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Home / Companies / Devraj Sanyal: The heavy metal CEO

So there I am, hanging 20ft above the ground, and I have no idea how the hell I’m going to get down."

We’re at Devraj Sanyal’s tastefully decorated office on the fourth floor of a nondescript building in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb. The red wall behind his glass-topped desk is lined with gold and platinum records by Lorde, Bastille and Sam Smith. A copy of This Is My Church, photographer Rutger Geerling’s book documenting 20 years in electronic dance music, dominates the coffee table in front of us, accompanied by a thick stack of Billboard magazines. The 43-year-old managing director and CEO of Universal Music Group, India and South Asia, is regaling me with a story from his early days as the frontman of the heavy metal band Brahma.

The setting is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Ahmedabad, on a cold winter night (“zero degrees") in the late 1990s. The band has a strict no-alcohol policy when they’re playing, but this time—purely to deal with the cold, you understand—they’ve knocked back a few shots of warm brandy before getting on stage. It’s the eighth song of the night and Sanyal decides that he’s going to climb the lighting truss. So he starts, mid-song. And, under the influence of the brandy, he keeps climbing.

“Then I had this sudden moment of clarity. I realized I was level with the second floor of the college building, it was freezing, and my fingers were starting to go numb. So I signalled the guitarist to keep playing a long solo and slowly climbed down. It felt like hours, but I finally made it."

It’s not the sort of story you expect to hear from any CEO. Entrepreneurs take enough financial risks, they don’t need to add the risk of significant bodily harm to the equation. But for Sanyal, who has spent the majority of his career being a sharply dressed corporate leader by day and a black T-shirt-clad metal vocalist by night, this kind of thing is par for the course.

“When I sit in that chair, I know exactly what’s happening to the guy in front of me," he says. Being a musician himself, Sanyal believes, is one of his biggest strengths as a label boss. “I know what a struggle it is. It’s our job, knowing all that, to help develop artists and give them the resources that we never had."

*****

A Mumbai boy, Sanyal did his schooling at the St Xavier’s Boys’ Academy. His father—a computer scientist from IIT, Kharagpur—wanted him to take up engineering. But Sanyal knew from an early age that he wasn’t going to follow in his father’s footsteps. So, as a compromise, he did his graduate degree in statistics from St Xavier’s College. “I didn’t do arts because of my dad, which was a stupid thing to do," he says. “But that whole middle-class Bengali family, scientist-father type of situation was always at the back of my head."

It was in college that Sanyal met the “long-haired, drug-addict-looking dudes" who would become his bandmates in Brahma, one of the biggest metal bands in the country during the 1990s and early 2000s. It was also in college that the 19-year-old—along with a friend—started his first business, an events company called Curtain Raisers. The two set up shop in a cosy one-room office in Dhobi Talao, owned by his new business partner’s father. But they needed seed capital. Sanyal’s friend came to the rescue once again, offering his family’s vintage car for sale. “It was this big old Rolls type of thing and we just sold it because we knew it was quick cash," he says. They earned Rs4 lakh as commission, a big sum in the 1990s, and used it to set up Curtain Raisers. “Once we started, it was non-stop. Pretty soon, we were doing 700 gigs a year."

By the time he graduated, Sanyal had a successful business that was an early entrant in the rapidly growing events industry, and a metal band that was blowing up and starting to make serious money. Most people would have grabbed either one of those opportunities with both hands and run with it. But Sanyal decided to shut down the business and get a job instead. “I like consistency, I can’t have four days of doing nothing and three days of working your head off," he explains. “I had a very clear career path planned out."

In 1996, he joined the newly launched Elle magazine as a marketing manager. Stints at Baccarose and The Times Of India—where he worked under A.P. Parigi to set up the below-the-line brand 360 Degrees—followed. In January 2004, Percept Ltd hired him as the chief operating officer of their below- the-line company Percept D’Mark. By mid-2007, he had worked his way up to the position of CEO for Percept Sports & Entertainment, which handles all group interests other than media and advertising. Sanyal credits Parigi as well as Harindra and Shailendra Singh, the two brothers behind Percept, with encouraging him to take risks and not worry about failure. “I’m a massive, massive risk-taker," he says, not bothered by any notions of false humility. “You need to do your research, think things through and get the details right, but I’m very, very pro-risk. And I’m clinically unafraid of failure."

