ITASA Recap: The Shanghai Restoration Project’s David Liang on Creating a Niche for Asian American Music Artists

In addition Ho Chie Tsai’s workshop at the ITASA 2010 conference, I was able to attend a workshop with David Liang, producer of The Shanghai Restoration Project (TSRP). Blending hip-hop, electronica and Chinese tradition, their musical fusion is truly amazing. When you first meet Liang, he seems like a regular guy—not someone who is often a part of music-making magic. Friendly, down-to-earth and a graduate of Harvard in Applied Mathematics and Economics, it's not a stretch to wonder how he got from being an Ivy League grad with an unrelated major to becoming a musical phenomenon. But then he starts talking.A combination of luck and friends landed him an apprenticeship with Bad Boy Records. As Liang explained, it was “pretty obvious that I was the only Asian walking the halls,” but he learned there was one thing that Asian music talent in America lacked–a niche of their own. “Female Asian American artists are probably more accepted, like Sandra Oh, Lucy Liu,” said Liang. “Asian men have, who, William Hung? I mean, it’s a little tougher for us, the pool is small.”

Liang described how one problem with Asian Americans in the industry is that “a lot of times Asians will say they want to do hip-hop or something but most people view that as attached to African American culture.” Even big artists like Shakira and Ricky Martin often incorporate Latino dance/pop into their songs.

To make an impact, Asians need to create a unique voice. The industry lacks a genre with an Asian background. Here’s a recap of four tips he suggested might help us make a niche for ourselves:

1.  Think viral. Dave Matthews Band was known for their saxophone/violin blend, while Twista was known for being the fastest rapper. Each person had something unique to market—a trademark, if you will—to help them get off the ground.

2.  Analyze the market. What’s currently grabbing our attention? Think viral marketing, like Ok Go and their music video’s treadmill fame, or Soulja Boy and his self-made dance.

3.  Control your destiny. There are things you can’t control, like the economy or who buys an album, but you can control how passionate you are about the art and the way you market your image. In film or TV, you can cast yourself, like Lonelygirl and her YouTube hits. The internet has paved the way for created niche blogs like Angry Asian Man.

4.  Stay thrifty. Inspiration can come from financial boundaries. It prevents idleness–you literally can’t afford to waste money. You don’t have to be poor to rise to fame, but it won’t hurt you either.

A lot of Liang's advice came from a marketing standpoint, which helped me realize how his college major has come in handy. He might not have started out wanting to be a music producer, but in the end, it’s all about taking risks. As he advocated, do it “while you're still young. You'll have fewer regrets when you're older.”

Check out shanghairestorationproject.com for more info about David Liang and The Shanghai Restoration Project.

If you're on the West Coast, also make sure to check out the ITASA West Coast Conference, which will be held at University of California, San Diego, from April 1-4, 2010. Check out ucsd.itasa.org for more info.