Meet Tao-Ming Lau, the woman changing the face of Canadian music

How the 'music business nerd' went from working at major labels to making space for marginalized artists.

How the 'music business nerd' went from working at major labels to making space for marginalized artists.

Tao-Ming Lau is the owner of Blue Crane Creative Agency. (Samuel Engelking)

"I saw power in a different light when I came out of the closet, and when I reclaimed my Chinese culture," Tao-Ming Lau says over the phone from her apartment in Toronto. "When you're able to speak your voice with increasing confidence, it always moves you into a place of pride even though it's scary and risky."

Lau's biggest risk is paying off. Last year, the self-described "music business nerd" — who previously worked at Universal Music Canada and Billions, and sits on the Polaris Music Prize board and the TD Toronto Jazz Artistic Advisory Committee — started Blue Crane Creative Agency.

The global independent booking agency's mission statement is as essential to Lau as the marrow in her bones: Blue Crane "prioritize[s] women and artists of colour in North America and abroad. We are true believers that more than ever, diverse artists are the ones who sell music and tickets these days, via their migration journeys, narratives and musical and artistic visions." Blue Crane also advocates for safer spaces, particularly for trans and queer artists and their fans.

The agency's client roster includes the likes of Zaki Ibrahim, DJ NDN (Ian Campeau, formerly of A Tribe Called Red) and Kallitechnis, as well as Vivek Shraya and Shamik Bilgi's pop duo, Too Attached — all of whom spoke with CBC Music about why they signed with Blue Crane and why Lau herself is a gamechanger, both professionally and personally.

'It's such a relief'

"I've been making music officially in Canada since 2002, so like, 17 years, and this is the first time I've had a booking agent," Shraya says. It's also the first time in a decade that Shraya, a trans woman of colour, has had any kind of music industry representation at all. "Because of all the bad experiences I've had, I'm very, very cautious about who I decide to work with. Between Tao's background in the business and also understanding the barriers that queer people, racialized people, feminine people face, I felt like it made a lot of sense."

Their shared common ground made Shraya feel seen — a rare experience for the award-winning multi-disciplinary artist — and also gave her the trust to believe in Lau's vision, which allowed Shraya to level up professionally. She's spent years navigating awkward conversations about money and finding the right venues and festivals, as well as communicating her particular needs as a trans artist.

"It feels very special and like a privilege, really, to have someone going to bat for you," Shraya says. "Actually, it's a relief, not special. It's such a relief to have that part of the business in someone's hand who knows and understands not only what's out there, but also the specificity of my needs."

'She is intent on making positive and much needed shifts in the industry'

South African-Canadian singer-songwriter Zaki Ibrahim began working with Lau shortly before Blue Crane officially existed. Ibrahim remembers that she was in South Africa when Lau approached her and they began talking. By the time she returned to Canada, Lau had already lined up "several shows," and Ibrahim, who hadn't worked with a booker in over a decade, was impressed.

"Tao is conscientious and strategic in the way that she does bookings, to really help drive and shape the overall career and brand of her artists," Ibrahim told CBC via email. "Her care and concessions around me being a mother, alone, is a huge indicator for me that she is intent on making positive and much needed shifts in the industry."

When Ibrahim, who was a "full-time artist and nomad" most of her career, became a parent, she realized that she needed to cultivate a more long-term, sustainable connection to her audiences. Lau is helping make that a reality.

"Her vision, compassion and confidence was something that I've not really seen yet in the industry," Ibrahim says. "Prioritizing women, people of colour, queer and trans artists is an idea that perhaps people have thought of — in the particularly lopsided Canadian music industry — but ultimately, never been brave enough to put their necks out and legitimately take a stand."

In part, it's probably because most Canadian music industry executives never had to. The majority haven't been marginalized people whose very livelihood and safety were dependent on disrupting the status quo.

"The big kicker is being able to see systems of power in a more naked way, in a more visible way," Lau says. "Studying power in society at large, but also studying power within the music industry, in the entertainment industry, really empowered me to look at things as they are. Most people at the top music infrastructure, whether they're labels or management agencies or touring agencies, they're still older white men. Those people aren't the ones going to shows three days a week; it's the young people in the office, and it's the people of colour who get called upon to go to shows and come back on Monday morning telling their boss about the cool shit that they've seen onstage last weekend."

That A&R (artist and repertoire) talent scouting is critical to these corporations' ongoing viability but, according to Lau, the people doing that field work are the ones most likely to be underpaid and undervalued. "A lot of these [A&R] people are marginalized people, women, people of colour — they're defining the culture and what's cool," Lau explains. "For me to be able to see that, that's pride to me; being able to look at a system from the outside in and saying, 'Here, I could do this better.'"

