Interview of the Week – Mandar Thakur, COO, Times Music

In recent times, the Indian music industry has been undergoing a transformation. The rise of desi hip hop, regional music industries, incorporating technology as well as independent and established artists launching their own music labels have had a strong impact on the Indian music industry.

A man who has been at the helm of one of India’s leading music labels and also chairs the Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) Board and sits on the boards of The Indian Performing Right Society Limited (IPRS), Indian Music Industry (IMI) and Phonographic Digital Limited (PDL) is Mandar Thakur, COO, Times Music.

Apart from performing these roles in the Indian music industry, Thakur is also active on the global industry affairs stage.

In our Interview of the Week, we spoke to Mandar Thakur about the industry’s obsession with technology, Indian music industry making it big globally, importance of copyright education, and more.

It’s like asking should a car mechanic be bothered about the car garage business.
Certainly a musician should be bothered about copyright education. But is that a priority over say, crafting phenomenal songwriting skills – then no. Musicians are uniquely gifted individuals and over all else the polishing of skills related to creating music are way more important than anything else. In my view if 90 % of time is spent on crafting good songs and 10 % on finding great skilled champions of your music who are skilled in copyrights and their exploitation then its most of the battle won. Remember copyrights are utterly useless commercially without owning/creating songs that have resonated with multitudes of people who’re paying to hear them in some shape or form.

Is the much hyped Indian hip hop scene fizzling out? Which is the genre that will gain popularity soon?

I am not the best expert on the desi hip hop music scene. Hip hop music, as I know it, like rock music had a start in the US many years ago as ‘real’ music.

It was rooted in a particular community, it had angst that got a voice, lyrics that found a groove and songs that resonated with relevance. It was poetry set to an urban loose beat that signified a manner of sorts
Over the years that’s translated to different avatars and glamour attached and back to its original roots. I like what the desi hip hop scene has become. For me the greatest joy is that its artist related. For the Indian music business there can’t be greater joy than an artist centric scene away from the shadows of the film music business.

It’s a dichotomy of sorts that in this country we still need Bollywood to mass popularise it. It’s a good thing that the scene can piggy back off Bollywood and it’s a bad thing that it still needs to have that as a crutch. Kudos and a big up to all the players in the desi hip hop scene. It’s still got a long way to go. Eventually the songs are the North Star of any music scene. Never just the scene. The real breakthrough will happen when the songs start going bonkers.

International labels signing artists like Girish & The Chronicles, Prateek Kuhad etc means that there could be no Indipop invasion of the world like K-pop and artistes from any country will be signed. Your thoughts?

I think we should cool our engines down a few notches or Indipop may turn to Indipoop very quickly

Baby steps are the key to doing anything. Just because Prateek Kuhad and a few others get signed to some international labels does not mean that there will be an ‘Indipop invasion of the world.’

I have the greatest respect for Prateek and have met him a couple times at conferences abroad and seen him play at lunch hours in some of them when people weren’t even that interested.

It takes amazing talent, sheer persistence, zero ego, a great team and the ability to blindly keep going to get where Prateek has and for that- kudos to him . Talent alone is absolutely not enough and he’s demonstrated a focus and level of persistence that separates the wheat from the chaff!

The K pop scene is just very different. It’s a systemised, institutionalised approach and heavily curated. Stuff like that is unique to the Koreans and we should not ape them .We should do what we are good at

It’s not about a scene as much as it’s about the songs that break through. The scene gets formed around and after that. Just imagine what happened in California and Los Angeles in the mid 60’s with the singer – songwriter movement around Laurel Canyon or mega significant things like the Boston Tea Party and you will realise that’s how a ‘scene’ is formed.

What India needs are breakthrough songs. We simply do not have enough focus on songwriting. Anybody can write a song. It’s about writing songs that laboriously are sweated over till they resonate and feel from their very pore – every word, every tone, every harmony, every scale, every breath, every arrangement, every instrument and so on (strangely Bollywood is very good at this …almost like the desi version of the infamous Brill Building in New York in the 60’s or 70’s that was the hit song writing hub).

And after that if we are lucky then a song breaks and makes some real noise. Then interest from the rest of the world comes and consumers follow.

