When I sat down to an interview with co-founder of Mr Fantastic Adam Nierow during the Golden Melody Awards Festival and Conference last week, I’d have to say I was quite looking forward to meeting him. Having attended his keynote speech the day before on bridging cultural barriers to bring Chinese music over to the West (one of my key interests), I was already brimming with questions for Adam, who thankfully enough was happy to answer them for me. When Nierow and co-found Peter Habib first created Mr Fantastic music, they never thought of focusing on bridging cross cultural gaps between the Asian and Western markets. But seven or eight years ago, with the help of strategic partner Mike Ludwick, Mr Fantastic music saw an opportunity in cross-cultural collaborations and have never looked back since. And for Adam, this experience has turned into a long-term passion for Chinese culture and folklore that has opened even more doors for him.
“I guess when you spend enough time anywhere, you start to appreciate the culture and the food, and you start to learn about the history. So over the last almost 3 and a half, four years of spending about seven months of collective time in China…I just got to appreciate what I just mentioned, the food, the culture, the history. Trying to learn as much as I could, and it does relate to a project I’m doing on the side with some collaborators which is a children’s entertainment property that focuses on Chinese culture and its geared to basically celebrate and teach Chinese culture to a western audience and to the young western audience.”
Nierow seems to have big plans for this project, as he talked animatedly about what he hoped it could become in the future. Perhaps a Chinese version of Disneyland?
“I kind of equate it to – you know Shanghai Disney just opened – that’s a Western entity, a Western brand. It’s very iconic, it’s probably the most famous brand in the world. But imagine if you could have a brand that – ok, maybe not at the Disney level but – something where it could be appreciated outside of China and within China as well that is Chinese based. Instead of Chinese children loving Mickey Mouse, they’ll love this character.”
But as music is Adam’s foremost area of expertise, our conversation quickly turned towards Eastern-Western collaborations in that respect. A burning question I had for Adam related to G.E.M (Gem Tang), a Hong Kong singer who has been dubbed by Western press as an Asian Taylor Swift upon her debut into the US market. What I wanted to know was does HE think she has what it takes to actually be the next Taylor Swift?
“You know, I guess why not? I mean, she’s talented, she’s got good music, she can speak in English, sings in English and Mandarin Chinese as well. Yeah, there’s so many factors to how an artist can reach a greater audience so I don’t know so much about her team. Peter (Habib) in LA, he got to meet some of her team there and I know they’ve obviously had a lot of success here and they have a fanbase in north America and they seem to be building it so sure, there could be potential, she could definitely keep reaching a wider audience.”
So Adam certainly thinks G.E.M’s on the right path, but I just had to get his opinion on what else Chinese artists such as her need as a final push to really get their name into the Western music industry.
“If she gets the right partners-songs are a big part of it too- if she has a song that could really resonate to her non-fans, that’s always the best way…to get attention from any partners. A good example is PSY’s “Gangnam Style”. That drew the attention of Scooter Braun, one of the bigger managers of course, and once you get connected with that kind of platform then everyone can know you. So probably some kind of song would be one way or collaboration with another artist, or if Gem all of a sudden can open for Taylor Swift – especially if Taylor Swift comes and does a show in Taiwan, that would be perfect.”
But if Chinese artists think that all they need is to release that one song to be able to break into the Western market, they should really think again. When I asked Adam about the importance of strategising and thinking ahead, he emphasised that preparation is key to increasing the odds of success.
“I think the strategising is probably better odds. The music business, the entertainment business it’s all about odds. How can you increase your odds, and if you’re thinking ahead and strategising but not only for the current opportunity but to be ready for future opportunities. If G.E.M was to open for Taylor swift, would she be ready with that song that would resonate with Taylor swift’s audience? And that could expand her fan base. Cos if she’s not ready to take advantage of that opportunity it could be wasted. So I think strategy definitely increases your odds.”
But as many familiar with the industry know, increasing odds is one thing, while guaranteeing success is a whole ‘nother can of worms. Nierow who sees himself as more of a rulebreaker says that although there are certainly routes Chinese artists may take to try and find success in the Western industry, there’s no miraculous one-fits-all formula to take you to the top.
“I’m all about trying to break the rules, so I don’t know if there’s any. There are tried and true ways, there are traditional ways to break artists and there’s all kinds of new ways; now that we live in the digital world and music videos and music can go viral very quickly. TV’s still an important platform too. But you know I think, there’s not any one set path or one set formula. I think each artist is unique, depends on the music too. Taylor Swift is obviously going to take a different route from say Lady Gaga. They’re going to have different approaches ‘cuz the music is different. As we know, Taylor started in more of the country, pop world. Songwriting has been a big focus. Lady Gaga, the performance aspect was always a big part of her shows, and her original songs, and her voice so those are again two different paths, two different music styles. But the short answer is that there’s no special formula.”
And while strategies, black and white business decisions are all well and good, we’re all human and live in a world that is far from perfect. So I decided to address the elephant in the room – the presence of ethnocentrism that permeates the Western entertainment industry. What I wanted to know was, would this affect the chances of Asian artists ever truly being able to attain Taylor Swift-esque success in the US music market? I think like many of us, Adam didn’t have the answer to my question, but nevertheless inspired me with his forward-thinking attitude.
“Talking with various entertainment companies, I have run into Asian executives, music executives that are still-they don’t think that the US is ready. And it’s interesting because its coming from Asian executives, not non-Asian executives so I find that-I mean I know there’s a realistic sensibility to that, but at the same time, I think- I don’t know, I’m a big dreamer and always try to think of the quote unquote ‘impossible’. And the reality is that someone’s going to do it at some point, right? So just because it hasn’t been done before and you can keep saying no ones ready, America’s not ready but that doesn’t mean someone’s not going to break through and be successful. And someone’s going to be the first to make a megastar it just happens to be Asian. And to take it even further than that, at some point, when will it even matter? Where the person is from or what kind face do they have, if they’re Asian, or Caucasian or African. Yeah, I think that’s the question, right? I don’t have the answer for it, but that’s like the last question – when will it not matter? Its just about the talent.”
Well I’m certainly glad to see that there are still dreamers living amongst us after all! It takes a certain type of person to be able to envision and truly believe in a world a little different from the one we’re currently living in, be it about enacting any kind of social change or bridging the gaps between Eastern and Western music industries. The general consensus these days about the Chinese music industry has been lacklustre, and I personally have heard more than my share of disheartening comments on its progress. But meeting with the likes of Adam has made me even more hopeful for the oncoming revival and internationalisation of Chinese music.