You know the drill: working in the arts, according to your hard-nosed Asian elders, is not a viable career path. You will not make money; you will suffer; you will die broke, wishing you listened to your parents. Right?
Perhaps not. I had the opportunity to interview three musicians of Asian descent. They’re not world-famous mega stars, not exactly rags-to-riches stories you study out of ambition. They’re pretty much just regular people who have, through good old fashioned hard work and unextraordinary patience, found themselves with lasting careers in the arts. They are able to feed themselves consistently through art.
For many young people of Asian descent, that feels like a dream; overly ambitious. And as millennials in an increasingly harsh job market, pursuing one’s creativity feels like the least of anyone’s concerns. Yet, in reality, given the growing undependability of “real jobs,” and given advances in technology and social media, now may be as good an opportunity as ever to devote some time into what you’re passionate about.
I divided the information these musicians gave me into five main subjects. Here’s what they had to say:
Getting Into Music
“I took piano lessons as a kid and when I was 13 or something, I started getting more into computers, doing Photoshop, video stuff, downloading cracked software. I started making beats, like rap beats. I kind of enjoy working on music in the context of crafting different arrangements on the computer. That led to recording where it’s now more rounded in both production, songwriting and recording.”
“When we moved to Tasmania, I really felt like I didn’t fit in, and the one constant in my life was the music. From a really early age, I was studying violin, doing violin lessons, piano lessons, and my mom would make all of that stuff possible. She would take us to music school on her one day off and walk us up the driveway to piano lessons.
“I had one experience in year ten, I wanted to be something musical and my math teacher talked me out of it. So I went and did pharmacy for a week, and it was the most boring week of my life. I hated it. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way I can do this.’ And at that point, I started entering singing competitions. I started to do well, and so I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not delusional about this, no matter what my math teacher says.’”
“I was always musically inclined. We didn’t have a piano at the house but I went to church with my mom, I would take the piano and learn it by ear.”
“My mom used it as a reward. ‘If you clean and do the chores, wash the dishes and help your sister, then you can play the piano for an hour.’ That affected me a lot I think, in terms of seeing music as something that wasn’t important in life. I knew it was for me, but the way she taught it was as an extracurricular thing. When I told her music is my life, she was like, ‘You’re always a dreamer. You need to treat it as a hobby.’”
“I think this dawned very slowly on my parents, that I wasn’t going to be an accountant or a doctor, which my brother, who went on to be a professional dancer, he really got that hard from my parents. And I think that helped me.
“I think the way that I kind of tricked them into it was that I ended up going to a conservatory. I was still going to do a tertiary education, and I got a scholarship to study opera. All of that was still quite formal. And I have to say, my mom was incredibly supportive. I don’t know if she had to change her mind on that kind of thing, but my mom always really believed in me. My dad was kind of going ‘What are you doing?’ He was the Australian one; my mom was going, ‘Trust your creativity! As long as you’re happy.’”
“I think as Asian Americans it’s often times hard to come to terms with the fact there isn’t a model you can follow. Working doesn’t mean anything if you’re not social, not connecting with people.
“I definitely went to school because my parents were like, you got to go to college. Us Asians have that. They were very supportive of me going into music. I was the youngest of four, so my brother that was above me blazed the trail a little bit. So by the time I was ready to go to school it was a little less, the pressure was not full-on. I think in terms of growing up with certain academic and career trajectories laid out for you, it’s kind of hard, and you just have to take that leap of faith and shake that off.”
Making It Work
“In the early days, I was doing PA jobs like every other person in LA, and it was horrible and totally demeaning. I actually went to university and graduated with a bachelor of science. I had gained an education and I felt like I was very capable of doing my things and it was very hard to be an intern or be a PA and be yelled at even though you’re doing everything right. I was like, ‘I know I’m meant for more than this.'”
“I came out of the conservatory and was still doing a lot of classical voice. I wanted to be more creative, so I learned how to use Pro Tools. And I started writing songs and recording myself and I got a job writing a soundtrack for a kids TV show, and that’s when it really started to roll.”
“I did a lot of promoting; I would put together queer parties and that’s how I became known as a DJ. I was producing and hosting events as Kim Anh, and then I was DJing most of the night. One of the first parties I did, I made like, $35. A few years in, people had like 700-800 in attendance with $15 cover, just to show you how far along that came.”
