Bryan Christopher Tan’s success reads like a true Hollywood story.
The founder and CEO of Lakefront Records Sdn Bhd managed to sign up US hip-hop act Chrome Cats after spotting them on social networking site MySpace.
After signing Chrome Cats, a duo comprising brother and sister Jamila and Korland Sims, for his label, Tan managed to get their single Best Life enough airplay to move it up to No. 37 on the US Billboard Top 40 last December.
This makes Lakefront the first and only Malaysian record label to-date to have signed a US act and gotten it into the US Top 40.
Amazingly Tan was able to coordinate all this from the comfort of his office in Malaysia, thanks to Skype and the Internet.
“I have actually never been to the US nor met the Chrome Cats in person. It goes to show that we should not be limited by our physical boundaries.
“We had meetings almost every day, with the Chrome Cats and their manager and father Michael Sims. Eventually, I hired Michael as as the US-based chief operations officer for Lakefront Records.
“We created this portal onto the US Billboard Charts. The Chrome Cats have now been on it twice, a feat normally reserved for major record labels like Universal, Island, and Atlantic, which have been in the industry much longer and have much bigger budgets,” said the 28-year-old Tan, who was born in Penang of Indian and Chinese parentage.
While signing Chrome Cats was a good start, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“Even though they were getting good publicity, unfortunately, that did not give us as traction as we’d hoped for. It was hard getting into radio stations, and what we thought was a good production, turned out not to be good enough. We were hitting brick walls. It was a very expensive and humbling journey,” said Tan whose desire to start a record label came about because of his desire to help local talent.
So, why sign Chrome Cats, who aren’t even Asian?
Tan said the move was part of the bigger picture for Lakefront Records.
“Making inroads in the US from thousands of miles away was a challenge. I was having difficulty breaking Lakefront’s Malaysian artistes into the US market as I did not have the right system in place then. I needed an additional push, and began to search for an artist in the US.
“I stumbled upon Chrome Cats and fell in love with a number of their tracks, especially Don’t Let Go. After sending a Facebook message to them, we started chatting, going over the whole Lakefront Records philosophy to ensure they met our standards. Months later, they signed up,” he said.
Tan says he encountered some hurdles managing an American act from this side of the world.
“In the early stages, trust was an issue. It was a huge business risk sending money to the US, in the hope that it would be used for the intended purposes. I am very fortunate to have such a great team both in the US and Malaysia,” said Tan, who hopes to visit Lakefront Records’ operations in Fort Wayne, Indiana this April.
“I want music to be a viable career path for anyone in Asia, and what better way to show that than through Lakefront Records,” said Tan, who was audio engineer for six years.
Throughout that time, he saw a thriving talent pool with brilliant original material waiting to be discovered.
“As an audio engineer, I worked with really amazing talent, and realised that they were just not getting the exposure they deserved. In some cases, they were even better than international acts. This was an obvious gap that needed to be filled,” said Tan.
For Tan, the way to do this was through his own label, so he set up Lakefront Records Sdn Bhd in 2010. He got the name because his office then overlooked the Kelana Jaya Lake in Petaling Jaya.
“Lakefront Recordsis ready for a Malaysian multi-platinum artiste and Grammy Award winner. The record label was created with the sole purpose of developing Asian talent for the international market,” said Tan.
Asked what he looks for in artists, Tan said, “Lakefront Records believes in authenticity. Our goal and business decisions depends on the type of artists we sign. To get a recording contract with us means that talent is outstanding and is able to contribute back to society in a meaningful way,”
According to Tan, each track released must contain three elements: it must inspire, excite and connect on an emotional level with listeners.
“If you have all three elements, we will offer you a recording deal. We aren’t looking for one-hit-wonders; profitability is linked to artistes who are in it for the long run. Getting their foot in the door is crucial, but equally important is consistency, and building a strong fan following.
“Each piece of work will then get the recognition it merits. We want to be with our artists all the way,” Tan said, adding that he is looking the Asian versions of Adele and Tracy Chapman.
Tan says an artiste must know their purpose.
“A good friend, composer Yuri Wong, said it best. He said, ‘Music is a permission game — an artist puts a record out there, then the audience has a choice to spend five minutes of their lives listening. So, what are you doing for them?’”
After analysing each artiste’s repertoire, Tan shares the label’s vision.
“Each artiste we sign must feel exhilarated and confident about the direction we are taking them in. We want to nurture the artist, and put them in the league of greats. It is an extremely long-term relationship we are looking for.
“Therefore the vision must be aligned from the very beginning,” Tan said.
“Too many artistes are manufactured. While this sometimes makes good business sense, it usually lacks depth and is often detrimental to the artist, and therefore short-lived. An artist becomes more profitable to the label as their fan base grows, but only as long as they continue to put out music that relates tofans.
“For the amount of effort and cost that goes into artist development, this is a better business decision,” Tan said.
Making sure the new artist has the potential to be great requires a few strategies.
“We believe authenticity will last forever, which means all our artistes create their own music or co-creates with someone. When an artist writes their own music, they share their views and first-hand experiences, and when they perform, they emote it genuinely with incredible precision that is able to move an audience.
“We also look at the emotional maturity of the people we take aboard. If they are asking to be manufactured, we ask them to come back to us when they know their purpose and what they intend to bring to an audience,” he said.
And the company appears to have definite ideas about what makes a hit.
“It goes back to the purpose of the track. Will it bring back a happy memory or help someone through heartbreak?
“If we are able to evoke any of these feelings, and bring value to listeners, we are positive they will become records that are cherished, and replayed multiple times,” he said.
There are many ways to get local artistes into the international scene, so why narrow it to just the US charts?
“Like it or not, the US manufactures and owns most of the mainstream entertainment worldwide. Look to the film industry, if you want to be in blockbuster films with worldwide marketing, you need to get into Hollywood movies.
“The US charts are even more pervasive; they dominate the radio waves of almost every country, with international distribution chains based in each country, many for more than a few decades already — all marketing and pushing music from their labels in the US,” Tan said.
US labels have not signed more Asian artists because, other than a tiny handful of Malaysian artistes like Zee Avi and Yuna, American manufactured music is a tried and tested model that generates massive revenues.
“There is less incentive to try and break in Asian talent. Perhaps it has to do with artist development as well. Talent alone is not enough; artists need to be developed to reach the international level of production quality and presence.
“This process is extremely important and we put in a lot of effort into this. In addition to pairing them with producers and co-composers or co-writers that we feel will help them reach their highest potential, it is not uncommon for us to speak to our artists on a daily basis,” Tan said, adding that he is happy the local music industry body Recording Industry of Malaysia (RIM) is supporting his efforts.
For Tan, the game plan from the very beginning was to get Asian artistes to the US, then bring them back to tour here.
“We have two Malaysian artists — pub singer Gerard Singh and busker Daymien Nathan — in the pipeline. We will be releasing Gerard’s single, Crazy in April and we will see what happens,” he said.
The next step for the company will be to try to push local talent into the US charts, building a fan base, getting endorsements and touring.
“We are continually improving and learning, as we are playing in the big leagues, we need to step up to the plate to compete. All this costs money and so we are in the midst of talks with potential investors.
“We have to find like-minded investor that understand what we are trying to achieve. That investor has to be an Asian. We have had several American investors ready to finance us, but we want to keep Lakefront Records in the hands of Asians,” he said.