The Vibe Project: How one woman turned her love of music into a design consultancy
At Designphase DBA's 'Sound in Spaces' workshop held during Singapore Design Week, we met Olivia Coléon, founder of The Vibe Project. Here's the story behind her music and sound consultancy
If you're a fan of James Blake, you know very well that the British musician can take you to places where your emotions wouldn't dare tread alone. Before launching into lyrics which remind that you're on your own at the 48-second mark in 'Retrograde', Blake has already led you into his haunting, falsetto-filled world of soul. It's this very same track that Olivia Coléon chose to anchor our feelings in a 'Sound in Spaces' workshop co-organised by interior design firm Designphase DBA. As three different moods were played, participants made a collage out of cutout photos of words, phrases and symbols. As 'Retrograde' pulsed through my veins, I picked the following phrases: "Everything is connected", "He Loves Me Not", "Oh God Why Am I Here" and "Tragedy".
It was a brief but immersive sonic branding exercise in mind, body and soul. Colèon, the founder of The Vibe Project, is a music curator who recently moved to Singapore from Bali. Having started her consultancy in the Island of Gods, the native New Yorker switched her base to Singapore after a curiosity for the market here. Her first projects included Sunshine Nation's food and beverage outlets Loloku and Don Ho, integrating sound into the brands' space. It's where you can hear Parisian duo Polo & Pan, one of Coléon's favourite discoveries. Recently, her projects included a co-learning space targeted at high school students in Paris and a co-living space in Bali.
Her process focuses on an important question that's often overlooked: "If this brand had a sound, what would it sound like?" Coléon's work is more than just choosing songs to fit a restaurant or hotel — she has to understand the brand's language, messaging, marketing tools and audience. Complementing the design of a space just as much as lighting and scent, sonic branding defines the sound of a brand.
But it doesn't take just a love for music to be in sonic branding. Coléon is backed by eight years of industry experience, working on concert series, music programming as well as an internship stint at an indie record label. She's worked for the likes of The FADER Inc., Boiler Room TV and Momentum Worldwide — but it took a holiday in the Dominican Republic to make her realise how feasible a music consultancy service was. After noticing how misplaced the music at a resort was, an 'a-ha' moment struck, giving birth to The Vibe Project.
Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey and Pearl Jam were some names you consumed growing up, notably in the age of CD burners and mixtapes in the '90s. How has music shaped your youth? I can't remember a time when music hasn't been in my life. Growing up with two older siblings, I was stealing their CDs from the moment I could walk and making mixes for my friends on my brother's CD burner when I was 12. I remember the first CD that was ever "mine". After a long day of running errands with my mom when I was 5, she said I could pick out one item for myself. I picked Michael Jackson's Thriller. How have aspects from your previous work experiences feed into what you're doing at The Vibe Project now? Having experiences in corporate with high-level clients like American Express taught me the fundamentals of being a professional business woman; working with clients, understanding processes and understanding expectations. Working with smaller agencies and with clients like PUMA taught me about being agile, creative and a quick problem-solver. I don't think I would have had the confidence to start The Vibe Project if I hadn't had all of those experiences under my belt.
But what my work in New York taught me as well, was how to truly understand a brand and what makes a brand unique. Understanding their core values and their vision — and then translating that into a music strategy. And a strategy that fits to their audiences. The brand can literally be anything — a credit card, apparel, a hotel, an office, a yoga studio or electronics. Every single brand is capable of having it's own sound. And that's the creative process I love.
Speaking of brands, what are some brands who you think have their sonic branding done right, and what can we learn from them? W Hotel integrates music really well and have defined their sound and use music as a marketing strategy. Same with Hotel Costes and Buddha Bar, who have made themselves internationally renowned for their music curation. On the lifestyle brand side, Sonos has proven to be quite open to experimenting with different music strategies. What we can learn from these brands is that it's essential to know your audience, understand your brand and what it stands for, and to define your sound based off of those two elements. Stay open and stay relevant. And hire music professionals! Because they offer objective ideas and insights that those in the brand may not be able to see.
What do you think has changed in the last few years that have made a music consultancy business such as The Vibe Project vital? It has something to do with the human need to connect and feel. The rise of the wellness industry is showing us that this need is bubbling to the surface more than ever. People want experiences over things. People want to be their best selves and live their best lives. They don't want to be cogs in the wheel any more. Music is definitely part of that movement — it creates experiences that feel good and bring senses alive. Music makes us feel connected.
Is your approach always the same? Does it vary from brand to brand? Know your ingredients. What are you working with? It's so important to understand as many elements as possible — their audience, core beliefs, long-term vision. And if it's a physical space, also understanding the location, opening hours and staff. I always approach them with the question: How do you want people to feel? I put myself in that mindset and select songs based off of that. And that's the constant.
What are some of the challenges you often face in sonic branding? In Singapore, music isn't even thought of as a marketing tool or approach a majority of the time. Because it's not a physical element to a space (like lighting), it is more often than not overlooked and people think they can turn on the radio or let their staff determine the music selection. What happens when that route is taken can be detrimental. Customers don't come to their space and they don't know why — it's because something feels off. When the music's off, the vibe is off. People don't like spending time or money in a place with off vibes!
Is there anything that's unapologetically New York-ish in the way you approach and execute projects for The Vibe Project? New Yorkers have a mix of fierce determination, deep passion and unrelenting stubbornness. I'm so grateful for these attributes because when you're starting your own business or following your passion, there will always be people who have their opinions about what you should be doing. It's important to block out that noise and focus on what you know, in your gut, is right. Of course, it's important to stay open, agile and professional. But if you listen to what other people have to say, you'll never listen to what you have to say. You need to have that confidence, that grit and that love for what you do — and that's definitely the New York way.
What are your plans for The Vibe Project's growth? I'm exploring different ways of doing that outside of music curation and design. I started Naked Nights: A Celebration of Vulnerability, which is a night of storytelling. Speakers come and talk about a topic and their relationships with vulnerability. It's about exploring what it means to be human in the modern world. I have hosted two Naked Nights, and have a handful of people who will be starting it in global cities so it is growing quite quickly. I'm curating and producing a handful of other event series — such as a sensory dinner experience called s e n s e s. — where music plays an integral part of the entire experience.