A bunch of audio engineers fiddle with complicated machines on the left while a group of musicians informally gather on stage to perform. Cigarette smoke rises from another corner, covering in its wake a not-so-subtle sign that discourages smoking in the hall. On the right, a small bar lists the prices of a range of beverages. Thick wires run across the room near the entrance, taped to the floor, ensuring that those who do not tread carefully are likely to make a flying entrance.
K.C. Loy and his band of boys sing Aai No. 1 in Marathi followed by Hariyali Chhayi Hai in Hindi. Young boys walk in and out with great urgency, most of them with long hair or Bandra-style haircuts, in dark T-shirts, keds and torn jeans. This is the setting for Live from the Console, Sony Music’s monthly attempt to revive indie music, at Mehboob Studios in Bandra, Mumbai.
I am 30 minutes late but Shridhar Subramaniam, president, Sony India and Middle East, of Sony Music, is more than an hour late. We decide to blame, rightly, the Bandra fair which has started that day and clogged all the roads leading into the suburb. Two glasses of beer arrive, in plastic glasses, as is the norm at rock concerts, before we find a quiet room away from intense musicians.
Rock star: Subramaniam listens to music for about 4 hours every day on his Spotify device, a music streaming service. By Jayachandran/Mint
Subramaniam is slim, wearing a dark shirt, Ray-Ban spectacles, and bursting with energy. The 47-year-old can barely hide an innate restlessness and passion for music, which is now also his profession. “I am not the content, happy kind of guy,” he says. “I am a committed, start-up kind of guy. I don’t like to worry about a rocket’s trajectory; I say let’s just get it off the ground first.”
His instincts for start-ups show in his career choices—he joined Titan and Sony Music India when they started. But for a restless person, he has ironically stayed with just two companies. He joined Titan in 1988, when they came into the market with Timex watches and later the Fastrack series, and has been with Sony Music since its inception in India in 1996. “Headhunters call me and say, will you ever leave? But it goes back to values—Titan established character and values and now it’s my turn to instil that in Sony.”
This is again a contradiction to the rebellious streak that Subramaniam says he had growing up in Mumbai, with a love for rock music and reading. His father Shiv, a self-made man who was in the Indian Revenue Service, with Nehruvian ideals of nation building, was not always in favour of his son’s musical inclinations. “We have gone through the stages of teenage angst when he would lock up my records,” remembers Subramaniam, of days when he would trade in records, lounge with friends older than him, have the “Pink Floyd experience” and head to Eros Cinema for a 10am show of Woodstock. Most friends were in bands, he says—his biggest regret was not having learnt an instrument. “You know how it is, if I was interested in Carnatic music, things would have been different. It tends to happen in families of second-third generation with their sense of value systems being challenged.”
In certain respects, he followed the conventional academic path. A degree from Mumbai’s Sydenham College of Commerce was followed by an MBA at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, US. College meant blowing up a semester chasing the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan—“for me, being in the US was about music,” he says.
Subramaniam’s decision to return to India in 1988 had something to do with his innate Indian-ness, because the practice in those days was to follow up graduate school with a one-way ticket to Silicon Valley, as his brother Sundar did. Subramaniam took one look at Mumbai and decided it could not be his life. His father was posted in Kolkata, but that did not work either. Someone suggested Bangalore, with its green boulevards and lovely weather, and Subramaniam headed south, to Titan’s offices.
“Even when I came back and started working, I had not grown up in the truest sense, in the sense of having a purpose,” he says. That changed when he met Xerxes Desai, Titan’s former managing director and vice-chairman. “He is my mentor, the teacher I never had. He threw me into the deep end having absolute confidence and faith and let me swim with it,” Subramaniam says. This included launching Titan in Europe, getting into the luxury business with its jewellery division Tanishq and doing all the “swish, French stuff” for three years from 1994.
His hardest decision was to tell Desai about his decision to quit when the opportunity to join Sony came in 1996. He got a few words of advice: Be careful about making your passion your profession. At some point you will lose one.
If his first job interview at Sony in their US office was slightly surreal—on the 32nd floor, with a sushi restaurant around, and Billy Joel lurking somewhere—the second, with the Asian head, was weirder. “In a girlie bar in Bangkok, in Thailand. Here I am, in front of a pole, and you are talking to me about what you want to do in India?” he says, laughing.
This was a time when the likes of Alisha Chinai and Baba Sehgal were rocking newly instituted countdowns on fresh television channels in India, like MTV. It was also a time when audio companies were not run professionally and several labels were vying for a slice of the growing market. Over time, not only did that brand of Indian rock-pop-hip hop merge into film music, but many of the labels disappeared too. “Between Bollywood and pop, the former was more remunerative. It just sucked up all the talent, from music, advertising. At a $2 billion (around Rs9,600 crore) business, you can buy all the talent,” says Subramaniam.
“People falsely accuse the music industry for this singularity of what music is put on now,” he continues. “It’s not the music companies, it’s the media: Their fixation with all things Bollywood is incredible and depressing.”
But there is hope, because the “beauty about music”—and Subramaniam uses the word beauty often—that drove him and continues to drive generations “is the counterculture rebellious component attached to it. Cinema is not a counterculture business. Music is. I like something my parents don’t. It’s a separating line, it’s a divider,” he says.
The counterculture lives in pockets, one of these being Sony’s newly started Live from the Console, where the company invites and pays musicians to play one Saturday a month. Set in Mehboob Studios, with 200-300 people attending after buying inexpensive tickets, the event gives Subramaniam another reason to feel proud and happy. “Why I enjoy Sony is because the music business allows you to do these super-cool things.”
The other more serious business is Sony/ATV Music Publishing Llc, a music publishing firm formed by Sony Music Global and the family trust of the late singer Michael Jackson. This has formed a strategic joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment India Pvt. Ltd, marking its India entry. Through this joint venture, announced 19 September, Sony Music Entertainment will represent Sony/ATV’s 750,000-plus global music assets in India and Sony/ATV will represent Sony Music’s musical works internationally. The joint venture company will ensure timely monitoring, tracking, collection and payment for the use of music they own and manage.
With a 16-18% market share of a $200 million industry in India, Subramaniam is looking for the “magic sweet spot”, which is 25%. That’s the reason why the company is stepping into regional zones—it entered Tamil Nadu three years ago and will soon be in Punjab. He still wants to take Bollywood music global, a journey that started with the company’s first Indian product, A.R. Rahman’s Maa Tujhe Salaam.
“For every hit, we have had misses, an equal number of wrong calls. The humbling component, it comes in the hit rate,” says Subramaniam.