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Industry Insider: In-depth Interview with Edwin Tsang Founder of Virtual Friends Management

EDMSauce recently had the pleasure of speaking with Canadian born music industry professional Edwin Tsang to discuss his rise in the dance music industry,  Virtual Friends – Edwin's management company, what it takes to produce a livestream festival and more. At 21, after dropping out of business school twice, writing for dance music outlet Earmilk, interning for music label Monstercat and shooting artists including The Chainsmokers, Alan Walker and Gareth Emery, Tsang finally consolidated his passion and his professional drive in one place, launching artist management agency Virtual Friends Management. At Virtual Friends Management, Tsang works with both established and up and coming artists including Vanic, Tokyo Machine, Culture Code and more.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us here at EDMSauce! You have quite the resume for someone in their early 20s. You began working in the music industry as a photographer, can you speak about your transition from being a music photographer to artist manager/creating your own management company? 

I came from a tech background – when I was in high-school I got my first taste into business by starting a League of Legends Coaching / Boosting company that generated 45K in revenue in the first 3 months of launching. Taking that experience I began to apply for real world jobs and found a front facing role at the age of 15 working for a telecommunications company (Bell & Virgin Mobile). A year and a half later I got a taste of working in corporate and after high school I took a gap year despite being accepted into the top schools for Business here in Canada and getting a full ride at some. As an Asian person with traditional parents this was something that went against the grain and that aspect of me is very important as I speak on my story of how I approach my growth in life and career and how I got as far as I am today at my age. I took the plunge into tech, got accepted as a Top 20 under 20 entrepreneur in Canada and was mentored by some of the top folks. A year and a half after that I had raised money for my own app company that serviced students but due to burn-out the company closed down and I was in a state of confusion; constantly feeling lost in what the next steps were so I decided to go to school and meet peers my age. While in University I was still doing stuff in tech, whether it was working at a fintech startup or speaking at conferences across the province I was working where I could.

Fast forward, I decided to make the switch from tech to music due to my love for listening and sharing electronic music with friends around me. I wanted to go behind the scenes at festivals and wanted to get the first hand experience of what it's like to put on a show, how artist managers and artists conduct themselves and meet industry professionals so I bought a camera and started emailing managers and artists who came into town or were shooting at a festival I was willing to travel to to meet others.

At 20 years old, I started working at a well known music label as an Intern and after that I went on tour with one of the artists, Tokyo Machine on his debut North America tour. Through that tour he offered me a further role to continue to be his tour manager and photographer, while I was doing that I continued to freelance photography but also picked up a few small artists. When I turned 21 I got the opportunity to manage Tokyo Machine as he had no representation and shortly after that I was able to push his career so much further than he could imagined which netted me Vanic that I was able to manage and spearhead a festival that raised much needed funds. I now manage 7 artists globally but also working on initiatives that help bring visibility to more Asians working in this industry and also non-profit work in the mental health and other spaces I’m passionate about. My management agency was founded as Gametheory Management in 2019 however in 2021 to rename it to Virtual Friends  The name stems from the fact that I have always found amazing life-long friendships and business opportunities through the internet – aka the virtual world. I see my roster as a friend first and management service second. 

EDMSauce: Why were you attracted to working in the music industry and specifically, why Dance Music?

I fell in love with Porter Robinson’s music when I was 17, prior to that I was listening to top 40 radio music and didn’t discover electronic music until I was 17 when a friend invited me over to hear “Worlds”. Then I got invited to a music festival and the rest is history. I fell in love with listening to all sorts of electronic music and became engulfed in it and breathed it on a daily basis. For me EDM excites me because I think it is still under-developed. There is more opportunities to cross in things like: Blockchain, Gaming, E-commerce and life style brands. I feel that people see DJ’s and Producers as just music jockeys creating music on a DAW and touring but I think EDM expands farther than that – you just have to know where to look and start. I’m excited to bring new fresh ideas to the table through my artists and being able to take them to the top. Nothing beats having an artist you manage from 100K listeners to hitting a million in a year, these numbers are crazy and being able to tour with that artist afterwards and see the fans that come that you’ve helped build is an amazing feeling. 

EDMSauce: In addition to management, you’ve also pivoted into event planning and created a livestream festival, Ocean Meets Music during the pandemic last year. What inspired you to create a livestream festival? 

