Next year, Sulinna Ong will leave her position as Spotify’s head of music for the UK & Ireland to take up a new post in LA as global head of editorial. Fittingly, her promotion was announced on the very same day that she was crowned Music Champion at this year's Music Week Women In Music Awards. Here, we discuss her success so far, her company's plans to break new acts, plus diversity, DCMS, computer games and much more...
WORDS: Anna Fielding
I think I’m a very curious person,” says Sulinna Ong. “I use that quote from Alice In Wonderland ‘curiouser and curiouser’ to live by. I think we should always keep that sense of discovery.”
But as Spotify’s head of music for the UK and Ireland, Ong is closer to the white rabbit than to Alice; it’s her job to lead listeners through the wonderland of the streaming giant. She’s been with Spotify for two-and-a-half years and has both developed and refined tools and brand extensions and drawn a talented team around her. These are just some of the reasons she was named Music Champion at this year’s Music Week Women In Music Awards.
“I’m humbled, very humbled, to receive any honour, especially an award,” she explains. “I’m quite a low-key person. Someone said to me the other day, ‘You put the team before yourself,’ which is true, and also exactly what I should be doing. It’s not about me, everything I’ve done in my career has been for the simple joy of loving music. I wouldn’t have this award without the team around me, so this is as much for them as it is for me.”
Shortly before Ong picked up the award, we broke the news that she is to relocate to LA to become Spotify’s global head of editorial.
“It’s an organic next step that feels right and natural,” says Ong. “Having been head of music for the UK and Ireland, to now move into a role that has the remit to set the global editorial policy for Spotify will allow me to have a further positive impact, but on a worldwide scale.”
The promotion arrives in recognition of her outstanding work on these shores, including Spotify’s Radar programme. Launched in March 2020, and spearheaded by Ong in the UK, it was designed to support emerging artists over a 12-month period. Labels and artists’ teams pitch and the music team makes a decision. Featured artists, says Ong, can see an 88% uplift in streams in the first month alone. She’s also passionate about the Equal programme right now, another global initiative, that highlights the work of female artists with all-female playlists. Each month one artist is chosen as the face of the project, so far including Self Esteem, Jorja Smith and Griff. Ong is especially happy about the Created By Women playlist, where every track is written, performed and produced by female or non-binary creators.
I always promised myself that, if I were ever to achieve a position of power or influence, I would lead by example
“Diversity is important to me,” she says. “I’m a woman of colour and I’m one of very few women of colour in a senior position in the music business and the same in tech. I believe you need diversity, in all forms, to really achieve on the innovation front. When I was starting off in my early twenties and there were moments of frustration or microaggressions and not-so microaggressions through to outright aggressions… I always promised myself that, if I were ever to achieve a position of power or influence, I would lead by example; I would make a daily commitment to increasing diversity.”
Ong currently lives with her husband in London. “I believe the cats will be very pleased to see me go back to the office and leave them alone,” she quips.
Born in the UK where her Persian mother and Chinese father had met as students, shortly afterwards her family moved to Iran until the revolution of 1979 meant they had to leave again.
“We fled in the middle of the night, with me as a baby,” she says. “The recent images coming from Afghanistan were very hard to see, because I knew they would trigger a lot of unpleasant memories for my parents. It was very similar to the time that they had to leave.”
She studied music and music technology in Sydney at the University of Western Australia and got her first job in music as “a runner, a general dogsbody” for a promoter. Before moving towards streaming she held jobs at Sony, Live Nation and Kasabian’s management company The Family Entertainment. Prior to Spotify, she spent a couple of years at Deezer as global vice president of artist marketing.
“I’ve worked in all areas of the industry,” she says. “Record label, management, live, and every role has been really fundamental to my understanding of entertainment, whether that’s music or technology. It always, always comes back to the audience. When you boil it down to first principles, it’s about an emotional connection with an audience and that’s the same whether it’s live music or a game you’re playing.”
