Sulinna Ong has devoted most of her career to sharing the universal language of music since graduating with First Class Honours with a Bachelor of Arts (Music) from Western Sydney University in 2000.
She’s proven highly adept at deploying technology and marketing intelligence to help people find the perfect music for any moment, whether as General Manager of artist management company The Family Entertainment, which took Kasabian to global success, Chief Marketing Officer at social media tech startup WholeWorldBand, and now as Head of Music at Spotify UK and Ireland.
“Music and technology have always been the two great and constant loves of my life,” she explains. “I didn’t really have the skill level to make a career out of the performance side, but I knew I wanted to make music and technology the way I earned a living. I was constantly told I had to pick either of these two things, and I knew that at some point, they would converge, and I wanted to be in the centre of it.”
Ong says her career path has been quite instinctual, driven by her enthusiasm for learning about new technology and new music, sometimes to the bafflement of her parents, who didn’t know anyone who worked in either the technology or music industries.
“Like most Asian and Middle Eastern parents (her father is Chinese, her mother is Persian), they both come from cultures that really value formal education,” says Ong. “My folks wanted me to get a law, medical, or engineering degree. Understandably they were concerned about my desire to pursue music, which is not the most stable of careers, but they knew I had my heart set on it.”
Music was Ong’s constant during a fairly nomadic childhood: she was born in the UK, the family went to Iran to settle but had to flee because of the Iranian Revolution, and ultimately came to Australia.
“I was a very nerdy, self-contained kid because we moved around a lot, and I felt like an outsider because I was biracial,” says Ong. “Having a childhood home was foreign to me. But it also provided me with a real sense of adaptability. And as a woman of colour in a male-dominated sphere, my identity has always been a really important part of my experience.”
“My team (at Spotify) is one of the most diverse team across the business, and possibly in the industry. Diversity is really important to innovation because different people bring different experiences – and that’s how you can push boundaries.”
CAMPUS LIFE AT WESTERN
In her last year of high school, Ong was exploring a photography exhibit in Darwin when she met the renowned photographer and academic, Emeritus Professor Des Crawley. After listening to Ong talk about her interests, he asked about her plans for university: she explained she didn’t want to do a traditional music degree at a conservatorium, nor did she intend to join an orchestra because she was mostly interested in popular music.
Professor Crawley told her: “You should consider the university (Western Sydney University) where I’m a professor. We have a new course, which really addresses all the things that you’re saying. It’s about popular music and I think you really should look into it.”
So the next time Ong visited Sydney, she explored the Penrith campus and Western’s new courses, and was pleased to discover it offered all the things Crawley had told her about: “Music technology was incorporated in the degree in the Bachelor of Arts, which at that time was pretty unusual,” she says. “And the university itself really expanded my world as a young adult. It introduced me to new music experiences and people.”
Ong had felt stifled at high school, where she’d often been told she was ‘difficult’ because she questioned the status quo, always wanting to know why things couldn’t change.
So campus life at Western Sydney University was a revelation: “It was one of the most carefree and experimental times in my life, which really gave me a lot of confidence,” she remembers fondly. “All the optimism, curiosity and vitality of youth in a university environment where free and critical thinking is encouraged and rewarded.”
“I met some of my close friends I still speak with now while sitting on the grass between classes, including people studying other degrees,” she adds. “And my longest friendship is actually with Professor Crawley. Even after I graduated and moved to the UK in 2003, we kept in touch. I actually spoke to him in April (2021) to wish him a happy birthday (he’s in his 80s now). So that’s a friendship that has endured for 27 years!”
MIND-EXPANDING LECTURES (AND LOTS OF GREAT GIGS)
The first year at university can be eye-opening for many students, especially when they’ve just entered young adulthood. As Ong describes it, you have all the new freedoms and benefits of being an adult but generally none of the heavier responsibilities that come later in life.
“I was completely green. I had a strong calling to be involved in music in some way, though I didn’t know how,” she says. “If I could go back, I’d probably also do a Bachelor in Computer Science and learn programming along with music.”
One of the great things about being at a campus far from the city centre, notes Ong, is that her social life congregated at university, whether hanging out on a lawn and meeting new people between classes or discovering new friends and tunes at gigs on campus featuring many of the students’ bands.
Still, she credits her honours thesis supervising lecturer, Adjunct Associate Professor Sally Macarthur, with really expanding her musical mind: “Sally introduced me to music and composers from other cultures and genres I never even knew existed, like Musique concrète and Karlheinz Stockhausen, which really changed the way I thought about creative output,” she says. “I also think the ability to discuss art in a critical way is so important to the work I do now.”
YOUR NEW FAVOURITE SONG
A tiny sample of some of the artists Ong has worked with so far reveals cross-generational favourites like The Rolling Stones, Debbie Harry, Madonna, De La Soul, Wu Tang Clan, plus new-millennium hit makers Jay Z and Dua Lipa.
“The one thing every artist I’ve worked with has in common is they want their music to be heard by people,” says Ong, adding that while some artists had fought very public battles against peer-to-peer music technology (Metallica vs Napster for example), she and others in the industry worked hard to promote a better alternative: “When I saw the advent of mobile applications and peer to peer file sharing, I knew this was the start of where it was going to go,” Ong remembers, adding that back in 2000 when she graduated from Western Sydney University, smartphones and apps were still several years away.
“I don’t think anyone predicted just how much the digitalisation of music would change the industry, but I felt it was going to get to a point where it would go mainstream and would be legalised. Now, hundreds of millions of people pay for music living in the cloud rather than physical products.”
Ong reports the income earned from streaming helped reverse the recorded music industry’s freefall, becoming its largest source of income from 2016 onwards. Music streaming (and music videos online) can quickly help build global audiences for artists outside the mainstream who previously wouldn’t have had much exposure when the music media’s gatekeepers were so few and powerful.
“Back in the days of the dominance of MTV and more traditional media, there were only a few outlets and decision makers choosing who would be on high rotation, or even playlisted and promoted,” she says. “I think streaming has really changed that and given many moreartists the opportunity to reach more people.”
For example, when Korean boyband BTS topped the US Billboard album chart in 2018 and become the fastest group since the Beatles to earn four US #1 albums, fans of the group quickly ‘discovered’ and embraced other K-pop stars via Spotify’s recommendation system andcurated playlists.
Spotify’s discovery tools make it easier for listeners to explore new genres and artists, and equally, feature spots on a program called RADAR can give a huge boost to emerging talents. “Spotify’s RADAR programme is focussed on new and developing artists, so we’re constantly looking for fresh talent we feel will connect with an audience, and we provide them with editorial and marketing support to help develop their careers,” she says. “Spotify for Artists gives artists and their teams access to a lot of data to help them understand who’s listening and where.”
Knowing where the fans are is really useful for the business of music itself, whether the artist is just starting out or finds themselves onceagain in the zeitgeist. Thanks to a new generation of fans using social media like TikTok to share their love, bands like Boney M and Fleetwood Mac are enjoying a resurrection of their popularity all over the world.
“It’s hugely rewarding being able to remind people of a song or an artist they love and doing it at the right time that might trigger a memory,” says Ong. “Helping people discover music, especially when you connect someone with a new favourite song or artist that they don’t know yet, is just such a universal pleasure.”
WORDS BY STUART RIDLEY