Ai Ming Oei: From High School Singer to Mingue and 7-Million Downloads on Spotify

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This podcast episode is designed for independent singers, song-writers and music creators. Ai Ming Oei from Mingue discusses how she financed and made her first album, working with a distribution network such as Spotify, and  the success "formula" for a singer songwriter.

Formerly known as Ming's Pretty Heroes, Mingue is the new deal. Ai Ming Oei (aka Ming) writes, records and sings for Mingue, a pop band based in Rotterdam, Netherlands.  She has released music with Bolier, EDX, Mike Candys and Mathieu Koss.

Ming and I met at Fryeburg Academy in 2000. She was a sophomore and I was a senior.  At the tender age of 15 and the only student from the Netherlands, Ming began singing with a school band in front of 600 American students regularly. She was fearless.

The rest was history. Ming walked us through her journey as a music student in Netherlands to becoming a Spotify sensation with over 7-million downloads.

If you can't see the player above, click here to listen directly.

It was NOT an overnight success. 

To learn more about Ming, visit her band, Minge's Facebook page, Spotify, SoundCloud.

Show Notes

  • [07:30] You were brave and courageous when you were a teenager, as a foreigner living in the US, with the ability to sing in front of a huge audience, fearlessly. What was it like?

  • [12:00] What did you do to pursue music after leaving the US?

  • [16:00] What was it like to perform in Beijing, China in front of thousands of audience? How were you invited?

  • [18:00] How do you feel about writing songs in English compared to your native language (Dutch)? Is that common in Holland?

  • [22:00] Why did you change your artistic name to Mingue (from Ming's Pretty Heroes), and how was that transition?

  • [26:00] How did you record your first record, and how did you finance that project?

  • [31:00] What do you know and think about helping artists financing their projects?

  • [33:00] Looking back, what are some of the shocking (wow) moments of your career?

  • [35:00] Can you tell us how it works with distribution through streaming services such as Spotify?

  • [41:00] Where you surprised by how some of your songs performed after releasing them?

  • [42:00] Is there a formula to be successful as a singer?

  • [44:00] Where do you seek inspiration these days, and how do you define your brand?

  • [45:00] How do you filter feedback and understand them constructively?

  • [47:00] What instruments do you play? Did you take any lessons?

  • [49:00] What was it like to grow up in Holland? Can you also share a bit about your family?

  • [50:00] How do you balance your activities? What does your schedule looks like (every week)?

  • [52:00] What about your next releases? Can you tell us about your new tracks?

  • [53:00] What are the requirements from labels you work with?

  • [54:00] Where did you learn more about the business of music?

Favorite Quotes

  • [32:00] It would be amazing if we could take care of our artists. But the truth is that you have to be an entrepreneur, and you have to pay with passion and you just have to love what you do, otherwise you’d be doing something else.

  • [34:00] It’s still my creativity, but with the right partners it gets to the right playlists. It’s a difference of millions of plays on Spotify.

  • [40:00] It’s quite hard to get everything in place. To have it perfect, to have a big success, it can’t be arranged.

  • [43:00] For me it’s creating a lot of output. Try to make the best product every time. Now I also write, taking into account the label, the DJs, the audience, but still not losing my own authenticity. I need to be myself, but I also can’t just be myself.

  • [44:00] You can find your way, you just have to be open, for a lot of things and think in solution

Transcript Of Interview with Ai Ming Oei

Ai Ming Oei: From High School Singer to Mingue and 7-Million Downloads on Spotify

Intro 0:00

Welcome to the Feisworld podcast. Engaging conversations that cross the boundaries between business, art, and the digital world.

Ming 0:24

It would be amazing if we could take care of all the artists, but you have to be an entrepreneur for sure. And you have to be with passion, and you just got to love what you do, otherwise, I'd start doing something else.

It’s still my creativity, but with the right partners, it gets in the right playlist. It's a difference of millions of plays on Spotify.

It's quite hard to get everything in place, to have it perfect, to have it be a success. It can be arranged.

For me it's creating really a lot of output, trying to make the best product every time.

Now I also write taking into account the label, the DJ, the audience, but still not losing my own authenticity. I just I need to be myself but I also can’t just be myself.

You can find your way. You just have to be open for a lot of things and thinking solutions, but it's about changing perspectives, really.

