Social media and digital platforms such as YouTube are transforming the way musicians, artists and bloggers shape our society. We caught up with Jasper Donat, co-founder and CEO of Branded Ltd., one of Asia’s most successful media, marketing and entertainment event firms and creators of the groundbreaking All That Matters festival, to find how the industry is changing. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Parvati Magazine: You’ve been focused on Asia for over 20 years, but you started out in the UK. What convinced you that Asia was the place you wanted to do something that matters?
Jasper Donat: It’s just an exciting part of the world. You’ve got 35 different countries that are going through dramatic change, and Hong Kong’s right in the middle of it. There are very few hurdles in terms of setting up something new. They call it the world’s freest economy, and it is. You can have an idea in the morning and be doing it in the afternoon. That I find is very rare in other countries.
In my personal life, this country is incredible because you have amazing diversity. A lot of people see Hong Kong as this amazing city with the lights, and that kind of energy. And yeah, you have that, and there’s nothing like it in the world, but if you go 20 minutes outside Hong Kong you’re on a beach. You’re up a hill. You’re on the water.
There’s a lovely chap called Bill Silva—he manages the Hollywood Bowl. He came to Hong Kong and said, “I want to do something different.” So rather than going out for lunch or dinner, at 6:30 one morning I took him over a hike called the Dragon’s Back. I was in the office by 10:30 having done a 10K hike with Bill. You can do that here.
Parvati Magazine: A common theme through your work at Branded is that connections matter. You’re known as a pioneer in helping artists and bloggers connect directly with their fans in live events. Why is this a priority for you?
Jasper Donat: So let’s go back to how it started. We co-created an event called the YouTube Fanfest with someone from YouTube, and at the time very few people in this part of the world understood about this relationship between an influencer and their fans. This is back in 2013. We produced the first event and our minds were blown by what unfolded on stage. We had I think twelve artists that we had never heard of, and the event sold out in about ten minutes. They were not your typical musicians; they were comedians, they were bloggers, they fixed cars, they did make-up, and some of them played music. And they came out and we just saw this fandom—I think some called them “screamagers.” It was wonderfully organized chaos. And we discovered that there’s all these people on video who are influencing these youths in everything they’re doing.
I remember being fifteen and my bedroom walls were plastered in posters of 1980s pop groups. Let’s say one of them was Duran Duran. With the situation today, what would happen if Duran Duran started talking back to me from my bedroom wall? What would it be like for me if I felt I could ask them a question and they answered it to my community? There’s a constant dialogue with my favorite pop group. And so that’s why you have this incredible relationship. The vloggers, and bloggers, are now calling their fans friends.
Parvati Magazine: You took the run-of-the-mill music trade show format and made it into something spectacular with the All That Matters Festival. What inspired you to create this format, and what have been some of the biggest takeaways for you in doing so?
Jasper Donat: I like this question. If you think where the music industry was 13 years ago, people had just started using iPods, people were stealing music front and center, Napster had happened. So music as a passion was getting bigger, with people listening to and having access to more and more music from all over the world. But at the same time every time you opened a newspaper, there were stories of people being taken to court for stealing music. And the music industry was suffering. It took a mighty battering for over a decade. And nowhere in Asia at that time was there an opportunity to bring the music industry together to celebrate success rather than moan about failure.
And so we took this idea to the IFPI, which is the industry association of record labels, and said, “Hey, let’s do a two-day conference in Hong Kong. We’ll have everyone together, we’ll talk about positivity, and how people are getting over piracy, and just see what happens when lots of people come together.” We absolutely made it up as we went along. The first year didn’t have any music at all. The second year we started to have some music. And the third year more and more. And then the Singapore government persuaded us to move it to Singapore because a lot of the media and music industry was moving that way anyway.
And then we started to do more events in the same space: some music for Digital Matters, Gaming Matters, we did an event called Social Matters which is around marketing and social media. And I guess around ten years into this we realized that all of these different segments were having the same conversations. Music people were talking about streaming, sports people were talking about streaming, marketing people were talking about streaming. Digital entertainment is all about Netflix and YouTube and streaming. So we thought, “Why are we doing this five times a year? Let’s do it once.” And so three years ago we squished them all together into All That Matters.
From All That Matters, a lot of good things have happened. The music festival component: many years ago when YouTube was still quite new, they came to us and said, “Hey, do you want to stream your festival?” So we did. We got a local university to actually produce it for us. So they all got some really cool on the job live training. And we streamed live for a few years, and then they came to us and said, “Why don’t we do this thing with YouTube stars?” And we said, “Great, what’s that?” And the YouTube FanFest happened from there. And we’ve now launched a wonderful event called It’s A Girl Thing. And that has come from All That Matters as well.
Last year we had something like 35 bands from all over the world in a free festival. They got to attend the conference and meet the gods and goddesses of the industry, and learn from them. We do an academy for musicians, so they get to spend a day learning about the business of music, not just how to write a song.
Parvati Magazine: An invitation from you, then, is a hot commodity in the music business.
Jasper Donat: Well if you have the word “Matters” in your name, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. And so if we’re trying to say that music matters, then we have to make it matter for everyone who’s involved in music. At the end of the day it’s up to them to succeed. We can’t guarantee anything like that. But we’ve had a lot of musicians come through and learn about Asia, they learn about the music business, and they get profiled in front of a lot of cool people.
And we have a lot of fun doing it. I get to spend time with some of the most successful media business people on the planet. We’re always very humbled by the whole thing.
We spend a lot of time and effort curating the program. It’s really easy to put a lot of people on stage, but it’s really hard to put the right people on stage.
Parvati Magazine: Back to It’s a Girl Thing. How has it been received since you launched it in 2016?
Jasper Donat: Seeing the effect that technology and social media is having on teenagers right now is petrifying. These kids are getting addicted to their devices, the messaging that they’re seeing—and creating themselves—is creating all sorts of pressures, anxiety, depression, and worse. Suicide rates are higher than they’ve ever been all over the world, and it’s being attributed to just the way that they’re communicating with their friends or not.
And so we thought, why don’t we just take these wonderful social influences that we know and love and enjoy working with, and put them on stage in a format where they can perform and do their thing, but they can also sit down and say, “Hey this is me,” and take off the mask. “This is my life, this is how I got to where I am today.”
So many female social stars, I’d almost say 10 out of 10, have been racially abused, bully shamed, virally abused—just terrible. But you hear these girls on stage telling their story, how they’ve made it. And then it’s actually a very emotional event because we’re in the audience watching a transformation of these girls going through this process of realizing everything they’re doing is normal. And there’s a way out, there’s a happy ending. We get these wonderful messages like “Thank you for making me realize I’m normal.”
Parvati Magazine: Are you going to take it global?
Jasper Donat: We would certainly like to. We’re doing this strategically where we’re planning a pretty exciting program for 2019 and beyond. I think we’ll be seeing some new countries. Working with some new talent, meeting some new fans. And I think we can have a lot of fun with it, and do something special as well.