A small-town girl with a deep love for music, Sijie Liu, currently the Vice President for Booking and Artist Development at the formidable Modern Sky USA has been at the peak of the trend bringing well-loved Asian indie artists to tour in the states over the last few years. From Korea’s Hyukoh to Taiwan’s Sunset Rollercoaster and Hong Kong heavyweight Edison Chen, Liu slowly opening the floodgates for Asian music to find a home and audiences in the West. In my experience, it often takes someone special to end up in a position like this, so I had to scratch my itch (as I do when finding like-minded people) by documenting her story in this Q&A.
Tell us a little about your background. Have you always been interested in Asian music and pop culture?
I was born in a small town in Sichuan, and came to the states for college when I was 17. I’m like most of the Chinese kids who studied piano and passed the highest level of the tests for amateurs. I started as listening to Mandarin pop music (I think I was the first one in my class to listen to Jay Chou actually), and after that, lots of pop and jazzy stuff in high school.
Because of the love in all these Asian pop music, I just wanted to learn more about music, I chose to minor in Music Studies for my undergrad. Also Indiana University has a really reputable Music School. That’s when I really started digging in lots of different genres of music.
The reason why I changed my path from studying Finance/Data at a later time was mainly because of all those classes I took for the music studies, and it just opened a new gate for me.
We hear you moved to the states to study Music Business at NYU. What was the reason behind this decision?
I actually studied Finance for my undergrad. Before I came to the states, I’ve never thought about studying music as a profession even I’ve always surrounded by music and enjoyed listening to music. Not until I was getting my first Master degree in Data Analytics, I thought I was going to be a consultant or working for a bank.
However, minoring in Music and getting exposed to all these different genres of music was the reason why I decided to change my path. I went straight to my first graduate degree. But during the first semester, I just had this feeling that I want to do something in the music industry, and something that I could also apply what I’ve learned in business school.
Your passion for helping Asian musicians achieve success in North America is amazing! Where do you think it stems from?
Aw thanks! I think it’s closely related to where I’m from and the kind of music I was exposed to when I grew up. I loved all the classes I took about Western rock, jazz, blues, and that’s how I started grew a real passion in the music industry. But all this just made me want to find about more about great Asian bands, singer-songwriters, etc.
You’ve brought the likes of Edison Chen, Song Dongye, Hyukoh, Sunset Rollercoaster and more to North America to share their music with the Western world. Could you share a little about the process of booking these artists and helping them achieve success?
Most of the artists I’ve worked with are Modern Sky signings and they’ve had great success in Asia. There are lots of factors that affect the booking process. Usually it starts with analysis of the current markets both in Asia and here in North America. Then it moved to availabilities of the artists, and we would check if that’s a suitable time for the market here. Then it comes to finding appropriate cities and venues and it usually takes lots of rounds of negotiations to confirm all the details.
We don’t just do booking, in most of the cases, we also take the role as Promoters. So it then requires working on the visa process, marketing, ticketing, advancing, tour managing, etc.
Has there been a most rewarding part of your journey (or memory) thus far in helping so many Asian artists to perform in North America?
I think same as all other staff who work for a tour or a festival, the most rewarding part is when I see the artist performing on the stage in front of their fans. I know this sounds very simple. After putting all the efforts to book and promote a tour, when you see the show is finally happening in front of you and all the audience enjoying it, that feeling is just…
Why do you think helping artists of Asian descent to tour and expand their prominence in the West is important?
Expanding new markets and to play in different cities is always appealing to artists. But another prominent side is the fans as well. I always use myself as an example of when I was in school here in the states. I was always wanting to see artists who I like from Asia to perform here. I still remembered the first time I attended Modern Sky Festival NYC in Central Park, I was still studying in school. And I saw bands like Queen Sea Big Shark, Omnipotent Youth Society, Dessert Zhang (Anpu). To see them here, that feeling was indescribable.
You’ve certainly come a long way, and on a path that not many have chosen. Do you see an increasing demand for people with an understanding of Eastern pop culture in the Western market?
We know that it is not easy to break into the Western world here.
But as I mentioned in the last question, there are lots of Asians/Asian Americans and growing number of international students also with increasing purchasing power to live/visit here. I think the market is promising. Just need to market it the right way. Also, I’m not giving up on marketing Eastern pop/artists to Western crowd here, I always want to find an effective way of promoting them here to the local crowd.
What advice would you give to those who are inspired to bring more Mandarin or Asian music to the rest of the world?
You must be aware of all the risks before signing on to this. Not just financially, but also risks with visa, marketing, etc.
What’s on your playlist right now? Are there any musicians or particularly influential figures who have inspired you on your journey?
I’ve been listening to Leah Dou for a while now. I really liked her latest album and I saw her at a festival in Beijing this year. She is incredible.
Any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
Event wise, we have Modern Sky Festival NYC (9.22), Toronto (9.23), and L.A. （11.10）coming up . Also we’ve announced tours for Tizzy T, Sunset Rollercoaster for September, and Crowd Lu tour in November. There are more tours to be announced for this Fall and next year. We are also having new projects with different artists too. Stay Tuned!!!
An inspiring story from a woman who’s got a strong head on her shoulders, Liu seems to have it all figured out. By thoroughly understanding every step of the process of bringing artists overseas to perform, she now has the skills to fully focus on a niche market that few have considered-and to maximise the potential of such a market. As always, the biggest philosophical struggle is to find acceptance of Eastern music by Western audiences, but I have no doubt that with her heart in the right place, Sijie will continue to contribute greatly to efforts that will encourage a truly universal music culture.