Local hero: Tao-Ming Lau launches agency for women, LGBT and POC artists

BLUE CRANE AGENCY X PIRATES BLEND X BANDBOX featuring LIZA, HALEEK MAUL, JUNIA-T AS STUDIO MONK, TERRELL MORRIS as part of MANIFESTO at Nightowl Toronto (647 College), Thursday (August 9). Doors 9 pm. $15, adv $10. mnfsto.com.

Despite steadily climbing the music industry ranks, working for heavy hitters like Universal Music Canada and the U.S.-based Billions agency, Tao-Ming Lau decided to take a leap of faith. The local booking agent and artist manager wanted to see the mainstream better reflect the burgeoning diversity of talent across Canada, and took matters into her own hands.

She’s launched her own agency, Blue Crane (a nod to her Chinese heritage – blue cranes are often depicted in Asian artwork), which focuses on promoting women and artists of colour and handling their tour bookings across North America and beyond. Blue Crane’s starting roster of nine artists boasts wide-ranging talents from space-soul singer Zaki Ibrahim to former A Tribe Called Red member Deejay NDN, and promising newcomers such as soul singer LIZA and trans Iranian-Canadian rapper Säye Skye.

Blue Crane’s mandate goes far beyond simply booking shows – Lau’s dedicated to building safer spaces for her artists and their fans, as well as advocating for inclusivity in all aspects of the live experience, from venue accessibility to gender-neutral bathrooms.

Blue Crane is about to co-present its most high-profile gig yet – a showcase at Nightowl Toronto as part of Manifesto’s Discovery Series featuring five rising acts and a surprise Polaris Prize-listed special guest.

We caught up with Lau to find out more about her push for a more representative music scene.

Why did you feel the need to start Blue Crane?

There aren’t a lot of agencies in Canada. Compared to the proliferation of DIY and independent record labels and artist managers, four or five agencies is not a lot. I recognized that there wasn’t the infrastructure or access for marginalized artists to connect or meet with agents. So I wanted to create a platform where marginalized artists could see themselves, and to see that a music agency doesn’t have to be behind closed doors.

Did you feel like you weren’t able to push for change from within?

I saw a huge gap in the companies I was working for. People were still investing in four-person male indie rock bands with flannel shirts. You’ve seen the ticket sales decline even for huge heritage Canadian acts like that over the last five years. Working on bands like that every day, it really killed my passion and creativity, so I felt like I had to do things on my own to be able to feel energized and passionate at work.

What needs to change for the music industry to become more representative of talent and audiences?

For me, working at a U.S. agency for a few years, I think a lot of industry people at the top, who control most of the music money in this country, they’re not willing to take risks. And racism is part of it, too. It’s that “dangerous” Black or brown rapper from a 905 suburb that they have to invest in, and they still see it as a risk. And that’s because they’re not connected to any of those communities – the huge creativity and production powerhouses are teenagers from the suburbs in Brampton, Scarborough and Mississauga. To view those kids who are making incredible music not as liabilities or risks, but actually equal partners in building a great team and putting out great music [is key] – so I think there’s still fear.

What can Blue Crane offer that other bookers might not be able to?

Coming from a social justice background, I’m well versed in a lot of grassroots art and music organizing in North America. I promote and list a lot of queer and trans party promoters on my website, and that extends into LGBT organizations doing things in the community. 

With the upcoming Zaki Ibrahim tour, our co-promoters for a lot of shows are grassroots and youth organizations. That’s where the new fans are, and where the important fans are – you’re going straight to the LGBT and youth that Zaki wants as her core audience. I think marginalized audiences connect to music in a completely different way – I think music really saves queer and trans youth, and POC who are going through violence and trauma. Art and music are so pertinent, and when you can reach out to folks like that, that’s a real connection at a show.

Why did you want to work with Manifesto?

Manifesto was one of the first urban music festivals with a large youth component in Toronto when I first moved here from Vancouver. It became my home for [connecting with] community and seeing artists I was passionate about. I do a lot of work with Pirates Blend, and we decided to partner up and develop a showcase for emerging artists in Toronto and New York City. I wanted to focus on women of colour. LIZA’s a Remix [Project] grad – the same school as Jessie Reyez. There will be a special guest performance… you can look at the roster and have already guessed [laughs]. It’ll be a great evening. I can’t wait to put this out into the world.

music@nowtoronto.com | @TabSiddiqui

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