As a fresh wave of music from the ASEAN region begins, Hassan Choudhury speaks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about partnering with an airline to create music combining a whole continent’s cultures
In December 2019 two very unlikely companies joined forces to create the next big thing in pop music culture. Music giant Universal Records partnered up with airline AirAsia to start RedRecords, a new label championing A-pop music.
There’s been plenty said about K-pop, recent introductions to V-pop and J-pop is well established. Now, however, the new wave of music combines all of these packaged up into one universal letter to represent one continent: Asia. The term is described by RedRecords’ CEO Hassan Choudhury as a “genre of music that encompasses the ASEAN region”.
He explains where the early focus will be with the launch of the label: “The A-pop terminology was formed by Sir Lucien [Grainge, CEO of Universal Music Group] and Tony [Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia Group]. A-pop is the whole of the region and the initial focus is on Malaysia and Thailand.”
The idea to create the label came from the nuances that each country has. “We found having worked in this region, unfortunately, the local language repertoire doesn't tend to bleed into each other's markets for cultural or linguistic reasons. So we thought, let's do the other way around; let's try and make an international record that can cross the region.”
The team did just that, signing German-Thai singer Jannine Weigel and producing pop song Passcode which was released during lockdown. The catchy tune was produced by Grammy nominee Tommy Brown, who has previously worked with the likes of Ariana Grande and Chris Brown. It was written by Canadian Jessie Reyez and the video features some of Malaysia and Thailand’s biggest social media influencers.
The team at RedRecords champion the integration of the different cultures that have come on board to create Passcode and for Hassan to witness how music has the power to unite, not divide, was poignant. “It's pretty emotional that everyone around the world has their fingerprints on this on this record, it's not being manufactured. We weren't just doing it to say, ‘hey, we're the answer to every racial problem in the world’, because we're certainly not. But what we can do is say that music definitely unites people. And people can celebrate together over music, we don't discriminate on anything in any shape in any form - and that's the beauty of it.”
When looking at the market, Jannine’s song and the overall music industry, the team at RedRecords did contemplate whether music encompassing the Asian region alone was too niche to be accepted in the wider industry. However, for Hassan the potential he witnessed in Malaysia and the rest of the Asian market convinced him otherwise. “Asia just doesn't want to be a stepping stone so artists can get into Australia and then up to Japan, we need to be here for a reason and to show that this ecosystem can grow.”
By launching such a brand at this stage in the year when Covid has become a daily part of our lives and travelling is unlike it ever was before, it may seem strange to partner with an airline. AirAsia flies domestically in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and India and according to Hassan flights have been at 85% capacity during the outbreak. So he and his team used any downtime they had during this period to load up aircrafts with plenty of Jannine inventory including a safety message, music at the gates and plenty of posters. But, they also drew upon Asia’s penchant for technology and used lockdown to create an app which will be officially launched in October. This new piece of tech taps into the rise in consumers shopping through their mobiles in lockdown and for the AirAsia team this could mark a big step in finding a new audience.
“Covid gave us a chance to do something different because AirAsia is always looking to innovate. Tony [Fernandes] and the AirAsia board have made this transformation into digital and moving more towards creating a lifestyle brand.
“Marketing has changed so much, I look at it now from even four years ago. It's so data driven. It's such a science now like I've never known before. An airline has to sell by data, we know where we're going, who's flying, regularly, who's not flying, [and so] you message them your CRM. Hopefully we can carve out not just for Jannine, but for RedRecords, and of course, Universal and AirAsia and AirAsia media group to show that they can break an artist from here and that this region is as good as anything”.
Hassan’s passion for the region and local talent led, by chance, to local creatives, artists and directors working together to create the video for Passcode. “We were forced to stay here [because of lockdown] which gave us the opportunity to find local talent. So that video is 100% Malaysian, the only person that's not Malaysian is Janinne. The creatives, the video director, the photographers, the stylist, the makeup, and that's the other thing that we want this song to represent.
“It's not about what's behind the glass in the studio. It's also what's behind the other side. These guys are as creative and as good as anyone in the world. That's the message we want, to give people a chance, we understand the restrictions, the financials also now the movement so we want to do things more here.”
By giving a platform to Malaysian talent in this way the team at RedRecords have not only drawn upon what they believe is so unique about A-pop as a music genre, but also shared a bit of their uniqueness with the rest of the world in making Passcode an international hit.
Since Jannine’s video released at the end of September it has racked up over one million views on YouTube and created a global TikTok challenge that has attracted hordes of fans. And as AirAsia plans to expand and become a lifestyle brand championing homegrown talent, A-pop is definitely a musical genre to be taken seriously.