Ong is not just a keen gamer, but, she claims “the nerdiest kind” who plays MMORPGs, aka massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
Her passions, for music, for technology, for equality, have carried her through and led to the position she’s in today.
“I was always told, when I was a nerdy teenager listening to music and playing games, that I would have to choose between music and tech, that to forge a career I would need to pick one or the other. And I never understood why people were so keen on making me choose. I thought that, surely, they will converge at some point. And here we are.”
So, without further ado, it’s time to explore the mind of a Music Champion, from streaming breakthroughs to diversity, DCMS to TikTok, oh, and why gaming really is changing the music business...
You were at Deezer before Spotify, so you’ve worked in streaming for six years. How has the landscape shifted during that time?
“It’s moved very quickly. It’s gone from being considered an emerging technology to being at the forefront of how people see music. The other shift I’ve noticed, especially over the last 18 months, is in how people consume media: there’s much more of a trend towards interactivity. That’s not just related to streaming, it’s across the board. The avenues for creative expression are increasing, not just for artists, but for the everyday person. The creation of content has increased, so you have an enormous amount of choice, a plethora of choice. Consumers are looking for authenticity and a connection, and they’ve realised that those things can come from themselves – they can create the content they are looking for.”
What does that mean for your job?
“It’s my job to facilitate that connection and to connect people with one another. Now that could be fan to artist or listener to another listener. My role is to understand what moves people.”
Now your promotion has been announced and the move to LA is coming up, how do you reflect on the job you’ve done so far?
“The UK will always be in my DNA and the past two-and-a-half years at Spotify have been some of the most rewarding times of my career. The talent that comes from this region both on the artist and business side is exceptional. I have tried to instil the value of the importance of diversity, innovation, collaboration, critical thinking, integrity, and being direct and transparent. Say what you mean, mean what you say. My team has taught me so much, which I will take with me. Now, I think it’s important that we synergise Spotify’s human editorial talent and its technical innovation to expand the potential of genres and markets that may have been underserved in the past. The world is a big place, and the Spotify team is uniquely placed to achieve things that would have been considered impossible before.”
And what’s moving and exciting you at the moment?
“It’s seeing new and emerging artists surface and seeing their music capture an audience. We’re often there very, very early on in an artist’s trajectory, from when they release the first track. And then you see them gain new listeners, then more listeners, to the point where they’re selling out arenas. And, particularly, there are so many exciting female artists who have come to the fore in the past two years and it’s incredibly satisfying to work with young, talented people like Griff, PinkPantheress and Joy Crookes. I love listening to them talk about everything from feminism to how they put their music out. They are all Spotify Radar artists and it is so satisfying to see this generation of young artists who are so savvy and have had a clear vision for their career.
How important do you think Radar is for breaking artists?
“Spotify is important because of its power as a streaming service, it’s the main platform consumers listen to music on. So, for a developing artist, the majority of their potential audience is on Spotify. We take that responsibility seriously, whether it’s a decision to add an artist to the New Music Friday playlist, another playlist, or to the Radar programme. Having a structured, formal programme like Radar means we can commit to a developing artist for 12 months. When we were developing it, we knew one, two or three months wouldn’t cut it. When it comes to working closely with an artist, giving meaningful support, putting marketing dollars behind them, working with their teams to give insights on how their audience is reacting to the platform, then 12 months is really the minimum. We also know that it’s important for developing artists to have control of their image, so we also work with them to create bespoke photography and get the right creatives in.”
I’ve worked in all areas of the industry, boil it all down and it’s about an emotional connection with an audience
And what role does the Equal programme play?
“We’re very aware of the disparity in the music industry as a whole, between male artists versus female or non-binary. That informs our thinking at every point, so our editorial, our marketing campaigns, our playlisting. If we’re curating New Music Friday, it’s ensuring that the Top 10 is not a Top 10 just of all-male artists. And that can be difficult on a given release week. But that’s the way that we approach our daily work. On top of that, we also put together the global Equal programme and unveiled the new Equal hub, which sits on the Spotify app, for International Women’s Day. It’s about the commitment to fostering equity for women in music globally. For launch it had on-platform support and new content experiences, as well as off-platform marketing and initiatives. We also created 35 Equal local playlists around the world spanning artists from more than 50 plus countries, from Japan to Argentina to Malaysia to the UK. We want to make sure that we’re surfacing the best local content
and artists, and we had over 29 million streams across 177 markets. The Equal initiative really does utilise the breadth and power of Spotify. Equal artists have been added to over 600 different playlists more than 1,500 times in the first month of joining the programme. Our UK and Irish Equal artists have seen an 81% average increase in their monthly listeners in the first three months of the programme.”
You also launched another new initiative called Greenroom...
“It’s our live audio app and it’s available on iOS and Android across 135 markets. You can get anything from real-time sports reactions, to instant reactions to your favourite artists. It’s also about new and emerging technology that’s lowering the point of entry for people to become creators. I think one of the fundamental shifts we’ve seen over the last 18 months is the desire for users to create their own content. Being able to record yourself and to interact with someone is a very easy way to do that. And you can do that on Greenroom. Music + Talkis similar in that it allows people to create – it means people can combine music and talking to create a show, a podcast. And we’re excited to see how people use it. The innovation will come from the creative community itself, from how they use these tools. I think that’s one of the interesting things about my job, it’s really seeing how people take to things and what they create, because you can never really predict it. And it always surprises you in the most wonderful ways.”
While we’re on content creation, what’s the relationship like between TikTok and Spotify?
“Personally, I’m a fan of TikTok! I think that any new technology that comes to the fore and encourages creativity is complementary to what we do and it creates a healthy landscape. It’s a symbiotic relationship, so much so that we teamed up with TikTok to offer their members’ community four months of Spotify Premium for free. Spotify connects listeners with their favourite artists in a way that isn’t possible elsewhere. And for that reason, it’s a perfect relationship with TikTok because they do a similar thing. We also see that what might be happening on TikTok is also happening on Spotify and vice versa. So it’s a very interesting dynamic and a complementary one.”
So do labels and artists work with the two of you together?
“Absolutely. Both TikTok and Spotify are key parts of the board when labels and managers are looking at an artist campaign or a release. We can complement one another in terms of strategy. We’ve talked a lot about discovery, but many people use Spotify to listen to old favourites.”
How do you feel about catalogue tracks appearing consistently in the charts?
“I think it’s a good thing, it’s still music discovery. When you discover a track, if it’s 24 months old or 10 years old or whatever, it’s still new to you as a listener. In this age, technology has facilitated surfacing of content and if something makes an emotional connection it can come from anywhere. The shift in consumer behaviour and the new creative expression tools are helping people to discover music that might seem like an old favourite, but actually isn’t to this audience. We’re seeing younger audiences discover music from the pop canon that we would consider ‘older music’ – like Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams or ABBA for example. It surprised me when I looked at the audience that was streaming it, it was a very young one, the under-25s. So for them, it’s not old favourites, quite the opposite. The same thing happened with the Spice Girls and their 25th anniversary. It’s amazing to see a younger generation discover that music as new.”
Were any trends specifically driven by the pandemic?
“I was really interested when we started seeing a real push to dance music. Early on in the pandemic, there was a move to chill and workout playlists. And, obviously, that made sense. People were at home. They wanted to relax, or they wanted to work out. But as we went on, what was really interesting was the increase in things like party moments or dance and club music, because all the clubs were closed. We started seeing a jump in celebratory streaming moments, a 20% increase in streaming with anything to do with parties and a 77% decrease in streaming of chill. It very much correlated with the different phases of lockdown. In the summer period it was festival playlists, with people trying to recreate their festival experiences, played out on Spotify in a streaming environment. Our partnership with the Notting Hill Carnival was all about that.”
How are the new playlists you’ve launched doing?