Fei Wu 1:37

Hello, welcome to another episode of the Feisworld Podcast! I am your host Fei Wu. Today I have Ai Ming Oei on the show with me as a guest. Ming is a singer and songwriter formerly known as Ming’s Pretty Heroes. About two years ago, she signed a record release with EDX, and she collaborates with musicians such as Mike Candys, Mathieu Koss and always working on more things and writing more songs. Originally from Rotterdam, Holland, we cross paths at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine. Imagine that! I remember her as a fearless 15 –year-old Dutch singer. Among dozens of international students who came to the US with a list of few others, Ming was the only one from Holland, yet she quickly made a name for herself singing in English in front of 600+ American kids. I thought it was ballsy, which makes her a perfect candidate for Feisworld podcast, a collection of my mentors and friends who, without an exception, use bravery, insights, creativity to challenge the status quo to make a life of their own. Ming and I had a lot to catch up on because it had been 16 years since I last spoke with her after spending just nine months at Fryeburg before returning to Rotterdam. Ming didn't give up on music. Instead, she continued to take lessons in piano, singing and eventually majored in music in college. If any of you are listening to this from Fryeburg, a big shout out to our beloved high school that truly enabled that Ming’s career in a very significant way. Way before we had Facebook Live and other live broadcasting software at our fingertips, Ming was doing all of that on her own with her bands and putting videos out on Facebook and YouTube, often without background music (what's that called again? Acapella?). And sometimes she plays the piano while singing her songs. In her own words, she wrote a lot of songs and was always in the creative process. Someone who recently started pursuing a creative process, I can tell you firsthand that it is much easier said than done. No joke, some days can be quite painful. I couldn't let go of an opportunity to ask me about her creative process, how she records her album, how she releases them into the ether, working with her band and producer. We also dove into details of music as a business just like every other business. Ming learned how to navigate around it, no easy task. Her song “Riverbank” now has over 6 million downloads on Spotify, alongside a few other popular ones such as “Make believe”, “Bigger than this”, and Ming writes her music in English rather than Dutch.

You will learn a few interesting things about the music business overall, and how it works in Europe. If you liked this episode, please consider subscribing to the Feisworld podcast. It takes seconds, I promise. You can do this easily via the podcast app on your iPhone or an Android app such as Podcast Addict. One of the busting gifts I could ever ask for this holiday season is if you could consider writing us a quick review on iTunes.

Interviews with our podcast’s guests go deeper than just their professional successes. Topics include hidden origin stories, counter-intuitive learnings and personal motivations that help to humanize guests in a way many other interview-style podcasts do not. The episodes can serve as a way to inspire you to overcome some hardships in your life or they can just help you appreciate the winding path we take over the course of our lives. Thank you so much for spending your precious time with us. Without further ado, please welcome Ai Ming Oei to Feisworld podcast!

Fei 5:58

I remember meeting you for the first time at Fryeburg, those 16 years ago. Yeah, 2000. I'm not sure if you remember, but you were at the student club. There was like a basement area where all the international students came together. And I remember you're walking through the crowd and everybody turn their head.

There's part of my own observation - you're clearly very beautiful, yet you've never really made it your trademark as to, you know, something that you talked about or took advantage of. And you know, from my own observation, what I was really impressed about is back then, at a young age of 15, you were perhaps the only person from Holland in this house, yet you clearly quickly drew a following of new friends who were almost like family to you. And you were getting up on stage at a private school in the US in a middle of nowhere in Maine, Fryeburg Academy, and singing. That was just something I'll never forget. You know, I think in many ways, it kind of changed my world to say, wow, it's really daunting to be young and to be in a foreign country and yet singing.

Ming 7:33

Maybe because you were two years older, you had a different experience. Maybe I seemed fearless. I was fearless. But I was more naive. I had the perfect personality to just step into this new world and see what's out there. And oh, hey, there's a lot of music nowadays. There's a lot of theater. Love it.

Fei Wu 7:50

You weren't scared at all when you were there?

Ming 7:54

No. I don't know why. You know, what did happen, though, because this is a sign of that I was quiet and maybe a bit naive, was that I kept getting lost. And you remember how small the building was. But you could go into the right wing or left wing. And then there was history somewhere down there. And I just couldn't remember where it was and kept getting lost. Like, wait, this is the football field? No, no, I have to go here. This is the Student Union. Yeah, yeah, I guess, there was for me, like, searching out new friends, but also I wasn’t really thinking [laughing].

Fei Wu 8:29

15 is interesting. I recently interviewed this teacher who is in her 80s, and she's been the teacher her entire life. And she told me, being a high school teacher, her favorite students were 10th graders in the US, which translates to the exactly 15. And, you know, she said that's an age when you're fearless, and you're a little bit naïve, and you're just discovering who you are as a person. So I feel very lucky to kind of have witnessed and met you at that time for only nine months. I was witnessing exactly that phase of your life.

