HIVEWIRE #13: Beyond Nomenclature: Redefining Music Industry Priorities through Cultural Competency

Whether it's a launch for a CPG product or an artist listening party, the best events and content campaigns are created by those who live in the same realities as the buyers, listeners, users, and audiences. We don’t have to rely on Luminate or Nielsen to tell us who we are.

HIVEWIRE #13: Beyond Nomenclature: Redefining Music Industry Priorities through Cultural Competency

By Jashima Wadhera, CEO and Co-founder Ode

A Call for Authenticity, Representation, and Cultural Competency in Talent Management & Global Marketing Strategies

Concepts like “diversity & inclusion” are rising to “priority” in the global music industry. We are watching charts, labels, and streaming services turn to artists of South Asian, South African, Middle Eastern, or North African backgrounds, or artists from those regions. These populations seem to be of priority based on their earning potential in the West and their population quantity in the East. At the same time, quality curation and resource allocation, however, is an afterthought.

I started my career producing shows in the Hip-hop and LatinX communities of Arizona and Queens, New York. I swept floors, worked doors, learned to produce both talent and shows, and found myself wondering where the artists who looked like me or sang in the languages I spoke at home were. I gallivanted through New York in search of familiarity, the now-paraded concept of “representation.” What I found was a severed, compartmentalized slew of artists and creatives that happen to be of “South Asian” origin. Still, each is filled with uniqueness and nuance specific to their lived experience. It was then, when I began writing as a music journalist, telling the stories of artists like Young The Giant, Sid Sriram, Cartel Madras, Shomi Patwary and more that humanized each other beyond their ethnicity, while not viewing their background from the lens of shame or erasure.

I started reflecting on the previous generation’s “music industry”  along with working-class immigrants throughout the diaspora who had managed to produce entire world tours for musicians and artists, from traveling Devdas musicals, DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra, annual Bangladeshi poetry symposiums, Malkit Singh tours to RDB at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, Jay Sean and Rishi Rich’s iconic tracks. We've truly always been here, continually investing in ourselves and each other. As the West aims to capitalize on our populations, I built ‘Ode’, our multicultural marketing and talent management agency, serving as the intermediary that understands our subcultures and knows how to protect them, while working with streaming services, brands, and labels. 

By operating in a West-centered system, A&R and scouting teams are relying on arbitrary terms and non-comprehensive quantitative data to lead their decision-making rationale. For example, “Punjabi” is a language, not a genre or style of music. There can be Folk Punjabi, Punjabi RnB, Punjabi Lo-fi, etc. Still, as artists singing in Punjabi continue to scale, the interest in Punjabi music from labels and streaming services has skyrocketed. This is true for most non-English language music. The missing key? Qualitative data and an understanding of subcultures. What does a song feel like? When you listen to it, watch others listen to it, travel to a country to learn about its people, what about the music that makes them move, cry, evangelize? What themes exist in their music? Why? Who are the movers and shakers in these self-made ecosystems? 

EMPIRE’s Moody Jones and I spoke at Music Biz in Nashville last year, highlighting our approaches to music discovery, artist signings and curation. When I polled our audience on what countries fall under the term “South Asian,” at best, three people mentioned India and Pakistan. As the industry makes global economic investment decisions and refers to post-colonised countries as “emerging markets,” perhaps baseline competency in geography should be required. 

The desire to become “mainstream” connotatively means to be validated by Western structures or wait for Western structures to encourage collaboration between other communities based on metrics. Why wait for huge label deals or execs to have quality A&R, collaborations, or marketing campaigns? We don’t have to wait for money to make music with artists from other countries’ languages. We know our people. We know ourselves. We have the audience, and we need self-worth. Let us stop pedestalizing being the “first '' or  “mainstream,” and let us prioritize making legacy anthems that result in jobs and a true industry that creates upward mobility. 

On the marketing side of Ode, we produce events, commercials, content campaigns, and partnerships that aim to be innovative but intentional. We most recently produced an independent artist showcase with Universal Music Group Canada with talent of South Asian origin whilst connecting Industry executives who previously operated in silos. The performers were selected to challenge the tropes of what it means to be “South Asian,” Pakistani-Canadian RnB singer HerKitab serenaded audiences by opening with a cover of Tamia’s “So Into You,” While Pri opened with a Carnatic classical piece in Tamil. Prior to this showcase, we worked with Mass Appeal to bring together South Asians who work in music on the East Coast of America in an effort to lower the barrier to entry and increase knowledge sharing. Whether it's a launch for a CPG product or an artist listening party, the best events and content campaigns are created by those who live in the same realities as the buyers, listeners, users, and audiences. We don’t have to rely on Luminate or Nielsen to tell us who we are.

We shared how our approach at Ode is discovery and intention-driven. When we look to sign an artist or work on their audience development in varying regions, we travel to them. We see how their communities react to, where, and who their listeners are beyond oversimplified terms like “South Asian” or “Middle Eastern.” We’re acutely familiar with our artist Abe’s Yemeni population in Detroit, Michigan, versus Los Angeles, California, and who he is as a man, born and raised in the Bronx. We know how Punjabis in British Columbia, CA, vary from Punjabis in Queens, New York or New Zealand in their consumption preferences and styles. We challenge our label and streaming partners to define what “Marketing support” looks like beyond adding them to a country-based playlist or putting up a Times Square billboard. How do they reach our listeners? Have they invested in learning our subcultures?

We believe in prioritizing lived experiences and great music. The data always follows suit, but authenticity and culture cannot be interpreted based on metrics. Culturally competent signings, marketing, tours, and deals involve resource aggregation, spending money, and hiring people who know how to gauge what music feels like to a community and the associated fashion, cuisine, and fabrics. Suppose the industry has any hope of surviving as the world becomes interconnected. In that case, they must retire the current approach of hiring people whose ethnic background is vaguely “South Asian”(if at all)  and expect them to use antiquated quantitative data to capitalize on already successful trends and artists. Waiting for something to pop and then retroactively trying to capitalize on it is naive. 

Geography and culture are not mutually exclusive or ethnicity, race, language, and genre. What is mutually exclusive is the need for cultural competency, great marketing, and knowledge of consumer psychology for long-term gains. 

Steam our artists here and if you want to work with us at Ode, stay connected! 

Check out the HIVEWIRE playlist - The Hive

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