“(Re) Orientated”

An ESEA Music Survey

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.

Why “(Re) Orientated”?

“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.

a) How many British ESEA Artists can you name?

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:

  • “We need more. Having a group like ESEA Music is an amazing way to show people that WE ARE HERE. I'd love to see more ESEA people in my workplace, more ESEA people in the Official Charts, more ESEA people making the big decisions in big organisations. The rise of K-POP has maybe made people see ESEA musicians as one type of artist, but we need to show everyone that ESEA people are just as multifaceted as everyone else, if not more!”
  • “There's still a lot of work to be done, with representation for artists- as the only big artists from ESEA background that people within the UK know of you can probably count on one hand, as well as in the business industry- there needs to be more focus, celebration, collaboration and education on music from our own heritage and artists to expose to those around us.”
  • “It has affected it in huge ways, starting out as someone who wanted to be a pop music artist/ singer- songwriter who had taken a huge chance in studying commercial pop music and then slowly losing confidence because I started to realise that there was literally no Chinese pop artist in British/UK pop music- not even a single person in my entire course (spanning across the 3 years at uni). It changed the whole course of my career, as I instead lost my own courage and started listening to my family who pleaded with me to get a 'normal' and financially stable job. Fast forward to 2021 I landed my new 'dream role' of brand partnerships within one of the big 3 major record labels and was so excited until I actually had the worse imposter syndrome due to the lack and pressure of being one of the only Chinese asians in the whole department, that lasted for the entire year of my internship which looking back, definitely hindered a lot of opportunities. This is why I'm so grateful that there is a music community like this for us to lean and learn from one another.”

b) ESEA professionals are missing from positions of leadership and influence in the music industry

  • “There weren't many ESEA music industry professionals while I was starting off my career, the lack of representation was tough. But it did drive me to work even harder, just to be treated as an 'equal' amongst some of my British colleagues / counterparts. It gave me a sort of 'succeed or die' mindset. It was weirdly inspiring, something that I can go back to Hong Kong and think 'wow' I can really do this. If I can do this, then the younger generation of Hong Kong kids can do it too. It's liberating”
  • “I think it's getting better, because of organisations such as this that highlight just how many of us there are out there. It’s wild, in the best way possible. But on the board level and within senior executives in the music industry – people in positions of power who make crucial decisions – let's not even talk about ESEA women, but even women of colour in general, are extremely scarce, especially in music business media and/or announcements. It's predominantly white, and if not, then at least male. I'm hopeful we're heading in the right direction. I'm seeing more senior ESEA women in positions of power at majors, but would like to see this across many more music industry sectors, particularly the independent music sector.”
  • “There needs to be more people in positions of influence i.e. on boards, steering groups, and committees. Having that visibility is important. It was only when I met other industry professionals and artists of ESEA heritage that I recognised that some of the pitfalls and frustrations surrounding your experiences in the industry were similar.”
  • “There is some change due to success with high profile artists but too often ESEA artists and industry are still overlooked. I think there is still a lot of room for improvement and as we see more people in positions of power/ visibility. We can look to push for routes into industry for future generations and through sharing and passing down knowledge.”

Which community does the “Asian” category of cultural identity cater to in Britain? How does this affect the presence, opportunity and belonging of ESEA people in the British music industry?

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:

  • “Been told ‘sorry we don't do world music’ even [though I’m not an artist who makes] ‘world music’. Been told [to] go to Asian [events and spaces], but that Asian space or [organisation] is only for South Asians”
  • “The 'Asian' category is missing specific identities such as 'Japanese', 'Korean', 'Malay' and others”
  • “'Asian' is a blanket term and not nuanced enough. In the UK, it can mean anything from East Asian to South Asian. Worth including 'East and Southeast Asian', and 'South Asian', for example, as distinct categories rather than just blanket 'Asian'. This could also help to organise separate categories such as 'Chinese', 'Bangladeshi', etc. if including each one on its own would be too numerous or complicated”
  • “'White and Asian', the closest available category for people of mixed race, does not sufficiently capture their ESEA heritage with the blanket 'Asian' label”
  • “Worth including more nuanced categories such as 'Hong Kong Chinese'.”

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.

  • “I can sometimes feel that people see me as “cute” due to my Asianness and therefore don't expect as much from me, maybe doubting that I can be assertive and confident.”
  • “I feel that representation is limited and I feel pressured to be a particular box that fits the narrative that already exists. Super cute, girl-next-door Asian, ‘out there’ avant-garde tattooed/piercing-heavy Asian, sexy/sultry Asian, hyper-talented Asian, or the funny Asian. There aren't a lot of shades or sliding scales or spectrums that can SUCCESSFULLY exist. If you don't fit in the ready-made boxes, you need to adjust or get out. That's how I've felt. I don't see many Asians who are on the median.”
  • “It’s more common to see women in music now but 5-10 years ago men would always make a point of being ‘surprised’ I was a DJ. Also I have found sexism rife in both worlds of DJing and music day job, as well as a sense of colonial superiority/wilful ignorance from white peers about non-western music or artists.”
  • “It's a constant juggling of managing expectations and checking with myself if what I am doing, what imagery I am sending out or what kind of content I'm putting out - how much of it has got something to do with me being a Female Asian artist and how much of it is something that is a conscious intention for me.”
  • “A feeling of not belonging in white majority spaces, a feeling of not having visible representation in the industry, being exoticized and fetishized (by promoters, peers, audience) for being female and of Asian appearance.”
  • “I've found that there are unconscious biases in the music industry. This leads to being overlooked for promotions, new opportunities, or being held to a different standard. Often phrased as a 'cultural fit', there are certain stereotypes of Asian women that can negatively impact day to day. This can look like how favorably one’s ideas are regarded, the environment one would find themselves in, or what the expectations are around what can be brought to the table.”
  • “Double-edged sword: because I'm generally the only Chinese / woman in the room, I have colleagues and teams who remember me, but in the same moment, don't know how to pronounce my name or sometimes avoid saying my name altogether.. many scenarios to list, but above is one that I experience now even though I've been in this industry for a while”