Ming 9:04

Yeah, you were. I remember this particular thing that I was 15, so sophomore year, and I was only there for a year, so it was definitely sort of party-awesome for me. And I remember there being other sophomore saying, oh, but you seem older, you seem like you're a senior, seem like you're 18. And then I started thinking like, maybe this is just a difference between the Netherlands and America at the time. Because I also noticed in America, we have one level of schooling for everyone and in Holland, it is already divided up. So there are several levels and, I guess, it has a different effect on people. I mean, in the end, we all will end up at the same station, I'm pretty sure. But…[laughing]

Fei Wu 9:46

Yeah, you're right about the maturity level. We were roommates with one of your friends, so you came to visit really often, and I remember the exchange we had briefly about the difference between speaking, you know, Dutch versus German, and you said you could actually understand some percentage of that fairly easily. So,

Ming 10:13

Yeah, well, I had it in school, so it was not a fair competition. But I couldn't understand Chinese! [laughing]

Fei Wu 10:20

That's one thing I felt really proud of. Like, after you became a superstar in school, and then I found out that you're half Chinese. And, for a second, we're really puzzled, because we just hadn't guessed that at all. As you remember, there were a number of Chinese students there. And then your dad showed up at the Academy, like a few months later, and I tried to speak Chinese to him. He was so confused! I'm like, Oh, I'm sorry. I just assume that you did [laughing].

Ming 10:54

I didn't know that. That's really funny.

Fei Wu 10:56

Yeah, he was so friendly. I remember exactly what door he came in, your brother was there too. And this is very special because I'm really impressed by what you have accomplished. Because I think, part of us at Fryeburg wasn't sure if you were just 15 and that was something you wanted to do for that period of your life, or is this something that you want to pursue very seriously moving forward. So it certainly is the second path that you've chosen because you've studied music in college. And since then, you know, for over 10 years, you've been a professional full-time performing artist. So tell me a little bit about to start me off with what I've missed for over 10 years. And I'm going to maybe interrupt you sometimes to ask more questions.

Ming 11:48

All right. Well, first of all, actually the Academy at Fryeburg, Maine had a big growth in my career decision because high schools in America have a lot more attention for music. And you can go to competitions several times a year. And in Holland, that would never be possible because academics are so important that you're not allowed to leave school for anything. So this was already a big difference. And I got encouraged by the people there, like you, so I had fun. So when I came back to Holland, I still had three more years of high school left. So yeah, that was a regular school. But next to that, I just continued taking lessons in singing, piano and I also still dance a lot. And yeah, I just have to wait till I graduate from high school, and I could start auditioning for music schools. So I did, and I ended up starting my preliminary year in Rotterdam, which is my hometown. So this is where I ended up also. And that was, like, half-working in the restaurant and half-going to school. And after that, you had to audition again, and I got in, and there were four years of school left. I studied pop music, so my major was singing. Later on, I did a minor of songwriting and home recording music, computer tone recording, something like that. So that's the school part. But the good thing is that while you're in school, you're already have to start living your professional life. It's really based on that, the school part. So while I was in school, I discovered I had a knack for songwriting. I loved it. And I really, really loved the English language, of course, because of going to America. So yeah, this is just who I am, and how a lot of people are. I think that once you do something, you're going to finish it. And then you're going to say: what can I do with it next? So I released an EP, and I did a lot of concerts, and I just started working towards more and more and more. I had an EP out halfway, but I graduated, finally, from the conservatory, with my first album. So I had an album release party, a big concert. And that was my graduation. “Ready for the world?”

Fei Wu 14:04

Where is that from?

Ming 14:06

“Okay, Mr. Mix”

Fei Wu 14:08

Wow, what is that coming from?

Ming 14:11

Yeah, I used to listen to a song a lot. And that started with “Okay, Mr. Mix”, and I just really love it. And it was also sort of a tribute to the engineer and mixer I worked with in studio because we had such a great time. It was a long time ago, 2009, I think.

Fei Wu 14:31

You got to start somewhere. I want to kind of come back to the fact that you like to write English songs. And by the way, is that normal? Because I remember that one day I was in Amsterdam, that one day I was there, I couldn't find Internet with my girlfriend traveling. And I finally was able to text you from Facebook and found out that one day you're in Beijing. Yeah, my friend Pam and I took a trip, and we were traveling in Europe for three weeks. And then I was in Amsterdam for one day. I'm not even sure what is the distance between that and Rotterdam.

Ming 15:10

Quite close. I could have made it.

Fei Wu 15:13

So I found out you're performing in Beijing. And I remember watching you on stage and Oh, my God. I mean, since we're on to that now, I was looking for you and then I found your performance and there’re just thousands of Chinese people watching you on stage, I believe it was like an outdoor stadium. Tell me a little bit more about how were you invited to Beijing? How it was like?

