ESEA Music has now existed for two wonderful years as a community for East and Southeast Asian (“ESEA”) artists and professionals in the UK music industry. In May 2023, we conducted a survey of our members in conjunction with product research and strategy studio 100kicks, probing their experiences in the UK music industry in relation to their cultural identity and heritage. Over 80 members participated in the survey, sharing thoughtful and generous reflections. For ESEA Heritage Month, we are pleased to report on a selection of the responses received – on one hand, to empower our members with a view of their responses in the context of the wider community’s collective experiences, and on the other, to help others better understand the unique experiences of the ESEA members of the UK music industry.
This report was funded by The Supporting Act Foundation’s inaugural Community Grant program from WeTransfer.
“From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”
Edward Said, 2014
This survey is one of the first of its kind, in that it has collected a representative sample of data on the specific experiences of the ESEA community in the UK music industry, an intersection that has been under-represented and under-reported to date. Being able to conduct this survey at all is uniquely made possible by the existence of ESEA Music as an organisation. We are now able to draw upon our membership to gather meaningful quantitative and qualitative data about our experiences and from this, observe patterns and commonalities, and identify areas where change is needed.
In sharing these results from our membership survey, ESEA Music invites you to get “(re) orientated” with us. The concept of “orientating”, derives from Orientalism, the academic theory coined by Edward Said. In a nutshell, the theory describes a particular lens through which Asian countries and people have been viewed by Western authors and creators. This “(Re) Orientated” survey invites readers to see our community on our terms, through the voices of ESEA Music and our members.
Please note that certain content in this report may be triggering for some readers.
The under-representation of ESEA artists in Britain is self-evident. The biggest ESEA artists in Britain today can be named on one hand, the likes of which include Rina Sawayama, Griff, beabadoobee and Jax Jones. Before ESEA Music was formally established, on the industry side, most of us only knew of a handful of other ESEA music industry professionals and in many cases, we ourselves were the only such people in a room at any given time. It is evident from the responses that representation of ESEA artists in the mainstream, and of ESEA professionals in the industry itself, leaves much to be desired.
When asked to rate how well represented they feel in their cultural identity within the UK music industry on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being none and 10 being great representation), respondents gave an average rating of 4.
We asked respondents to share their perspectives on ESEA representation within the UK music industry, and have extracted some responses below:
In the UK, the “Asian” category of cultural identity has typically tended to represent mainly individuals from the South Asian subcontinent. Beyond this, the vast diversity of the Asian continent and its multitude of ethnicities and cultural identities is often consolidated into blanket references to “Asian” (including in the UK government census, which we probed in our survey as set out below), without due regard for the differences between, on a basic level, South Asian and ESEA ethnicities, heritage and cultures. In music, an obvious example is that the state-owned BBC radio station “Asian Network” does not cover music from the ESEA community. Another example was the UK Asian Music Awards, which ran annually from 2002 to 2012, which only featured artists of South Asian heritage.
These examples of “invisibilisation” of ESEA people within the “Asian” category in the UK is one likely cause for the lack of ESEA representation in the music industry and beyond. As academic Diana Yeh has observed, “We are ‘visible but unseen’, present in the social and cultural fabric but rendered invisible within the social and cultural imagination.” (Yeh, 2018).
When we asked survey respondents to identify their ethnicity or cultural identity from the categories available in the 2021 UK government census, 70% of the respondents were not able to find it. The options available were “Chinese” or “Other Asian”, and where a person is mixed, the closest option available to them is “White and Asian”. It is clear from the responses that “Other Asian” is not inclusive enough of the full range of East and Southeast Asian cultures and ethnicities represented in at least the surveyed population. Respondents shared:
Although our survey did not explicitly inquire about the experiences of women, trans, and non-binary ESEA individuals in the music industry, gender-related themes emerged consistently throughout the responses.
The quotes below paint a picture of the nuanced experiences of British ESEA professionals and artists within the music industry, revealing feelings of isolation, representation gaps, gender-driven discrimination and the intricate navigation of cultural and professional identities.
The responses reveal an enduring influence of stereotypes that typecast Asian women as exotic and alluring, a phenomenon rooted in colonialism and Orientalism. Hollywood has also played a significant role in perpetuating stereotypes of Asian women as simultaneously submissive and hypersexualised figures. It is clear from the responses that the persistence of these stereotypes negatively impacts ESEA women, trans and non-binary people working as artists and professionals in the music industry.
Of the ESEA artists surveyed, 24.5% are full-time artists, whilst 45.3% are funding their music career with an unrelated job. Those who chose “Other” were usually funding their music careers through other jobs in the music industry, or were students pursuing music careers part-time. When we asked those ESEA artists how much they feel that the music they make is connected to their cultural identity, 58.5% said it is very connected, 32.1% felt that it is somewhat connected and 9.4% felt that it is not connected at all.
We asked the ESEA artists to describe what impact (if any) their identity or the way this has been perceived by others has had on their career:
Access to the music industry is heavily influenced by household factors such as class, parental occupation, and financial situation. 85.9% of respondents cited “worries around financial prospects” as their key barrier to entry into the music industry. It was clear from responses that ESEA individuals face many of the same barriers to entry into the music industry as other groups, namely financial concerns, lack of representation, lack of industry connections and other elements often relating to coming from a working class background.
Cultural attitudes, such as reservations about pursuing creative careers, and concerns about financial viability due to family and/or immigrant backgrounds, can also mean that familial support is withheld, and can deter ESEA individuals from pursuing music careers. When asked to rate the degree of support received from their parents for pursuing a career and/or interest within music or the arts (with 1 being not supportive at all and 10 being very supportive), respondents gave an average rating of 5.7 out of 10.
These responses reaffirm the importance of what ESEA Music is already doing as a community.
With every mentor meeting, community gathering, music writing camp and initiative spearheaded by ESEA Music, the group is taking steps to improve representation, to create visibility for ESEA people throughout the industry, to support artists in making music that can be connected to their cultural identity, and to make room for the unique experiences of ESEA women, trans and non-binary people.
Here are a few quotes from our members on what ESEA Music means to them.
The formation of ESEA Music presented an opportunity to formally unite a membership of ESEA people working in the UK music industry as artists and professionals, and to collect valuable quantitative and qualitative data from this membership on their experiences in the industry. ESEA Music enlisted the support of product research and strategy studio 100kicks to design a methodology for gathering this data.
Afreen Saulat (Founder, 100kicks): The co-founder of ESEA Music, Tiger, and I play football together. In early February 2020, we were talking about her interest in exploring the opinions and experiences of the ESEA music community. She was adamant that this should not be just another “diversity” survey, but something that accurately reflects the reality of those involved. We devised the following approach:
Finally, we silent a good amount of time in analysis and it's been a true team effort to gauge and allow for colorful insights to come up. The ESEA community is very engaged and we wanted to ensure that the survey was designed in a way that showcases this.