When Kasturi Shan graduated from her university in Australia, she and a friend took a three-month holiday in New York. That holiday turned into a six-year career in music. As the Senior Director of Publicity at Interscope Records, she's managed in-house campaigns for artists like EarthGang and Spillage Village. Recently, she started @sambal.studios, "a think tank celebrating and spotlighting south, east and south-east Asian identities and stories globally."
We spoke to Kasturi about the importance of having a deep understanding of the cultural landscape and finding inspiration in your co-workers. Read on to learn about the value of internships and building authentic relationships.
This interview took place over the phone between Kasturi Shan and Tate VanderPoel Smith, with an introduction by Lyzbeth Lara.
TVPS: Starting off, how did you get to where you are today?
KS: My story is—I don't want to say all over the place—but I think it's quite interesting. I'm half Malaysian, half Australian, but the majority of my high school and university were done in Australia.
I was already doing public relations at a fashion company in Brisbane, which is where I’m from. I was about to graduate, and it turns out the agency that I was working for was going to fold and turn into something else, and I didn't really have that much interest in the something else.
I always had this idea that once I graduated, I'd love to take a three-month break, go traveling, etc. I thought to myself, well, what better time than to go to New York. Long story short, my three-month holiday turned into living there for six years.
When I got to New York, my now best friend, Georgia, and I did all of the touristy stuff in the first month, and then we were twiddling our thumbs, thinking, what should we do now? I thought we should see what was out there and get an internship.
I ended up getting hired at the music PR company, Press Here Publicity, and that turned into a job offer.
How did you make that work with your visa?
I'm quite lucky in the sense that being an Australian, there are a couple of different opportunities. There's a J-1 visa, which is a graduate visa. So for a whole year, America basically extends an invitation to Australians to come over and travel, work, etc. I started with that and then ended up getting an E-3 visa, which is a specialty occupation visa. Basically, that means that the company you’re at has to prove that no one else is better suited for that job. So I've just been renewing that visa ever since.
I don't know what made me go into music PR, because I was told to never work in a hobby that you really love. But when I was looking for an internship, it was very low stakes—like what do I want to do for the next three months? Not realizing that it would turn into an established—or wait—establishing career. I honestly can't think of doing anything other than this. I love working with artists, and I love working in music, and seeing how people turn stories into their art. It's what fuels me every day, you know, PR is not an easy job.
I knew I wanted to get into more hip-hop and R&B music. I ended up applying for a job at an agency called The Chamber Group, and did some awesome work there—probably some of my favorite projects. I was working on maybe 10-12 artists at any given time, and a handful of them were signed to Interscope Records. I remember getting a phone call from one of the senior publicists at Interscope during that time asking if I knew any good publicists, and I laughed and said "Yeah, me!" Little did I know that was the beginning of me being hired to join the label.
How did your job change when you started doing PR in-house?
Massively different. Publicity at an independent agency you do anything and everything possible in your wheelhouse to garner publicity for your artist, right? Because we are being paid by the month, and you only have about three months because that's usually how long a campaign lasts. And it stays on if your artist is evergreen, so a lot of bigger celebrities because they're always going to be doing something. They might have a fragrance launch, or they might have a TV opportunity or something like that.
Before, I was very much trained to sort of do anything and everything for an artist—something I learned a lot while at The Chamber Group under Chris Chambers. He was instrumental in helping me understand how publicity can really be a lot of brand-building strategies. So we would book them fashion show opportunities, whether performing at those shows or attending front-row. We would try and find opportunities for them in the digital space. We would take them on because for whatever reason, maybe the label wasn't paying attention to them or they weren't signed yet, and we wanted to give label services.
That carried into my label job now, at Interscope. Especially at a label job, it’s a little bit different, you work with all these teams. So now all of a sudden publicity is a part of a bigger campaign and you have to work alongside all of these different people. I actually think that's a far more exciting opportunity because you can see how the work you do informs other departments and how other departments' stuff informs the work that I do.
Can you give an example of that?
When you’re working as an independent publicist, you’re really only dealing with management and wouldn't always get the bigger picture. One of the bookings that I did, I decided with management about the song that we should go with, not knowing that that song wasn't going to come out for another year. If I had worked at the label, that’s something I would’ve known.
Now that I'm inside the building, I'm very much a connector. I like to talk to all my coworkers and different departments because it inspires me and helps me do my work a little bit more efficiently.
So quite literally in-house!
Right. So because I've sat in these meetings now, I have an idea of what's coming to the table in three-months, in six-months. I can tell myself, well, okay, cool. We’ll hold this opportunity to do it around then because that is more of a bigger splash than if we did this now.
I've always been a work smart, not hard kind of person. I think that's probably how my job changed. I think an extension of that is also just seeing how publicity has changed in general. I feel like a lot of the work that I do now is very much out of development, and brand building, and helping to connect the dots of a campaign a little bit better.
So instead of just saying: here’s the campaign. Here’s the start, middle, and end of it. You’re saying: here’s the start and finish, but here’s also what we’re going to do to build up the momentum before, throughout, and even after the project?
Exactly. And how can we do things differently? Unless you have a digital or a marketing person, the publicist is almost always is the person who has a very good, 360 understanding of what the landscape is looking like, how culture is moving, and what conversations are happening. So we're also able to inform the campaign a little bit better because we know what people are thinking about, you know?
What advice do you have for someone who looks up to you?
I'm big on work experience and building genuine relationships and I highly encourage finding your people and circle in the industry. I owe a lot of my professional success to my network that I've been privileged to build while staying true to myself. I also really believe in being passionate about what you do at whatever level that is. Also, never underestimate the value of work experience and internships, especially if you're trying to get your career off the ground.
Here's your weekend playlist, courtesy of Kaz:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Special thanks to Polaroid