Ming 15:43

First of all, it was awesome. So this is a few years ago I met Tang Yun through a friend or something. And he is a musician. He also started up a music school in Beijing. So he was traveling in Europe and he was in Holland. And somehow I got his email, and I just emailed him, like, hello, do you need any artists for your festival? I heard there was going to be a festival called MIDI Festival. And he said: yeah, we're really like your music. We want to book you. And then, here in Holland, you can apply for a tour subsidy. So yeah, you have to have three shows before you can apply and receive money to buy plane tickets and stuff. So he arranged a few more shows for me. The festival turned out to be super crazy and big. And we played for 7000 people, so this was the biggest show I'd ever played.

Fei Wu 16:37

Wow. Did you mention that you're half-Chinese?

Ming 16:40

Yeah, because I already found out the effect that it had. Whenever I mentioned that I was half-Chinese, people were like “Oh, I'm more interested now in who you are”.

But it wasn't all fake, though, because I really, really like China. And I love playing there. I could go back there again, and again, and again. Yeah, anytime.

Fei Wu 17:03

That's amazing. And I must say that I highly encourage you to take every opportunity to go back there. My mom is an artist and she’s really into exchange programs. And secondly, because a lot of my podcast is in English, it didn't make sense for me to kind of upload aggressively to some Chinese podcasting networks, just because people's comfort zone is still listening to Chinese podcasts. But believe it or not, once I interviewed my mom and Pam, who actually went to Amsterdam with me. And after I upload those to the Chinese network, the next morning I woke up and there were 900, 1000 downloads, which is literally overnight.

So, jumping around quite a bit, do you think singing in English and writing in English is quite common in Amsterdam or Holland in general? Or are you kind of unique in that way?

Ming 18:15

No, no, it's very common, because Holland is a very small country. So we have always watched TV with subtitles and we’ve always been around English. And also because you're such a small country, radio stations tend to just play a lot of American and British music and not a lot of our Dutch music. I guess, somehow, we all choose to write in English. And this is good in a lot of ways, but also there are a lot of bad lyrics out there as well.

Fei Wu 18:45

It's interesting because you've always been fluent. I met you when you're 15, and your English was fluent. Also, I can't get over the fact that kids growing up in Europe can speak 5,6,7 different languages. And the smaller the country, the more languages they can speak. I mean, what was it like? I guess it's a loaded question. How do you study English in comparison to other languages that you know, such as German, your own language and everything else?

Ming 19:16

Well, if I think back to school, German and French and Latin we really hard to study and do exercises to learn, but for English, it's all around you. It's everywhere here in Holland, so to a lot of people, it would come quite naturally. But, you know, your English was really great too. I remember, from all the Chinese people there you were actually the only one who could already speak fluently. I've been away for so long I kind of lost some of the fluency, so I have to come back in States for like a week and then I'll be ready again. Whenever I talk to American people for like half an hour, I find myself to be fluent again, but sometimes not, it really depends.

Fei Wu 20:09

Do you come back often? I think that you were in New York a couple of times.

Ming 20:13

Just once, actually, so that's already a while ago. I saw some people from school and I stayed there for three weeks because I really felt like I just wanted to jump in, stay there, hang out with people, go to house parties and that's not just being a tourist again.

That's fun. Yeah, I should go back.

Fei Wu 20:32

More reasons to do that.

[music]

Fei Wu 21:14

I'm so glad to be able to invite more musicians on to my podcast. I have already interviewed classical musicians, I have interviewed Ralph Peterson Jr, who was a drummer and, you know, one of the greatest ones that alive, and he talked about drug addiction and he really winded very deep. So I’m just very happy about that. I also think, as someone who is influenced by your music and watching you perform, it's really true that music is without boundaries, in a way. What's really intriguing to me about your music is going from Ming's Pretty Heroes to… is it “Mink”? How do you say it?

Ming 22:12

I say Mingue.

Fei Wu 22:15

Okay, what does that mean? And why was the change?

Ming 22:19

Well, yeah, first I had Ming’s Pretty Heroes, I made three albums and I went to China twice, and I did all kinds of cool stuff in between, but it was all independently. So I did some crowdfunding, I won a prize, and this is how I financed my products and all these things. And then about a year and a half ago, or maybe two years now, some music publisher started calling, asking what's up, and I was like “Music publisher… So what do they do? Can they put my music in Grey's Anatomy?”, because that's my dream, of course. [laughing]

Yeah, it was fun. So we started meeting with him, but I didn't really know what was going on. So we said: “Okay, let's do a trial period”. And I started doing that. And I found out that it's about the music I already made but it's also a lot about songwriting. So writing songs for yourself or someone else. And then this happened with one publisher, and another one, and the third one. The third one, actually, saw me for the first time when I was actually singing a tribute to Kate Bush. So wasn't even singing my own songs at that time. But he was really intrigued by my voice. And he called us, me and my management, he called us up and asked if I would be interested in having a talk. So I started yet another trial period. Well, this one was more in the dance music, electronic music scene. They are a smaller part of Spinnin’ Records, which is the biggest dance label from Holland. So I started going to writing camps and setting up sessions with other songwriters or other producers. And then somehow the genre changed a bit. More from indie songwriter-ish pop music, it was still pop music, but more modern, more dense and electronic. And I started writing more and more every day, and I had my first releases of songs that I wrote but I didn't sing for Dutch National Star. And then I thought “Yeah, this is interesting”. Also, because the three albums were done independently, it was awesome, but I could feel we were hitting the ceiling because it's either you push through and get to play with the big boys, or you stay and work hard independently. But it's too hard.

