TaP Music’s Wendy Ong Talks Career Setbacks and Wins for AAPI Month « CmaTrends

Wendy Ong brings an extraordinarily diverse background to her current role as president of TaP Music. Her career path has led her from Singapore to Hong Kong to New York to Los Angeles, working with Clive Davis, Diddy, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Universal Music, Roc Nation, and beginning in 2018, at TaP, where she heads up the West Coast office and has worked closely with Lana Del Rey, Ellie Goulding, Caroline Polacheck and (previously) Dua Lipa.

With vast experience in marketing and management — she was even head of classical at EMI Music — she finds all of her skills coming into play at the multifaceted TaP, which also includes a label and publishing and digital marketing divisions. But like most women, not to mention immigrants, in the music industry, she faced a number of obstacles along the way.

More than two decades into her career, Ong — who has appeared on several Variety power lists — hopes to give back to future generations of artists and music executives in the hope that her story can provide an example, advice and optimism. Rather than format this conversation as a traditional Q&A, we’ll just let her talk.

My mother was a tiger mom — it’s quite an immigrant thing, not just restricted to East Asian families. My parents were very unsupportive at the beginning: The music business was in a very different place, especially in Asia, although obviously that has changed. For me, it all translated into the sense that I never liked to show any emotion and or show my vulnerabilities. It took me a long time to learn that it’s good to be vulnerable sometimes.

I remember at one point in my life, I was between gigs and I had just left this job where I was being told not to speak up. It had really damaged my confidence and the way I was thinking. But suddenly, I had two offers on the table. I had flown my parents over from Asia and I had received a very bad email from one of the heads of the company, and I was still trying to figure out how to handle things. But I’m so glad that my mom and dad were with me that day because we were walking around the city and I couldn’t cry — I was so upset that I couldn’t even cry! — but they cried for me. I still don’t shed tears very well. When real-life situations happen, I suck it up and am like, “No. You’ve gotta be strong, don’t show your emotions.” It’s a hard habit to break.

I didn’t have a lot of mentors growing up that I could identify with. There wasn’t anyone that looked like me. Just to have had someone who could’ve listened to me and understand what I was going through, to get some advice from someone with that same perspective, would’ve been a game-changer for me emotionally and mentally. I had to really learn to go within and find inner strength. This might be a little weird to say, but when I learned meditation, that changed a lot of things for me. I still do it every day and it’s especially effective on days where I feel like shit. That’s my secret weapon.

The first gig I had in this country, having just moved from Asia to New York, I had very little experience in America. The hustle was definitely real for me. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know a lot of the rules and American customs that I had to play by. I may have broken several, which is why people were saying things like “She talks too much, she should know her place better.” Maybe it’s good that I didn’t, but I had to learn the hard way.

I was fortunate that a few doors opened for me when I came to New York [to do international marketing at Arista]. To this day, I don’t understand why I was hired! (Laughter) [Department head] George Levendis was the person that hired me and I’m extremely grateful that he saw something in me, because within two weeks I was in Paris with Puff Daddy.

That was a culture shock for me in many ways. Growing up in Malaysia and Singapore, I was not exposed to hip-hop — nothing about me on paper checked any of the boxes to have been successful at that job. First off, I was not American and I had very few musical sources to expand my horizons. But it just kind of just clicked for me because I’m good at observing, listening and understanding, and I’m quick to learn. My personality has always been very honest and transparent — to a fault sometimes. But those qualities make people trust me, so I just kept being given [responsibilities].

I worked with OutKast as well — that is still one of the highlights of my career. I was able to be a part of two incredible albums — “Stankonia” and “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” — and they’re still two of my favorites to this day. I remember when Big Boy and Andre 3000 won album of the year at the Grammys, it was very exciting to be a part of that.

I learned a very simple lesson a long time ago: the only way I can truly be happy and feel satisfied is if I am able to do something great for someone else. The downside is that I’ve also had the rug pulled under me when there are things in my life that I’ve accomplished and was not given credit for.

That is a reality check for a lot of young people coming up in the industry: It’s a painful lesson to see your hard work being credited to someone else. Everyone goes through it. I often used to wonder whether it was because I wasn’t the right skin color or didn’t have the right culture. When I’d speak up, people didn’t want to hear what I had to say. I was like, “Why is that?”

Up until 2020, I don’t think I was even really aware of AAPI month. I think that was one of the few silver linings in the pandemic: A lot of minorities banded together, and I learned a lot about my own culture in America as a result of that. These past two years, in fact, there’s been so many issues that have woken me up. Especially the violence and the racism against AAPIs, obviously it scares me, it breaks my heart when I hear about all these awful prejudices and violence.

When I first started out doing international, it didn’t get a lot of respect. It’s changed now because streaming has evened the playing field, but 20 years ago, we were just babysitters and travel agents. To an extent, that’s still kind of true, but there’s so much diplomacy and cultural intelligence that you need to do your job well.

It definitely served me: If you look around today at various senior executives at the major labels, a lot of them have come from international marketing backgrounds, which I think is a testament to how valuable it is to have a good understanding of how to get things across the line.

I’m very proud, by the way, of everything that I’ve achieved and I want to do everything I can to help people along their journey. There aren’t that many [AAPIs] in the music industry and I think it’s important to shine a light on the few of us who have somehow achieved something great.

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