Before I Was Boss: Don't just let life happen to you, says Gig Life Asia founder

PHOTO: Gig Life Asia

Here's a great piece of life advice: "Be aggressive and be proactive. Always be prepared to contribute to an environment."

Sounds simple, but then, there are many of us nowadays who are passive.

The giver of these wise words is Priya Dewan, founder of Gig Life Asia - a website that offers travel packages and information to the best music festivals in Asia.

Priya's 35 years of living has included experiencing a life full of opportunities due to her persevering, never-say-die attitude.

Born in Manila, Priya grew up in Singapore before studying and working in the US. She had wanted to be an actress as a kid, but life decided otherwise. While her parents were supportive of her acting choice, they made a sound case for her to choose something that could keep her in the country she wanted to study in for work afterwards, as she is an Indian citizen. She ended up at Boston University (BU) studying Mass Communications.

"Actually it's a very similar skill set. Because you learn how to adapt yourself in different situations and deal with different people," Priya explained.

But how did she get into music? In her freshman year, she made friends with an underground music lover who impressed Priya.

"She knew everything about underground music. And I was like, how is that possible?

"Where I lived in Singapore, I have never even heard of these genres, let alone these bands. I wasn't interested in that and I never thought of music. The only music I considered working in was musicals. I didn't think about the music business. That was so new to me. There's a whole business around this thing? So, she was the one who said, 'let's start a radio show'.

"Why not, I thought, how fun. Because for me that ticked off my little performance element. And in doing so, I learned so much about music."

With that, Priya developed an obsession for live music, even getting artistes to perform live on her radio show at BU. And with her Midas touch, she helped to start what is now an annual festival at the university called WTBU Day.

"Live music was the one aspect of music that really jumped out at me and made me feel really engaged," she said.

I think that's a consistent theme in my life - anything I've had an opportunity to do, I have given it everything...I think that's what also fueled the whole entrepreneurship side of things.

With her new-found interest, Priya requested to work in the music industry as her internship which was part of her university course. And so began her 10-year affair with the recording side of the music business. Priya gained an internship with Warp Records - an independent label from the UK that had a roster of American indie artistes.

"The funny thing is Warp is such a well-known niche label. Especially back then, they were not as indie focussed and massively electronic focussed and leaders in the industry in that regard. But for a very niche audience. People who know Warp don't just know it, they are obsessed with it," said Priya.

Her journey at Warp started as intern then to office manager after she graduated, to taking over accounts - where she signed up for an adult education course on accounting at New York University to catch up - to retail management then label manager, which pretty much meant running the whole business. Whatever it was, Priya threw herself wholeheartedly into it all.

"I think that's a consistent theme in my life - anything I've had an opportunity to do, I have given it everything. Like I'll do that, I'll do that as well, can I do this, can I sit in on this meeting? And I feel like that really helped propel my career much more quickly that if I didn't have that natural personality trait. I think that's what also fueled the whole entrepreneurship side of things," mused Priya.

When asked if she faced any challenges as a young female in a predominantly male industry, Priya shared that it was mostly felt when she had to go for external meetings. Many couldn't tell what gender she was over email, especially with her name. She recalled one meeting she had with a major label that had invited her to spend a day at their office.

"I walked in to the very first meeting which was with the CEO of the whole office and he literally told me what kind of coffee he wanted. When I walked into his office, he was like 'ya I want my coffee black.' And I was like 'great, I'll have one as well. I'm Priya from Warp.' And you could see, he was like 'What?' And he never made it through the meeting actually acknowledging it, you could just see a little bit of 'No this can't be.' I thought great, I really don't think I need to stay here for the rest of the day. This is not the company we're going to work with to distribute our content."

On the flip side, Priya had lots of support at Warp and also in the independent music industry.

"I was the youngest and, maybe, second female that got a position on the Board of the American Association of Independent Music. There were definitely celebrations of being a female and younger doing what I was doing."

But the thing that took her off-guard was the lack of support from fellow women.

She said 'she's too young and everybody likes her too much. She's too good-looking and her family has money.' And he's like, 'that should make you want to marry her, not hate her.'

"There are a lot of great women in the music industry. There's a lot of nasty women as well. I just cannot understand most of them where the guys are being feminists, the women aren't.

"I had one woman I had to deal with. When I was still office manager at Warp, she was constantly supporting me. 'You should be running this place, I see all the work that you're doing, blah, blah, blah.' When I got promoted, she went to my boss and said 'Priya cannot run the US office, this is just ridiculous.' And my boss was like 'why?', she said 'she's too young and everybody likes her too much. She's too good-looking and her family has money.' And he's like, 'that should make you want to marry her, not hate her.'

"I prefer when the men are just shocked initially then see you through the meeting than if women have this innate growing misplaced hatred and they don't even confront you with it. That to me is way harder than somebody just being shocked that I'm female and I'm young," Priya elaborated.

Nowadays, she just takes it as a compliment when someone exclaims that she looks so young.

Photo: Gig Life Asia

It's as a label manager that Priya got her taste for festivals and being on the road. She travelled with her artistes to learn what it's like for them when they moved from gig to gig, the problems faced, the solutions to counter issues, and nitty-gritty details a manager wouldn't realise if they didn't experience the same trials and tribulations as their team. "Being able to work with the situation" created a versatile Priya.