Fei Wu 25:03

Yeah, let's talk about that for a second. So funny, you mentioned that two years ago you're kind of transitioning into the different genre and going from independent to now having a record label. And at the very time, I was starting this podcast, and I immediately reached out to a close network of family and friends, advertising the podcast and hoping to invite them on board. And then, at the same time, I reached out to you, and you're very busy managing all these changes. And one of the things that you had said was “Being an independent musician is very challenging”. So right now, your music life is divided into two parts, kind of the before and after the label. Let's talk about the first part when you were still Ming’s Pretty Heroes, because, as I mentioned, half of my family are musicians, and I know intimately some of the challenges they have to go through. So what was it like for you back then? How did you finance that endeavor? Because you really have to take serious credits for the fact that you did that for so many years before the label became a possibility.

Ming 26:18

Well, I always had two teaching days a week, so this was my first bit of income that was certain. You just need to finance it, you need extra money once you start going into recording when you have to rent out the studio, a rehearsal space, all these things. So the first time we had some sort of financial plan, and then we would receive a little bit of extra money, just sort of to finance our studies or to help the students, and then you could sign up to loan extra money. So I took the extra money and spent it all on my first CD. So those are a few of my student loans. And the second one, I won a big price, there were 15,000 euros, totally unexpected. But once I won it, I could put this right into my second album.

Fei Wu 27:14

So how did you win that? What was the competition?

Ming 27:18

Well, it was music. First, you have to be nominated. It was called The Music Matters Award. And it was for Rotterdam, a city I'm from, and it was all about becoming the music ambassador for the next year. And also this prize with 15,000 euros. And competitions, I don't always like them, but I decided to enter because I was nominated for like 15,000 euros, so yeah. Somehow we won. We just had to play one song. Well, we had just finished a three-week tour in Germany, so we're very in our game at that time. And we just came back and then we entered the competition and won. So this is how I could finance the second album. And the third one was like “Yeah, so how am I going to finance this?” Because I do earn money while I play gigs, or I do earn some money for my author's rights and all these things, but it's never enough at the right time to finance a whole album. So I started to do crowdfunding through family friends. And I got enough money to do a third album.

Fei Wu 28:35

What is enough, by the way?

Ming 28:49

It's a difficult question. Because the money you will spend on paying people to do your mixing, your recording, for renting a space - that may be like 8000 euros or something, if you need a space to record with your band. And right now you can do a lot on your computer, but that's sort of next step. Then there's promotion and videos. And that's extra couple thousand. So once you add it up, I think, 15,000 euros was enough. But I couldn't pay myself or my band members, or maybe I paid them a little bit, but this is not right. I think, with the crowdfunding, I gathered the money, but I couldn't pay the actual musicians at all. It's more expenses. So this is something also I wanted to change. Like, whenever I have a gig or I have a show, I want to be able to pay my musicians as well. And also I need to eat so I also need to make money. This was also part of the new transition that we're about to talk.

Fei Wu 29:53

This is incredibly fascinating to me. It's like when you have a conversation with your close friends and you open up about issues, family, non-family or work related, all of a sudden you have this light bulb, and you feel like you’re not alone in this. It's incredible because all the people I've spoken with who are now considered to be incredibly successful were telling me that back then there was a lot of struggle. I’ll use an example of Krista Tippett, she’s is in NPR and now she runs the Top 20 podcast called “On being”. So she was here once, and she was telling me that when she started this endeavor, she was a grown-up, she wasn't just out of college. So in her 30s at the time, around 2000, nobody believed in the message. And she was up in the recording studio by herself, and it blew my mind. I guess, this very entrepreneurial approach to music to a lot of the artists that I interview is really a common thing. And I don't think it's wrong, but I do think there needs to be a way to better taking care of musicians and artists in the world. And that's something that I'm really, really aware of. And I'm trying to help artists of any kind, like yourself or like my mom, to kind of bridge that gap to commerce as well.

Ming 31:41

I mean, it would be amazing if we could take care of all the artists. But yeah, it's a truth that you have to be an entrepreneur for sure. And you have to be with passion and you just got to love what you do, otherwise, I'd start doing something else. If I’d started selling an actual product that would actually make money, I'd be really great, I think. But, you know, I started doing music. And yes, I have already experienced a change. So labels are publishers, and this makes all the difference, which is sad, in a way, because my music is still my music, and I still play the same, it's still my creativity, but with the right partners it gets to the right playlists, and it's a difference of millions of plays on Spotify. And yeah, I've done things differently, but not like a lot differently.

