In May 2019, we explored Chaz Jenkins’ concept of “trigger cities”: how global streaming platform algorithms like Spotify and Apple Music are putting today’s voracious listening appetites of Latin American, South Asian, and Southeast Asian cities at the forefront of tomorrow’s Western hits.
The idea is that streaming algorithms reward the best-performing tracks by highlighting/playlisting them more. But unlike the physical sales, big media, or terrestrial radio of yore- where national economies frequently siloed audiences- hungry tech companies want to scale everywhere.
Inevitably, this means our Western listening habits are silently but intimately intertwined with the tastes of Latin Americans and South/SE Asians, via 1s and 0s flying between our smartphones all over the world.
Today we’ll explore a region that rarely shows up on a Western artist’s tour schedule: Southeast Asia.
SE Asian Population Skews to the Music Industry’s Favorite Age Demographic
Politically, the region has been organizing itself as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since 1967 to stabilize the region in the post-Cold War era. Beginning with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, and now totaling ten member states (Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Brunei), ASEAN countries formed the 7th largest economy in the world in 2014, the 3rd largest population in the world (622M), and had over half of its own population under the age of 30, which helps explain the huge music streaming consumption numbers we uncovered in May 2019.
A more updated ASEAN population age histogram shows the population in 2017 growing to 642M, with the “pre-music” age group (under 10) bulge now moving into what could be considered “prime” music discovery years (late teens/early 20s).
Pop Songs = Action Movies. They Just “Travel” Well.
It’s been a long-known industry fact that Hollywood action movies performwell at foreign box offices. Dwayne Johnson, some explosions, and heroic efforts to save those in peril are understandably universal themes.
Or since we Americans love more of anything: how about a whole cast of superstars?
Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame (2019) is set to become the highest-grossing film of all-time, currently at $2.7B in ticket sales…and 70% of that came from outside the US.
The music industry’s parallel? Pop music, of course.
There is certainly a preference for pop music in Southeast Asian territories, which may not be a surprise, no matter where you’re talking about. It is called popular music for a reason.
But if we take a look at the most Shazam chart occurrences in the past month, you might be surprised at each region’s preferences.
Shazam Charts: Western Europe
Western Europe has shown a moderate preference for pop music, as seen in the above Shazam chart occurrences in the past month, going by track genre tags. Each of these charts take the top 100 most occurring tracks, and then compiles their genre tags, roughly approximating which sounds resonate the most locally.
Latin music understandably takes 3rd place in Madrid through its linguistic connection, and Paris has always had a strongHip-Hop/Rappresence(hence its 1st place recently)…but all things said, nothing too surprising here.
Shazam Charts: USA
Across the Atlantic, in the birth country of hip-hop and rap culture, the three most populated US cities (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago) heavily listen to hip-hop above all else, with 30+ “Hip-Hop/Rap” genre tags in each city, relegating pop music to at least half the amount of tags each time.
Several news outlets (Forbes, Billboard, Grammys, Business Insider) since 2017 have heralded the language of the streets as the most streamed genre in the US today, but despite being the world’s #1 recorded music market, American preferences don’t always influence what resonates elsewhere.
Shazam Charts: Southeast Asia
Look at what is happening in Southeast Asia, the home of several global trigger cities:
From Singapore’s 41 pop genre tags to Jakarta’s 40 to Kuala Lumpur’s 37 down to Bangkok’s 30, an overwhelming Southeast Asian love of pop music in the past month would be an understatement, especially relative to the western European and US perspective.
Also, it’s worth noting the virtual absence of Hip-Hop/Rap genre tags. While western Europe showed mixed preferences and the US a clear one, the SE Asian region clearly couldn’t care less about hip-hop or rap (at least those using Shazam), the genre only making a 10th place appearance in Jakarta’s chart with 4 tags.
What’s behind that is hard to say. Certainly, Rich Brian (Indonesia) and other stars of the NYC-based entertainment company 88rising have been making waves globally, showing Westerners especially a different perspective on hip-hop culture.
Since their start in 2015, 88rising’s focus has leaned towards engaging Western underground culture with Asian talent, with mostly North American city tour stops and English-language meme content on their socials. In late 2017, they did tour SE Asia in five cities, but on the whole, the region does not seem to be its target population.
