Other Sounds recently caught up with the thoroughly self-aware Priya Dewan, brainchild of Feedback Asia and the woman who took Warp Records “from relative obscurity in the United States to a position as one of the leading indie tastemakers,” who laughed when she told us how she made the “weirdest” jump from receptionist to label manager.
Now, after acquiring ten years of experience in the music industry in London, Boston, and New York, Dewan has finally embarked on her own in Singapore, where she had spent her years growing up listening to “straight up pop”. Representing one of her favourite artists, Manu Chao, along with dozens of other artists in Asia, Dewan shares how she built her career and dishes advice to our local talent.
So, tell us — how did you do it?
I literally just came here and started talking to people, then they put me in touch with other people, who put me in touch with other people. It’s just like building a network from scratch.
Could you maybe simplify your relationship with music for us?
Growing up here [in Singapore], everything was basically pop music, straight up pop. It was before the internet had really taken off, before we had exposure to anything else. There were three radio stations and I wasn’t really that interested in music at all. I went to college wanting to study Theatre.
I did Theatre my whole life. I played trumpet and I played trombone — I definitely did a lot of musical things but I never thought of music as an industry until I went to Boston and my friend had me join the local radio station, WTBU. Boston is such a great place to discover music because it’s got such a rich indie music history and a scene. And it’s small. It’s not like New York. New York would have been so overwhelming. Boston is a really good way to get introduced to indie music.
“My thing is to get more people to take a more pro-active approach to Asia, instead of think of it as an afterthought.”
Because it’s small?
Yeah, I got there and I was like: There are genres of music? And there are sub-genres of music?
How old were you at this point?
Seventeen. I had a really late start in the music industry. Most people know at the age of five that they want to work in music. They remember their very first concert. I think mine was Sting — I don’t even remember. Then my friend and I started following local bands and got really into it. She was German-Colombian, but knew all this underground stuff. She really introduced me to a lot of stuff and I thought wow, this is really cool.
What got you more involved?
I started this event, which I believe still goes on and is huge now, called WTBU Days — live music events. We started bringing in local artists and interviewing them at the station and from there I thought, this is amazing. I love this. I think part of it was that I was so naïve and all of it was so fresh.
You meet a lot of people in the industry and they’ve heard it all. They’ve been listening to music since they were little kids. So that was something advantageous to me. Everything was a fresh sound to me. And I’m still learning about older stuff. But I know what I like and I’m not ashamed of what I like, even if it is pop or cheesy. There’s nothing wrong with that. And that’s what I love about music — there is no right or wrong to it. It’s so personal but can be also so communal.
When people start working in the music industry, it’s usually super hands-on, interning here and there.
Oh yeah absolutely. Stuffing envelopes. Stuffing envelopes for a good year.
Did you go through that?
Oh, a lot. I definitely put my time in. You meet people now [who tell you] I want to do what you’re doing. First, do all of this. If you want to do it the way I’m doing it, then do it the way I did it. These are attractive industries to work in, right? Art is the same way, fashion. I feel like that’s kind of the initiation process that weeds out the people who are serious about it.
“I tell people here who have been doing this the last ten years: thank you. I can’t imagine how frustrating that would’ve been.”
You’ve got two kinds of interns: one who is listening and paying attention while stuffing envelopes and realises that just the fact that they’re in that environment is this huge learning experience and will jump in and offer to help out more, when they see a need or an opening — that’s how you build.
In Warp, I started as an office manager, literally the receptionist. It was a combination of right-time-right-place and seeing every little thing as an opportunity and building on it.
That will give the rest of us hope! What happened?
When Simon [Halliday, who now runs all of 4AD] decided to leave — again, it was a great-timing situation. Steven [Beckett, co-founder of Warp] didn’t want to be label manager, he wanted to be a creative, and when they asked me, I said ‘Yes, really?’ I made one of the weirdest jumps from receptionist to label manager.
Now that you’ve been living in Singapore, what are your impressions?
I moved here in January of last year. It’s still home for me. My parents never left so I would come home here every year. My sister is in Hong Kong and my dad spends half of his time in India, so whenever I would come back I’d spend three days in Singapore, three days in Hong Kong, and three days in India, so I never really had time to see how the music scene was going. And also, I’d be on holiday which means just going out and eating my favourite food.
What exactly prompted the permanent move then?
One year, [while still working at Warped] I felt like I needed to do something else. Basically, I felt like I was just doing and not building anything. I’m that kind of person when there’s a plateau and I start getting stir-crazy. Ultimately, I just wanted to start something on my own. My dad is an entrepreneur and he has been encouraging me since I graduated. And then finally, I was ready.
“It’s got its difficulties, but the potential and the excitement far outweigh the frustration. It’s so exciting to be part of something growing so rapidly.”
It has been so great to have that support. I timed my trip back to Singapore during the first Laneway Festival. More and more artists started coming here and I would hook them up with my mom and she would take them out. She was like a little artist liason, personal artist liaison. I saw stuff happening in the periphery.
I came for Laneway festival when !!! [Chkchkchk] was playing and also Beach House, who I represent now for Asia, and a bunch of artists I knew directly — I felt that there was something happening here. This could be it, the idea I was looking for. And it was. From there I went back to New York, told Warped I was leaving, and I told them what I was doing.
You’re on your own. How has that been?
It’s great. It’s got its difficulties, but the potential and the excitement far outweigh the frustration. It’s so exciting to be part of something growing so rapidly. I tell people here who have been doing this the last ten years: thank you. I can’t imagine how frustrating that would’ve been.
If I had come a couple of years later, I would have missed the boat. Already a lot has popped up since I moved here, which is great — that’s kind of the idea. My thing is to get more people to take a more pro-active approach to Asia, instead of think of it as an afterthought.
And what should we be looking forward to in the future?
A general building of communities, and it’s happening already. I’m just excited to be a part of it. SGMUSO invited me to be on their advisory panel. I love that whole thing of “let’s get together and build something together”. And even if we’re technically competitors, there’s enough to go around and we all benefit from shared ideas.
“I felt that there was something happening here. This could be it, the idea I was looking for. And it was.”
One of the limitations in Asia, is that it’s been quite fractured. You lose a lot of opportunities. It’s happening more and more that people are working closely and we’re going to be stronger as an Asian music community, than as a Singapore music community or a Hong Kong music community or a Philippines music community. I think that’s something to look forward to, and also getting the world to take notice of what’s happening here.
You are in touch with a lot of international acts, what kinds of conversations have you had with local bands?
In a lot of conversations I have with local artists, they seem to think that it’s especially hard being here because they don’t have support. But in reality, it’s hard to be an independent artist anywhere in the world, you know? By the time we see them here, they’ve struggled through that with three jobs and getting in the back of a van with no money, five times before they get to the point where they’re profitable, if they ever get there. Sometimes it’s a bit of a reality check. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. So how badly do you want it?
And your advice to local musicians?
Work really hard. Be really good. That’s it. Be proactive. You can’t sit around and wait for somebody to come and find you. Especially, yes — especially when you’re in Singapore. That should give you more reason to be proactive.
By Cat Cortes