Vikram Mehra of Saregama: The music maker

Vikram Mehra, MD, Saregama (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)
Vikram Mehra, MD, Saregama (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)


The managing director of music label Saregama on encouraging an environment of risk-taking, seeking the opinion of his younger colleagues, and why it’s not always about technology

Every corner of the Saregama office on Mumbai’s Grant Road pays a tribute to Hindi movies and music. From Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle to Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman, posters of iconic films, actors, singers and composers adorn the walls of the otherwise contemporary, sleek workplace of India’s oldest music label, nestled on the second floor of the Spencer building. While meeting rooms have apt names like Antara and Mehfil, strains of Chhoti Si Kahaani Se (from the 1987 film Ijaazat), greet you right at the entrance.

It’s obvious that managing director Vikram Mehra, 53, is a huge fan of films and songs from the 1970s and 1980s, which he refers to as his formative years. In fact, the first time he met Bhosle in person, Mehra says he had one request. “I touched her feet and said, aap mere liye bas ek cheez kar dijiye (please do just one thing for me). Please sing Do Lafzon Ki," Mehra recalls, referring to the superhit romantic number from The Great Gambler starring Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman that Mehra had watched in Jaipur’s iconic single-screen cinema Raj Mandir in 1979.

Growing up, Mehra spent time away from classes and studies at Raj Mandir and other now-defunct cinemas in Jaipur, watching Bachchan films like Trishul, Namak Halaal and Sharaabi, and singing along to the chartbusters. In October 2014, when the offer to join Saregama came, Mehra, who was then chief commercial officer at DTH (direct-to-home) company Tata Play (then Tata Sky Ltd) and had a background in advertising and marketing at companies like Star India and Tata Motors, didn’t think twice.

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He dived right into things, first initiating a return to film music acquisition—backed by the company board—that Saregama had paused for a couple of years as it struggled with declining physical sales and rising piracy levels. In 2017, he introduced the game-changer Carvaan, a portable digital audio player with 5,000 pre-loaded yesteryear songs that the music label by virtue of its decades-old history, owned the rights to.

The personal jukebox spoke specifically to the 40-plus generation that was then hugely wary of paying for new technology to access music, an insight that came up when Mehra and his team conducted research surveys across the country to find out why enough people weren’t paying for their music. The demographic said it missed the days of the radio that could play at home all day long and not require manual intervention. However, in a world waking up to streaming apps, the idea of what looked like a portable music player didn’t seem the safest bet.

“I thought, if I do what everyone considers safe, what is the point? If I step into an area people are scared of but I believe in, I should be able to bring about a change. There are two things to this—if you’re happy doing what you are, your contribution will become that much greater. If you’re doing it only because there is no other option or because society expects you to, ya ghar chalana hai (you have to pay the bills), you will never be able to manage that extra delta that a happy person can," says Mehra. His bets have paid off: Saregama reported quarterly net profit of 53.80 crore in March 2024, up 9.17% from 49.28 crore in March 2023. The company clocked net sales of 63.05 crore in March 2024, up 26.83% from 207.41 crore last year.

We are seated in Mehra’s cabin that pays its own little homage to yesteryear Hindi cinema. Paintings of two favourites, Nutan from the 1957 black-and-white romance Paying Guest and Raakhee from the 1971 drama Lal Patthar, catch your eye while a huge gramophone makes its presence felt in a corner. The paintings belong to a collection owned by the Goenkas, the founding family of Saregama (currently owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group). But Mehra chose which ones he wanted in his office.

Mehra, who has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, says that growing up, he was the proverbial movie-crazy child in the family.

“What I studied is entirely because of the kind of childhood I had and my family, and what I am today is because I broke out of it somewhere," Mehra says. Born into a middle-class family (his father was a director at the Geological Survey of India) in an era where there were literally only three career options available for children, he adds that the civil services didn’t fascinate him and medicine was not his cup of tea. Hence, engineering it was by default. “What those years have left in my head is the idea of always looking at the right side of the menu, and whether anything makes sense from a value perspective or not," he says.