On top of that, it’s worth remembering the data source, Shazam, an audio identification app that is used typically in public spaces (e.g., club, store, party) and with a heightened sense of curiosity. So, Southeast Asians maybe are either never hearing hip-hop out in public, are already too familiar with it, or simply just like pop music more.
But whatever the reasons, in keeping with the Hollywood movie parallel, hip-hop certainly seems like music’s equivalent of American comedy movies: highly localized to culture and thus doing great business domestically, but lacking mainstream resonance in certain regions overseas.
Spotify in SE Asia: Where to Deliver Western Fare
In SE Asia, Spotify seems to be the place where Western artists (with a smattering of K-pop ones) connect with local fans.
This became apparent when we took the Top 10 Artists by Spotify Monthly Listeners (MLs) in each of the top six Southeast Asian cities by streaming levels, and aggregated them.
From here, we start to see how good Spotify is at delivering Western content to this part of the world:
There is a world of insights here: the obvious one is that K-pop group BLACKPINK is currently the hottest act throughout the region, having 2.11M MLs in the past month, who we’ll discuss later with YouTube.
AWAL-backed American independent artist Lauv slides into the #2 most popular Spotify artist (2.10M MLs). In 2017, he had a Southeast Asian-centric playlist evolution with “I Like Me Better”, so for his team, this should not be a surprise.
From the artist perspective, it’s plain to see that with the exception of BLACKPINK, all other artists have US/UK origins (though UK-born Alan Walker grew up in Norway). Given Spotify’s northern European origins and that its most followed/playlisted artists are also of Western origin, this could be considered a natural fit, though the platform is quite global and astute at trying to focus on local repertoire.
At the city-level, there are a few givens and a few surprises: even though Bangkok is the 2nd most populous city (10.3M) of the six listed, it seems to march to the beat of a different drummer. Only agreeing with its sister cities on BLACKPINK and Lauv, local listeners most favor a hometown artist named Wonderframe, the 3rd most listened to at 87K MLs.
Working under the Wayfer Records/Warner Music Thailand umbrella, the former singing competition star is now operating at the highest levels in-country, consistently releasing YouTube videos with millions of views and thousands of comments.
At the regional-level, another takeaway from the six-city Spotify chart is how Western-savvy and in-tuneJakarta (10.6M people), Singapore(5.8M) and Quezon City (2.9M) are. Jakarta favors eight of the top 10 regional artists, Singapore nine, and Quezon City seven. So within Spotify, they are arguably cities with similar sonic tastes, and can conceivably be marketed to in similar ways on the platform.
In stark contrast, Ho Chi Minh City-Vietnam’s most populous city-seems to exist in its own silo. More commonly known as Saigon, locals far prefer Korean acts (8 of the top 10), sharing a love of K-pop boy band SEVENTEEN with Bangkok.
The city’s #1 most listened-to artist on Spotify is their “queen of V-pop”, Mỹ Tâm. Voicing a number of Vietnamese ballads on Spotify with around 1–2M spins each, this is yet another example where platform means everything.
Though a “small” artist on Spotify, Mỹ Tâm’s YouTube channel has accumulated over 850M channel views, releasing several videos per month and being no stranger to double-digit million-count music videos.
More surprising however, is Ho Chi Minh City’s 3rd most listened to artist on Spotify, Nashville’s Landon Austin.
What does Landon (who is not Vietnamese) do? US pop covers in English, but featuring a focus on pristine vocals and a soft veneer of acoustic guitars and pianos, apparently making it catnip for Southeast Asia’s love of very friendly, non-controversial pop music.
Checking his top five cities by Spotify monthly listeners, they are all in the SE Asian region…Austin should be touring Southeast Asia like a madman!
YouTube in SE Asia: Domestic vs. Western Repertoire
If you checked out the first Trigger Cities installment, you might recall the below chart on total YouTube Views by City in one week in May 2019 among the 1.6M+ artists we track at Chartmetric:
While Latin America and India dominated the Top 10, Bangkok stood out as the 2nd most YouTube-hungry city in the world for that week, accumulating over 38M views. Only Latin America’s Mexico City beat them out with 51M+ views.
But past the pure consumption numbers, who’s hot in Thailand’s capital, and more broadly, the rest of SE Asia’s biggest cities?
The K-Pop Factor Remains
Unsurprisingly, BLACKPINK and BTS, two of Korea’s biggest international acts, consistently appear in the top 10 artists by YouTube daily video views over the past month in SE Asia.
