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Sunita Kaur

Become – High Profiles
September 10, 2015

Ten years ago, Sunita Kaur took a leap of faith and left the print world for the digital realm. “I realised I had to learn about this internet thing or I was going to be obsolete in ten years,” she says in her raspy Macy Gray-ish voice. It took her another six months to get a position at Forbes, helping them set up their local operations. On the advice of her boss, she got herself an 18 year-old mentor in order to see through the eyes of the Gen-Y and beyond. Since then, she had been with Microsoft and Facebook, before making the leap two years ago into digital music.

The music streaming service founded by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon in 2006 has changed how we consume music, and as a whole, helped legitimise digital music (along with other streaming pioneers), a far cry from the teething problems of the early days. Napster and other early pioneers were ultimately put down. Resistance from the recording industry only tapered when it became clear that digital music would perhaps ‘save’ instead of threaten the incumbents, if done right. “Then iTunes came along, which started to make a little bit of a dent,” Sunita explains. Today, Spotify has 75 million users and generated US$1.2 billion in revenue in 2014, mostly from premium subscriptions and advertising. The two worlds have fostered a synergistic, albeit at times, uneasy relationship; but in general, things seem positive. Lars Ulrich of Metallica, the infamous public face of the Napster episode for the recording industry, had even said, “I believe streaming is good for music. . .” and that it is the artistes’, as well as listeners’ choice to do so. You can find the popular metal band’s music on Spotify. Mr Ulrich had apparently also attended Sean Parker’s (a co-founder of Napster) wedding back in 2013. Beats, co-founded by industry veterans Dr Dre and Jimmy Lovine, and acquired for US$3 billion by Apple, is also testament to the continued convergence of and interdependence between both industries. Battling piracy is a major goal of Spotify, which gives listeners a ‘safe and legal alternative’, says Sunita. The IFPI [International Federation of the Phonographic Industry], in a report published April this year, showed Singapore’s music industry revenues have for the first time in four years, increased, after years of decline while worldwide digital music revenues increased by almost 7 per cent, making up for losses in non-digital verticals.

Sunita does not play music. “I was hired for my mathematics skills, not for my musical skills,” she replies cheekily, when I ask about her musical inclinations. In her spare time, which she rarely has, she is on the board of Talent Trust, a charity which helps other charities operate better as businesses. She does not have anyone famous as inspirations. Instead, she gets inspirations from the people around her. “Everyone that you meet, you take a little bit of them away with you, and add it to your own personality. I find that far more inspirational than famous people.”

Conversations with Sunita Kaur

Managing Director, Asia, Spotify
Text by Yong Hui Yow
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

YONG HUI YOW: How are plans to dominate Asia going?

SUNITA KAUR: It’s great. Over the last five years, Spotify has seen 25 billion streams. To put that into perspective, if you were to listen to Spotify 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it will take you 3 million years. When I started two and a half years ago, we were in 24 countries; now, we are now in 58. Back then, we had 15 million users; we are now at 75 million. The growth has just been phenomenal. Whenever we launch in a new market, we make sure our catalogues are robust enough to cater to local music fans, whether it’s local or international music.

YONG HUI: What is Spotify’s mission?

SUNITA: What Spotify represents is music at the touch of a button, but a big part of our mission is to battle piracy, which is what we have done for the past 8 years. There are 2 recent independent studies; 1 in Australia, which showed that since Spotify launched over there, we helped decrease piracy by 20 per cent. In singapore, the IFPI [International Federation of the Phonographic Industry], which just published a report a few months ago, showed that for the first time in 5 years, music industry revenue grew, and it was because of streaming. These things are wonderful because we come to work every day, clanking away, and when we hear things like that, we know we are making an impact.

YONG HUI: How much did it increase by?

SUNITA: It increased by 4.7 per cent in Singapore. That was the first time in four years. Think about how the music industry has evolved, and how disruptive it's been over the past few decades – we went from vinyl to cassettes, to the birth of digital music with Napster and the whole downloading phenomenon; that was when physical sales of CDs and cassettes started to feel the pain. Then iTunes, which started to make a little bit of a dent with streaming, and now, Spotify. There are 30 million songs available to you, anything you can ever imagine in your phone and laptop. Since we have come along with music streaming, because we pay rights holders, they again, have seen their revenues come up. We are eating into piracy.

Spotify is an entire promotional channel to empower and help artistes build their business.

YONG HUI: Does Spotify really only work for top artistes as opposed to aspiring ones?

SUNITA: Spotify works for all artistes in a variety of ways. You don’t have to be a huge artiste, but that obviously helps. We have seen a lot of young, up and coming artistes make an impact because Spotify is a platform for them to showcase their craft. Up and coming artistes may find their music start to trend on Spotify, and when they go on tour, people know them, and they buy their concert tickets. All of our artistes have a dashboard, and you can see how much you are being streamed, and more importantly, where you are being streamed. If you are planning a massive world tour, you know where you should go. Spotify is an entire promotional channel to empower and help artistes build their business.

YONG HUI: What programmes do you have to help emerging artistes?

