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Five years after establishing the agency's first regional office, Brett Murrihy, head of WME Music's Asia-Pacific division, talks “opportunity and upside” in the East
By IQ on 11 Dec 2020
In 2015, WME Music expanded its global footprint by acquiring Australian indie powerhouse Artist Voice, giving the agency a dedicated Asia-Pacific (Apac) division based in Sydney.
Five years on, the Apac office serves as an increasingly important gateway to Asia, with over 100 WME-IMG staff looking after more than 2,000 artists in the region, including Dua Lipa, Lizzo, Lewis Capaldi, King Princess, 6lack, Summer Walker, Crowded House, the Kid Laroi, Angus and Julia Stone and Chet Faker.
Here, Artist Voice CEO Brett Murrihy – now a partner at WME and head of Asia-Pacific for music – speaks about the agency’s Asia-Pacific growth, opportunities in the region, the benefits of not “outsourcing” its Asian business and, of course, the evolving coronavirus situation…
IQ: Congratulations on five years! How are things down under? It seems you’ve bounced back quickly from Covid-19…
BM: Without a doubt, the Asia-Pacific region has dealt with the curbing of Covid numbers better than any other territory. And government discussions are already taking place around travel bubbles between Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
So while Europe and America wait for a vaccine, Apac is open for business?
Well, depending on how quickly a vaccine is made available, it is conceivable that, with those number of territories open and available in the touring calendar, major artists will look to open their world tours in this part of the world.
This additional focus and touring will only continue to solidify the region as the one with the most opportunity and upside. Australian events are already at 75% capacity, and we have just sold out a 12-date arena tour run of New Zealand for Crowded House.
Beyond Covid-19, what are the unique challenges and opportunities working in the Asia-Pacific region?
The Asian territories are not homogenous – we face the challenges of multiple currencies, cultures, languages, religions, visas, tax, marketing mediums, streaming services and ticketing providers. With the rising middle class in Asia and their increased disposable income, many Asian countries are progressing through a “youth bulge” which presents us with a myriad of opportunities to accelerate artist development. The westernisation and youth of economic powerhouses China and India makes the territory the most exciting from both a domestic and international touring standpoint.
Our Apac business is heavily based around trust, relationships and respect. This is not something that happens overnight; it is ever-evolving and in a constant state of flux. These parameters couldn’t grow without physical proximity and attention towards building a long-term touring market. I feel the need to specifically cultivate and maintain these relationships with clients with a hands-on approach. For myself, learning Mandarin over the past 18 months is a part of the cultural integration, as well a mark of respect for the importance of the China market for the future of our artists and their careers.
“I feel it is only a matter of time before the other global major agencies establish local operations here”
It depends on the territory, then.
A one-size-fits-all approach to Apac does not work. There are unique nuances and differences in each individual country within the market, both from a cultural and business perspective. These differences must be understood and honoured if you wish to make real impact and avoid unnecessary costs. For example, a global streaming deal that is produced in the UK and sold to separate entities across Apac produces different withholding tax treatments for each jurisdiction that must be fully understood by the artist management in order to avoid costly errors. As an agency, these unique challenges have become our opportunities.
What does an artist need to do to make it big in Asia?
From an artist perspective, there are significant opportunities for those artists who are willing to spend time and attention specifically towards Apac. This includes studying and understanding each market and how they should be treated differently; understanding how the touring markets work, and when/how often they should be visited; understanding how the different local social media, DSPs, radio, TV and marketing works and how best to integrate into these areas in a meaningful way; and understanding how music releases should be approached, having informed and current knowledge of the local artists, and curating collaborations that will be organic and create a more localised and tailored approach.
This will lead to an understanding of the varied audiences musically and culturally, which will result in an improved result both professionally and financially for our artists.
Tell us about your local roster.
WME is extremely proud to represent 88rising globally, and the WME Asian roster includes Rich Brian, Joji, Niki, Jackson Wang, Higher Brothers, Stephanie Poetri, Keith Ape and Lexie Liu, to name a few. This year we also put together, in conjunction with 88risin,g the first Asian Head in the Clouds Festival in Jakarta, at Ji Expo, which had sold 20,000 tickets before the pandemic struck.
We also represent Mongolian artist the Hu and household- name Japanese rock band X Japan, who are doing incredible business globally, and South Korean artists Eric Nam, Epic High and Cat & Calmell, who likewise are generating a global following. Like everyone I’m sure, we are building relationships and A&R structure to be on the precipice of signing the next BTS, Blackpink, JJLin or Jay Chou out of Asia.
“A one-size-fits-all approach to Apac does not work”
Why base WME Music’s Apac operation in Australia instead of, say, Shanghai?
Apec the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, was founded by Australia and first operated from Canberra. Historically the Asian record labels have also been overseen and run out of Australia, and this year Live Nation have now followed WME’s lead in overseeing the Asia-Pacific operation from Melbourne, Australia. Operating in the same time zone and having the ability to work as a hub is a major advantage in being able to do business and confirm deals in real time. We have been able to confirm late cancellations or remaining festival slots through our availability and accessibility, and this has been significant.
It is also worth noting that many of the major Asian promoters, record executives and artists have schooling ties within Australia, giving a collective Asian consciousness and togetherness with Australian counterparts.
What are the benefits of having a dedicated Apac office?
Whereas many of our competitors outsource their Asian artist service capability to the individual promoters on each tour, the Apac time zone means that we are immersed in a region that has 60% of the world’s population in 48 countries and leads the world in mobile usage, content consumption and ecommerce.
WME is the only global agency in the Asia-Pacific market that is holistic with artist development strategy, though live touring, branding, fashion, film and TV, digital and sports. Most independent domestic agencies in Australia, meanwhile, don’t book internationally past Australia/New Zealand and only represent ‘local’ artist repertoires in live. This provides WME with a decided market advantage.
Do you see your rivals following suit?
Our Sydney office displays an upward trajectory, with consistent new signings and significant revenue growth, so with this successful footprint I feel it is only a matter of time before the other global major agencies establish local operations here. For us, it is about maintaining and increasing the advantage we have established for our global roster of artists in this incredibly important market. As a group, we now have in excess of twenty years of local knowledge, which is is current and constantly updated.
Aside from the increasing importance of the Apac market, how do you see the next five years shaping up?
WME plans to continue to build our footprint in the next five years, as I envisage a period of hypergrowth for our office. Pre-pandemic, our Q1 2020 was the biggest on record, and we have reason to be very buoyant on what our roster and future holds.
We are confident that we are able to sign the hottest talent in the world, as well as attract established artists looking to build on previous forays into Asia Pacific.
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