Between Graham Perkins and Guji Lorenzana, 45 years of joint experience in the entertainment industry are shared. Aside from UK-born Graham’s time at Apple where the iTunes was just birthed, which saw him managing the creative markets in Asia, he is known to the Singapore music community as the founding president of SG MUSO. As for Guji, he found his fame whilst performing in the Voice of Philippines, following that, he continued his journey with a major label, Warner Music Philippines.
In a time where the Coronavirus has disrupted normal means of consumption of entertainment and levelled the playing field for many artists, Graham and Guiji remain positive and see this is an opportunity to bridge artists to different markets. Under their care are artists such as ili (UK), who has recently dropped track, “Breath”, alongside Keiko Necesario (Philippines), Travis Atero (USA), St Wolf (Philippines), Eyre Llew (UK), Raﬁque (Singapore), Kyle Patrick (USA) and jaye (Singapore).
Through the formation of Gray Door Entertainment, which sees artists from the East and West managed through Open Door Artists and live music events via Originals Only (PH), the dynamic duo is confident in developing pathways for the artists into South-East Asia. The diverse line-up is carefully handpicked by keeping their ears on trends and the ability of the team to then push the artists further to maximize their creative potential. On their advisory board is none other than the acclaimed Steve Lillywhite CBE who has 6 Grammy Awards under his belt, who provides a sounding board for Graham’s business ideas.
Popspoken: Tell us more about your journey in the entertainment industry. What have been the highlights so far?
Graham: I started out as a musician, songwriter from the age of 16 and this was during the 70s and 80s where technology created major disruptions to the creation process, sonics and storytelling. It was an exciting time too as the music business in the UK was thriving with great opportunities across many newly created labels, festivals, venues and genres. This to me was a major highlight on the artistry side of who I am but also has an impact on my vision for Southeast Asia moving forward. On the business side, my experience at Apple was also a profound moment in time for me. I was in Singapore and this was during the birth of iTunes and the iPod. Additionally, being at the forefront of the new frontier of Asia also had a major impact on me. In the last 20 years we have seen particular Asian markets grow and become top 10 music markets with Asian artists developing their capability, artistry and opportunities.
Guji: My journey in the music industry started from the late 90s, early 2000s in singing groups and bands in the Bay Area, California. At the time, singing groups were a big thing in the Asian community and I was lucky enough to see my peers like Kai make a name for themselves at that time. In 2003, I joined a show called American Idol. I didn’t make it far, but the praise from Simon Cowell about my singing gave me the confidence to pursue music. I soon signed an independent deal with a local management company called Luna Co, and released a single with them.
A few years later, I decided to give the Philippines a shot and moved to Manila in 2006. In Manila, I released a few independent albums, and found may way into the top talent pool of ABS-CBN, managed by their talent leg, Star Magic. At Star Magic I was launched initially as a singer, but then ventured into acting, landing my first leading role in a soap in 2008. I continued to do more TV and movies, theatre, music variety shows and singing groups, but quickly missed the indie music scene. Fast forward to 2013, I joined the Voice of the Philippines, made it to team Apl De Ap, and started getting back into the indie music scene. I moved my acting career to Viva Artists Agency, an agency that manages the top artists of the Philippines, and then started to release my own original music with Warner Music Philippines in 2017. In the process of trying to promote and market my own music, I discovered that music scene had a vibrant culture that was not fully being utilised and showcased, so I put up a small live music production called Originals Only (PH). It was through this production that I discovered an up and coming college band, St Wolf. After seeing their potential, I put my own original music career on hold, and decided I’d get into managing artists. Open Door Artists was born.
Popspoken: Graham, what led you to start SG MUSO when you first moved to Asia, and how will those takeaways apply for your new venture? How has MTV changed from the time you were there in 2004, to now, with the digital boom and emergence of a lot of “new media” platforms?
Graham: Being in Asia for nearly 22 years, I was able to be aware of the growth and development of music markets across the region. In many instances during this time, Asia was “late to the game” with elements such as digital purchasing of music (iTunes came 10 years too late), streaming, a lack of both local and regional infrastructure for live music and a general lack of acceptance to “music made here” as opposed to music from the mature markets.
What was clearly missing were associations in some of the countries, who were there to lobby governments, big corporations and inspire artists and musicians, all for the greater good – the music. This led me to create SGMUSO in 2012 and with a little help from my friends in local industry and the presence of Music Matters in Singapore, I was able to instrumentally inspire the idea of developing a music industry as a collective. When people came together, more excitement was put in the hands of others and this had a major impact on the overarching aim to build a Singapore music industry.
Since these early days, Asia is often now in the forefront of change not only in the music industry but in other tech areas too. Fans locally are more receptive to “local” music and have greater access through digital platforms and there is also an eagerness to discover music, no matter where it is from. This has provided a greater hunger for artists across Southeast Asia especially where economic status doesn’t apply and the democratisation of access is key in creative development. We therefore see our expertise and position right now as very important as we develop our business moving forward by building the necessary bridges in Southeast Asia.
Popspoken: What is Steve Lillywhite CBE’s involvement so far in this venture?