From Carly Rae Jepsen to launching Blue Crane

Lau's interest in business is equal parts nurture and nature. Her father owned his own business, so that type of thinking was ingrained in her from childhood, she says. Her first job in the Canadian music industry was in 2012 in her hometown of Vancouver, working at Carly Rae Jepsen's label and management where she witnessed the "Call Me Maybe" mania firsthand. Lau left to pursue business school in Toronto, but ended up hating it and dropping out, opting instead for an on-the-job education at Universal Music Canada in the legal department.

"I love looking at contracts and licenses and paperwork," Lau laughs. At Universal, she worked on a big pilot legal project, summarizing about 260 record label contracts. She had experience doing sync licensing and publishing as well, but hadn't yet worked in "live and touring."

It was the side Lau was most interested in thanks to her love of event production and marketing events, an interest she cultivated as part of her grassroots organizing and activism after coming out and becoming "culturally woke" to her personal evolution of reclaiming her own culture. Lau was an organizing member of Queer Trans People of Colour (QTPOC) at York University, president of the LGBTQ club at business school and a volunteer for York's Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line (SASSL). In 2016, she pursued that aspect of the music industry, joining American touring agency Billions before launching Blue Crane in 2018.

There might be some disgruntled faces out there, but I can't care about that right now.- Tao-Ming Lau

"Working in the industry for the last six years, propelling Blue Crane through just constant exploitation and inequities that I see in the industry every day," Lau says. "Its incarnation is definitely due to everyday frustrations that I've been seeing in the industry in terms of what music gets out there, who gets placed on stages, who gets slots. It's like insider trading. [Laughs] It can be a really, really dark industry sometimes in terms of how power works."

'[It] makes me feel safe'

Ian Campeau, formerly of A Tribe Called Red and who performs as DJ NDN, has his own experiences with subverting established power dynamics in the music industry. He was friends with Lau before they started working together. He liked her passion for social justice and her advocacy for the QPOC community.

"Blue Crane is flipping the representation of POC in the Canadian music industry on its head," Campeau told CBC Music via email. His praise for Lau and Blue Crane is unequivocal.

"Working with Blue Crane and Tao has helped me tremendously with filtering out the culturally insensitive DJ gigs that come along with being Indigenous and get me into spaces where I feel safe and comfortable," Campeau says. "It's helped me grow as a human being. Blue Crane has always had my mental wellness and safety in high regard and priority. Makes me feel safe."

Montreal-based artist Kallitechnis also credits Lau with creating more opportunities for her, while giving space to the musician's mental health. Since signing with Blue Crane, Kallitechnis has been booked for "a ton of shows," she told CBC Music via email, and this has resulted in more flexibility and freedom for the singer-songwriter to focus on her artistic endeavours.

"My manager was overwhelmed with his tasks, and I was overwhelmed with mine. Tao took a big workload off of us by joining the team as our agent," Kallitechnis says. "Tao also does more than just her 'job.' She checks in on our states of mental health regularly, as she knows just how emotionally draining the lives of artists/managers can be."

Radical compassion might be exactly what the Canadian music industry needs, though Lau knows that some people probably aren't thrilled with the conversations that are happening around equity, representation and safety.

"There might be some disgruntled faces out there, I'm not sure, but I can't care about that right now. And I kind of don't care about that," Lau says. "I can't be consumed by those thoughts because then I can't do my business. All I can commit to myself is just doing the best job I can, and making the agency the best it can be, and make it as consistent as it can with its values, and that's all I owe to Blue Crane and to the music community."

'The industry needs more Taos'

Blue Crane's artists are universal in their expressions of gratitude for what Lau has achieved in her first year of business.

"Her roster is mostly women, queer, and people of colour," Campeau says. "I think Narcy and I are the only two straight cis men on Blue Crane's roster and that's rare. I'm so privileged to be represented by such an incredible team."

"Tao is graciously radical, courageous and driven," Ibrahim says. "I am fortunate to be part of the vision."

Kallitechnis sums it up succinctly: "The industry needs more Taos."

Right now there's just one, but Lau has big plans for the second year of Blue Crane. Things she can't talk about publicly yet, but that she's excited about, and that are building towards a more inclusive Canadian music industry. But what does a more inclusive future look like, and when will Lau know for sure that things have changed?

"When my trans artists can tour safely and enjoyably and without harassment. That's the ultimate," Lau says. "From soundcheck and just being misgendered all the time to being able to dress safely in the green room to being able to say what they want about their gender expression or gender identity onstage if they want to. Having their queer audiences, whether it's a 19-year-old audience member or patron getting checked by ID at the door of the bar, or the venue or the club and being able to enjoy the show in safer means. That's the pinnacle. When that happens, the music industry will have made great leaps and bounds."

Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner