With actresses like Dolly de Leon, Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan making waves this Hollywood awards season, we’re seeing Southeast Asian talents finally getting their due recognition on the global stage.
It’s been a long time coming. When it comes to the entertainment leaders in Asia, first to mind are countries like India, South Korea, and Japan for their massive contributions to the realms of film, music, and television. Previously relegated to the sidelines, recent moves have proven that Southeast Asia is already on the track to follow suit.
For WILD CEO Leonard Lim, global recognition for SEA is a matter of timing and strategy. Having lived in Seoul for a few years, Lim says that he’s applying lessons learned from the Korean entertainment industry to WILD, a two-year-old talent and management agency based in Singapore.
The company has expanded since Lim started it in Seoul in 2020. Initially a talent agency to help his content creator friends find connections in Korean entertainment, it grew further when they signed K-pop idol Sorn (formerly of CLC) and began managing her solo career.
Though they take cues from Korean entertainment, Lim says that their approach is a lot more lax in the sense of artist creative freedom. “We are an artist-first agency and we feel like every time we sign an artist exclusively it's a partnership, 100% it's a partnership,” says Lim. He adds: “What we do is we work together and we decide together and we provide every single piece of resource we have to make that project and their term with us and everything we do successful.”
Last year, they added a record label arm to the fold and now have a dedicated A&R and music team. Apart from managing their current roster of content creators like The Hammington Family, Christine Park (@soobeanie_), and Richard Juan, they’ve signed former CLC leader Seungyeon, hip-hop artist Junoflo, “Produce 101” China alum Lana, and are partnering with Yubin (formerly of Wonder Girls) for her SEA promotions. According to Lim, they’ll be announcing more artist and talent partnerships within the year.
Just this January, they debuted their first homegrown Singapore artist Haven (stylized as HAVEN), and have plans to debut more acts, with some artists already in training.
Below, Lim answers a few questions about the relationship of content and music production, the challenges of expanding a hybrid entertainment agency, and putting Southeast Asian talent on the global stage.
How has the year been so far for you and the folks at WILD?
It's been good. We're coming off a very big year. I moved WILD from Korea to Singapore last year so it's been seven months since we moved headquarters. Since then we've scaled our team to about 20 staff locally in Singapore. We've grown our artist roster to about six and our agency to about 50 creators and producers. Our team is getting pretty big. Singapore is our base and we want to be known as the leader in foreign entertainment but we're actually looking at setting up office in both the Philippines and Malaysia this year.
The Philippines is a very exciting market for my team. With Singapore being our headquarters, the Philippines was a market that we were very drawn to. So many talented people in the Philippines and we want to bring our artists to the Philippines more often to promote their music and that's between myself and my head of music and my artist management team. We're looking forward to that.
I saw in an interview before that you said you mostly signed on friends at the beginning who needed help branching into the Korean entertainment space. Right now though, what do you look for in your talents and artists?
When I first spoke about WILD, it was very much a business that ran out of my personal network and my capabilities. But now because we have a team of 20, we can then give the resources that I've built to more artists that are outside of my personal network and connections. When I look at artists now, we're looking for one, people that understand how to promote themselves as an artist, that aren't looking to be hand-fed an easy way to fame or to becoming a well-known artist. I think it's very important in this day and age to know how to self promote. And that's their understanding of content, that's their understanding of music, that's their understanding of how to utilize the resources we have and we give them. [Two], talent. I mean, there's so much untapped talent in Southeast Asia. The reason I moved my company from Korea to Southeast Asia is that my feeling is everyone can learn from K-pop. K-pop is at its peak. You've got groups like BTS and BLACKPINK that are the groups, the artists of their generation. And how do we compete with that? I think at this point, it's more about learning from that. I think that they've created something that a lot of Southeast Asian talent are so ready to replicate and a lot of talented people in Malaysia, in the Philippines, in Singapore, in Thailand, in Malaysia, we are able to support our own artists to get on that global stage too.