Every artist today is launching a record label and everyone thinks DIY is the way to go. Do you think this should be their first port of call? How should artists connect with players in power so that they can gain more knowledge, make connections, cut deals and generally advance their careers?

Starting a label these days is like starting a political party. Everyone has an opinion that they want to express. We are a democratic country and hence everyone is free to do what they want. For the better part of the last decade most people spent their time spelling the death of music labels and the rise of DIY. Then when the label and overall music business boomed like crazy , everyone figured out that may as well jump onto it and say their piece and sing a different tune and ‘do it right’.

Fact is real indie labels are based on passion to create a certain style of music that’s not accepted ‘yet’ by the majors …till of course it’s managed to create a dust storm. But that’s how it is in any business. The majors at scale can only really deal with the gravity defying acts. Everything else is to be developed and that’s where real A&R comes in.

As far as how should artists connect with people in power in the music business who can advance their careers – that’s the million dollar question. Everyone’s not just waiting about for some new artist to come hit them. And that’s the first thing new artists should understand- stop being entitled. Nobody owes you anything – least of all anyone in the music business. Everyone’s come up the hard way in some shape and form and once we start respecting that – things start becoming a little easy.

Best way to go about making connections is to make those connections without expecting anything in return. If you don’t have the ability to want to genuinely meet new people, see someone else’s point of view, learn new tricks of the trade and just be happy to get around then you mostly may not be able to really make connections. If you are the introverted type – find a reliable partner or champion who can do all this for you.

Secondly – I see this at conferences a lot. I have met some really cool new artists and young execs cutting their teeth and have met some really entitled, irritating people who will keep after you. Fact is that unless you’re able to forge a patient and meaningful connection – this doesn’t work.

Thirdly I would suggest to artists to keep moving about. The more exposure you have the better you will be and the better your grasp on things and your connections. Don’t expect to sit in Mumbai and hope to make it in LA.

Is the music business’ obsession with AI of any use?

Again a double edged sword! AI is most certainly of use in so many ways and has / will make life easier in music – both creatively and on the business side. Will it replace A&R- I certainly don’t think so

There’s a saying ‘In God we trust, all else bring data’. And that is so true anywhere in the entertainment business today. It’s easy to mistake gut feel when all it may be is a confirmation bias. With 100 % of the business being digital it’s just obvious that data and correctly analysing that data is key to so much mapping of consumer tastes. People have got it wrong that artists are in control or that the labels are. It’s the consumer who’s in ultimate control. And to learn – that AI is critical.

On the creative side, the human element scores so much over AI. It’s sad that artist careers are so short lived now. It’s sad that the music business also has gone to the boardrooms that can’t see beyond the quarter. For real long term sustained growth we need to develop artist’s careers over a longer span of time. Few million views on YouTube and a few Instagram reels can’t be called a hit and success. AI won’t bring that level of success.

What’s the next frontier for growth in the music business?

I think I just answered that question above. Long careers in music and development of songs that span way more than 60 seconds of popularity is where i think the next real growth will come from. Artists who are able to deliver that will rule.

At the end of the day nothing is more ravishing than a hit song. All else falls in place after that.

What do you think is lacking in brands and their associations with music?

I am happy to see almost a 100 % jump in Brands associating with music every couple years. But fact is that the opportunity field is far higher.

Today for usage of songs in advertising films (sync usage), we still don’t have music supervision as a career. So the brand guy makes a choice of which track they want to use. But a slightly more sophisticated way to do it would be via skilled music supervisors who understand rights , sonic identities , alternate tracks and usage of the correct ‘sound’ for that particular sequence , or brand or usage . We mostly get sync requests for hits in India. And that’s sad when strangely most of the overseas sync usage is really for unknown songs that work for the scene.

I think brands need to grow beyond the basic usage of sponsorships and brand associations in music to creating properties that they build together with the music business and artists.

Lastly most brands chase the same puck in artist/song choices. But if one were to get more creative and utilise a more targeted approach to further brand salience using a wider repertoire of music, I would imagine they would get much better ROI.