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I wanted to create the live stream festival after seeing Digital Mirage, it was something I wanted to do earlier on in my career but had gatekeepers block me to be a “talent buyer”. This was the next best thing and I was able to talent buy, find sponsors, the right media partners and put together a special event with global artists, streamers and celebrities for a good local cause that was close to my heart. I’m excited to continue to do it with my new venture Fresh off the Beat TV that focuses on promoting asian artists, culture and the visibility on the hate crime and other important issues that arise over the next few years as I have found myself relating to my asian roots over the last two years and wanting to make a change and difference due to feeling isolated in my industry.

EDMSauce: You also created a gaming element to the festival too, can you speak about why you decided to include a gaming element?

I chose Gaming because when I founded my management company Gametheory Management now known as “Virtual Friends” it was due to my love for games. I grew up on so many online video games and spent days on MMORPG’s meeting, creating guilds, etc. I learnt a lot about business through video games surprisingly and I still love playing them to this day. Paying homage to that I wanted to incorporate that, but not only that I felt that it was a smart thing to do which was pair up DJ’s and existing twitch streamer influencers who already had a following to help push even more viewers to the stream. We ended up peaking at about 12K viewers on stream because of that and the streamers would host the channel after their stream was done. I’m excited to do the next stream with the game Chess as I find the ability to bring back an old game and put it in front of DJ’s would be very entertaining!

EDMSauce: Can you talk about what goes into producing a livestream festival and what that experience was like for you?

It was difficult. Lots of hard work and no financial benefit in the end for me personally but we were able to raise much needed funds for the aquarium. I ended up spending about 28K of my own funds along with 2 partners who split it – so it was definitely a very good learning experience to be able to talent buy, look for sponsors and media partners and find the right date and host. You need to first secure the right channels (Twitch, YouTube) – who the host is, who the headline DJ’s are and who your sponsors are. After that it’s about marketing the event, hiring a PR team and doing all you can to blow that shit up! You don’t need to throw money at it but I wanted to do this one big so I splurged a little for top tier talent as at that time festivals were dying and artists weren’t as inclined to film a set without some sort of gain. 

EDMSauce: Do you see yourself organizing your own music festival (rather than virtually) once countries open up again and the pandemic is over?

Most definitely, let’s say 2024? I’ll hopefully have even more experience under my belt and be able to crush it and create a unique and beautiful project. I’m interested in creating dope experiences that blend various industries and ideas together – those are more exciting to me than a standard festival. 

EDMSauce: I would also like to speak to you about the unfortunate surge of discrimination and hate crime towards the Asian community, has that affected you at all mentally as a person of Asian heritage? Is there anything that you are doing currently to help combat this through the music industry or by other means?

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Yeah with Fresh Off The Beat TV which I’m starting with a few asian friends of mine in the industry who are seasoned – we hope to bring content on Twitch through things like podcasts, DJ sets, informational sit-down and interviews that would help push the talk in our industry. I also want to throw a few festivals in May for Asian Pacific Heritage Month – currently planning those – and all funds will be donated towards the cause (either Asian American Advancing Justice or another initiative). I feel that there is definitely a slight discrimination being an Asian in the music industry so I hope to mentor artists as well as Asians who want to take a stab in this industry and provide them a launchpad to go further in their careers and give them advice and help that I felt I never really got through my own choices of moving mostly independently. 

I’m upset at the hate crime that’s come throughout the last few weeks but I’ve been aware of the rise in rate and the cases since last year so this is not fresh or new to me but I’m glad it’s reached mainstream media and I’m seeing a lot of my friends share or talk about it now.

EDMSauce: Last question for you!  What is one/few pieces of advice you would give to your younger self and to others just starting out in the Dance music industry?

Start somewhere, meet people. Connect with people online on Facebook, Linkedin, wherever. Even club houses are great to get your feet wet and find who the power players in the industry are. Find out what you want to do – even if you aren’t sure if it's at a label, working as a photographer, doing artist management or event planning, you need to start somewhere and then see where that takes you. Often I am finding my younger peers and those I mentor are very shy or afraid to take the plunge, especially if they are asian as we have a risk tolerance that isn’t very high due to our parents and grass roots. 

In my opinion, being young is great, you have so much freedom and potential to go far because you aren’t afraid to fail because you have so much support and backing from your parents or your friends and you aren’t in a position where you need to be financially successful yet. In my 20’s I’m spending my money and time investing in myself and will spend my 30’s seeing the fruition of all those long hours working overtime. I’ve also believed in the fact that you don’t need to make money to get benefits, if you can do something that is free but gives you valuable experience, take it.  Also don’t be shy to connect with people – it’s a simple email and the worse they can do is not reply.You don’t need to live in a crazy city either, everything can be done at the touch of your computer and an email. You just need to put in the hours and work and commitment. Also don’t get too caught up in comparing yourself to others – we all move at different paces.

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