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Breaking Barriers

Music is the backbone of the Indian entertainment industry and, to add value to the music scene, Universal Music Group (UMG), under its sub-label EMI Records India, has launched a unique initiative for discovering, nurturing and breaking talent into the industry.

Providing a platform to a wide spectrum of musical talent, including singers, composers, music producers and lyricists, this unique venture is spearheaded by Vinit Thakkar, Senior Vice-President, UMG, and director Mohit Suri, whose recently released film Half Girlfriend features many songs created by EMI talents. 

In an in-depth conversation with Shweta Kulkarni, the two gentlemen, driven by the desire to enhance the domestic music scene, talk about their venture and how they wish to establish EMI Records India as a 360-degree platform for talent

What promoted you to start a venture like this?

Vinit Thakkar (VT):  Universal music in India has a unique business model compared to other labels. We are the only label who has successfully transformed ourselves from a pure music label to a music and entertainment business. We have our own music festival Enchanted Valley carnival (EVC), a robust merchandising and talent management business and we work very closely with brands offering strategic and tactical music led solutions. However, we have not been very active in acquisition of film soundtracks. EMI records India is our initiative to contribute to the domestic music scene. We saw a prospect to create a label like this because we have no conflict of interest. Since we don’t acquire the soundtrack rights, unlike most other labels, EMI artistes signed to me, talent which is signed to me, can sing for any producer or director and their songs  can get released across any competing label.

Mohit what excited you about this concept and at what point did you come on board?

Mohit Suri (MS): Vinit and I have been working together since he was working with Sony Music. He closely watched how I make my music. At the time, I didn’t have access to big artistes and it had become my nature to launch new talent. He saw how I make my music from scratch and how I use new talent and collaborate them with experienced music producers.

When he moved to UMG… He sought me out, saying that I would be suited for the venture as I had been launching new talent right from my first film. He said, ‘Right from Atif Aslam to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan to Toshi-Sharib, Arijit Singh, Ankit Tiwari… you have been unconsciously doing this in every film. So why don’t you consolidate and get this together?’

So, it was actually his idea to develop music, not only for my films but also for a bank that we can create and provide to the industry, songs that filmmakers can source.

We don’t create music only with new people but which is a mix of some experienced talent like Rishi Rich who’s been instrumental in mentoring and nurturing young talent with us. I’ll give Vinit a lot of credit for coming up with this brainchild and using my creative expertise, while he markets and positions it in the industry

VT: When this idea came up, there was a big change happening at the time. Young directors like him had started working with multiple artistes to create an album for their soundtrack and a lot of people were following that trend. That gave us the confidence that people were looking for content that is new and new talent could be developed and discovered.

MS: And as a filmmaker, I am restricted to one release a year, so I can incorporate maximum five songs a year. Every year I come across such good music but that I can’t use it. So, if someone else has an opportunity for that kind of song, they can use it.

VT: There’s another fundamental reason I thought of this partnership with Mohit… he has always tried to do something very different and ahead of his time. I think it is high time that there is a complete non-film business driven around artistes. The music business in the rest of the world has always been an artiste-driven business. We also had it in the ‘90s, way back when there were artistes like Lucky Ali, Alisha Chinai but post ‘90s most good music found its way to Bollywood mainstream music

Under EMI we would also slowly but surely develop artistes and make them popular for their independent work. For example, we did a song called Saaiyaan with QB (Qurat-Ul-Ain-Balouch). We recently did Party Nonstop with Dr Zeus featuring Jasmine Sandlas and Ikka, and these are not associated with any films; they are stand-alone songs and they have done well. Not to forget, at Universal we’ve released the most successful non-film song of all times called Zaroori tha by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan that has crossed over 200 million streams only on Youtube/VEVO. We genuinely believe that the non-film music market is ripe and it will break open in the next couple of years.

Your venture also marks the return of the famous EMI label. What made you opt for it?

VT: When we started this, we started this with the thought that we wanted to discover new and upcoming talent and nurture this talent to give them a great opportunity in the world of films and entertainment. Universal was already working with established artistes so we asked ourselves how we would give it a unique identity? How do we kind of differentiate it? I’m really thankful to Adrian Cheesley, EVP, Europe and the rest of the world for recommending that we use the name EMI Records as the label has been home to some of the most successful artistes in the history of the music business like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen, Iron Maiden.

MS: The idea was to not have it under Universal. Universal has artistes like Justin Bieber and we didn’t want to put our artistes there. So we wanted to say that this is EMI India, which is for the Indian audience, a great platform for Indian artistes and they are not crumbling under the weight of these guys.

Mohit, can you please elaborate on your creative involvement?

MS: I only give them the direction that this song is good and this would work …  Also what I do is, get an artist like Mithoon, who is established in the industry and works independently… I am getting him to collaborate with an artist like Rishi Rich to come up with a new song. So, it eventually yields a new sound. Like, there is an artiste called Ami Mishra, who had done a song for my film Hamari Adhuri Kahani called Hasi. We got him to collaborate with this new girl called Anushka, who we have signed and who sings in English, and the two of them came up with this fantastic song called Lost without you which is the Half Girlfriend OST. So it’s a mixture of a few things…artistes collaborating within EMI and outside, mixing international and local artistes.

Many new artists lack proper music production and technical facilities, so we provide these amenities and they can produce with the best producers in the city. Very often new artistes are waiting outside my office with a guitar for my car to pass by so that they can make me listen to a song. It’s high time these guys were not treated like struggling artistes running behind the car of a director or a producer. Having said that, it’s not that everyone we meet is going to be terrific. That’s when the filtering process comes from Vinit’s team at EMI.

How do you intend to get the artistes on board?