Fei Wu 32:33

Yeah, very much so. I think, Ming’s Pretty Heroes, that was your origin story, what you started off with. And I was surprised to see that song - I believe, it is called “The Riverbank” - received over 5 million downloads on Spotify! And then, could you give me some ideas of how do you think you broke into this world? And what were some of the moments you're like “Wow, I made it to the right playlist”, or when some person told you something that you didn't know before?

Ming 33:18

The whole history of making three albums independently was necessary for people to start noticing me. The music industry might have known who I was, but I was not really released to the audience enough. But then, yeah, the music industry, later on, somehow found me and I signed my publishing deal. And I just got to step into this whole new network. I was suddenly close to the fire, I was close to producers who are already doing well. And for me, suddenly, it was possible to have collaborations with these DJs, and of course, once it’s a collaboration it doesn't mean it's a hit or that it's going to be played millions. There's still a lot of puzzle pieces that have to fall into place. But this is it, I'm close to the fire. You know, there's one song on Spotify, you can actually see it under my name, and I think it's about 6 or 7 million already. It keeps on counting. But I also have other releases in one year as a featuring artist, but Spotify still doesn't categorize it under my name, it's categorized under the DJ name. But yeah, you can really see the difference between the releases that were priority releases, that have millions of plays, and the ones which were, you know, just releases, and they have more like hundred thousands of plays. It’s still way, way more than I ever had before, but you can see the difference, the promotion tools they use for the one release or for the other. It’s just a big influence.

Fei Wu 34:50

So I'm intrigued by Spotify since I have heard slightly mixed feedback for how it's making musicians money, how it's not doing that at all and how it is making them broke. So do you know how that actually works on Spotify?

Ming 35:27

You have to know when you’re a musician. Otherwise, you'll always be broke. You have rights, the authors rights, when you write a song. You can never give away that right. It's always yours. So before, when Spotify didn't exist, you could buy CDs or be played on the radio, and that would earn you a lot of money somehow, that was the design. And now Spotify. Yeah, this is very different. There weren't any rules about this, there weren't any agreements. So somehow they're not ready yet, these agreements, and your author's rights, they will not make a lot of money at all on the internet or on Spotify. But there's also another division in this thing. So there are rights and there are master royalties, and the master authorities are something the label owns. So the 100% of master royalties is of the label, and the label needs to divide that among their artists. This means, you have to sign contracts and you have to say “I want 5%, no, I want 10%”, and then we start and negotiating all these things. But yet you have to make sure that you are entitled to a certain percentage of this song, so whenever it starts to be successful you will have a piece of the cake, otherwise, you will just be left with your author’s rights, and we’ve already established that's not enough right now. So yeah, the master royalties could still make you some money, and don't get me wrong: it's not like when you get a million plays you’re suddenly rich. No, no, it's really slow. I think, for a million plays you can get about 6000 euros, and that is to be divided among the artists, the writers, the label. The label usually gets the biggest cut, so you know, it is quite hard to still make thousands of euros. But once some song hits 350 million plays on Spotify and on the radio and everything, if you get this lucky, then somehow all your afternoons you worked and you weren't paid are paid.

Fei Wu 37:43

Interesting…

[music]

Fei Wu 38:39

I don't think I had what it took to become like a full-time artist, but I'm personally very into drawing, painting. And what I've been doing is basically waiting until my early 30s to say “Okay, now I made enough money through corporate America, working a full-time job, let's found the podcast, whatever that may be”. And it really is not just podcasting, but running my own business. So it's fascinating. I must ask a question about producers. I have been working as a project manager and producer for advertising, marketing in corporate America for the past 10 years, and now I'm freelancing and doing a lot of that as well. So one thing I hear about producers is when the album performs really well, in this case, it’s the singer’s effort, and when it doesn't perform well or reach the right audience, it's all the producer's fault. [laughing]

Ming 39:42

People say that?

Fei Wu 39:43

Yeah, all the time. I mean, depending on the situation, the same thing with films.

Ming 39:50

Well, first of all, it needs to be good, of course. And it could be the producer, the singer or it could be a promotion, doesn't matter. It's quite hard to get everything in place, to have it perfect, to have it be a success. But it can be arranged.

Fei Wu 40:09

I know what you mean. I can never predict which episodes of mine will perform well. Some of the people who were introduced to me and who have such an interesting story are not known at all. They don't have a large social following. But when they come out it's like… you know, the most recent episodes, I just didn't expect so many downloads, but it did! I actually wanted to ask, did the success of some of your really better-performing songs surprise you? That they did versus some of the others that didn't? How do you think about that?

