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Sound strategy

Published on Friday, 06 Sep 2013
Sunita Kaur
Photo: Tuck Hong
REO Speedwagon

Sunita Kaur’s love of music and business-building is perfect for pushing Spotify forwards in Asia

Spotify is revolutionising the music business. The Swedish music streaming service has a catalogue of over 20 million music tracks, to which it is adding 20,000 new songs every day. Its most popular song, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, reached 100 million streams in mid-August. Meanwhile, the company has paid out half a billion US dollars to music rights holders since its launch in 2008 and aims to pay out another half-billion in 2013.

With Forbes claiming in 2012 that global bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers were lining up at Spotify’s Stockholm headquarters to kiss the ring of founder Daniel Ek, it is easy to imagine the life of a top Spotify executive as being filled with copious amounts of kicking back with the world’s top song and dance acts. For Sunita Kaur, the music platform’s new Singapore-based director of Asia, however, most of the work is all about strategy, not schmoozing.

“If we do an event or sponsor a festival, I might be lucky enough to hang out backstage,” Kaur says. “But for me, the work is about building up the strategy, figuring out which markets we want to launch in next, and how we approach those markets – because every market is different.”

Music consumption trends in Asia differ from those in the rest of the world, Kaur says. “Mobile-device penetration is much deeper in Asia than in Europe and the US,” she says. “If you think about Indonesia, the whole desktop experience has been skipped – it went straight to mobile. So we are constantly studying how people are consuming music in each market and always looking at device penetration.”

While Spotify’s free music-streaming service can be accessed in 28 countries, in Asia, it is currently only available in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. This gives Kaur a huge mandate to expand across the region. She won’t say which market will be next, but it’s clear the mission to bring a new music model to Asia is a challenge she relishes.

“You have two kinds of people in business: those who are builders and those who are good at sustaining. I am a builder,” she says.

Kaur started her career at Time-Warner working on a number of print magazines, such as Asiaweek, before joining Singapore Press Holdings and its stable of fashion magazines in 2002. The rising influence of the internet on print publications, however, got her thinking about the future. “By 2006, a lot of websites were starting to gain traction and the digital side of the business was really starting to give the print side a run for its money,” she says. “So I thought: I have to learn about the internet.”

In 2006 she joined Forbes to become half of a two-person team launching forbes.com across Asia and the Middle East. “That really started off the love of building and the love of learning for me,” she says.

Three years later she moved to Microsoft Advertising as associate director of Singapore and international accounts, before being recruited by Facebook as its director of Asia in 2010.

She believes it was her spunkiness and willingness to get down to “grunt work” which attracted Facebook to recruit her for one of the most enviable positions in the online world. She felt right at home at Facebook, which even as late as 2010 had just a handful of people in Asia. “There were seven of us crammed into a tiny serviced office,” she says. “We would giggle because if anyone walked by they would never guess it was Facebook. But that was Facebook in Asia.”

Her love of building something monumental from bare foundations, combined with her great passion for music, meant that moving to Spotify in June 2013 was a natural step. With the company growing fast – Kaur is looking for everyone from sales and agency staff to a head of business strategy – she again feels right at home.

Kaur says her career philosophy has always been to roll up her sleeves and jump in. She thinks that this attitude, however, is being lost in newer waves of graduates. “With so many good jobs available, people can easily avoid grunt work today,” she says. “But I think it’s really important to want to roll up your sleeves. I come from a time when you did that and you earned your stripes. It makes you who you are as you get older and really builds personality.”

For day-to-day interaction with music labels and artists, Kaur relies on a team brimming with music experience – specifically its Asia head of label relations, Tan Chee Meng, and its Asia head of licensing, Zoe Wang. “They live and breathe the music industry,” she says. “They are the heart of Spotify. They start negotiations and they are the ones who build up this amazing, robust music catalogue.”

Kaur herself is a huge music fan. She recalls her earliest music memories of being of “mix tapes from boys” and the Sony Walkman, before moving on to MP3 players and now desktop and mobile streaming. She is clearly still nostalgic for the mix-tape days though, with her Spotify profile showing prolific streaming of 1980 guilty pleasures such as Wham!, Eurythmics and Terence Trent D’Arby. She says she is also “obsessed” with the British indie band, The xx, finding them “utterly hypnotising”. She apparently plays her favourite song from the band up to eight times a day.

A love of music and a passion for sharing it with others is essential to her job, she says. “Something we’re especially passionate about in Asia is not just being able to bring lots and lots of international music to Asia, but being able to bring lots of Asian music to the world,” she says.


SUNITA’S TOP TUNES

Kaur replays her five favourite Spotify songs
Can’t Fight This Feeling by REO Speedwagon
Recover by CHVRCHES
A New Error by Moderat
Can’t Pretend by Tom Odell
Bloom by These Brittle Bones


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