He explains his appetite for risk-taking with the example of Sunburn, the electronica festival he helped set up in 2007. Earlier that year, Sanyal and his production head, Aman Anand, went to a couple of music festivals while in London to launch the India Music Week. The two wanted to do something similar in India, and took their proposal to the Percept board. He got the go-ahead, as long as he could raise the money for it.

“Asif Adil, the then MD of Diageo, wrote me a big fat cheque," he says. “We had no understanding of the business, or the music. But we had big dreams, so we went ahead and did it. That 2007 Sunburn kick-started the music festival industry in the country."

Sanyal has got a vinyl collection of “many thousands, picked up during his travels all over the world. A few of them are sitting in his office, but he keeps his favourites at home. Every Sunday, he wakes up early, makes a strong pot of coffee, and spends 2 hours meticulously cleaning all his records. It’s one of the self-proclaimed workaholic’s few stress-busting rituals.-

*****

When Sanyal joined Universal Music Group as MD and CEO in 2011, the label was chugging along at a steady, if unremarkable, pace. It wasn’t the biggest in the market, but business was good. “We had our Bollywood and international catalogues and we were working with local independent artists," says Sanyal. “It was a good label."

But the beginning of this decade was a time of great uncertainty in the music business. CD sales had been declining steadily for over a decade, and alternative revenue streams were thin on the ground. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India was already looking to crack down on the lucrative caller ring-back tones segment (which it did in 2013), digital downloads were minuscule, and streaming was yet to come into its own. Universal Music Group could see the shape of things to come, and it had three-four years in which to build a future-ready organization. “My mandate was very clear, to clean house and build a dynamic, future-ready music business," says Sanyal. “The company was very risk-averse before I joined, and it was my job to make it a ‘let’s do shit’ organization."

Sanyal—who also took over as MD of the company’s publishing arm in 2016—has spent the past seven years creating a multi-pronged business model. The label sits at the centre of a web that now includes merchandising, live events, branded content, festivals, and a number of other intellectual properties.

The part of the business Sanyal is most excited about is independent music. Since he joined, the company has released at least 50 independent albums, including records by Jal, Strings, Adnan Sami, Rabbi Shergill and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. He also relaunched the defunct EMI Records label as EMI Records India, in partnership with Mohit Suri, “one of the greatest A&R (artists and repertoire) people on the planet". The idea is to give Indian independent artists a platform to compete with the Bollywood mainstream.

But that’s just one half of the plan. The other half is to take an Indian musician and turn him/her into a global pop star. In fact, he says, the first attempt to do that is already “within the network". Having been remarkably forthright all afternoon, he suddenly turns secretive. “I can’t give you any details, but things are happening, so keep an eye out," he says. “I think it’s in my destiny to crack the first Indian talent overseas, and I’m going to do it."

There are a total of five guitars in Sanyal’s office, with one, a custom 1967 Gibson Les Paul (“only a handful in the country and it plays like a dream"), occupying pride of place in the corner. But Sanyal’s favourite guitar is a Kramer Flying V, the guitar of choice for metal musicians in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “I got it for free when Kramer endorsed Brahma in the late 1990s," he says, adding that they were the first band in the country to get an endorsement deal. “It’s this beautiful black and white Kramer and I still play it often."

His other major passion—apart from playing metal—is his vinyl collection. Having worked non-stop for 26 years, moonlighting as the frontman of a very busy band for 15 of them, I wonder if he’s worried about burnout. “If you come to work to have a party and play, you can never burn out," he declares. “Though I might have a heart attack and die."

He starts digging through his phone, scrolling through photographs from his live gigs to show me one that features him dressed in a sleeveless black T-shirt and torn jeans, microphone in hand, sweat glistening on his forehead. “This is who I am, at work, on stage, in life," he says. “It’s a bit hard-core, but you know what, it’s okay to be hard-core."

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