The interview between the special guest editor, Toshiyuki Seki, and the founder of Wind Music, Ken Yang.
Recently in Japan, there is a word that I’ve been hearing almost every day. Which is also an inevitable topic that I must think over, since it’s related to everything from my career, to health, finance, relationships, moreover, to our civilization and this planet earth. Yes, the word is “sustainability”.
And this has a lot to do with SDGs, a universal goal adopted by UN in 2015, aimed to actualize a better and sustainable world by 2030. It may sound ambiguous due to its extensive coverage of 17 goals and 169 targets. Some of the goals here are related to environmental issues, others are gender equality, clean energy, well-being and so forth. And the important thing is that it pledges to “leave no one behind”.
If everyone of us is responsible to take part in actualizing these goals, what can someone like me in the music industry do? Not in a farfetched way, but with a more sustainable approach, taking balance between profit-seeking, social good, and nurturing a rich culture for the future.
From this perspective, Wind Music is an inspiring example we can look up to. A one of a kind record company focusing on traditional, ethnic, children’s, new age and healing music, that has been running successfully for more than three decades. The company is responsible for multiple award-winning masterpieces that has established cultural milestones in Taiwan. I interviewed founder and CEO Ken Yang to find out the secret behind Wind Music’s sustainability.
Ken Yang (second on the right), Wind Music attending MIDEM in 1995.
Listen to the customers
Ken loved music since he was a child, and have even joined the school band when he was in High School. He entered National Chiao Tung University, majoring transportation and engineer management, however, he wasn’t fully committed to studying and still found utmost pleasure playing music. After his graduation and finishing his military service, he sought job opportunity in the music industry, and found a post as a sales person at Tangshan Music. Tangshan’s focus was to promote Chinese music, which wasn’t exactly the music Ken was genuinely into, however, he recalls, “It was my chance at that time, so I took the job.”
Later on, he joins one of his bosses at Tangshan to start a new company Music In China Publishing. Being the first to taking advantage of the drastic policy change at that time, their business was successful at the beginning, but quickly took a downturn due to the highly competitive market. The company eventually failed and Ken took Wind Music, leaving him in debt of NTD 5~6 million, which he described as “rock bottom” situation.
In the process of trying to figure out the reason why their business went wrong, Ken noticed that among their titles, Chinese religious music was showing steady sales. And the company has been receiving calls from customers nationwide, expecting for more. Through market research, Ken figured out that the music was making people sleep better and reduce anxiety. This aha-moment has led him to release Chinese Buddhist music series and became the foundation of Wind Music’s business model.
Ken Yang - "Dear Tree" Like a Tree
Providing music for well-being
One of the distinctive features of Wind Music is that, many of its works are aimed to provide well-being, such as sleeping and meditating. Ken says that in Taiwan, after its economic growth during the 80s, people’s interest has shifted from material wealth to spiritual satisfaction, such as happiness and relaxation. Nature sounds by Wu Judy Chin-tai was selling very well. And rising interest from the western society towards Eastern philosophies, such as Zen, Taoism, and Confucius has provided another momentum. Chinese medicine is still common in Asia, and even in Japan, some doctors prescribe Chinese herbal medicines. Ken says these philosophies take different approach compared to modern science, originated in the West, and he considers it as an essential value that Wind Music can provide to the market.
Driven by passion and love for music
Unarguably music industry is facing a dramatic change in the environment. These decades have been adapting to internet and digitalization, and now we are facing the new rise of NFT and metaverse, that can potentially revolutionize how we appreciate music. And evolution of technology is speeding up exponentially, seeing more innovations occuring within short period of time.
How can a record company survive such era? Many of us are still trying to figure it out. But Ken seemed optimistic with the future. He says “I’ve seen so many companies closing their business, or people who came into the industry for the money and eventually withdrew, once knowing it’s not profitable. What drives us to continue this business is simply from our love for music. I can’t think of doing anything else. And most important is our intuition. For instance, when you listen to Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe singing, it touches your heart and makes you want to do something. That’s the feeling we all cherish. We work with the artists we love and trust, and guarantee the quality of music. Those strong IP will last permanently, unaffected by environmental change.”
Wind Music made a quick move when digital music emerged around 2000. Many people in the industry were frightened it will affect the physical sales and hesitated to release their music online, or even if they did, lowered the sound quality. However, Ken noticed the digitalization is inevitable and hired an employee specialized in digital music. He rather took it as an opportunity saying “Before, you had to send the CDs overseas to have foreigners listen to it, but with the digitalization you can immediately reach them. For a label like Wind Music holding fans from all around the world, that was an advantage.”
Ken Yang - " The Dance of Cherry Blossoms" (Duo version) Like a Tree
Investing for the future
Recently, Wind Music created a new label Windie Music focusing on young artists. Roster includes rock bands such as ZenKwun and The Tic Tac, which sounds completely different from what Wind Music has been conventionally releasing. Ken says this was the missing part for Wind Music and expect to grow within the next five to ten years. However, rookies require a lot of investments, and can possibly end in vain. How does Wind Music deal with it? Ken says the budgets come from the revenues generated from classic IP, and this cycle has always been the essence of Wind Music business. Back in 1991, when Wind Music started a project with Dr. Wu Rong-shun, aimed to record and archive traditional folk songs sung by the indigenous elders, Ken did not expect the project to be immediately profitable. However, he believed in the cultural value of it. And later on, the recordings inspired Camake Valaule and lead him to start Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe. And now, the troupe has become an iconic figure of Wind Music, eventually paying off the initial investments.
Ken Yang (In green outfit) doing Sufi Dance
Learning to “let yourself go”
Spending some time together with Ken, my impression of him was very open-minded and optimistic, passionate about music and well-being. However, the trajectory wasn’t always smooth as it seems. Ken told me during 90’s when Wind Music was growing and expanding its business, he was going through severe stress and anxiety from the fear of failing.
After turning 40, he started visiting India and studied meditation. Shortly, he became obsessed with Sufi Dance and visited Turkey seven times to master the skills. Ken enthusiastically explained the essence of this traditional performance, saying, “The tips to keep spinning around, is knowing how to let yourself go. The world around you swirls and changes incessantly, but if you keep the center you won’t lose your balance. This has changed my mindset, and moreover, how I run Wind Music. I used to try to control everything, confronting with the staffs, but now I’ve learned to loosen myself and listen to the staffs. I trust them, and this brings more dialogue.”
Ken Yang - Sixty To Sixteen (Select Songs from Ken Yang), 2020.
Wind Music now seem to have established its own way of sustainability. However, from Ken’s interview, I learned that there has been so many try-and-errors and ups-and-downs along the way. Wind Music also operate events such as festivals and workshops, and showing more flexibility with its approach to music business. Achieving sustainability might be a restless process of readjusting yourself with the ever-changing environment.