Though its had its occasional hiccups over THAAD missile defense systems, K-pop has a longhistory of dominating the wider Asian music market, consistently drowning out J-pop (despite Japan being the #2 music market) or C-pop (despite China having 27x more people).
As a matter of fact, BLACKPINK leads the pack in five of the six major SE Asian cities: all way from tiny Singapore (136K daily views) to the gargantuan Bangkok (1.3M daily views).
BTS, less so: still impressively appearing in the top 10 for five of the cities (Ho Chi Minh City-#2, Quezon City-#3, Kuala Lumpur-#5, Bangkok-#7, Jakarta-#8), their appeal in the past month seems secondary to BLACKPINK’s.
Though BTS currently does not appear at all in Singapore’s top 10 YouTube artists, it should not be forgotten their YouTube success in the region has done much to bolster the seven-member group to its current global status.
Aggregating the top 10 artists of each of the six SE Asian cities-but for YouTube daily views-BTS falls into the #3 position (1.4M daily views in the region) behind EDM producer/DJ Alan Walker (#2 — 2.2M) by a significant margin.
With the Right Music, Lyric/Karaoke Videos Pay Off
Alan Walker’s (UK/Norway) content seems to strike an optimal mix of electronic and singable pop melodies that make his current Top 10 YouTube cities all Southeast Asian!
Walker’s March 2019 track “On My Way” (141M views), featuring Sabrina Carpenter (#10) and Farruko (#8), certainly helped propel the Puerto Rican-born Farruko and American Carpenter into their respective positions in the region. This is especially true for Farruko, given Spanish-language music is obviously not a huge driver in SE Asia.
Walker’s frequent Norwegian collaborator, K-391, who appears as the 5th most viewed this month in SE Asia, is riding high on his 2018 track “Lily” with Alan Walker and Emelie Hollow. Interestingly, eight out of K-391’s top 10 tracks are simply lyric or cover videos of the story-driven “Lily” song, with original or karaoke backing tracks.
The Hong Kong-based YouTube channel “Shadow Music” (510M+ YouTube channel views)-who is running K-391’s #1 “Lily” lyric video-seems to know exactly what it’s doing. With over 1.3M subscribers and running lyric videos for Post Malone, Billie Eilish, J Balvin and Zedd, they seem to understand that they can draw loads of traffic by simply displaying their native English lyrics to its non-English-speaking international crowd. They’ve done it so well, their “Lily” lyric video has 80x more views than the official “Lily” video!
If that isn’t enough proof, you only need to look at the #6 most viewed artist in SE Asia: Brad Kane. If you missed our May 16th podcast episode on Quezon City, Kane was the titular character’s original singing voice for the 1992 Disney animated film Aladdin, which has just been re-released as a live action film starring Will Smith in May 2019.
Kane has since been a producer and filmmaker and not a music artist, so the fact that his rendition of “A Whole New World” has stirred up so much engagement 27 years later in SE Asia (in again, primarily lyric/karaoke videos), says something about how locals consume music…not necessarily to support the artist, but for their own karaoke endeavors!
So if you’re looking to exploit catalog records, this may be a great region to do it in.
Home Court Advantage Is a Great Thing
While K-pop hits it big regionally, and Western artists get their foot in the door with lyric videos….don’t count out domestic artists playing on their home turf in the YouTube world.
Three Southeast Asian artists make the region’s top 10 most viewed: Bangkok-bred trap rapper YOUNGOHM (#4–1.1M daily views), Indonesian singer Nella Kharisma (#7–637K daily views) and Bangkok punk rock band Labanoon (#9–589K daily views).
One distinct takeaway with these domestic artists is that there is no crossover in daily views: their YouTube support comes exclusively from their home countries. Since all three are proudly delivering content in their mother tongues, they are likely limiting their global market appeal, but it’s also likely why they resonate so well with their fellow country people.
Each of their musical styles and looks are unapologetically their own and don’t seem to care much for a more “universal” sound or image, contrary to the global strategies so well-executed by many K-pop and Western artists seeking worldwide acceptance.
YOUNGOHM’s vibe references early Post Malone and Jaden: vocals swimming in reverb, trap hi-hats buzzing and psychedelic visuals on point. Kharisma’s vibe is tailor-made for the karaoke bar, most of her videos simply shot in one location (e.g., concert stage) and always displaying synced scrolling lyrics across the bottom of the screen. Labanoon’s vibe is an undeniably rock, but clean-cut one (they are all devout Muslims), providing their version of power ballads that are simultaneously brawny yet expressing matters of the heart.