Before moving to New York where she lived for eight and a half years working at Warp, Priya had spent a year working in Boston after graduation. She left Boston because she felt it was "too small town". Her first job at a record label didn't pay too much so she worked evenings at popular venue, Paradise Rock Club, where she caught all her favourite bands and more for free. She also managed a band and built her local network up so well that Boston became an 'everybody-knows-your-name' kind of place for her. So off to New York she went.

"Essentially at Warp, I magically managed to stay in the US for 13 years without being asked to leave. I was on various forms of legitimate working visas; I had a really good immigration lawyer. And eventually it caught up and they said you really should be gone for a year and come back and get this L-1 visa (transfers from foreign worker status to managerial, executive or specialised knowledge category) and then you'll be on the path to green card," said Priya.

That change in situation was the trigger to come home to Singapore. She explained her predicament to Warp who offered her some possibilities such as moving to either London or Canada. They even offered her to become partner but all of it wasn't satisfying enough for this go-getter.

So home she came to figure out what to do next. And it happened to coincide with the first Laneway Festival here.

"At Laneway, I was so blown away that Singaporeans were so into this music. And there was a lot of Singaporeans, it wasn't just expats. People were having a really good time despite the rain, listening to bands I didn't realise they would know or probably they didn't know but it didn't even matter. And then I had this idea. Why don't I come back? Take all those relationships with these indie artistes that I have, come back here and set up a booking agency? And that's what I did. That was with Feedback Asia."

So what exactly is a booking agent? I asked Priya to explain: "A booking agent represents an artiste for their live career and finds live act opportunities for them. Promoters go to booking agents to secure artistes. The booking agents will go to other cities to ask who else wants an artiste in order to create a tour for them."

This is the land of opportunity. There's so much to be done here.

She saw a gap in the market in Asia for such an opportunity. Priya explained that there was no transparency when it came to acquiring gigs because sub-agents would mark-up their prices for each city when creating a tour. Sub-agents are hired by the main label because they don't have any local contacts. Artistes can also be taken advantage of because they don't know what commitment was made to get the amount paid for them. With Feedback Asia, Priya hope to encourage more legitimacy to the industry and have more artistes come to Asia.

"I want to make it more transparent for people to do shows in Asia so that no one is getting ripped off. Because if lots of people get ripped off then it's not really a sustainable business. I'm not trying to take over all these major agencies. I just want them to pay more attention to the market. I want them to take our market more seriously and if it's by shaking things up a bit by taking an artiste or two away, if that's what it takes, that's what it takes. I want them to put people on the ground here and help build the infrastructure and legitimacy of how shows are being done."

But I wondered if Singapore may eventually be too small town for her too since Boston was. Priya corrected me.

"This is the land of opportunity. There's so much to be done here," she enthused.

"I think it's a super exciting time. There's so many people like us who have studied abroad who have gotten a taste of these industries abroad and have come home and want to build up that level of professionality, the infrastructure, all of this here."

Through her travel and work with Feedback Asia, the next epiphany occurred to Priya and Gig Life Asia - a travel and festival booking site rolled into one - was born.

She said: "A couple of years ago after travelling all around the region, the next epiphany happened with Gig Life Asia. Travelling to all these festivals and posting stuff about it; I was posting like a crazy person on social media to build up the brand. It was also to get my friends from the West to be interested. It's much easier to book an artiste to do a tour in Asia if they want to come to Asia. They're prepared to take a hit on the fees, whatever it is and fly all this way, and they really want to come. So how better to do that than to show them the good food and the shopping and just how fun it is here. And it is really fun so it wasn't too difficult."

But how do you find out about these festivals, I queried Priya?

"Good point. I knew because I work with these people. There's so many awesome cool new festivals that are popping up. I know because it's my job to know. Feedback Asia - these people I'm sending my artistes to. I've got this whole bank of knowledge about this stuff. And when I go to these cities, I get taken out by promoters. They take me to the best restaurants, they treat me like an artiste, take me to the best clubs. They really want to show off their city because they are trying to get my artiste to come so if they show me a good time, I'm likely to pass it along to the artiste and convince them to come."

I think people need to take charge of their lives and take charge of whatever they're doing. Participate a little bit more and not just have life happen to them.

Priya also said she met people here who complained about not much to do, which drove her mad because she knew otherwise.

"I would meet people at BBQs and they would be like it's so boring here, I really miss Europe where there's so many events. I'm like 'are you nuts?' There's so much going on here," exclaimed Priya.

With all that knowledge she gained, it was only natural for Gig Life Asia to take flight.

Other than sharing information on all these events happening in the region, Priya also hopes to tackle the issue of undersold festivals because of the lack of information for the English-speaking market in these countries.

Most countries tend to focus on their local audience, she said, even though they book international artistes. Her aspiration is to localise her website and provide localised customer service, and tap into the interests of the savvy Asian traveller - those that travel to far-flung places like Puerto Rico.

While Priya does her best to drive more traffic and interest to our part of the world in terms of music, she shows her determination with some parting advice.

"I think people need to take charge of their lives and take charge of whatever they're doing. Participate a little bit more and not just have life happen to them. Especially if you are ambitious or want to make anything or want to grow, that takes participation and proactivity."

With that sort of attitude, if she had chosen to be ruler of the world, I'd personally vote for her.