One of the more friendly faces you’ll encounter in the music scene is at Cross Ratio Entertainment, that is led by Founder-Director, Dean Augustine. As a veteran in the Singaporean and wider Southeast Asian music industry, he has gone through the doors of companies such as Tower Records Singapore, Gramophone, and S2S Japan Inc. before starting a label to call his own.
For over three decades, Dean has lived through the rise and fall of artists and genres. He thrives on helping his team and artists manoeuvre the cutthroat music landscape in the digital age, as well as keenly observes the ebbs and flows of key trends in music formats.
A few weeks back, Popspoken had the pleasure of talking to Dean about his rich experience in the music industry. During the session, he opens up about his stories from working with various types of artists and partners, and dishes constructive advice to musicians and artists looking to be signed to a label while debunking the myths that come along with it.
Popspoken: You’ve been active in the music industry for over three decades. What does a typical work day look like for you? Is there a difference between pre-pandemic days and now?
Dean: Before COVID-19, the timings of meetings are more controlled because most of them were conducted face-to-face, and there’s only a specific slot of time that you’ll have to meet someone. Right now, everyone’s meeting digitally and it almost always overruns. Because of that, my work day is longer compared to before the pandemic.
Sometimes I have meetings late at night because we work with partners not only in Asia, but also in Europe and America too. At other times, we’ll have meetings at three in the morning. On days when I have certain events or video shoots, I’ll get home and I still have to stay awake for another three hours for the meeting.
A typical day for me starts with the morning meetings. For us, because we also manage overseas artists, the time gets filled up pretty quickly. Sometimes I wonder why we’ve ended up working harder now with COVID-19, but the work is a bit different from what we were doing before the pandemic.
Popspoken: Do you think that the pandemic has blurred the lines between your work life and your personal life?
Dean: Yes, absolutely. Recently, as you know, we are back to working from home as the default in Singapore. That’s where I feel is the most difficult for most of us – we have families and kids to take care of. So, we have to manage all that on top of meetings and work. In the office when we would all have lunch, but now at home we might just want to carry on with work so we can end the day as soon as possible. Lines are very blurred.
I feel that, even for myself when I’ve been in this industry for so long, the last two years are a very different time for everybody – not only for me but also for the people who work with me, and even the other labels and people in the industry. If you look at the core, we are all facing the same issue. Some people are also facing difficulties with their mental health because it’s so hard to draw boundaries because they’re working from home and there is no clear divide between work and rest.
I tend to go back to the office when I can to get my work done there because then I can set a system for myself. I’ll be in the office while my staff are working from home. But sometimes I feel bad, because my staff are working late also because of the way things are now.
Popspoken: Your experience stretches across the days when CDs were the most common formats for prerecorded music, to the streaming era that we are in today. What are some music marketing and A&R strategies that have worked in the CD era, that still work now?
Dean: I used to buy CDs at around 50 bucks when I was younger – I had to consciously save upto buy them. Back then, they has CDs in what was called the Long Format. It’s this huge paper that they package the disks in. That was my generation, the Gen X.
It was the time when Nirvana, Gangsta rap and such were what I liked. We wanted to go against the norm. There was no internet, so we were largely controlled by what’s on the radio, where we heard ballads, Madonna, and Air Supply. If you want to listen to other forms of music, you need to save up and be willing to pay for it. That was the period when vinyls were being cleared at a very cheap price – so I was buying all the rap stuff such as NWA, Ice Cube, Body Count. Artists I enjoyed.
That’s when I realised that music can change you. I transitioned from rap to the grunge and indie, which I still enjoy to this day. Magazines used to put out CD mixtapes, which is where I learnt about the music that’s out there. I never thought that I would end up working in the music industry. I got my start at Tower Records because I had a friend who worked there and he recommended me for a part-time position.
Back then, there was no internet so we had to get mixes six months to a year before it even came out in the market or on publications. I had to decide whether we wanted to take a title and push it before even knowing whether it’ll be popular. That’s why we were trained to understand how major labels worked and how the alternative music market worked. I knew about Green Day before many people did. Now you can just search it up on the Internet but in my day, we needed to know what we are aiming for before we promote something.
For some context to your question. You know why vinyls are making a comeback now? Hip-Hop and Rap, which was what I grew up with, has already come back. It’s what we call a “Seven Year Cycle”.
Based on everything I have learnt, it’s what’s happening now, if you notice. In my time, vinyl was on a decline and CD sales started growing. CD prices dropped from 50 dollars to 15 dollars and kept dropping, when competition emerged and different retailers coming in. That was the heyday of CD – people will buy five different versions of an album because labels were putting out multiple editions of each to make money. This is what’s happening with vinyl now.
Back then, for marketing, there were a lot of different types of promotion for music. There were tie-ins with Cherry Coke and other drinks, there were TV and radio advertisements and more. It’s because major labels were selling so many CDs that they can afford all those big-budget marketing efforts.
The trends have shifted since. CD has already went down, but vinyl came back and people today think it’s cool. To be frank, I saw it coming many years back because there were many indie companies pressing vinyls again. When CD was at its peak, indie companies were already focusing the uniqueness of vinyl for certain niche markets. Vinyl became mass again when major labels realised that people are buying vinyl again. Did you know that now, it takes about five to six months, sometimes even up to a year, to press a vinyl record because the major labels are putting in the money to press more vinyl records to match the demand. So, it’s always a cycle.