Instagram: Where People Follow Their Own
Through Spotify, we saw how SE Asian listeners get into lots of Western music. On YouTube, we learned about K-pop’s reach, the importance of lyric videos and the strength of a handful of local artists in their home markets.
But on Instagram, for these six Southeast Asian cities, domestic wins out, nearly unequivocally.
Thus, the Instagram follower market in SE Asia is quite fractured: it feels like Instagram is where locals go to keep up with the artists whose day to day life more resembles theirs. Sure, they may be wealthy celebrities, but at least they speak their language, live where they live, eat the food they eat, etc. There seems to be a feeling of common ground that Instagram feeds into better than the streaming services can.
It doesn’t make sense to aggregate the top 10 artists by city on Instagram here…because no artist appears more than twice among the six SE Asian cities! That’s how individualized these markets are when it comes to the social platform. Only a handful of K-pop stars, Filipina star Anne Curtis and Selena Gomez were able to make the top 10 in two of the cities (but not even three).
There are simply too many artists to even begin highlighting a few in each city, but if you are looking to break into one of these cities with Western content on Instagram…it will likely need some help from local talent in the form of some collaborative post/video/share/hashtag.
Check out our Cities Page to dip into these cities on your own!
Sensitivity Isn’t Just for Artists
The extraordinary sensitivity of an artist is no longer limited to the “creative” side of our business…with the borderless nature of our streaming world today, it’s also demanded on the business side if success worldwide is truly the goal. Dealing with countless cultures and languages, I would argue it requires just as much whim and imagination.
In a July 2017 article from Google’s “Think with Google” blog series, ethnographers spent some time with YouTube users in Bangkok and Jakarta to better understand how locals were using the platform in their daily lives.
The piece felt somewhat sanitized, deliberately focusing on Consumer Electronics and Beauty YouTube uses and glossing over the fact “the top two reasons people in Southeast Asia visit YouTube are: 1. To relax and 2. To listen to music.”
YouTube has long been takentotask on the “value gap” (or how YouTube is not required to pay licensed royalties to music creators), so it understandably wants to sidestep highlighting its importance to everyday folk.
However, the insight that seemed to jump out most was “people tend to go to YouTube in moments of minimal social pressure” and > 90% of users watched at home:
“Key to note is that [visiting YouTube] has to be a situation where they [Bangkok & Indonesian users] can feel like they won’t be judged for what they’re watching.” — Andrew Cheah,
Market Insights Research Manager, Google Asia (July 2017)
In the context of relaxation and music, this felt somewhat unexpected, and possibly reflective of the nuanced social pressures of the region (e.g., Eastern collectivistic nature vs. Western individualistic tendencies). It simply needs more qualitative work that is outside the scope of this article.
There’s so much lying underneath the surface of the music data we see: linguistic preferences, historical events affecting how music is used, music-related business practices foreign to Western operation, religious norms on sexiness, social network sharing, family hierarchy…the list is never-ending.
For example, did you know that the world’s largest concentration of Muslims is in Southeast Asia? How could that help you tailor certain music repertoire and marketing campaigns to Islamic holidays such as Ramadan?
Some of these cultural nuances we see symptoms of: in the Philippines, to be “mestizo”, or mixed race (usually with European blood), is historically considered to be better than purely Filipino. The history of American troopsin the country during the 20th century and the scars of colonialism from Spain (over 300 years) run deep into the country’s psyche. Many of the current stars in the market- including Anne Curtis, mentioned above as the most followed in Quezon City on Instagram- are mestizos. Not all….but many.
Globally, these issues come in different flavors, but what you may experience in your own country likely has a similar taste. Surely in the US, there is no shortage of these social issues dominating our headlines.
What we can do by looking at a certain market’s music data is be aware of who the fans are, what their specific cultural histories have been and how they are now living as a reflection of it. It’s hard, hard work, since most of the time, there are glaring differences. But if you’re in the music business, you likely have a part of you that believes we’re really more similar than we are different.
I like to think that’s what we’re all aiming for.
If you enjoyed getting the low down on Southeast Asia? Stay tuned for Trigger Cities — Part 3.