It helped that childhood onwards, his only idea of “me time" was sitting with a cup of tea or a drink in hand, on a weekend, listening to Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle or Jagjit Singh. “While all my friends were into Western music big time, and I loved Michael Jackson as well, the high truly came from listening to Kishore Kumar. Music of that era still means so much to me. It’s like it talks to me. I firmly believe music that you listen to in your formative years remains with you till the day you die because it’s full of nostalgia. That helped me take that risk (of joining Saregama)," Mehra says, referring to the label best known for its older catalogue, including Hindi film songs going back the 1940s and 1950s.

The fact that everyone around warned him nothing would come out of going to the “old company" only strengthened the resolve of stepping out of what was deemed a conventionally safe zone.

He adds, “Secondly, and I speak from experience, we need to increase our risk-taking abilities. As children, we’re constantly told by our parents what to do, which is different from how it works in the West, which is not to say they are superior or we are inferior. But we’re not left on our own, which is why our ability to take risks is relatively low. Our parents are always around to protect us. You cannot be No.1 at anything unless you stick your neck out and have a high risk-taking ability."

Mehra has incorporated the learning into his own role as a leader where he doesn’t like to micromanage and instead, gives his team space to experiment and learn from their mistakes. He spends a significant amount of time talking to younger employees to see how their worldview can be incorporated into strategies.

“I didn’t understand what we could do with Snapchat or Reddit and these are all important marketing tools for us now to reach our end customer," he says. He’s spent the last few days tinkering with Apple Vision Pro, something one of the youngsters taught him. “I have a big thing for people under the age of 30. They have been brought up in India post 1990-91. People older than them are a bit deferential towards hierarchy. The younger lot speaks its mind. And we have a clear philosophy of first names in the organisation," Mehra says.

The company takes great pains to build a culture where people are encouraged to take risks rather than play safe and give returns, Mehra says. “Are we geniuses to know whether something will work? No. But we have that keeda to try things. Of course, when you take a risk, it has to be well-researched and thought through," he says and is quick to add, “What’s the worst that can happen? Even if you’re thrown out, you will land a job somewhere else, at maybe a slightly lower pay. But you can’t live your life thinking of all that could go wrong if you take a risk."

More recently, enhancing its risk-taking abilities and looking beyond the realm of music, the firm has forayed into content production, backing movies such as the 2024 Malayalam police procedural Anweshippin Kandethum and 2022 Marathi horror-comedy Zombivli via its studio arm Yoodlee Films, besides organising live events and launching Padhanisa, an AI-based music app for self-learning.

A big lesson from Carvaan, Mehra says, is that perhaps companies are over-engineering to make products for people who are not ready for them. The portable music player was meant specifically for an audience that wasn’t tech-savvy.

“Innovation is key, but it’s not always about technology. There is also an anthropological lens to it. Innovation is about understanding your customer and they are not just your spouse, driver and the three other people in your circle. India is a diverse country. Strategy and positioning are not just about what we are, but also what we are not," he says, adding, “When you want to be something to everybody, you end up being nothing to anybody. You cannot have a little of everything, you have to target one philosophy. And that’s something we follow."

The need to balance commercial interests with quality of content is an important one, especially in an industry like Mehra’s that constantly straddles accusations of new music not being good enough. “As a company, we believe in predictive modelling. It doesn’t tell us exactly what’s going to work but it gives us an idea of how much we can expect to make, based on which how much we should spend. If the math is working, you go out there and take that risk," Mehra says.

The other big diktat internally is that music selection cannot be done by anybody who is above 30.

“That excludes me as well. Majority of our music is heard by people under the age of 30. So it makes far more sense for younger people to take these decisions. One may be sitting in a position of power but that doesn’t mean one has the best ear in the market. The financial calling may be my strength and how much to spend is where people senior in the company should come in," he says.

Mehra is quick to admit that at the end of the day, he doesn’t always know if a song is going to catch on. In fact, it may especially not work for him to take all calls on selection of music in a company like theirs which is often releasing six to eight songs per day across Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Bhojpuri, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Chattisgarhi and Odia.

“I’m neither god, nor Tansen, nor am I blessed like some celebrities in the industry. I’m just a regular guy who knows how to run the business of entertainment," he says.

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