of, FTDO, Wendy Ong
After Ong spearheaded a Fifty Shades of Grey classical compilation at EMI, she says author E L James’ lawyer sent her a cease-and-desist notice. “I flew to London,” she says, and successfully proposed releasing Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, which put her on the radar of radio departments at Capitol when programmers called to say, “ ‘We heard you released a BDSM classical album.’ ”

How are label layoffs affecting management?

Significantly. I always look to partner with our major labels in the best possible way, and when things are up in the air, it makes it very challenging to understand how much support we’re going to have. The company that [TaP co-CEOs] Ben [Mawson] and Ed [Millett] have built is very much on the ethos of self-­sufficiency. Going back to Lana, at the beginning of her career, they had a lot of pushback. She signed to Universal Germany because nobody believed in her. And that was and still is today a big takeaway for how we function as a company. We try to do as much for our artists as we can without overly relying on third parties, whether it’s a label, a brand, a social [platform] or a [digital service provider]. We need that agency to be able to make a difference.

What does that entail today?

All anybody wants to talk about right now is superfans. And it’s such a wake-up call. Fans want that close, direct relationship with the artist, and we were all slow in realizing that we need to take control of this relationship. We, as a management company, have made big strides in CRM [customer relationship management]. We have someone employed specifically at our company to do CRM. We’re platform agnostic, whether that’s OpenStage or Community or Laylo. What is important for us is to be able to take back the data. I say “data,” but that’s the fans. Artists need to be able to talk to their fans directly, and I think we’re leading the charge on the management side. It’s a testament to how [much] we value our artists’ fans.

From the Desk of, FTDO, Wendy Ong
Ong’s great-grandmother, with whom she lived in Malaysia while attending preschool, gave her this pendant.

You’ve talked about not having a mentor in the industry. When you switched to management, was it even more apparent?

It was glaring. I wish that wasn’t my answer, by the way. I wish I could say that, “Oh, yeah. So-and-so really lifted me up and helped me out so much.” Younger people, whether it’s on social media or in real life, often reach out to me, and I do my best to play whatever small part I can because I think that my path may have been a little less rocky if I had more guidance early in my career. And the very reason I had no mentors is because there weren’t enough people that looked like me when I was coming up in the industry. Now there’s K-pop, so that has changed things in the best possible way.

How does Gold House encourage more mentorship and visibility of the AAPI community in music?

With Gold House, I think it’s the first time that I became a part of something greater for the AAPI community. It makes it easier to give back and to spotlight minority communities like ours. I’m also very proud to be part of the Gold House Music Accelerator program. The spotlight K-pop has put on the AAPI community is wonderful, but being a judge on the Gold House Music Accelerator program helps to shine a light on other types of artists, whether it’s indie-rock or R&B.

Why has K-pop become an umbrella term in the United States for all Asian music right now?

Because we’re dealing with the greater media that is not Asian, it eclipses all these other interesting artists and music that’s coming out from countries like Indonesia and the Philippines and Taiwan. Nowhere else in the world would you put South Asians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, Indonesians all under one umbrella. It makes no sense outside of America. We have to do it in this country because we’re all minorities and we can have a bigger voice if we band together. It’s a challenge, though, because K-pop has changed so much of what we think pop music looks like. So now that we have a sliver of an opening, I hope that we get to demonstrate through Gold House efforts, for example, other types of music made by Asians.

From the Desk of, FTDO, Wendy Ong
A sweatshirt embroidered with the face of Ong’s recently deceased dog, Patches, whom she rescued 16 years ago on the island of Tobago and “was my rock through and through.”

What genre would you like to see gain prominence?

I’m so excited about South Asian Desi music. It is so much fun and joy and rhythm and bass. That joyousness is similar to how I view a lot of Latin music. It’s inevitable that a Desi artist is going to break through, and I’m excited for that to find its way into America.

TaP has its publishing, philanthropic, fashion and sports divisions, but is there another sector you would love to see the company tackle in the future?

I am very excited and a huge advocate for all the positive changes that AI can bring. But I also have that personality of an early adopter. I think that in two years’ time the music industry is going to look extremely different — maybe more so on the publishing side because that’s where it’s the most scary. When things are challenging, that is when opportunity comes. It’s whether we can find a way to leverage it.

Outside of new music, what are you looking forward to this year?

The Gold Music Alliance. It was really encouraging when [the organization] had the chance to do the event around the Grammys this year. It was the first experience for me as a member of the Recording Academy to realize that there was interest in growing the AAPI membership base. Because I don’t think we’re very represented.

From the Desk of, FTDO, Wendy Ong

Do you think that will change with this year’s nominations?

In 2023, two AAPI trustees were elected to the academy’s national board of trustees. I think that is a sign that we are getting more representation. And I want to use my platform to encourage more AAPIs to become members of the Recording Academy. I know K-pop dominates in terms of consumption, but recognition is what I’m speaking about. I would be really excited to see a non-fan-voted award with K-pop. We should be represented not just in Billboard sales charts, but also in critical acclaim. Once again, I hope that K-pop forges the path for other types of Asian music.

The academy added a best African music performance category this year. Would you like to see a similar addition for K-pop?

How amazing would that be, but it’s a double-edged sword. Like, why isn’t K-pop just part of pop? It’s [like asking] why is there a best actor and a best actress at the Oscars? Sometimes I think it’s necessary because we can’t [bestow] the right amount of acclaim and recognition by putting everyone in the same bucket. We’ll see more changes due to AI than we’ll see anything else. I wish technological advances could help advance this type of conversation — maybe that’s the challenge.

This article originally appeared in the April 27, 2024 issue of Billboard.

By Michael

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