Perils & Rewards of the “Ethnic Niche” in the Entertainment Industry
By Yayoi Lena Winfrey, AAV Contributing Editor
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” said the big-time film producer. “Your film is too niche-driven.”
Having heard similar proclamations before, I wasn’t exactly devastated, but I was disappointed that once again my movie about a mixed-race family was dismissed out-of-hand as inherently unappealing to the general public. As a producer of profitable studio features, he carried a clout in Hollywood that I needed to finance my film. I began to fear my tale of two Japanese-African American sisters would never be funded or distributed by a major studio.
Niche. It’s a buzzword entertainment industry bigwigs use when they mean your product is too specialized to market to their default target demographic: the 14-year-old white male. Whatever doesn’t fall into that category is niche to them. So, what options are available for non-mainstream artists and producers looking to create, promote, distribute, and sell art and media products?
In this series, two musical and dramatic performing artists, an independent filmmaker, a feature movie producer, and an urban entertainment publicist discuss the rewards and perils, limitations and opportunities of multicultural niche marketing approaches in the industry.
At 34, this former actress turned dancer turned singer/musician lives in Los Angeles. The daughter of a Hawai’ian-born Filipino, Chinese and Spanish father and a German, English, Irish and Cherokee mother has an unidentifiable, but decidedly “ethnic” appearance.
“(As an actress), they didn’t know how to cast me,” says the soft-spoken vocalist. “They told me, ‘You’re…(too) exotic.'”
Surnamed Ramos, Cat was often sent to audition for Spanish-speaking parts. In one particularly perturbing scene, a Caucasian casting agent “asked me ‘what are you doing here?'” Cat recalls. “Because she saw my last name, I had to explain to her how the Spanish went into the Philippines.”
Constantly misidentified, the frustrated Cat changed her name after watching an old movie with James Cagney playing a character called Cody.
“I (became) Cat Cody,” she laughs. “I (colored) my hair blonde, (but) the commercial agency dropped me when I was no longer Ramos.”
Becoming a full-time dancer, Cat taught until her job was eliminated along with affirmative action. She then toured as a singer/dancer.
“I traveled…throughout Asia as Cat Cody,” says the diminutive brunette. “(But they) all knew I was some sort of Asian whatever country I was in–China, Singapore, Japan…”
By performing only original material, Cat avoided typecasting.
“Most of my music was way, way, way in the future,” she chuckles. “I was doing funky stuff when funk was not in; folk when folk was not in.”
Returning to L.A., Cat produced a Latin-influenced CD titled We Will Unite through her Gata Productions. A second, Unconditional Love, was released last year.
“Latin people accepted me…but Latin music is so specific,” she says explaining her switch to reggae.
“(Reggae) appears to be simple music, but it’s not,” she insists. “There’s a lot of culture in it. I…won’t be authentic reggae, but I…have been accepted (by its audiences). I’ve always written political songs and always been in the spirit.”
Yet Cat says most people express surprise that she doesn’t look typically Rastafarian–like the white bar owner that doubted her reggae repertoire.
“If I had been this dreadlockgirl…” she drawls sarcastically. “Lately, a lot of people think I have Black in me. Just for the sake of marketing, I sometimes wonder if I should just say ‘yeah’.”
Influenced by pop, jazz, R&B and gospel, the vocalist infers, “Right now, I’m trying to market myself in an ethnic World Beat kind of phase…(with) reggae I just have to make certain connections and I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Due to phenomenal CD sales during her performances, Cat is gathering material for a third. Currently an African drumming student, she’s adding more percussion to the next one.
“I continue to define my style by marketing myself better,” she affirms.
And part of the former Ms. Ramos/Cody’s style was her determination to be free of a surname: Now, Cat is just Cat.
“Everyone says you have to nichemarket,” groans Anzu, 26, also a single-named artist of mixed background who landed in L.A. following a stint as a celebrity model and pop singer in Japan.
“I feel like I always have to,” she says, when she approaches record labels as a solo artist. For the Oregon-born daughter of a Japanese-Korean mother and Anglo-American father, however, finding a niche to fit into can be difficult.
Although all record companies have “a Black department…especially now with…Halle Berry and Denzel winning…(Oscars),” Anzu says that when it comes to Asian women, executives only “think Yoko Ono.”
“I think it would be easier if I was Black,” she says. “Armenians go to Armenian bakeries, the Jewish go to Jewish delis, Black people use their Black people, but producers (don’t sign) Asians…much.”
Anzu does feel that men of color fare better in the industry. “Right now, Linkin Park, the Asian guy, is in the number one selling rock band on KROQ (radio in L.A.),” she says. “The Smashing Pumpkins’ guitar player…You’ve got an (American) Indian bass player in No Doubt…a singer that’s (American) Indian from Lucky Boy Seven from Chicago on Elektra (Records)…P.O.D. is a band from San Diego. There’s a Guamanian singer and drummer…huge, with the number two song on Billboard…I sang on their first Atlantic-released album.”
Nonetheless, Asian women – especially solo artists – are considered big risks by record companies. Those who break in usually aren’t marketed as being Asian.
“Vanessa Carlton is a piano girl…I have a hint she’s got some Asian in her,” says Anzu. “(And) Michelle Branch on Madonna’s label. But they’re not pushing the Asian thing…not saying anything…Coco Lee…sounds like Mariah Carey…”
Insofar as a niche exists for Asian women, it’s often a tight and unnatural fit. Recently recorded for the soundtrack to Spy Games, a film partially about Vietnamstarring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, Anzu suspects she was summoned “because they wanted Chinese vocals…They hired me because I was Asian…I wound up singing it…kind of like (East) Indian. I’m going like, ding…ding…dong. I have no idea what I’m saying and hoping I don’t offend anybody.”
She looks forward to a day when, like Black and Latin music artists, “Asian people are going to crossover. It’s going to be about the music and not what they look like.”
She warns, however, that this will require increased support from the APA community, which is “maybe…not vocal enough.” It concerns Anzu that within the industry, APAs working at high levels on big projects are few, while outside it, APA audiences are not pressing for change. “Asians [are] not rallying like Black people. They’re not trying to snag things…Nobody showed up to say [Pearl Harbor] is really degrading Asian people and (causing) racism against them…A lot of Japanese [have] pride…They don’t want to say that they’ve been victimized or put in concentration camps.”
Given this climate, a producer friend advised Anzu not to focus on acting: “Do the music first…Nobody’s going to write a part for an Asian.” Anzu sang the mermaid’s part in Dreamworks’ animated Sinbad, but opportunities to act with her real face are “so few and far between,” and limited to either “the concubine or the mistress.”
“Growing up I never had anyone to look up to except Pat Morita on Happy Days, and he was a chef,” Anzu laments. “You look at…the street. There’s Asian people…(The industry is) not a reflection (of) society.”
At auditions, Anzu identifies herself as whatever ethnicity she thinks casting agents want, but adds that things have improved during her ten years in Hollywood. “It’s changed a lot. Jennifer Lopez fought tooth and nail so that (her roles are) not a matter of her race. They’re giving her parts written for white girls.” She sees similar “progress” in The Scorpion King‘s multiethnic casting and the success of Asian-themed films at the Sundance Festival.
Meanwhile, Anzu has formed a pop band, Bachelorette No. 3, to escape solo classification so that executives wouldn’t be “scared” to sign her, and is more interested in developing as a songwriter, guitarist and pianist than in changing herself.
“People told me to change my name…[because] it’s too Asian,” she says. “I’m not going to change my name…I’m not going to add some Asian styles to [my music]…I was born in America. I’m American.”