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Updated: Mar 22

Video Killed The Radio Star. The Bugles sang that and maybe they were right or the song was right for the times and the launch of MTV in Asia.

I was in Hong Kong, out of the advertising industry and getting into the music industry.

I was still writing for the American music trade publication Billboard and writing about an industry that was trying to find ways to survive at a time when technology was evolving very quickly through people like Shawn Parker etc and becoming its own beast with a voracious appetite for power and control.

It was its own little shop of horrors, and looking back, who could have seen the day when we would be lost without our mobile phones and apps giving us entry into everything we wanted- for free and which included music.

I somehow ended up looking after the business interests of PolyGram Music that had decided to invest in fifty percent of Singapore based MTV Asia.

The problem was that the deal had been done, MTV Asia was being run by the former head of a major music company in the region and it wasn’t the success some thought it would because.

This was because of an amateurish and rather stupid business strategy: For some reason, those launching the music channel in the region thought that all of Asia would accept the same music from everywhere else in Asia- meaning that Taiwan, Hong Kong etc would be interested in the music from Bollywood, Bollywood fans would be interested in Mando Pop, everyone would be interested in those singing in Bahasa etc.

It took a while before all this music from the region was made available through three different satellite channels.

By the time I was sitting in on the first Board Meeting between PolyGram and MTV, the haemorrhaging had begun with the music company losing a million dollars every month.

Politics were rife and which and which saw the original head of the music channel sacked.

I watched everything going down and knew that no amount of personnel changes and awards shows featuring international stars and key executives from parent company Viacom flying in to try and fix the problems were going to help.

There were a number of cosmetic changes, PolyGram capped its financial interests and was playing for time by convincing its parent company in the region- Philips- to come in as a key advertiser on MTV.

I was thrown a career lifeline by heading up the advertising and content for Philips on the music channel and came up with the idea of sponsoring a short form programming series- a first for MTV branded as “Philips Out Of The Box”, basically content about weird and cutting edge new things happening everywhere and given that “MTV editing” style and razzmatazz. It was playing for time.

Despite some executives with the music channel finding it suffocating and disturbing to deal with me as a client, they knew that I was needed to make them look good.

They also knew that having done my due diligence, I had the intel on the obscene amount of money spent on salaries, travel, entertainment and the buying and selling of unnecessary satellite dishes and equipment for huge new studios in their headquarters in Singapore.

These were also the times when MTV VJs were treated like rock stars, especially in India, and were living la  vida loca including suffering from nosebleeds.

There were political games going on in the regional headquarters in Singapore with many seeing that MTV was on its last legs. Quite a few were hoping that I might be able to bring them into PolyGram which was going through massive corporate changes.

Chairman and co-Chairman Alain Levy and David Munns were out and PolyGram was bought by Seagrams, a client from my DDB days, and was soon going to be known Universal Music.

There were two people in the running to head Universal in the region that included the  very lucrative Japanese market.

One of these was my friend Norman Cheng who was suddenly without the support of his corporate friends Levy and Munns.

With my connection as the correspondent for Billboard in Asia, I got behind backing Norman for the role.

He had a proven track record and won the duel despite having some enemies. I was known in some circles as “the man who created Norman Cheng”.

Jealousy will get you everywhere and preferring to be something of a consigliere like Tom Hagen and not be in the same limelight and gunfire of a Michael Corleone, it was about orchestrating things that mattered to him and me.

Norman’s strength was signing up the biggest Chinese artists and the fact that he was Chinese and had the respect of the right people in the music business in Japan.

As an aside, he had also seen the wisdom in signing up Filipino singer-songwriter Freddie Aguilar mainly because of his song “Anak”. Despite recorded in Tagalog, “Anak” became a massive hit in the region because of its melodic folksy sound.

“Anak” was given a set of English lyrics written by Paul Anka. This move was to start the trend where the Philippines became the major market for “nostalgia” acts from the West like David Gates, Stephen Bishop, David Pomeranz, Melissa Manchester etc.

It was a trend that helped me find my feet and niche in the music industry in the region because of my knowledge of Western pop music which led to friendships with quite a number of visiting artists like Rita Coolidge, the Bee Gees etc.

In the corporate world, Norman and I knew who mattered and who to trust and who to use. For me, this came from the constant politics of the advertising industry and which I loathed and played havoc with my marriage.

Not quite figuring out what to make of this kinda mysterious Asian character- me- with a background in journalism and advertising and marketing who knew his music, there were the usual attempts to break up the Norman and Hans Show and for me to help get rid of my friend. 

Though we might not always have got along and agreed on everything, we needed each other.

I could see who in the region was using Norman and he eventually realised that I was right.

He also knew those international artists and senior executives who liked and respected me at head office.

Without even knowing it, I was using my “Asianness” to win over many who mattered in the music business and was quickly being seen as an expert on Asia.

Maybe I was.

It was all working out, and being privy to many corporate and lifestyle secrets of the powerful, and being friends with the women who knew far more than I did about things going on than I did and were willing to share these with me at the right time, well, this had its advantages.

I also made the time to keep in touch with Alain Levy and David Munns from the PolyGram days.

They and Norman had drifted apart and I remember the night when having dinner with them in London and calling Norman in Hong Kong.

That call helped to renew their friendship and paved the way for The EMI Years.

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