U2 producer also sells CDs in KFCs

Award-winning producer Steve Lillywhite (above) is the chief executive of Jagonya Music & Sport Indonesia, a company in Jakarta that bundles recorded CDs with fast food at Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Indonesia.
Award-winning producer Steve Lillywhite (above) is the chief executive of Jagonya Music & Sport Indonesia, a company in Jakarta that bundles recorded CDs with fast food at Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Indonesia. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK• Steve Lillywhite knows a thing or two about making music that sells.

That six-time Grammy-winning producer has worked on multi- platinum recordings with artists including U2, The Killers and The Rolling Stones.

Now, he is proving he knows how to sell music, too, although in a very unexpected way.

He is the chief executive of Jagonya Music & Sport Indonesia, a company in Jakarta, Indonesia, that bundles recorded CDs with fast food at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurants throughout that country.

At a time when the US music industry has seen physical CD sales in free fall - according to the latest report from the Recording Industry Association of America, 99.4 million full-length discs were sold in the United States last year, the fewest since 1986 - Lillywhite's company, a subsidiary of KFC in Indonesia, sells 500,000 CDs a month alongside menu items such as the Chick 'N Fillet sandwich and the Colonel Yakiniku Rice box.

"My job is basically like running a record label, except this record label also happens to sell chicken," said Lillywhite, 62, who acts as a curator, choosing the music that goes into the Indonesian KFCs.

At the moment, the songs come exclusively from Indonesian artists, though he hopes to expand.

"Record companies pitch artists to me and I'll say 'yes' or 'no'. Or I'll approach an unsigned artist and say, 'I will guarantee you a slot in KFC if you sign directly with us,'" he said in an interview at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, while listening to a new U2 song he is producing.

The company orders CDs from a distributor and pays a percentage of the sales to KFC, as well as royalties to the artists.

Lillywhite's journey from an Englishman known for championing soaring choruses to creative guru of the Indonesian fried-chicken music market began six years ago, when he was asked to give a keynote speech at a 2011 music festival in Singapore, a live performance and music industry panel event.

He met some people who later invited him to produce music for Indonesian band Noah.

When he travelled to the band's home to work on songs with them, "I immediately fell in love with the country", he said.

"I loved the food, the people and the way they saw music as an experience. My synapses were overloading," he added. "I imagined I would stay a year. I had nothing planned - I just thought I'd investigate the music."

He moved from Hollywood to Jakarta in 2014 and produced albums for artists such as Iwan Fals, whose music he describes as "a mix of Springsteen and Dylan".

In March last year, a mutual friend introduced him to Mr Ricardo Gelael, director of PT Fast Food Indonesia, which owns 570 KFC outlets throughout Indonesia as well as Jagonya Music & Sport, the company that places music in those restaurants.

"He was looking to solidify and expand his company's connection between CDs and chicken, as he realised he had become the new king of music distribution," said Lillywhite.

When Mr Gelael offered him a job to run and expand the company, Lillywhite immediately accepted.

"Steve has a proven track record in music as well as a love of Indonesia," Mr Gelael said in a text message. "So I thought he'd be the perfect person for the job."

In the United States, most listeners consume music via digital services such as Spotify and Apple Music. The story is quite different in Jakarta.

"CDs are still the No. 1 way to get music in Indonesia," Lillywhite said, noting that a small percentage of the population has credit cards and Internet connections are slow, hindering streaming.

"In Indonesia, CDs are US$4 (S$5.60)," he added. "And since nearly all of the record stores have closed down due to the cheap influx of pirated CDs, KFC is really the only place to buy them these days.

"People no longer go out to buy CDs on their own, but they do go out to buy chicken. And now buying a CD has become part of that experience.

"We even do concerts at KFC with some of our artists. So music and chicken have become intertwined."

KFC has a more upscale reputation in Indonesia, where the flagship restaurants "are more like Hard Rock Cafes than fast-food outlets", said Lillywhite.

Stores keep a display featuring 10 to 15 CDs on hand for browsing and the cashier asks customers if they want a CD bundled with their meal.

Lillywhite estimates that 98 per cent of the music sales "are to people who go in to buy chicken, but see the CDs and say, 'Ooh, I'll have that CD too.'"

When selecting music for KFC, he draws on what he has learnt "makes people's emotions go wild".

He said: "They love ballads, they love smooth jazz and they love to cry. I also always offer a kids' album as well as releases by big Indonesian artists such as 19-year- old pop singer Rizky Febian, the legendary rock band Slank and compilation albums."

He is considering a "duets" album pairing Indonesian performers with Western artists and a venture into streaming is also in the works.

A smartphone app is starting this year.

These days, while Lillywhite still takes the occasional trip to produce bands such as U2, he is content in his new surroundings.

"When I go into something, I go in feet first, with all my enthusiasm," he said.

And what do the members of U2 think of his new venture?

"They think I'm barking mad," he said. "Bono is obsessed with it. He's always telling people: 'Do you know what Lillywhite's doing? He's working for KFC.'"


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline U2 producer also sells CDs in KFCs. Subscribe