MS: The same old way… You hear the music, there are four of us at EMI, we understand it, we like it, we take it. Also, we work with other producers and directors to provide them with artists and songs for their forthcoming films.  We have now started receiving specific briefs from producers and directors.

So all your artistes will make music on the same brief?

MS: Yes, let the producers and directors get the best. Whenever we get a brief, we share it with our artistes and ask them to come up with the best song.

VT: Typically, the conversation comes to us from the business standpoint we usually give the brief to all our artistes, saying here’s the brief start working on it. We have started creating music for producers and directors in this manner. For example, one of the producers of Behen Hogi Teri came to us and the songs were created on the basis of the brief given to us.

Similarly, in Mubarakan, Rishi has created the title track. He is working on another project that we cannot talk about right now, but he has actually created four tracks for a film on the basis of the narratives of the film. So, we are not using music only from the artistes’ bank but we are also proactively saying, share your brief and we will work around it and come back with more music.

How many artistes do you have on board right now?

VT: Currently, we have –Rishi Rich, Yash Narvekar, Rahul Mishra, Anushka Shahaney, Ajay Vas… and, we are signing more and more in the coming months. We’ve been fortunate to sign artistes who are both singers and songwriters. Rahul Mishra and Yash both have an amazing voice, they are great composers and also have the ability to write beautiful songs. Similarly, Anushka can write, she can sing and I think she has a really clutter-breaking voice. She also has the ability to do great compositions. We’ve also been blessed to have Rishi play such a big role with us. He’s been like a mentor to these young artistes and given them creative direction whenever required.

Will there be a cap on the number of artistes you sign?

VT: No, there will be no cap. We are happy to sign a number of talented artistes who have the potential to contribute to EMI records India

MS: We want to sign artistes that have the potential to grow with us. We want to create good quality music with the artistes that we sign as well as build their musical careers.

So producers and directors have the benefit of either choosing something that already exists in your bank or getting new melodies composed based on the narratives of their films.

MS: Yes, if they want to listen to our existing songs, that’s great. If they want us to compose something for them specifically, we can provide that too

VT: It usually starts with someone looking for a specific song to suit their need. For example, if someone is looking for a love song, we play a couple of songs from our bank. If they like it, they come back to us with additional specifications, feedback and references. In these situations, our artists will create music according to their needs.  

Would picking songs from EMI be cost-effective for filmmakers?

MS: Yes, I think so, but the cost of buying a song is the same everywhere, it doesn’t differ very much, unless you get a known composer who will ask for a higher price for the song or they take the whole package for film. But, to be honest, when I started buying each song from new artistes rather than one big composer, it turned out cheaper. Vishesh Films is known to make smaller-budget films, so it was a matter of survival at that point. Also, sometimes, it takes that one song to make the album successful and you could get it from one person or several.

What is the revenue model like?

VT: Simply put, the artiste is the heart and the centre of this business. We are very clear that if the artiste is successful, we will become successful. If the artiste makes money, we will benefit financially too. So, we are able to put the artiste in the forefront, whether he/she is singing for a film, creating compositions for films, creating jingles for advertisements ,doing live shows, working with brands or selling a merchandise line … The heart and soul of this entire business is our artiste.

How will the artiste benefit?

VT: We provide 360-degree services to them which adds a lot of value to their life. We offer opportunities to showcase their talent in film and non film music, we help them to collaborate with other talented singers and music producers, support them with the best production facilities, manage their legal paperwork and act as a booking agent for live shows. We sign an agreement for two to three years because that’s the kind of time it takes for a newcomer to get his or her work to be recognized out there and for people to get to know the artiste, and for the artiste to start generating some sort of income. At the end of the day, these are a bunch of new artistes who don’t know whom to reach out to in the industry, and if they get work, they don’t know how to get their legal paperwork done. If they become successful, they don’t have the support of someone managing their bookings and tours. We believe that artistes should just focus on creating new content and leave the rest to us.

MS:  It’s about using EMI and my personal networks to make interesting collaborations possible for these artistes. For instance, Mithoon needed a peppy song, which was a little out of his domain. So I thought the best person to work with was Rishi Rich because he adds modern twist to his songs. I think it will be a really interesting collaboration to look out for. I also spoke to Pritam recently and asked him if he would be interested in working with someone like Anushka because I think it would be mutually beneficial

Is the platform open to other mediums that require music too, like web series, shorts, jingles etc.?

VT: Absolutely! Our objective is to add value to the artiste by taking his/her work to all audio/visual mediums that are available. So whether someone wants to make a jingle, needs a song for a film, web series or do a live show, our artistes are available to offer their music across all platforms. 

MS: For example, an assistant director that I’ve previously worked with, is now an upcoming director, has approached  EMI Records to take songs from one of our artistes, for the soundtrack of a web series. I believe that today with the whole digital explosion, if it’s a good song, it will find its way. So this is not restricted only to films, it’s for all mediums.

Where do you see EMI Records in the next five years?

MS: I am the creative force behind it and I wish to see more artistes on board, only so that we can create great music in all possible combinations. We intend to sign and nurture new artistes every year and stay updated with all current music trends. We’ll keep adding to our great roster of artistes and keep launching new talent. My vision for EMI for the next five years is also to make it a one-stop-shop for providing music, artistes, management and merchandising for a group of artistes. How we grow and monetise the business is where Vinit comes in, and I’ll pretty much leave that aspect to him.

VT: I completely agree with Mohit I would sum it up by saying that in the next five years, we want EMI Records to be the largest talent house in India that’s available for anyone who has the ability to sing, to compose, write, produce or do anything with music. We want it to be the single largest talent house that provides end-to-end services, as far an artiste is concerned. We would love a scenario where, a few years down the line, every popular or successful film soundtrack will have songs from EMI artistes.

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