Aside from the Singaporean [artists and talents], there are a number of other Southeast Asians on your roster, and right now Southeast Asians are being given the spotlight because of what's happening in Hollywood. What type of potential do you see in SEA artists?
I think we're doing our best to market our artists all from Southeast Asia as best as we can. The world of content on TikTok is insane. The range of engagement is crazy. The fact that you can post something on TikTok and organically you can reach everyone in America in 24 hours if your video went viral. In terms of artistry, that's pretty much understanding the trends, the sounds, the content, everything like that and pairing that with good music that is culturally acceptable to other markets. What I mean by that is it took so long for K-pop to be actually accepted by everyone globally. [It took] 20, 30 years and [now] people know what the K-pop sound and visual is. That's a culture that was created very cleverly by their industry. And we're just playing catch-up and learning from it. I think that I want to be the one to do that in Asia, and really be the catalyst. I've noticed that Southeast Asia, for much of the time I was living in Korea, was underrepresented in Korea. And this is just my feel. And being Southeast Asian, I know how much of a challenge we have over here. I know how beautiful the country of Singapore is, I know how great our food is. A lot of people want to travel in and out of Southeast Asia because we have so many good things about it. So what we need to do is train the musical gear and everything like that to come from Southeast Asia to the global market.
I guess it's also crazy because [usually] the main fanbases of K-pop artists come from Southeast Asia.
But you guys have a group out there in the Philippines that's doing well. And they won't be the first. There's so many more to come up. Thailand is the leader in idol culture outside of K-pop. Like in Singapore, what WILD does a lot of times is we bring a lot of K-pop artists through to Singapore for event attendance. We facilitate a lot of entertainment live events and we bridge Korean entertainment to Singapore. We do a lot of that for brand stuff. What I will say is that when we can't land a K-pop artist because of scheduling to attend something, they look to Thailand. They look to get the Thai idols or the Thai actors over to Singapore to draw exposure to an event, which is crazy.
Given that it's been two years since you've founded the company, what are the opportunities and challenges that you've experienced with WILD?
I think that the most challenging thing about WILD in the past few years is upscaling. And not just upscaling myself to understand the entertainment industry. Prior to this I was working around the entertainment industry. I used to have a jewelry brand called Kapsul Collective and we collaborated with a lot of idols like Nichkhun from 2PM, Victon, Park Jihoon, and Amber Liu, so I spent a lot of time with these people and these companies to really understand how they treat their artists, what their scheduling is like, who is in their team to manage these artists, their PR strategies, everything. I had to understand that and that alongside my friends in entertainment, I learned a lot very quickly. It's more about how do I manage and delegate my staff and team to provide them the same type of knowledge and resources that I have.
It sounds challenging.
But so rewarding, is what I'll say. It's really fun being part of this industry. And what I tell my team is we have a young, creative team. I hire a lot of creatives because that's what we need. I told them that this industry is so fun to be a part of. Naturally, everyone that's working in this industry is a fan because we choose to be, and that's what we wanna do. In order to stay in this industry, we have to upskill, we have to educate, we have to consume so that we know everything we can to have our team and our artists be in the forefront and the hub of talent.
What are your goals for WILD now?
For 2023, like I said we plan to open up additional offices in both Malaysia and the Philippines. We've signed a whole bunch of artists which we will then be releasing music, planning live events. Hopefully a live cross collaboration with K-pop. So artists from Southeast Asia mixed in with K-pop, and K-pop with Southeast Asia. And I hope by the end of 2023, we are the first to mind when it comes to foreign entertainment in the region. We plan to mix our artists in Singapore with foreign artists under our label, and also we hope to find some very talented people in the Philippines that we can sign on as artists, and then also have them promote with artists outside of the Philippines. We want to be a very global and active record label Southeast Asia-wise. It’s a big goal. We want to grow towards that, but we're off to a pretty decent start.