Ming 40:50

Well, some the ones that perform better were with DJ who already have a bigger name for themselves. So yeah, naturally label will push those songs more, and the smaller named artists, like myself, they'll push less, they won't invest as much money in it. But I don't know, sometimes when the a&r of the label will think this song is a hit, they will push it anyways, no matter how famous you are, or how big your following is, because the label has a really big following. And actually, I don't just work with one label. This is actually like labeling your clothing. They are a brand. And it's the same with music labels - when they're a good brand, they can have a big following. So

Fei Wu 41:44

I'm thinking maybe this is related to what the producers and DJ and the collaborators you've worked with, could contribute to your endeavor, because I see all of you as a team, you know, working for the same mission. I wonder, what does it take to kind of pivot and really take off in the music world? I know that in the art world it is very ambiguous if you know what I mean. There's no set formula step by step.

Ming 42:15

No, no, there isn't. It's about getting closer to the fire and working hard. And for me, it's creating really a lot of output, trying to make the best product every time. So there is a difference in songwriting for me as well. Ming’s Pretty Heroes was really my art, my baby, and it was like I was drawing my biggest painting ever, my perfect, most personal painting. And then now, I also write taking into account the label, the DJ, the audience, but I’m still not losing my own authenticity. I need to be myself, but I also want people to listen to it. So I can’t just be myself because then I would use weird sentences and weird words, just because I like it. So yeah, there's a difference in it. I guess you have to take into account the audience. You can find your way, you just have to be open to a lot of things and thinking about solutions.

Fei Wu 43:14

Speaking of being yourself, where do you seek inspirations from these days? How do you define your brand and becoming fully yourself? Because I find that process to be really fascinating, yet also daunting at times, you know.

Ming 43:33

Yeah, you know, it's challenging. So you are an entrepreneur, and sometimes you're just tired, or it just takes longer for the release to come up again. So you'll get discouraged. This all happens. But it's about changing perspectives. Really, for me, when I write, it's about changing perspective. I'm writing from myself now, but what if I'm the other person in this song. And I can change this perspective and see the story from a whole different side. So this is how you can break away from where you're stuck. There are many different ways to do this, and you have to do them.

Ming 44:15

Well, actually, how do you even treat feedback? Because I think, you must have gotten some from listeners or even friends and producers? How do you filter them?

Ming 44:27

Well, first of all, some people are important, and some not so much. So the important people, yeah, they will reject a song and then you'll just be like “Bummer! We're just going to try to use this song for something else”. That's all right. My boyfriend, he's a modern dancer, but he really likes music. So he's always my ears, back home, when I need an opinion. He always has good advice. So yeah, I think you seek out people to help you in that. Also, before, I used to write alone, mostly. And since about a year and a half, I collaborate with other songwriters. And together, you always take steps forward if it's a good soundboard. I also work alone, so I record at home a lot. So you can get stuck in “I don't know, is this good? Or is it bad? Or is it cheesy?”, and it might be super awesome, but you just can't realize it a time. Or it can be really bad. [laughs]

Fei Wu 45:23

I think I forgot to mention one thing is that you also play instruments. And I know you play the piano. Did you take lessons when you were growing up as a kid, or…?

Ming 45:31

Yeah, I did that. And I'm glad I did. Later on in music school, I had to play as well. But I guess these are the basics. Then I started playing more and more when I started teaching and writing. And now still, I play like 12 hours a week. So this is a lot. And I perform solo performances and sometimes use the piano, but I don't see myself as a pianist or anything. I mean, I work with really awesome key players. And they have this connection that I have with my voice, they have that with their fingers and their keyboard. And I will not have this. I can really use it as a tool, I can play songs and use it for writing, but I will never have that magical thing.

Fei Wu 46:12

Oh, you’ve just answered my question. Because I do think it's so much easier to have an instrument at hand as a songwriter. I played a couple of songs in high school, even though I wanted to sing, I just needed something at hand. Otherwise, I feel like I'll be so awkward. You’re so natural, so relaxed on stage, but I would just completely seize up. So it was helpful to have like a guitar at hand, even though I learned one song just to play that.

Ming 46:43

For me, it's more of the other way around. I mean, I have played the piano and sang on stage many times. And I'm still going to do it. But I get more nervous when I have to play because singing is what I know, and this is what I studied.

Fei Wu 46:59

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Oh, this is really fascinating. I want to respect your time, I know you have a few things lined up, but I want to talk about your upbringing, your family a little bit too. And you had mentioned that you’re a middle child. And I've seen you spent a lot of time with your younger sister. So what was it like for you, growing up? Yeah, in Holland.