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:

  • “I always get asked where I am from”
  • “Besides the racism said to me personally, I would like to believe that my identity has not affected the way people perceive me in a negative way, but I can only hope this is the case.”
  • “I'm very quickly put into boxes because of the lack of representation of what music East Asian/Queer EAs could create. People always expect me to be Korean or sing K-Pop. Either that, or people expect me to sing drag queen music. The external view of what I'm allowed to create is very limited. As we are moving forward and gradually getting slightly more representation, and now having groups like the ESEA music group, I feel like we're moving to a stage where it is hopefully becoming a positive perception and allowing new relationships, new understanding from the outside and new appreciation to be fostered. I am really proud of my identity.”
  • “Although I’ve felt empowered to make a record about my identity I do worry about it being tokenized at all, it originally felt very cathartic but I can’t tell if it feels conclusive or just more confusing. For this reason, my next record will not be about identity in the same way.”
  • “I think it's had a very big and quiet impact. The feelings are somewhat always the same - you're an outsider looking in but everyone is still nice and diplomatic about it. I try not to dwell on it too much because it won't upset me so I accept that and try to do my best.”
  • “My identity as a musician is deeply entangled with my identity as a Korean woman. All of my music is based upon the challenges and hardships that I faced growing up with immigrant parents.”
  • “It's a big part of it. I'm really cautious approaching music generally because my identity, while celebrated, is still largely stigmatized by society. Sometimes I feel that I don't get acceptance of my music because of my identity.”
  • “I have felt as if I had to constantly speak about my identity as someone who's Asian and Female to be valid. In general, being East Asian can feel like you are unseen while also standing out as a minority. Don't think it's particular to the music industry experience.”
  • “One noticeable thing is that with my music I've sometimes had my racial identity pasted onto reviews of the music I make seemingly for the sake of it - for example, I remember seeing a review of one of my albums criticize me for something along the lines of 'not using more elements of his Indonesian background in his music', whilst another review of the exact same album praised me for something along the lines of 'including elements of his Indonesian background in his music', despite the fact that as far as I was aware, I hadn't. Both were frustrating as it felt like, by virtue of being half-Indonesian, anything I did was typecast into what my racial identity was - like I was EXPECTED to only create something that had some relation to my race, or else get marked down; on the one hand I felt I was being slagged off for not doing so, on the other hand being supposedly praised for doing so when in my mind the music and themes had nothing to do with my ethnic background.”

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.

  • “I wanted to be a music journalist growing up and published a few gig reviews in the local paper but my parents didnʼt seem to think it was a stable financial career and saw it as a hobby.”
  • “Cultural attitudes towards creative industries as a means of stability/ making a salary. The understanding of what a creative pursuit would mean in reality. Unspoken & spoken expectations from family i.e. white collar professions, reputable education institutions, and career paths. Community pressure: what type of careers are peers children in / pursuing as a benchmark. It was an untrodden path, as a younger sibling, this pursuit of a creative role is not something family had previously seen so were unsure as to how to respond.”
  • “Heavy academic burden and advice from family members that 'pursuing art is not a real job'”
  • “Especially when I was entering the industry via an internship, they couldn't fathom why I would essentially, work for free, to get a leg into an industry that constantly told me there wasn't a place for me”
  • “My parents refused to pay for my guitar lessons at a music school, and generally, I wasn't allowed to learn anything extra curricular unless it was Chinese language school on Sundays.”
  • “It was more that my mother was very strict with my time. Always wanted me to focus on my studies than to pursue anything super creative.”
  • “My parents wanted me to pursue a music degree because they knew for 2 generations that you could earn a living being a piano teacher. I wanted to study art. They wouldn't let me. I didn't realise I could study composition/ film music. I thought I'd have to be a solo classical pianist.”

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.

  • “I would say that as times are changing, as we are moving forward and gradually getting slightly more representation, and now having groups like the ESEA music group, I feel like we're moving to a stage where it is hopefully becoming a positive perception and allowing new relationships, new understanding from the outside and new appreciation to be fostered. I am really proud of my identity.”
  • “[Representation is] very poor, especially compared to the glimmer of progress seen in the US. But the ESEA music network gives me hope, as it proves that we are present in the music industry and has also helped introduce me to so many new BESEA artists!”
  • “It's still not enough but feels like attentions to ESEA community is getting stronger each year... Even it's a small steps definitely moving forward and ESEA Music is contributing a lot to increase / shout about ESEA in UK.”

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:

  • - Question mapping: We spent a bit of time collating the ESEA teams questions and started to map them according to essential questions vs. nice to know questions. We collected hypotheses and ensured that we were aligned on what we wanted this piece of work to achieve. 100kicks then went away and designed a draft version of the questions.
  • - Collaborative feedback: Once we had our questions, we got a group of folks from the ESEA community to give us feedback and to ensure that there was no bias and that our questions were framed sensitively. 100kicks took this feedback on board and made any additional adjustments.
  • - Launching the survey: We used Typeform and informed participants at the start of the survey that it was something that would require them to be in a quiet space to allow for reflection. In order to help them relax we also recommended a calming playlist and a meditation before they began.

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.