How Sony Music's Tat Tong is opening up China's music market to the world
ANOUK DYUSSEMBAYEVA | JANUARY, 27 / 2022
Photos provided by Tat Tong
Tat Tong is Head of A&R at Sony Music Greater China, working on establishing and growing collaboration between Greater China artists and musicians around the world. Tat is also a Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter and has 80x platinum discography with over 20 #1 hits out of over 60 Top 20 hits worldwide which include releases with Troye Sivan, Steve Aoki, Monsta X, JJ Lin, and Wang Lee Hom.

His accomplishments also include bringing together JJ Lin and Luis Fonsi for the cross-cultural release of Despacito in Mandarin and writing campaign music for one of the most renowned brands like 7-Eleven, Coca-Cola, and Panasonic.
Talking about his role at Sony, Tat begins his Composium interview by saying that there are domestic A&R teams on the ground in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Beijing. He tries not to unnecessarily duplicate what those teams are doing — which is scouting and signing artists — and instead takes the entire roster of over 50 artists, looks at them, and determines what their needs are. "The local teams focus inward and I focus outward," he explains. "If you look at the US and Korea, [the market is] about export. Stuff blows up domestically but the magic of the American and increasingly Korean market is that once someone blows up in their market, they can blow up outside of the market too."

Comparing it to the domestic market in China, the A&R doesn't see it happening as much. A lot of it has to do with the size, population-wise, of the domestic market. For instance, While Korea isn't small, it's relatively smaller than countries like the US — that means that local artists will plateau quite quickly if they don't go out into the international market. At the same time, as Tat puts it, China wasn't exporting culture as much, until recently. "It's a huge country [with a] relatively open economy but relatively closed culturally," he adds.
"That's a big part of what my job is: take the material we have, look at it, and see which artists are interested in venturing out."
The other interesting thing about K-pop is, while it's made by Korea, it's a combination of world influences including Swedish pop and American pop, fused together and then re-exported. On top of that, there is an export mindset, not just from the music point of view, but also the point of view of exporting all of South Korea's goods and services. "The rise of K-pop is linked very much to the South Korean government supporting it because it's good for tourism and has knock-on effects," Tat says. "If K-pop starts doing well, everything from Samsung's cellphones to Korean cosmetics to electronics gets caught up in this wave." This, again, hasn't happened as much for China yet.

When asked whether it will happen in the near future, Tat is feeling optimistic. A song that hits Billboard's top 10 automatically recognized everywhere around the world is no accident: that's a system that has functioned for decades. "If you think about why it happens for America but not for China, [it] is because [China] doesn't have that system," he explains. "It doesn't have control of the global distribution channels or the cultural conversation the way America has."
"As the Chinese economy grows and its people get more confident, it definitely aligns with the government's interest [to] participate in this global conversation of ideas, music, and art as a way of becoming a comprehensive superpower."
Sony Music is a US-headquartered company with offices located everywhere around the globe. Just like the other major labels, the overarching goal is to grow; as Tong tells me, Sony Music exists to help its artists build their careers and make money so that the business can make money.

For him personally, however, the way he does that is by bringing a cross-cultural perspective. "Historically, it's always been more one-sided. Our biggest artists are by and large still American. We're part of that cultural export system," he says, giving a recent example of Adele's big release. "Our job as a label is to make sure she continues to be a global artist. We're bringing Adele to the world, but what about the Chinese star that wants to travel the other way?" In the coming year, he plans to continue to find innovative new ways to do that.

Right now, the main strategy is based on crossover collaborations, where Chinese megastars meet superstars of the United States. That helps both parties: for instance, earlier this year, 24KGoldn was paired with Lil Ghost (小鬼 in Chinese), a household rapper. Through this collaboration, the song flew back up to the top of the chart, but the American artist also got more than 30,000 new followers in China over the span of 24 hours. "Before, the Chinese audience listened to the original song, liked it, but didn't necessarily feel like they needed to get to know the artist," Tat notes. "Crossover collaboration refreshes the track and makes people take a closer look at the original artist."

Another big part of the strategy is advising musicians on their creative direction. Often, artists' vibe and style change as they move through their careers: the BTS sound that blew up in Korea is completely different from that of when they rose to worldwide fame. If before their music was usually in minor mode and brought up topics of depression, sadness, and heartbreak, now it's all about the major upbeat songs that make everyone happy. As an A&R, you need to consider these things when the artist transitions from local to regional to global, understand what the international market likes, and guide the artist in finding the sweet spot for their sound.
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