SUNITA: In the Philippines, we just ran a programme which was a first for us out here in Asia. It's called Emerge. We have done it in the US, and UK, Australia and New Zealand, and decided to bring it to the Philippines. Essentially, we reach out to 10 acts, put them on the platform and give voting power to music fans. After 10 weeks, this amazing young man came out as the winner. He’s a 22 year-old rapper called Shehyee. Other artistes Emerge has produced include fantastic talents such as Bastille, Macklemore, and Lorde.

YONG HUI: What are some Asia-specific challenges you have faced?

SUNITA: The number one challenge, unfortunately, is still piracy. We have a mission to tell people to stop piracy, and start streaming safely and legally, where you can get all the music you’d ever want on Spotify. We will continue to shout from mountain tops with this message. Most counties in this part of the world are still guilty of that [piracy].


It's easy to tell someone not to pirate music. It's so much easier when you give them a free alternative.

YONG HUI: What has been an effective strategy to educate the market?

SUNITA: So prior to December 2013, you could enjoy Spotify for free on your desktop, but if you wanted to enjoy it on mobile, you had to become a premium subscriber. But what we have seen is the sheer number of people coming in on mobile, so we made a big and bold decision to open up mobile experience – for free. That has allowed a lot more people to experience Spotify. It's easy to tell someone not to pirate music. It's so much easier when you give them a free alternative.

YONG HUI: The record labels are not having such a great time. What’s the dynamic between streaming services and the labels?

SUNITA: This is the interesting thing about Spotify. We don’t take on artistes directly. You have to work through labels and publishing houses, and they, as the rights holders work with us. We never deal with artistes directly. We deal with the rights holders.

YONG HUI: Why not though?

SUNITA: For a variety of reasons. First is the way music streaming services are built. At Spotify, every time you listen to a song, payments are generated for the artiste, and this is one amongst many sources of income for them. So it is easier and safer for the rights holders to consolidate and distribute payments for the artistes they manage.

YONG HUI: Distribution platforms and infrastructure have immense power. Is that a good thing?

SUNITA: I don’t know if I would call it power. We are very much a vehicle. I read this really great article a couple of weeks ago that successful businesses are now built on technology. You have Uber, which does not own a single vehicle; you have Airbnb, which does not own a single property; you have Spotify, which does not own a single song. That's really where the whole world is going – having these vehicles to connect the end user to anything they’d want.

YONG HUI: Right now, there are multiple streaming platforms. Will they consolidate?

SUNITA: I think yes. Consolidation is closer than it was 5 years ago because you have a lot of people who have really entered this space doing a lot of different things.

Overall, the artiste has become more empowered. We provide them with the tools to become more independent so that they can focus on creating music. With Spotify, they can reach any listener anywhere in the world – borders are no more.

YONG HUI: After consolidation, artistes would have fewer ‘vehicles’ to choose from, on which to distribute their music.

SUNITA: I don’t think there will just be one platform. There will a couple of them. It’s important to have a few players in the market. However, overall, the artiste has become more empowered. We provide them with the tools to become more independent so that they can focus on creating music. With Spotify, they can reach any listener anywhere in the world – borders are no more.

YONG HUI: What do you think of Apple Music?

SUNITA: You know, we have been doing this for 8 years now, and to have larger companies come into the space really helps with education, as well as having more people understand what we do. It also adds credibility and validation to have very large players come into the space.

YONG HUI: I find myself sometimes listening to stand-up comedy on Spotify. What other forms of content has potential on Spotify?

SUNITA: We are working on a few things which are incredibly exciting, such as podcasts and short-form video. I myself am a huge fan of podcasts. We also have the Spotify running app, which lives within Spotify. With it, you put on your sneakers, earphones, and when you start running, the app starts playing and it serves you music based on your beats per minute. The beauty of it is that if you start off at 190 beats per minute, and you slow down to 140 because you got tired, the app adjusts its beats to cater to you. Everyone across the world loves this. In fact, the app keeps you running longer, and hence, helps you discover more music. So it's endless, whether it’s music, podcasts, short-form video, we are always looking for new and exciting things to do and learn from.

YONG HUI: You are not in India and China at the moment?

SUNTIA: No, not yet.

YONG HUI: Any plans there?

SUNITA: Fundamentally, we want to be everywhere, but we are in 58 countries across the world right now, and that’s keeping us pretty busy. But yes, we have the rest of the world on our minds.

YONG HUI: Which country in Asia is doing the best?

SUNITA: We love all of our children equally, and we have different metrics for different markets. If you’re talking about raw number of users, the Philippines is doing really well.

YONG HUI: What about Singapore?

SUNITA: Singapore is doing great. We have done a lot of work with Singapore artistes. A couple of them have even come to our sessions here. What we have actually seen in Singapore is the evolution in tastes. For example, we have seen local indie rock trend on Spotify. That has lent itself to more indie rock festivals in Singapore, and more foreign indie acts coming over for shows.

YONG HUI: Do you join these festivals?

SUNITA: Well, I'm not young, but I do sometimes go just to see what young adults are up to today.

YONG HUI: Do you feel an age gap?

SUNITA: Oh yeah. I grew up in a very different era. I literally lived through the entire [music] history so I can really speak to it. It’s amazing to see how it has evolved.


Have adventures in your life, and be brave.

YONG HUI: Do you mind telling us your age?

SUNITA: Not at all! I'm 42.

YONG HUI: What is Discover Weekly all about?

SUNITA: Discover Weekly is like getting a mix tape from your best friend. Every listener will receive a personalised weekly playlist, 2 hours worth of music, curated especially for you from Spotify.

YONG HUI: What is the culture like in Spotify?

SUNITA: We are pretty small; just 20 of us here, so it is very open and flat. We don’t have hierarchy and we don’t believe in it. We all sit together – no offices. As long as you come in and you do your work, no one bothers and harasses you. But what we do try and inculcate is – you don’t just work for Spotify, you are part of Spotify. We have a motto we live by: play fair, and play everywhere.

YONG HUI: What does ‘play everywhere’ mean?

SUNITA: It means you can be doing your work, but you also can be having a break, having fun on the play station, or playing beer pong. There's no regiment here.

YONG HUI: How is this culture different from Spotify in the US?

SUNITA: It is very similar everywhere. Spotify across the world has that same love for music and the brand.

YONG HUI: How are the functions split up?

SUNITA: In Singapore, they range from sales and partnerships, public relations, B2C and B2B marketing, business development. One of the functions we recently added is local music editors.

YONG HUI: Sounds like a great job.

SUNITA: Yes, I know. So they curate music – full-time. It is everybody's dream job. The job basically entails leveraging on our data, having a deep understanding of local listening habits, and at the same time, having a comprehensive music library in your head. It is fusing human touch with data.

YONG HUI: How did you end up in Spotify?

SUNITA: I started off my career in print media at Time Warner and SPH for about 10 years. This was back in my early 30s, in the early 2000s. I was on the print side and I realised I really had to learn about this internet thing or I was going to be obsolete in 10 years. So what I did was left the print world, and held out for an online digital job. It took me 6 months to get one at Forbes. Forbes took a risk with me to build up their operations here. Not many people got it then. One of my bosses at Forbes told me to get a mentor, and make sure that he or she is between 16 to 18 years old, which is exactly what I did. At that time, when I was in meetings with people, they were speaking a different language from me.

YONG HUI: Who was it?

SUNITA: It was a friend's son, and that’s how I learned many things. I learned you can search for full sentences in Google! After Forbes, I went to Microsoft for about a year when Facebook decided to set up their APAC operations in Singapore. I joined Facebook for about 3 years. When I left Facebook, it had become an amazingly large and advanced company. I felt the timing was perfect because Spotify became Facebook's music partner, so the move was very seamless, and with the blessings of Facebook.


YONG HUI: Do you play music?

SUNITA: Sadly no. By the way, I was hired for my mathematics skills, not for my musical skills. [laughs]

YONG HUI: Will Spotify be profitable?

SUNITA: In 2014, we invested heavily back into the business from the revenue we have managed to acquire. We launched in Canada, Brazil and the Philippines, and it goes on. With any tech start-up, to get to the point where you are able to invest back into the company and give it the next push is a pretty exciting time, so right now, we are still in the growth stage.

YONG HUI: Will Spotify go public?

SUNITA: There’s been a lot of speculation, and it’s probably inevitable because of the size we have become. However, what’s most important is still our priority to serve our 75 million users as best we can.

YONG HUI: Have you met Daniel Ek. How is he like?

SUNITA: He is incredibly calm and bright. Nothing shakes him, and that is a very comforting thing to have in a leader.

YONG HUI: How were your growing up days like?

SUNITA: I had an amazing childhood. I have a younger brother. Mum and Dad each had 8 brothers and sisters so I have a lot of uncles, aunties, and cousins. We sometimes travel as a family. When we were young, my parents always wanted their kids to have experiences and adventures, so from a very young age, they’d push us out to try different things. For example, when I was sixteen going on seventeen, I went off to Bangladesh with a girlfriend and ended up working at the United Nations for three months. That was pretty amazing. I came back a different person.

YONG HUI: What do you do in your free time?

SUNITA: I don’t really have much free time, but when I do, it’s pretty much with my family. My husband also has a pretty intense work schedule from Mondays to Fridays, so we try to spend time for ourselves on the weekends. I'm also part of an organisation called Talent Trust, which is a charity that helps other charities run better as businesses.

YONG HUI: Who are your personal inspirations?

SUNITA: I don’t exactly have anyone famous as inspirations. I take inspiration from people around me. I'm a big believer that everyone you meet, you take a little bit of them away with you, and add it to your own personality. I find that far more inspirational than famous people.

YONG HUI: How did you find the courage to follow your gut when you left print media?

SUNITA: For me, it has always been about being brave and not being afraid to fail. I have taken on smaller jobs just to try them out. It is tough to figure out what you do like, but it is easier to figure out what you don’t like. I tried consulting jobs, and hated all of them. When I found out what I don’t like, it gave me more confidence that where I was going was where I’m suited to be. Have adventures in your life, and be brave.