It’s Jackson Wang from China! If you’re a fan, you already know all of the basics (and most likely more) about one of the most charming stars to come out of the K-pop scene. And I’m not just saying that because we both rep China. Watch a few of this kid’s interviews and reality shows, and you’ll see what I mean. 2019 saw the release of Jackson Wang’s debut album Mirrors, which reached number 32 on its first week in the Billboard 200, making it the highest-ranking debut album by a Chinese artist.
As someone who used to work for a major label, I have to say that I’m truly impressed by this achievement because Jackson Wang’s team—Team Wang—did all of this on their own.
Why major labels still have so much influence
Let me explain: yes, with the Internet and all that, major labels don’t have as much gatekeeping control as they used to. They’ve also made some massive stumbles when it comes to digital platforms for music. However! What a major label is really good at doing is developing artists, creating an iconic brand, and putting a ton of resources into marketing. You also can’t discount the power of networks: major labels have ties to entertainment and media platforms that can shape how much and what kind of exposure an artist gets. At the end of the day, major labels still know how to create stars.
If you’re a musician who has released any music on your own, you know how hard it is to get any attention for your music. Of course, Jackson Wang had an advantage in that he’s already a member of the K-pop group GOT7. But considering that Team Wang could’ve gone the major label route but decided to release Jackson Wang’s debut album on their own is a really bold move.
Jackson Wang’s debut album strategy: plan like a major, flex like an indie
Here’s why I admire Team Wang: for Jackson Wang’s debut album, they strategized like a major label but took advantage of indie credibility. They’re not the first to try this plan, but it’s one of the most well-executed ones I’ve seen recently.
If you study major label marketing campaigns, it’s not hard to figure out what the marketing steps are. The major labels aren’t exactly hiding what they’re doing. What’s hard is applying it to your own resources and your own networks. The major label I worked for was kind of notorious for being cheap, so we didn’t have a huge budget unless it was for a global star. However, we were able to leverage the label’s brand to extort—er, nicely ask for favors from companies that we needed stuff from.
Of course it worked, you’re saying, it’s a major label! Everyone wants to work with them. And that’s my point for this post: you may not be a major label (or the equivalent in your business), but there’s something about you that will make other people want to work with you too.
Recognize your shine
As mentioned earlier, Jackson Wang’s advantage is that he already had a decent amount of success as a member of GOT7 and on his own as an up-and-coming celebrity in China. However, as good as they are, GOT7 isn’t exactly BTS in terms of international recognition. (One crazy thing I see all the time are BTS Army members spamming YouTube comments whenever they see someone with a BTS profile pic. I’ve yet to see that much devotion and reach from any other fan group.)
So Team Wang had to figure out what kind of shine Jackson Wang had that they could leverage. After that, they needed to find the people with the right kind of shine that they could borrow to boost Jackson Wang’s debut album.
Recognize other people’s shine
Obviously, I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that Team Wang took a hard look at Jackson Wang’s core group of fans, which are most likely young women and kids. Of course, they made sure that a lot of the mainstream marketing and advertising (like his Fendi and Armani deals) were targeted to this group. But Team Wang also correctly decided that they could use Jackson Wang’s debut album as a way to reach an even bigger pool of fans. To do this, they used a classic major label technique, which is borrowing street cred. Think stars like Destiny’s Child helping Lil Wayne crossover to mainstream pop by featuring him on a song.
Aside from pairing Jackson Wang with rappers like China Mac, Team Wang chose to work with the platform 88rising rather than work with a major label. 88rising is a media and management platform that made its name developing viral stars mostly from Asia and introducing their music to a wider audience.
Use shine strategically
So why was this a brilliant move? If Team Wang had worked with a major label rapper, Jackson Wang would’ve been outshone. There’s also the risk that the narrative would’ve been taken over by the major label. Also, Jackson Wang would have been at a disadvantage at the negotiating table: what exactly could he bring to boost a major label rapper’s profile?
But by choosing 88rising, a still-developing platform whose audience is mostly young men, Jackson Wang had something credible to offer. He could bring his K-pop and Chinese market star power to 88rising, which they need in order to grow. And by working with artists like Higher Brothers, Joji, and Rich Brian—whose fan bases I can confidently guess are mostly composed of young men who don’t listen to K-pop—Jackson Wang gets to reach out to a group of people whose attention he wouldn’t normally get.
I’ll add here, though, that Jackson Wang also did a love song with Indonesian singer Stephanie Poetri, which is also another clever move on the part of Team Wang and 88rising. Jackson Wang gets the female 88rising audience while also drawing in his own fans to the platform.
How to make the shine work for you
While the shine-borrowing strategy is one that I always recommend people to use, the risk here is that you choose the wrong people to share your shine with. I often see people who already have the same kind of audience banding together because it feels safer and less risky. But what’s the point of doing that? The point of shine-borrowing is to convert people who are out of reach.
Another problem that I see is miscalculating what your shine is. This takes a lot of self-examination and brutal honesty: what do you really have that others could use? The biggest excuse I hear is often “I’m a nobody” but that is bullshit. Obscurity can be a huge advantage—there are people out there whose lives are dedicated to being the first to discover someone. You just need to find them.
In conclusion: think like a major label but adapt it to your own resources to make it work. Next time, I’ll be writing about another major label marketing technique: the order of singles.