Ming 47:32

It was great. My brother and my siblings and our families are pretty close as well. I guess it was quite careless, it was safe. And I got to go to really good schools and to do a lot of music and dancing, all these hobbies. And I actually got to become a musician, which is kind of, you know, special, especially since my dad - he is Chinese, but he lived partly in Holland when he was young and partly in Indonesia – and when he came back from Indonesia to Holland, they were actually fugitives at the time. They came here with nothing and four children. And it's not a sad story, but it isn't a very interesting story. And I do kind of feel sad sometimes for my dad because he was so alone at 40 years old, and no one would look after him. But, you know, they all did really well. They worked hard, and they are Chinese, so they had to go to university and study. So they did really well for themselves. And this reflected upon us, the children. I was free. So I became a musician, even though my brother, sister and all my nephews, they actually went to university and are engineers and doctors and stuff. [laughing]

Fei Wu 48:50

Really? Are you the only musician in your family?

Ming 48:53

I am the only one who chose to do this, yeah, more free occupation. And it's fine, they love it. They go to see every show. But sometimes they would worry like “Don't you need more security?’, but this is just a built-in. I think I took the turn a little soon for them, you know, it would have been easier if the next generation would start to become musicians and stuff.

Fei Wu 49:17

Well, I'm glad you did what you did

Ming 49:19

I am the product of their hard work, really.

Fei Wu 49:23

I didn't know that there were doctors, engineers. And now you mentioned it, I feel like the sort of the rigid curriculum, being in school in Holland, that particular type of educational system tends to generate the people who remote more focus on the math and physics and chemistry and that things. I think you've been very practical as well, I wasn't aware that you're also teaching. So you're not exclusively producing music at home without any additional income. Because I think you've been very smart about that. And I think that particular aspect is very important, whether it's teaching in music, and I know that there are other musicians I know in New York, who are doing something else during the day, such as photography.

So before I let you go, what is your week like? How are you kind of balancing your teaching and writing the music?

Ming 50:21

So there are seven days for me. I teach two days a week. And this is partly because I like it. But I don't always like it. I would be lying if I said I love teaching, so I do just two days a week from 4 to 10 on the Wednesdays and Tuesdays, and I do this at night, because then, during the day, I can still work if I can. So I will work from Monday to Friday, during the days, during the evenings, sometimes with people, in sessions, or by myself. So I had a lot of songwriting sessions, and we have written a lot of songs. This week, I have to record them. So I'm recording all week. It's kind of tiring sometimes, but I'm finishing up all the songs. And then there are new projects coming in already. So I'm just trying to stay on schedule most of the time.

Fei Wu 51:15

When can we find out about all the new music as you are recording it? Is it on Facebook? Or how do people follow you?

Ming 51:22

You can follow me through Facebook at “Mingue”. I have all the accounts: Instagram, Twitter, but the new songs I record, they are still to be pitched to the publishers and to the labels. So we are always just working on creating output. And then it has to find its way still. Sometimes there’re projects coming directly from producers and DJ, or sometimes it's a pitch, or sometimes I just start writing a song and I present it to them like “Do you know anyone who can work with this?”, or sometimes you have writing camps and then it is for one particular artist, and you write a whole week just for that artist.

Ming 52:07

When they come to you, what are some of the requirements they ask you? Like, “I want you to write this and this”? Or what do they tell you?

Ming 52:22

It depends. Right now, I have the project from a producer in England. And he has an instrumental and he needs a “top line”, he needs a song, a melody, and the voice. So he asked me to write that. But I get a lot of these requests because people have instrumentals everywhere. So I only do it when I like it. I need to have a fee for it. And then we need to have an agreement already on the splits, the percentages, all these things. So first we talk business, it is kind of unromantic. But yeah, we talk business and then I will start working on it, and then I can give an estimation of when I'll be able to hand in the first draft, the first demo.

Fei Wu 53:06

Where did you learn all those skills? Part of what you're describing is production, like, what a producer would do. How did you know the business aspect of things? Where did you learn that? In real life? Or did you take a course?

Ming 53:18

Real life, of course. No, I also have management, my manager and I work closely and he always does the negotiations and reaches the contracts, but I'm always part of the conversation, so I know what's up.

Fei Wu 53:31

Yeah, you’ve learned so much in real life. It was so great to see you, you’re adorable! Oh, my God.

Ming 53:39

You too! So nice to see you. Bye!

Fei Wu (outro) 53:53

Hi, there, it's me again. I want to thank you very much for listening to this episode, and I hope you were able to learn a few things. If you enjoyed what you heard, it will be hugely helpful if you could subscribe to the Feisworld podcast. It literally takes seconds if you're on your mobile phone, just search for “Feisworld podcast” in the podcast app on iPhone or an Android app, such as Podcast Addict, and click “Subscribe”. All new episodes will be delivered to you automatically. Thanks so much for your support!

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