Interview with JONATHAN HO, General Manager at Fujipacific Music Publishing, Hong Kong - Dec 16, 2002
“Record companies should grow into multimedia entertainment companies”
Based in Hong Kong, Jonathan Ho is the General Manager at Fujipacific Music Publishing.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a publisher?
After my graduation, which was about 15 years ago, I applied for and got a post at Warner Brothers Music in Hong Kong, where I saw the merger of Warner and Chappell into Warner/Chappell Music. After that, I worked for various local publishers for a year and then at one of the leading karaoke production companies, Fitto Entertainment, from '92 to '94. I then returned to the music publishing business by joining a local publisher who ran Fujipacific Music. In '98, Fujipacific took over that local publisher and since then I've worked for Fujipacific.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as a publisher?
Music publishers were quite passive when I first started. But at Fitto, which is also a record company, I worked with some of the singers who were famous at the time, including Veronica Yip and Chris Wong, and from that period onwards, the music publishing business has been getting more active as a result of the blooming karaoke business. I started to interact more with local producers and I placed quite a number of songs with local popstars like Aaron Kwok and Sammi Cheng. We also handled the publishing for Faye Wong, who's the pop diva in Asia, and for Chang Hui Mui A-Mei, who's the Mandarin pop diva in Asia.
What are your main activities?
Our company is an independent Hong Kong publisher with offices in all the major countries in Southeast Asia: Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. We sign many different catalogues from Europe and the US all the way down to local publishers from Taiwan, and we administer several local Hong Kong publishers. We also represent a number of talented songwriters in Hong Kong and, through our contacts with local record companies and producers, have successfully placed our songs with local artists in Hong Kong and Taiwan. These two major markets are very influential in Asia because there are also relatively large Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia.
Our role is quite active, and besides dealing with cover versions and local original recordings, we also work with advertising companies to place our songs and with record companies on promotion projects. If we place a song by our songwriter, we will talk to the record company about co-promoting the song through the advertising media and also the local karaoke chain store.
What genres of music do you work with?
I work mainly with pop music: Canto pop, Mandarin pop, and also American music styles, from rap and rock to country.
What territories do you work with when it comes to pitching songs?
The Asian market is very different from territory to territory. Taiwan and Hong Kong are more open to foreign songs, whereas Korea and the other territories, because they have their own cultures, would rather use their own local writers’ material. Therefore the main territories we successfully work with foreign material are Hong Kong and Taiwan.
How common is it for you to adapt western songs, perhaps from one of your sub-publishers, to fit a specific market in Asia?
The cover version market is very big here. Hong Kong and its culture are a bit westernised and before Canto pop happened, whatever was a hit in the US Top 40 would also be a hit in Hong Kong. But since Canto pop started in the late the 70s, some artists have covered famous, classic songs, so the trend to record cover versions has increased. Producers are very good at adapting them to local language and the arrangements closely resemble the original recording.
Are newer songs also covered?
In the 90s, record companies started making use of the cover version to get the original recording released here, with good results. So when I talk to overseas record labels, I tell them that first we look to have a cover version released here and then, with the success of the cover version, we will bring the original recording over to get it licensed. If the cover version is already a hit over here, this has a very positive effect on sales of the original.
How important is it to have working relationships with A&Rs, managers and producers in order to place your songs?
Over here, relationships are very important, particularly in the Chinese community. When you've known producers for a long time, they will know that you're a good source of songs. This is as important as it is for publishers to always pitch appropriate material to producers.
How do you find new talent?
I'm open to any source. If I get some material, let's say from Australia or Sweden, I’ll listen to it and if it’s appropriate and I get positive feedback, then I’ll start to promote or exploit the songs. Locally, we have songwriters' competitions where we find new talent.
So you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, we do; I receive about 20-30 songs per week, all of which I listen to. I generally look for whether the main melody makes the song suitable to record locally in the Cantonese or Mandarin language.
How do your songwriters work: do they write completely freely and then you see where the song fits, or do you usually have an artist in mind when they are writing, with or without having received a request?
It's kind of half-and-half. Some songwriters need my advice on how to fit into to the local market, so I send them some local hit songs for reference. But individual songwriters have their own characteristics, so I don't mind receiving different material in order to have a more colourful catalogue.
Chinese languages, however, have some strict sound requirements, so I know straight away when a song isn't suitable for Cantonese pronunciation, in which case I let the songwriters know about it.
Do you sign songwriters or artists with the intention of developing them into recording artists?
I’ve just started to get involved with these kinds of projects, but if they are talented singers, I will try to get them a recording deal. Besides, I have successfully acquired some production work for my represented writers and several of them have now developed into independent producers.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters, with regard to signing to a publisher?
