The Global Business of Music
As copresident of Warner Music Asia, Jonathan Serbin (’94) helps artists elevate their careers by distributing and promoting their music in their own countries and around the world.
Bangkok-based singer-songwriter Valentina Ploy sings fluently in four languages. Mongolian hip-hop star Mrs M draws millions of online viewers to her music videos. American music fans might not be familiar with these artists, but they may be soon. Both musicians are signed to regional labels owned by Warner Music Asia, which is focused on introducing Asian talent to audiences across the region and in the rest of the world, says Jonathan Serbin, copresident of Warner Music Asia.
“In the old days, artists from Asia were mainly influential in only their own territories,” Serbin (’94) says. “However, with the transformation assisted by modern technology, the world has become a much more connected place and fans can discover artists from anywhere through online platforms. There’s a real opportunity now for Asian artists to connect with audiences across the region, and even into the West.” Korean pop stars BTS and PSY, whose songs and images are recognized around the world, are perfect examples.
Helping Asian artists make those leaps is one of Serbin’s many responsibilities. As copresident of Warner Music Asia, he’s charged with helping the hundreds of artists signed to Warner Music across Asia find the best music, producers, and collaborators, and then to distribute and promote their music—both in their home markets and beyond. Serbin also helps Warner Music’s artists from other regions (from Bruno Mars to Ed Sheeran to Anitta) maximize their opportunities in Asian markets.
To perform this job well, Serbin relies on his lifelong love of music, nearly two decades of experience in the industry in Asia, as well as his training in business and law. He began his career as a music and entertainment lawyer in New York and says it’s not unusual for former lawyers like himself to rise to the executive ranks in music companies.
“Every song is its own piece of intellectual property,” he says, “So even though we’re dealing with art—the creative process and the artists—it’s really locked hand in hand on the business side with legal contracts and structures, including the sets of rights and responsibilities that relate to areas such as copyright and neighboring rights.”
Every song is its own piece of intellectual property. So even though we’re dealing with art—the creative process and the artists—it’s really locked hand in hand on the business side with legal contracts and structures, including the sets of rights and responsibilities that relate to areas such as copyright and neighboring rights.
Learning the Business of Music from All Angles
Serbin grew up in New Jersey, taking piano lessons and playing keyboard in high school bands. While some of his bandmates were clearly headed for careers as performers and producers, Serbin realized early on he wasn’t destined to be a star musician.
“But I was really fascinated and excited by the business side of music,” he says. “I was negotiating with the venue owners—even if they were local dive clubs—and trying to figure out the different ways we could get more exposure.”
Serbin studied economics as an undergraduate and then enrolled at BU Law with an eye toward working in the music industry. After graduation, he spent three years practicing music and entertainment law at Manhattan law firms, representing record labels, artists, promoters, agents, and touring companies.
“Working on these contracts, I had the opportunity to see the mechanics of how the deals functioned and the wide variety of potential structures. I also learned how to negotiate with all the different parties involved. As a young lawyer, it was an amazing experience to see the inner workings of the music business, particularly when the sector is so contractually driven in so many ways.”
Serbin then earned an MBA at Columbia Business School and took a job at the investment bank Lehman Brothers, focusing on mergers and acquisitions in the media and entertainment industry. Working as a banker let him see the music business from an entirely different angle.
“As a lawyer, I had great experience working in the minutiae and the mechanics of the music business—the micro view. As a banker, you have the opportunity to work on the macro side of things and focus on how the different pieces fit together.”
Opportunity in Asia
Despite speaking no Mandarin at the time, Serbin moved to China for a job in 2001. China’s modern music industry was still developing then, but he sensed opportunities. He learned the language and took on various roles in the growing music industry in China and the rest of Asia, including leading the expansion for Billboard, a marquee brand in the music business, into the region.
In November 2020, he left Billboard to become CEO of Greater China for Warner Music Asia, a division of the Warner Music Group, one of the world’s “big three” music companies. A year later, he was promoted to copresident, where he oversees a roster of artists and well-established music labels across the region, including in Greater China and Korea, as well as Japan, the world’s second largest music market, and emerging music powerhouses such as Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
“The entire music industry in Asia is growing incredibly fast,” he says, “The region is vast, and the market in every territory is different. The type of music that’s consumed and the language of the songs often varies from place to place. It’s a diverse continent, but exciting all the way through.”
Keeping up with the pace of change is one of the most interesting and challenging parts of working in the music industry, Serbin says. New technologies constantly present risks and opportunities. When a platform like the video-sharing app TikTok starts drawing millions of users to video clips that feature popular songs, music executives must pay attention quickly to access how it could help or affect their businesses.
Law school provides excellent preparation for such situations, Serbin says.
“Law students are trained to have a critical eye—to pull things apart and put them back together, to view issues from different angles, to look for what’s missing and to understand the risk and the upside. That set of skills for any executive is really important. That toolbox is something I use every day.”