For marketing of vinyls, there’s not much about it because it’s spread mainly through word-of-mouth. People on the Internet are sharing and reviewing the vinyl records, both new music and reissues of classics. That is how atrend is sustained.
Popspoken: Over the years, you’ve scouted and signed various artists for multiple record labels. What are some qualities that you look for when determining who to sign?
Dean: I learnt from the founder of Avex Trax that they signed all the artists that were dropped by major labels and they turned them into stars – that was how they made money. This was because when the artists were with the major labels, they think they’ve “made it”. Yet, at times, they are not ready yet. So when they got dropped, they think they have something to prove, and they work even harder. That’s when Avex managed to break the artist and they do better than before.
The founder of Avex told me that, as a label, you have to take care of the artists because they really sacrifice a lot to do music. Not many are willing to take the journey – some don’t even make any money until many years later.
That’s why when I started Cross Ratio, I want to work with hardworking people with the same vision. If I believe in them and like their music, I will also put in a lot of effort to help them break into the industry. We must have a common understanding.
I am also on a lookout for people who are fighters, and whether they are able to be completely genuine with their music. When artists write music and sing, you can tell whether it’s genuine. It is a palpable feeling. That’s why we work with artists of many genres. We cannot claim to be a record label if we support only the genre that I like – I want to push Singapore music as far out as I can, no matter what type.
I’ve seen and pushed many indie artists on an international level, so I thought: Singapore can! Why cannot? But I realised, one reason why they aren’t able to, is because they’re so comfortable with where they are, they are afraid to venture out. I really like people who are willing to break out of their comfort zones.
I also tell people that I’m not creative – it’s not that I’m not because I do many things, actually. I say that because I want my artists to do their part in the creative department. I always say that my team and I are the ones behind the artist. Once the artist does their part in being creative, then can we do our part to push the music out. It’s a two-way thing, not just on one side.
Popspoken: Do you have any memorable stories you can share from your years of experience meeting and bringing up rising artists?
Dean: All my life, I’ve got more people turning me down than people coming to me saying that they want to be signed by me. I still remember there was an artist who turned me down, but, after many years, they ended up working with me.
Maybe, at that time, it was not fated. As the years go by and they’ve grown and experienced life, they notice that maybe I’m the one who can help bring them to another level – and that’s why they joined.
When you asked if there’s anything memorable, it’s a hard question to answer because all of the artists that I take care of are very important to me. Each of them are different, it could be because I enjoy variety in our repertoire. I want them to be different because when I go out there to push their music, I can proudly say that I have everything anyone wants for any event.
Popspoken: For aspiring artists looking to break into the music industry, what do you think is the best way for them to find their voice in music?
Dean: The main thing is for them to have an open mind. Many people are telling many different stories. You won’t truly know about someone or something until you actually meet them.
Another thing is that you should not follow other people’s routes, because your journey is different. If you start thinking that an artist you like did something and so you have to follow suit, people can tell, people are not stupid. If you can do the same thing but even better than the original, then maybe people will forget about the person that did it first. But, it’s easier and better to tell your own story and your own journey.
Again, you have to work hard. Regardless if you’re an independent artist or an artist signed to a label, don’t stop working – work doubly hard. Only then can you achieve what you want.
Popspoken: What do you think are some misconceptions about talent management that need to be addressed or corrected?
Dean: There is a misconception that labels and managers will screw up your life. Back in the day, Pop music was created by the labels and managers. Other types of music, like Punk Rock, for example, are created by the artist themselves. With Pop music, it’s always been planned according to what the market wants. And that’s why people assume we are the villains, when, in reality, they are the ones with no direction for them to cope. Their direction was, “We want to succeed, and we put in so much money, so we better follow the template set for us.”
It is less so now. Sometimes, there’ll be instances when the artists really like a piece of work but we don’t. Usually, when that happens, I’ll advice them to put it aside first, and then we’ll listen to it again after some time. When we come back to it and listen with fresh ears, sometimes it finally resonates or sometimes it’s been improved, and that’s when we release it.
Popspoken: Finally, how can an artist get scouted by an agency, or how should they reach out to one if they are interested in signing with them?
Dean: If an artist is making waves and people are noticing the music, you can tell that agencies have already come knocking. But, maybe the first people who come knocking are not what the artist is looking for. So, if you have people or an agency you want to work with but they did not come knocking on your door, maybe you can contact them first if you know you’re gaining traction.
Don’t hesitate. There are so many artists in Singapore and all over the world, some people might notice you fast and approach you on their own. But if you have someone in mind but they haven’t noticed you, go to them. Knock on their doors.
Sometimes, agencies and labels are waiting to see what kind of a person you are and whether you’ll take the initiative to advance your career. Working with someone is like a marriage – they want to make sure that you’re a good person and the right fit.
What’s going to make all the difference is when the artist themselves reach out to have a chat with who they want to work with. Then, maybe, they’ll realise that you’re ready, and you’ll get signed. But, you should only start doing that when there’s traction, when you’re sure that people are knocking.
Photos courtesy of Cross Ratio Entertainment and Dean Augustine.
This article How to Get Your Music Noticed, Advises Music Veteran Dean Augustine appeared first on Popspoken.