“Well, we’re always launching new playlists. At any given point, we have a large suite of editorial properties and playlists that we maintain, but we’re also always looking to identify and launch. Let me give an example. Amapiano is currently one of the most talked about and consumed genres in the industry, it’s a really South African sound, rooted in the genre of electronic dance and influenced by Kwaito, another South African genre. But it also features elements of R&B and hip-hop. And so this started off, obviously, as an underground genre. But because of growing demand, we launched an amapiano grooves playlist. This is the first official playlist from Spotify to a really global audience, our 365 million active users. Since we launched it, it’s had a huge spike – the UK now has the second highest number of amapiano listeners, only behind South Africa. Since we launched the playlist, UK streams of amapiano have increased by 142%.”
How does Spotify define success at the moment?
“Music discovery has always been core to Spotify and that philosophy continues to be part of our DNA. For Spotify as a company, when we think in terms of what success is, we’re still focused on one of the mission statements that Daniel [Ek, Spotify co-founder and CEO] speaks about very passionately. And that’s increasing users, obviously, but also connecting fans with artists, helping artists earn a living from the art that they do. Those are the key elements of what Spotify as a company is concerned about and working on.”
One fundamental shift we’ve seen over the last 18 months is the desire for users to create their own content
The DCMS report about the economics of streaming has generated a lot of conversation. Do you have any comment on that?
“Our goal at Spotify, as I mentioned, is to help musicians make a living. It’s something we do take seriously. And while not every artist on Spotify will have the same success, we want to play a role in helping musicians live off their art. We also do agree that artists deserve more clarity around how the music industry works, and how the music streaming economy works. And, of course, the opportunity to earn more. And that’s one of the reasons why we launched a micro website called Loud And Clear, which actually breaks down the numbers. That was released in March this year, before the recommendations in the DCMS report were published. It’s about sharing data and information on the global streaming economy, breaking down the royalty system, the players, the process. Our aim is to provide a valuable foundation for constructive conversation and a look under the hood at Spotify. It’s still early days since the recommendations of the DCMS report were published. But anything that gives artists and creatives more clarity about how the music streaming economy works can only be a good thing.”
Has working remotely changed the team’s curation process?
“It hasn’t in terms of our fundamental approach, but we had to change the way we have our meetings and discuss music as we’re not all in one room. We’ve had to make sure we’ve still had the time to talk and listen together. Listening to music is something we’ve become very protective of, because there’s always the demand for getting on another video call which pulls time away from listening and curation. Personally, on that front, I’ve needed to be very disciplined. I set deliberate time aside for listening and also work it into my daily activities, so I’m listening to music when I’m in the bath or when I’m making dinner.”
And how is your team currently structured?
“There’s the artist and label partnerships team, who really are the frontline for speaking to artists and their teams. Then there’s the editorial team. There’s a music marketing team and a music strategy and operations team. That’s 15 people in total, including me. I said before that diversity is really important to me and I know if we weren’t such a diverse team we wouldn’t be able to innovate in the ways that we do. I think it’s important to talk about and to always consider the make-up of your team. Out of the 15 people that we have, half of them are female and that’s with the most senior title being held by me, as a woman of colour. Thirty per cent of the team are Black, six out of the 15 are BAME – and I break out Black when we talk to ensure we don’t just lump everyone into BAME. There are another three people from other minority ethnic groups. And 30% identify as LGBTQIA +. Out of my heads of department, the senior leaders with their own teams that report into me, they are 50% Black, 75% LGBTQ and 50% female.”
Finally, given your love of gaming, what’s the intersection between music and games these days?
“I hear a lot of people say ‘gaming’s for kids’. That just isn’t true, especially these days. It’s for everyone. It is now playing a very important part in music and entertainment. Again, it’s about how artists connect with audiences and gaming is providing new routes. In my mind, music has always been an important part of gaming. That might be something as simple as using a Discord server and having music on while you’re gaming with your friends online. But then you have these very big games, like Fortnite or Roblox, and that is another avenue for creators to speak to and to find audiences. It’s another setting. Perhaps 20 years ago that avenue would have been going on a music show and performing. But now? You perform one show in front of an audience who are – physically – all across the world.”