Graham: I have known Steve for sometime and we started to work together after he first visited Asia 10 years ago for Music Matters. It’s been an honour being the point person for many of his activities in Asia where he has recorded the likes of The Sam Willows, Noah, Iwan Fals, Slot Machine and Luna Sea. Steve has firmly anchored himself in Jakarta and he has been a constant listening ear to my ideas, business plans and the music from the artists I’ve been working with. His wealth of experience and his inputs have been truly valuable and he continues to be a good friend and an important advisor to us as Guji and I develop our business.
Popspoken: Out of all the South East Asian countries, why did you choose Philippines? Is it because of it growth potential, receptiveness to new music, the fact that it’s a music “trigger” city?
Graham: Even though I moved away from Singapore 2 years ago, Asia has remained a part of who I am and I have been looking at potential partnerships ever since. I’ve had numerous conversations and after securing a label deal for my Philippine artist Keiko Necesario with Warner Music Philippines, the Philippines began to open up to further opportunities and I then met Guji and the rest is history. Indeed the love for music there is amazing and it plays a big part in why the Philippines is a strong gateway into Southeast Asia for emerging artists.
Popspoken: What is your A&R strategy when spotting emerging talent?
Graham: Guji and I are very selective in who we work with and so many artistic and personality elements are considered when determining who we can help. It’s all about the music and that comes first and foremost as we are in the business of nurturing and inspiring talent and helping them deliver on their vision, aura and sustainable bodies of work. Many times we get artists reach out to us but we also take the time to listen to new music that is either recommended via our network or found through other ways by simply being observant of what’s around us and connecting the dots when something piques our interest.
Guji: I personally keep an eye out on what the kids are listening to. And for the local scene, it was through my live music production that I discovered my initial talents and artists. If I see the kids excited, I get excited. And when I see the kids being innovative and creative on top of having undeniable talent, I become very interested.
Popspoken: Guji, how was it like managing St Wolf?
Guji: St Wolf were the first group of kids whom I really felt had something special. It made me realise that scene had changed significantly since my younger days. The scene wasn’t about partying and rock and roll anymore, the artists today were young, but their work ethics and dedication to the craft of music had changed. These kids were church going, studious, and getting better was their top priority. Upon taking them on, they were already rehearsing together everyday, continuously trying to evolve their sound, and writing every free moment they had. Music was literally their lives.
This work ethic is what excited me, and I wanted to help them achieve their goals. Warner immediately took interest after I had invited them to perform for them. Warner was blown away by their live show and musicality. It wasn’t hard to convince them to sign them as their first artist. Warner hadn’t signed an artist for almost a decade before St Wolf. So that was definitely a good milestone. Other opportunities soon followed, such as Coke Studio. I’m excited for you to see what they have next.
Popspoken: Based on some reports, it seems that all live events will be coming to a halt till Autumn 2021. How will this transform the entertainment landscape, and are you guys planning for any events in 2021 as we speak?
Graham: The impact of the Coronavirus has most definitely had a major impact on live music and I truly feel for those who are losing revenues at this time. Once we all come out of our respective quarantines, there will still be the need for social distancing measures that will continue to have an impact on small, medium and large gatherings. The lockdowns have created a level playing field for artists as they all scramble to remain in touch with their fans and has provided much more digital content than ever before. But quality live content will be crucial as we come out of quarantine and we are looking into this heavily with our artists and our live initiatives such as Originals Only for the balance of live music potential in 2020 and into 2021.
Guji: I’d like to think of this as a great opportunity for live music. I think we’re going to see some amazing creativity happen during this time that we will eventually be able to fully incorporate to the live music scene once the lockdown is lifted. And even though things are at a stop at the moment, it only means that once they start up again, the venues will be full of eager music enthusiasts. I’m confident that this time will only make the scene even better.
Popspoken: What are some inside-out and outside-in strategies you have? Will you be following the routes of regional festivals such as Wanderland in Philippines and Good Vibes Festival in Malaysia etc?
Graham: Our main live music strategy will be to support the emerging artist and to ensure that Southeast Asia is a stepping stone to succeed in developing mature market potential. There is a lack of opportunities for emerging artists to currently consider Southeast Asia as a touring circuit and we hope to change that in the near future. Indeed the demand is here but there are fundamental pieces missing to the supply component and we are working on fixing that to enable greater access. The existing festivals across Southeast Asia are absolutely important and we hope that they come back with vengeance in 2021. We will constantly be looking to engage with them to develop opportunities for emerging artists and our live music initiatives moving forward so as to grow a greater accessibility to new music from anywhere.
Guji: I am with Graham on this one. I’d like to add that I think one thing we have to our advantage is that we have amazing artists already here in South East Asia, as well as top international acts that we will be working closely with that believe in our efforts. The support system within our immediate family is amazing and part of the strategies in lifting our artists is having some interesting collaborations. At the same time it is a bit unfortunate that some of these festivals had to be put on hold. Our artist Sundown was suppose to perform at Wanderland after winning Wanderbattle, but we’re excited for them to come back with a stronger performance once the festival gets back on track.