AAPI Identity and Representation, the Impact of Blackpink and Exec Wisdoms: a Conversation With Interscope’s Michelle An and Annie Lee
Interscope Geffen A&M’s Annie Lee and Michelle An share a unique 17-year-long friendship and business partnership as first-generation Asian-Americans. They came up through the ranks together while the company underwent several transitions in leadership, expanded into global markets and most recently, made a successful move into film.
In 2019, Lee — who is of Taiwanese descent — was named chief financial officer of the label after starting her journey at UMG as a senior financial analyst in 2005. She now oversees all of the company’s finance functions, as well as other key operational teams, and reports to chairman-CEO John Janick and Steve Berman, the label’s vice chairman.
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A marketing and branding specialist, An started as a member of Interscope’s brands department team in 2006 before moving into the creative area, where she was named head of the department in 2012. The Korean American was upped to executive vice president of the division in 2020 and has worked on the visual elements –working on projects ranging from video, photography, and advertising, as well as live shows, film and television projects — for IGA artists like Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, Gomez and Lana Del Rey.
Lee works closely with creative executives like An to ensure they have the resources they need while fitting into the company’s larger business goals of expansion. As industry insiders with decades of experience working with a diverse roster of artists, An and Lee are some of the top voices in the music industry.
Below, the duo gives a behind-the-scenes look into the creative strengths of the label’s diverse roster, the importance of having BIPOC leaders, and their commitment to championing young executives at the label.
Take me back to your early digs with Interscope. What do you remember from your start there?
Annie Lee: We kind of grew up together at Interscope, from the Jimmy Iovine days to now being under John Janick [beginning in 2014] – it’s a bond that kept us tightly knit together. The AAPI connection is also woven into our friendship just naturally – we’re so comfortable around each other because of the cultural connection but also because we are both women and moms in this industry and it’s nice to have that support system.
Michelle An: Yeah, our text threads with one another are kind of hilarious. On one extreme, it’s all business and then on another extreme, it’s like “How do you deal with a rash?” “Grandma watching the kids?”
AL: I feel like we often say to each other, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you!” And that I think speaks a lot to our partnership professionally just in terms of support from the executive team.
How do your jobs intersect?
AL: It’s interesting because I think some people would probably think my job as CFO is operational and Michelle is on the opposite end of the spectrum in creative, but we talk daily. Not just in relation to budgets — obviously, part of my job is managing the overall financial health of the company — but I really embraced this role with the mindset of being of aid to the creators. When Michelle and I talk, it’s not just about “My photoshoot budget is over” or “I need to get this payment out the door,” it’s about “We’re shooting this and there’s this artist, and this many people involved, how do we move this to this building?” We talk through every single detail.
MA: I was the first in my family to be born in the United States, and as a kid, my parents always leaned on me. Because I was the first in line, I always felt this thing in the back of my head that if the family was in some sort of trouble, I was responsible for getting them back to safety. So as a child, I had this sense of having to take care of all the details.
Making music is a risky thing. So I have this natural desire to help these artists, find that steadiness or make them feel like “I’m here for you as you take this risk in your career.” And what I love is that, subconsciously, Annie on the other end, I know she gets it. She gives me that space to explain where we want to take an artist, visually. It’s nice knowing someone gets where my feelings are and what drives me to do what I do.
Both of you also had a hand in the revitalization of Interscope Films, with projects from Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, and Selena Gomez — what does your partnership on that front look like?
MA: Annie understands that when someone like me works with artists who have stories they want to tell — whether it’s an important story like Selena’s [“My Mind & Me”], or coming of age story like Billie’s [“The World’s a Little Blurry”], she understands that importance, and gives us an open space to make that happen. We share this trust with the artists to tell their stories, and that’s something that’s really cool. So I don’t think it’s something we felt like we had to do and it was definitely organic. And then the way Annie leads, the way John leads, we were just naturally able to do it.
AL: I don’t think Michelle gives herself enough credit in terms of the ideas and the origination of the projects. I help manage the risk — because it’s a big commitment to go out and film every single thing that somebody’s doing for a year and sometimes we don’t know what’s going to come out, but Michelle and the creative team know how to hunt for and then tell authentic stories.
MA: I think the most important thing is that the artist feels like there’s something they want to say there’s something they want to create, there’s something that they want to share with fans, or they want new fans to learn about them.
You’ve both worked in many different capacities at Interscope, what’s it been like to grow with the label’s evolution?
AL: I’ve had great mentors throughout my career — all of my predecessors and John [Janick], obviously, is a huge, amazing support, in both of our lives. The way he leads the company and the relationships he creates with his executive team. He helps you feel empowered to use your voice… I probably talk too much now.
There’s this stereotype that Asians are a little bit shyer and less aggressive in that manner and I think we have to remind each other that we do bring a lot to the table and it’s okay to be vocal about it and to make sure that we are kind of taking that opportunity and believe we can excel in it.
Growing up did you see yourself taking a leadership position?
AL: I mean, I definitely had that in mind. I knew I wanted to become a CFO, but I didn’t know or expect it to happen so fast.
MA: I love that you knew you wanted to be CFO… I’m a classic tale of “I’ll do anything that makes my parents tell me that they’re proud of me.” I still don’t think they really understand what I do [laughs]. But they’re obviously really happy that I’m happy and stable. I worked as a consultant for the first few years of my career, and then I left to go into public relations and marketing. When I jumped into music, I didn’t tell my parents and when they found that out they thought I was crazy. Then I also got married, and I didn’t tell my parents.
How has AAPI presence and power in the industry changed — if you indeed feel it has changed?
MA: I’m super proud of the fact that we’re both in leadership positions and I’m also proud of how diverse we are as a company. It’s more than a necessity with the work we do — it helps the label tap into a lot of different audiences and tastes, it’s part of the fabric because our roster is so diverse.
Speaking of the roster, Blackpink was one of the first big K-pop acts to get signed to a U.S. label. Many other U.S.-based majors have since followed in those footsteps – did you see it as setting a precedent back then?
AL: Thinking back to when we first signed Blackpink — it was a bit surreal. The moment where I knew, obviously, growing up as an Asian, we know what K-pop is. And when we brought it into the company, I think that was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, my God — this is really happening.’
When they played Coachella for the first time at the Sahara tent, and I looked back and saw a sea of people who knew all the words… It was crazy. It was so crazy that we were a part of that. I’m never gonna forget that moment.
MA: I also remember watching Girls Generation with my mom and my mom being so excited — that stuck with me. But it was still so new back then and so I did feel such a sense of pride when we started working with a lot of artists from Korea and then similar to me at Coachella the first time Blackpink performed I also remember looking out at everyone and seeing a lot of Caucasian faces being like, ‘Is this real?’
AL: There was already a huge audience there, but we wanted to do a good job of introducing them to the Western world and when we worked with [YG Entertainment], we shared lots of conversations to make sure that we were on the same page about expanding the K-pop fandom into the U.S. the right way — respectful of the origination and culture.
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