Does Asian & Asian-American representation matter in the music industry?
What exactly is “Asian-American culture”?
For most of us, it’s hard to pinpoint a culture that exists between generations and across continents. It exists in a sort of limbo, not truly belonging to one side or the other. If I had to answer this question, Asian-American culture is trading coffee for boba milk tea; it’s getting late-night dim-sum with your best friends; it’s picking out the coolest-looking buns despite not knowing the food’s official Cantonese name. It’s speaking in equal parts a foreign language from a mother country you’ve barely been to and filling in the blanks with English. It’s never truly feeling like you belong in one place or the other–a feeling that most Asian-Americans are all too familiar with.
Yet, within the arts community, this already-tricky question becomes much harder to answer. It’s undeniable that there have been great strides in popularising Asian and Asian-American talent–social media has made sure of that. Although there always seems to be some controversy surrounding how character A is supposed to be portrayed and how character B is “not Asian enough” / “not relatable enough” / “too incorrect,” it reveals that at the very least, people are concerned about representation.
However, here on the musical front, the very same people championing diversity have remained largely quiet. This could be attributed to the inherent nature of music as an artistic medium. For most people– regardless of background–it might not matter who’s behind the mic. Music videos and interviews aren’t necessary to watch to enjoy a song, so does it matter if your singer represents a minority if you can’t see what they look like? But maybe I am wrong. I was curious about just how much people knew about Asian and Asian-American artists… or if they cared at all about who’s making their favourite songs. Cue the creation of the survey “Who are you listening to?”, a survey written to get these answers myself.
I sent this survey out on July 22, 2018 on my personal Facebook page with the hopes of finding out how much my friends knew about Asian / Asian-American music. A total of 79 people answered, and here are the results:
Total people who answered the survey: 79.
Mixed*: 7.6 %
*For the purposes of this survey, “Mixed” refers to Asian & Non-Asian ancestry.
Not Asian/Asian American: 15.2%
Favourite Genres of Music:
Mainstream Pop / Pop: 64.6% (51)
“Alternative”: 55.7% (44)
R&B: 51.9% (41)
Music made before the 2000s*: 43% (34)
Rap: 43% (34)
Indie: 41.8% (33)
Electronic: 34.2% (27)
EDM: 29.1% (23)
Country: 7.6% (6)
Metal: 7.6% (6)
*Music made before the 2000s is a catch-all term for people who prefer music from the 60’s, 70’s 80’s etc. This was not, but should have, been clarified by me.
Most Popular Write-In Genres With 1+ Vote (other):
KPOP: 9 votes
JPOP: 3 votes
Jazz: 3 votes
Classical: 2 votes
Lo-fi Hip Hop: 2 votes
Japanese & Korean Rock: 2 votes
Whose music have you RECENTLY been obsessed with? Only write-in candidates with 3+ votes are represented.
Ariana Grande: 7
Daniel Caesar: 4
Billie Eilish: 3
Dua Lipa: 3
Jorja Smith: 3
Panic! at the Disco: 3
Post Malone: 3
Rich Brian: 3
Taylor Swift: 3
How often do you listen to music? (Scale 1-5, 0 being “I don’t listen to music” and 5 being “I listen to music every day”)
How do you discover new music?
Online streaming playlists: 89.9%
Recommendations from friends: 86.1%
Social media: 59.5%
Reading a music website/music criticism/article: 20.3%
Openers at concerts: 17.7%
DJ Mixes: 15.2%
I don’t like to discover new music. If it happens, it happens: 11.4%
What method of discovering new music do you value the most?
Recommendations from friends: 19
Online Streaming (umbrella term): 16
Soundcloud / YouTube: 12
Social Media: 6
Do you care about who makes the music that you listen to?
If a musical artist that you liked received terrible reviews from critics on their new album, would you still listen to it?
If a musical artist that you’ve never heard of received terrible reviews from critics on their new album, would you still listen to it?
Do you ever watch musical artist interviews?
Which of the following musical artists have you heard of?*
*indicates NOT Asian American.
At a glance:
Most popular – 88Rising (Rap/Hip Hop)
Most obscure – Haley Heynderickx (Folk)
Yes, I’ve listened to their music: 31.6%
Yes, I’ve heard of them: 15.2%
Yes, I’ve listened to his music: 29.1%
Yes, I’ve heard of him: 12.7%
Yes, I’ve listened to her music: 26.6%
Yes, I’ve heard of her: 11.4%
Yes, I’ve heard of her: 24.1%
Yes, I’ve listened to her music: 10.1%
Yes, I’ve listened to her music: 17.7%
Yes, I’ve heard of her: 15.2%
Yes, I’ve heard of her: 12.7%
Yes, I’ve listened to her music: 11.4%
Yes, I’ve heard of them: 16.5%
Yes, I’ve listened to their music: 3.8%
Yes, I’ve listened to their music: 6.3%
Yes, I’ve heard of them: 5.1%
Alex Zhang Hungtai*
Yes, I’ve heard of him: 8.9%
Yes, I’ve listened to his music: 1.3%
Yes, I’ve listened to her music: 5.1%
Yes, I’ve heard of her: 5.1%
Yes, I’ve listened to her music: 5.1%
Yes, I’ve heard of her: 5.1%
Say Sue Me*
Yes, I’ve listened to their music: 3.8%
Yes, I’ve heard of them: 3.8%
Yes, I’ve heard of her: 7.6%
Yes, I’ve listened to her music: 0%
Yes, I’ve listened to her music: 3.8%
Yes, I’ve heard of her: 2.5%
*88Rising – mixed group of people, Alex Zhang Hungtai – Taiwanese/Canadian, Peggy Gou – Korean/German, Sam Rui – Singaporean, Say Sue Me – Korean
Do you listen to Asian/Asian American artists?
I enjoy listening to Asian/Asian American artists!: 41.3%
I can confidently name one or two: 38.8%
Asians / Asian Americans make music??? & No: 17.5%
Most popular write-in Asian/Asian American artists:
Rich Brian: 5
Jay Park: 4
Far East Movement: 3
Haley Kiyoko: 3
Do you think it’s important for Asians / Asian Americans to be represented in music?
Potential Problems / Biases:
Before I start my analysis of the survey results, I feel I should address some potential issues within the survey. First of all, the questions that I posited could have been misinterpreted by the reader to mean different things. For example, some might not know what the term ‘electronic’ corresponds to, while others could have misinterpreted what I meant by “Do you care about who makes the music that you listen to?” (In what aspect? Producing? Singing?). I should have been more careful with how I phrased my questions.
Another possible problem with the survey is the topic itself. The purpose of the survey was meant to be rooted in how much the survey-taker knew about music made by Asian / Asian-American artists in English–a detail that I did not clarify. This is why I removed K-POP and other forms of genres of Asian music from the survey: they were not the main focus of my study.
This is because KPOP and other non-English genres are not purposefully marketed towards the Asian-American demographic. Instead, they are more representative of their respective countries’ cultures, marketing exoticism to outsiders. In this sense, although it can be argued that being drawn to a genre like KPOP could be representative of a part of the Asian-American experience, it is–at its core–more representative of contemporary Korean culture.
On the other hand, a Korean band like Say Sue Me is mentioned here because most of their songs are mostly sung in English. Their intended market demographic seems to be geared towards the Western audience: their label is based in the UK, they have a number of articles dedicated to them in English publications, they tour extensively within the UK, and their advertising is in duo English/Korean. This is the same reasoning I applied to include other artists in the survey like Peggy Gou (Korean-German), Sam Rui (Singaporean) and Alex Zhang Hungtai (Taiwanese-Canadian). These are all artists whose prospective audiences are Westerners (or people who speak English).
Results of the study:
Although the survey that I did was quick-and-dirty and obviously NOT representative of all audiences due to my limited responses, here are a few conclusions that I came to…
This IS a topic that people are interested in, but it’s not really addressed.
According to the survey, 88.6% believed that it was important for Asians / Asian-Americans to be represented in the music industry, 8.9% said maybe, and 2.5% said no. Especially since the majority of people answering the survey self-identified as Asian or Asian-American, it seems like this is an issue that lingers in the back of people’s minds– yet there hasn’t been much done about it. It’s also important to note that people who didn’t identify as Asian or Asian-American (15.2% of survey-takers) were still in favor of Asian / Asian-American representation in the music industry.
Although people believe in supporting support Asian / Asian-Americans, it’s clear that most survey-takers were more familiar with Asian artists who do not sing in English. Despite it not being added in as an option, KPOP was written-in as one of the most-listened to genres. Similarly, KPOP group BLACKPINK was the third most popular write-in artists, beating out popular American artists like Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, and Panic! at the Disco in votes. (It’s also interesting that despite their recent success in the states, KPOP group BTS was only written in once in the survey results.)
Yet, in the quick-pick section of Asian-American and Asian artists who sing primarily in English, none of the artists that I mentioned had more than a 50%-heard of rate. 88Rising, a recently founded collective of Asian / Asian-American artists, was the most popular with a total of 46.8% of people familiar with their name and brand. Rounding out the survey is Filipino-American folk singer Haley Heynderickx, who only 6.3% of survey-takers had heard of despite critical acclaim through music websites like NPR, Stereogum, Pitchfork, and Metacritic.
Of course, one overall factor to note is that people might just not be versed in the genres that these artists’ music belong to. The most popular artists on this survey belong to the electronic world of EDM / DJing (Giraffage, TOKiMONSTA, yaeji) while the less popular artists were representative of indie rock (Mitski, Jay Som, No Vacation, Say Sue Me) and folk (Haley Heynderickx).
This begs the question: Why is it that people don’t know many Asian / Asian-American artists?
The answer here is the same for why people know so much about KPOP artists–marketing.
I believe that people who are unaware of these Asian artists operating in the West aren’t doing it on purpose (in fact, my survey results show the opposite)–it’s due to the fact that most don’t go out of their way to search for new music by Asians / Asian-Americans in general. For the casual listener, most discover new music by either streaming playlists off of platforms like Spotify (89.9%) or word of mouth (86.1%). Since streaming playlists are already ‘self-curated’ based on your listening habits and don’t have an “Asian / Asian-American” setting, listeners might have a hard time finding someone like Haley Heynderickx or Hana Vu through these means. The same goes for word of mouth–if you don’t already have a friend who listens to Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, how else will you hear about them if you don’t give that music website a click (the go-to method of discovering music by only 20.3% of survey participants)?
It’s also worth mentioning that independent labels only have so much of a budget to advertise their roster of label-mates and even less to advertise that a band is representative of an Asian background. If you don’t explicitly advertise yourself as an Asian-American fronted band like Japanese Breakfast does, will people within the Asian-American community know who you are?
Of course, this isn’t to say that avenues like streaming services block off access to finding these artists completely. It is worth mentioning that Spotify has a running playlist called “Asian-Americans on the Rise” (27,335 followers at the time of writing this) and guest playlist series APAHM asking famous Asian-Americans about what they’re listening to… these are great segues into introducing yourself to some lesser known Asian-American artists. The problem with a playlist like “Asian-Americans on the Rise” is that you are only exposed to the most popular Asian-American artists, and the playlists are skewed towards genres like EDM / indie rock. If you’re a fan of indie rock but not EDM, you’re going to have to skip through half the playlist before you find something that you like. If you’re a fan of folk, good luck listening to 40+ songs before you find the one folk song on the playlist. And what about those other Asian musicians that sing in English? Asian-British, Asian-Canadian, Asian-Australian artists and others are unfortunately omitted from these lists.
Add to this the worrying results that you get when you Google a term like ‘Asian-American musicians’. Some of the most recommended people are entertainers like Margaret Cho (comedy music), Ryan Higa (comedy music), Anna May Wong (a Hollywood actress from early Hollywood) and Brenda Song (or as other people know her as, London Tipton from Suite Life, and Wendy Wu Homecoming Warrior). It isn’t until you scroll down that you start to see actual musicians like Mitski, Steve Aoki, and Nicki Minaj (probably due to Chun-Li?) pop up.
I personally believe that one of the best ways to solve the representation problem is to start a small blog dedicated to elevating the work of Asian and Asian-American musicians to a Western audience. The focus? Reviewing, recommending, and curating playlists for people who are interested in supporting these musicians and forming a tight-knit fan community.
Here are some of the reasons why I believe a site like this would be beneficial:
1. This could be a step forward for Asian / Asian-American representation in musical media.
2. Inspires a new generation of Asian / Asian-American artists
Asians / Asian-Americans might be more willing to pursue music as an artistic career if they see that it’s a viable option. As someone who grew up in a household where my parents expected me to become a doctor, the art path never seemed like it was even a possibility. Successful artists didn’t look like me, and art as a career was especially frowned upon by people within the Asian community. Hopefully the creation of a website like this will lessen the social stigma of pursuing–or even enjoying–music as a hobby for future generations.
3. Helps out with the marketing problem.
I mentioned earlier that one of the biggest reasons that people aren’t aware of these artists is due to a lack of marketing. A blog that reviews, interviews, and elevates Asian / Asian-American artists to the Western world could help ease that long withstanding problem. A platform like this could advertise to a musician’s specialised audience (Asian-Americans etc.) just through a single post. Additionally, any publicity for an unsigned artist would be extremely helpful!
4. Adds some variety to your personal playlists
Hopefully, a website like this will not only introduce you to Asian-American artists, but other artists based in places like Manila, Singapore, the UK, Canada etc. Asian-Americans aren’t alone in their experiences, and it would be interesting to see how people create music based on their experiences from around the world.
5. Drums up support for Asians in the music industry within the Western world
The last thing that I want to do is force people to listen to musical artists that they don’t want to listen to. At the end of the day, the identity of the people who make your music doesn’t matter if you don’t enjoy listening to it–but by showing people artists that are more relatable to them, there might be a greater chance that they will stumble upon at least one that they will enjoy.
That’s the whole basis behind “From the Intercom,” a website dedicated to achieving these goals. If you’ve already been inspired to check out at least one of the artists that I listed above or in the survey, then I know that something’s gone right!
There’s thousands of new musical artists to discover, and ones still yet to be discovered–so hopefully you’ll stick around! 🙂
*Disclaimer: Whenever I say Asian / Asian-American, I am also including people represented in other English speaking countries like Asian-British, Asian-Canadian, Asian-Australian etc.
Special thanks to Emily Gu for her edits!
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!