It's the feeling you have when you’ve had a few meetings, how you feel about the cooperation with the publisher. Whether they offer an advance or not is unimportant. The most important thing is whether it looks promising in terms of the publisher being able to pitch your songs and how long this will last.
I ask songwriters, especially fresh new writers, to give me a six-month period to see how I can work with their songs. If the six-month period passes without any results it doesn't mean their songs aren't good, but perhaps it's just the timing that isn't right. Producers often have a song on hold for a long time: I have seen cases where producers have come back to me with the right artist to record the song, two or three years later. So whenever songwriters finish a song and give it to their publishers and the publishers don't get it covered, it doesn't necessarily mean their song isn't any good, nor that the publishers have not tried their best.
When you sign new writers, do you give them advances?
If their songs are already generating some income, I will consider giving them an advance. But if the songwriters are very fresh and new and their material is not very consistent, then I would rather consider giving them a moderate advance when I get the recording.
What, in general, do you think of Asian songwriters and producers?
Their strong point is working on cover versions; the producers are very good at recognising whether a song will be a big hit or not. But because of the reliance on cover versions, the creative side is quite weak here and Hong Kong songwriters are not sufficient to support the original music market. Quite a number of local writers also listen to a lot of foreign material, so the Hong Kong music trend is often dictated by the foreign music trend. If Korean music is what currently prevails or Britney Spears has had a big hit in Hong Kong, they will try to write something similar, often because this is what the record companies want them to do.
If a Hong Kong record company releases a publisher’s song with an artist, do both work on the radio promotion?
The record company will do the radio promotion and the publisher will work in other media, such as the karaoke and ringtone markets, and the advertising media.
How widespread is record piracy in Southeast Asia? What counter-measures are being taken and by whom?
The worst case is China and recently Taiwan as well. In Taiwan, sales have dropped more than 50% in recent years, and in China 80% of the market is taken up by pirate CDs. Record companies will get the initial order but after that they're hit by piracy. Hong Kong is getting a bit better, but pirate CDs are still being smuggled from China. The Hong Kong government has been doing a TV campaign on the issue and has had the Customs department raid the pirate CD black market. In the other territories it’s more or less the same; even in Singapore, where the government is very strict, and in neighbouring countries like Malaysia, piracy is very serious.
Do record companies in Southeast Asia sometimes release songs without the publisher's authorisation?
There aren't that many cases. They do need a licence before releasing the CD.
What is the best way for western publishers and songwriters to approach the Southeast Asian market?
Many regional publishers’ headquarters are based in Hong Kong, because it's an established music publishing business area, so I would suggest western publishers and songwriters contact the regional publishers here to see if they can get a deal or any form of exploitation. We also have affiliates in Korea, Thailand and other countries in the region, so it's more effective and more convenient for them to come to us first.
What markets are most developed in Southeast Asia?
Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, and it’s because we can sell Cantonese and Mandarin products in these four territories. Publishing companies in these countries have undergone a period of growth in the last 10-15 years.
How many units do local top-sellers in the different territories sell?
When record sales peaked in the mid-90s, it was about 150,000 albums in Hong Kong and almost double that in Taiwan. However, these figures have dropped by 40-50% in the past few years. Singapore doesn't have any local products; their products are the Mandarin or Cantonese products from Hong Kong and Taiwan. We have talked about Southeast Asia, but the biggest market in the whole of Asia is the Japanese market where they have their unique artists.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Publishers need to work with record companies in order to transform the music media. The ringtone market, for example, is very popular in Asia, and I think record companies should grow into multimedia entertainment companies instead of just settling for being record production companies.
Besides, publishers should join forces rather than compete with each other, and they should also be wary of becoming too conservative in this increasingly technological world. The licensing of new formats has been ignored for too long; we must create licensing standards for new formats and technology as the need to do so arises.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
The mid-90s in general, because that's when the karaoke market bloomed here. Profits were almost three times higher than it is today. At that time, the Asian diva Chang Hui Mui A-Mei sold more than one million copies of each of her two albums. There was almost zero piracy and people considered music an important part of their culture. The Internet has changed the consumer pattern: it used to be the kids who bought the CDs, but now they'd rather spend money on the Internet or on computers in general.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I have been in the music publishing business for more than 15 years and I really enjoy it, although we're having a hard time at the moment, because of the current economic downturn and because we need to learn to adapt to different media.
During the next 5-10 years I will be concentrating on the Chinese market. There have been changes in China, and I think that if China is growing in a very steady and healthy fashion, as it is, the music business will pick up as well.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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