“You can’t just focus on one thing necessarily, you have to be able to multitask and have reach in different places simultaneously. The last few years have been really good because of the people I’ve been working with. My name’s been getting out through word of mouth. This artist led me to working with the next artist — it slowly and organically grows.”
“I moved to Berlin, and there was definitely luck along the way, but then I got signed to Universal Music Publishing as a songwriter in Europe. Berlin was this amazing stepping stone because it was much cheaper to live there when I got there and the conversion from the Australian dollar was still bad at the time, but the cost of living was really very economical for an artist starting out.”
“I have a really great spot in Astoria that I’ve had the last three years. It’s rent-stabilized, the rent’s cheap, I have a room in my apartment that is my studio space where I can do the large majority of stuff I need to do. Sometimes when I need to record a drum kit or something, I need a bigger space.”
“I think over time, as you, in great Asian style, keep your head down and keep working earnestly, it begins to pay off.”
“You have to love it and you have to be prepared for what Elizabeth Gilbert calls ‘the shit sandwiches.’ Every career has its shit sandwiches and music definitely has them. You have to love what you’re doing enough to be able to deal with those things.”
“[Being an Asian woman] has been a constant fuel for personal growth because I learned to fight for my ideas and trust those instincts has helped me grow in all the other areas of my life.”
“My mom used to cook a lot when I was growing up. It was homemade Chinese food, and it was simple, one vegetable dish, one dish with meat in it, one bowl of rice. You have all your basic ingredients. It’s well executed, but it’s not fancy or whatever. And that aspect, I think, is something I often bring to the table that is reassuring to people I work with, like, ‘Let’s find the core ingredients. How do we make this breathe and speak in a way that is very natural, not trying too hard?'”
“I’m really grateful for the work ethic I was given. My mom came from a really poor community, so she always engendered that kind of fickle happiness.”
“There’s a lot of really great Asian American women making music. I used to sit behind Mitski in class — I had friends working on her first record that she did in college. The growth of the music, the growth of her persona and character and everything she’s embodying is really awesome.”
“It’s a beautiful thing when you get messages on Facebook like, ‘I’ve never seen a Vietnamese DJ who’s like, playing in Europe and across America.’ My name is very Vietnamese, my first name is Kim Anh, and I’m proud of it.”
Go For It
“I think if it’s something that you really love, it’s become so simplified and accessible that there’s no reason anymore for anyone not to pursue it. Everything is done on laptops. Even if you are a young person who is studying and working on some possible goal in the future, but you’re thinking you might be interested in music, there’s no reason for you not to work on it at night or on the weekends or as a release when you’re starting out.”
“A lot of the music can be made at home nowadays. One of the artists I work with, we often times go, he’s out in California, I fly out there with a laptop, we prepare essential gear, get an Airbnb, set up a mic and just record. To be able to do that and not feel like we have to go to a big studio is really nice. There’s a lot of workarounds in creating a good product creatively.”
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“In today’s world, streaming services have really changed how you make money out of music. Now it’s all about owning the masters, or having some kind of percentage on the recording side. It’s a bit of a strange animal because, you know, before as a songwriter you were just trying to get other artists to cut your songs. And that could be really lucrative. In the past four years, streaming income actually became quite good.”
“ASCAP is 101, register all your beats if you’re sending them out to people. Later, if somebody tries to play with your song or jack it, you’ve already registered it. The biggest thing that I’ve learned is making sure I have a conversation of who owes what and making sure I register my work.”
“Work closely with people and have their trust. Be able to go through their emotions with them. I do devote a lot of my own self and emotion into a project when working with somebody. Music is often such an intimate thing, it’s a very bonding experience, often with people I’ve worked with.”
“Always feel grateful for what you have. Being able to write and create every day is something that makes me so happy.”
“As far as being able to do this… It’s difficult for anybody regardless of background. I think it’s just… finding out about what people need, carving your own space within the work and the music. It was all sort of coming together.”
“You always want to be the best you can be and be well-prepared. As first-generation Asian Americans, we’re pretty good at that.”
Images and promotional information provided by Nancy Lu, Fancy PR.