Globally the music business has seen a huge infusion of structured private equity capital and public capital. Is such capital probably going to find its way into India? Are Indian companies valuable enough to scale?

Music, movies and other entertainment assets are as valuable as any other asset class from a investments point of view. If the songs are a hit then royalty income is steady and will last decades and is recession proof. If anything the Covid pandemic has shown that music will always thrive. In the US probably over 10 Billion USD worth of deals have happened over the last couple of years

Composers who sold their copyrights have made piles of returns. Funds who secured them now believe that music is like any other valuable asset class like gold or securities or equity or real estate.

Although none of this is actually new. In the mid 90’s during my time at Channel V, I was at the Midem music conference in France and at that time David Bowie and some other artists and songwriters had introduced securitised royalty bonds that were recognised by the SEC in the US. David’s were called Bowie Bonds and were traded legitimately.

I think Indian companies are very valuable from a global scale point of view. Just look at the sheer amount of the Indian populace , our familiarity with English , fact that today the epicentre of Hollywood’s been moved by NetFlix and generations of viewers are consuming entertainment in any language . India is the last Greenfield market left on earth (apart from Africa to an extent). It would be short sighted indeed if structured capital doesn’t find its way into the more progressive Indian outfits.

You have been leading Times Music since years, what are the goals Times Music is chasing currently? Could you describe how the label has transformed under your leadership?

Times Music has been a dear journey for me. I have always moved from starting something as an entrepreneur to being in a corporate and vice versa. This was a turnaround job for which I was hired that became a growth job as it went along. I work with an absolutely fantastic team of people – perhaps one of the best teams in the industry and all of them are the real strength of Times Music

When I came here this was a boutique physical label dealing in spiritual and devotional music and today we are one of the topmost digitally progressive music businesses in South Asia that straddle both label side and publishing side with sheer dominance in the super growing Punjabi music scene besides pop music and non-film music.

We are openly acknowledged as one of the pioneers in developing the music publishing business in India when it was nothing and not even present in law and we also represent large global music publishing companies in India like Warner Chappell, Peer Music and Wixen amongst others since many years.

But what am most proud of is the musical direction we have pivoted to a few years ago whilst maintaining our roots. We control a large part of the Punjabi music market via our continued and renewed partnership with Speed Records – one of the world’s largest Punjabi labels.

For us the goal is always a more creative goal. We believe that if we focus on the songs and the music, the marketing and growing our repertoire – all else will follow. We keep an extremely open outlook towards licencing music across platforms and beyond streaming.

Times Music has also signed Deedar Kaur, sister of phenomenal Bollywood singer Asees Kaur, to a management deal. Deedar has a great voice and has the right temperament. We are in no hurry to break her into some Instagram star. We are plotting her journey the old fashioned way – via great songs and more consistent marketing and building her fan base.

Besides running Times Music, you also chair the PPL Board and sit on the boards of the IPRS, IMI and PDL and are extremely active not only in the Indian music industry affairs but also on the global industry affairs stage too. From where you sit what vision do you see for the music industry and its most valuable asset: the artists?

It’s strange that I ended up here. I used to do lights for rock concerts, was a roadie and used to manage a band when I was very young. And somehow professional life criss crossed to helping create the music television industry in India, the digital music industry in South Asia and now the resurgence of the music industry and I now find myself in the epicentre of it all where creativity and business collide.

From what I see music will now be on such a scorching growth path with new talent emerging every day, new platforms developing in use cases like never before, insatiable consumption, structured capital being infused – that the business will keep continuously evolving into new avatars. To stay atop all these changes is the real challenge.

Importantly the consumer touch points in the music entertainment business will keep growing courtesy technology and the fact that music is an essential lifestyle drug today. I see the usage of AI and data analytics being deployed far sooner and consumer learnings/insights will be a very key differentiator of success.

Globally music is touching far more lives than almost anything else. I have already mentioned that as an asset class this is a very solid investment and proof the pudding is in the deal flows that everyone’s been reading about.

New Artists are the music industry’s most valuable lifeline. For them I believe that music will finally be a much sustainable line of work and opportunities to grow artistically and commercially will be far higher today than they were over the last 20 years – as touch points to consumers increase daily.

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