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#IWD2019 Interview: Veronica Neo

Primephonic COO, Veronica Neo has shared her thoughts on the widening space for female representation both in music arts and music business. Celebrate International Women's Day with us in this exclusive interview.

You were touted by The Strait Times in 2003 as one of the youngest entrepreneurs with your online startup. Can you provide some background on what it was like to be a young female entrepreneur?

What started out as a side-hustle hobby in between high school and college, selling hand-painted canvas tote bags with three other girlfriends became a profiting business for us for a couple of years. From working on one sewing machine with fabric strewn all over the sofa, we were selling out so fast with once-off pieces, we thought ‘how can we scale?’.

Little did we know, this was our first step into the entrepreneurship foray. It was 2005 and we were making money from a blog hosted on Blogspot and getting paid through ATM transfers.

I started picking up the big Yellow Pages and called every silkscreen printing company in Singapore. We visited those who wanted to continue talking to a 17-year-old teenager over the phone asking about production lead time, price quotation, and quality checks. I often had to reinforce my efforts to prove our ambition to actually say ‘we are devoting serious time and money to growing our business.’

We wanted to try something and dared to take the risk. Other than deciding at that time I would never have a corporate job, I learnt how to put myself out there and gained my sense of self-worth. This has been an instrumental pillar in my next start-up pursuits.

What were the biggest challenges that you overcame and lessons learned that you carried with you throughout your career?

I learnt so many new skills within a year of side-hustling. Negotiation, creating thinking, planning, and managing. Most importantly, it taught me that entrepreneurship is not about doing everything on your own.

We were a team of four different persons with completely different skill sets and we all loved what we did so much, we were able to deliver maximum value from dealing with suppliers and customers alike.

It is about putting someone’s talent in the right place where it could be tapped on the best.  

Can you describe your experience being one of the founding partners of Primephonic, especially in the male-dominated music industry?

When we founded Primephonic, we were three classical music lovers from three different countries (Austria, Netherlands and Singapore) discussing the future of classical music. While the world was undergoing a digital revolution, including music, the tide was not turning for classical music. We wanted to reinvent the classical music experience and we wanted to do it starting at the source of it.

Streaming services have elevated the experience of enjoying music for most genres such as pop, rock, hip-hop, etc. but it has not delighted classical music lovers. Finding specific classical music recordings quickly becomes a daunting treasure hunt maze. Recommendations are often the usual suspects – dull and unsurprising, and there is no clear distinction between the roles of contributors – composers, orchestras, conductors, soloists. To add on, streaming at MP3 quality does not do classical music justice. That is why we developed a music streaming service dedicated to classical music, which addresses all of these issues.

The journey of founding Primephonic has been an adventure. I am faced everyday with new choices where decisions have to be made instantly, which can make a large impact to our users, our product, and our team.

Yet, I have learnt that in the music industry, we need to be brave and constantly dare to take risks to try something new. This is something that can be out of our natural comfort zone as women are programmed to be more cautious and prudent. As a woman, I have learnt that we need to be inherently fearless. That does not mean being aggressive or over-confident, but always being able to clearly articulate our beliefs, backed by a lot of research and communicating that we are here to make an impact, and we can build empires.

Why do you think female representation in classical music is low?

When we look into the historical pattern of artistic work, we see that men are the geniuses, while women are the muses. Secondly, perfecting your craft as a classical music artist becomes a life’s work. Regardless of your gender, you are placed under such an enormously scrutinizing magnifying class. The pressure is extraordinary and for women, the pressure to be perfect is raised to a colossal level because she has to look perfect too, while wielding the baton or hugging the cello.

This is how society has established the placement of the sexes and to gravitate towards a female genius cult seems almost going against the Law of Nature!

What can we do to encourage more women to pursue their classical music passions (especially focusing on the lack of female composers, conductors and soloists) and close the gap?

The pursuit of classical music starts from a very early age. If we can change something, we should start there. A browse through the ABRSM shop will return volumes and collections of books for every leading composer such as Chopin, Schubert, Mozart. When you search for Fanny Mendelssohn, you will find a score book titled: Various – At the Piano with Women Composers.

When I was studying for my ABRSM piano grades, the exam pieces never had a work by a female composer. I only learnt much later, probably when I was 10, that female composers do exist and their works are just as beautiful and mesmerizing! I probably would have done better with my piano grades if I were given a choice to play a piece by Cécile Chaminade than one by Liszt where I had such problems spanning the large intervals with not-so-large hands.

At Primephonic, I represent the voice of women within the management team and other than caring for my team, I always look for a space to recognise the work of women. In the month of March, we’re celebrating Women’s History Month with a complete takeover of the platform by awesome, talented women. Every single album feature will be music composed or performed by a woman, and we’re creating several special playlists featuring the great female conductors, composers and trailblazers of today, and throughout history.

Aside from that though, our curation team work very hard to ensure there is always a diverse balance of representation across the platform day to day – not just with regards to gender but also nationality and age.

The industry should not feel the need to promote women because they are women and it would be great to count them against the diversity quota. We need to give room for recognition and not be prejudiced in giving everyone the same level of playing field.

How has your personal experience with the piano impacted your perspective on effectively bridging the gap between business and the arts?

I grew up learning the piano and dance. It has definitely helped me to fully understand how much an artist has to sacrifice, to devote and immerse wholly into perfecting a craft. This perspective has been instrumental in me bringing my heart and passion into the business.

As COO of Primephonic, what is your take on the under-representation of women in the music business at large?

When I look at the statistics of gender representation in the music business, it is always easy to be biased and emotional about it. Yet in my everyday life, I work and meet with the most amazing women who have proven themselves to be as successful and strong as anyone else. I do not support a ‘boys vs. girls’ attitude. I think we are all wired up differently and have varied talents where we can all collaborate, not compete, together. This way, we can progressively move towards a more inspiring industry where every individual can contribute to his or her best ability.                              

Who is your favorite female classical artist and why?

I’ve been an obsessive fan of Mitsuko Uchida for what feels like my whole life. Her Mozart performances in particular are some of the most nuanced and intelligent interpretations out there, and I love how effortlessly she entered the pantheon of the most revered pianists of our time – a space with a significant gender imbalance. She’s truly one of the greats.

Explore our Women's History Month takeover on Primephonic.

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