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Needed: A School for the Business of Music



What makes for a good executive in the music business? Where does one locate fresh talent that would make for a good music business executive? What sort of qualifications does someone need, to get employed in the business?

Again, a topic that’s not been discussed enough and one that certainly hasn’t elicited any action. Possibly because the need to have trained, specialized executives in the business hasn’t been stressed upon enough. Maybe because in today’s world, kids don’t aim to stay in one industry throughout their careers so would rather do a general management course, rather than specialize in the music business.

Fair enough.

Yet, there are others who would give an arm and a leg to be in the music industry and in particular, a music label. I used to marvel at someone like V.T.Ravi when I was a journalist at Sun magazine. He worked with the Gramophone Company of India. V.T. had chucked his job as an IAS officer to join the music business and in fact, 33 years later is still one of the most respected people in the business! Later, Azhar Hakim became one of my closest colleagues and friends at Magnasound. Hold on to your hat. Azhar was a qualified doctor! And just a few days ago, I got a call from a former army officer who wanted to join the music business!

What drives these folks and others like them? It has to be a burning passion for music. To be surrounded by music all the time. To turn your hobby into your profession, as I was fortunate enough to do. Then, work never feels like work. You enjoy every moment of it, no matter what role you’re playing.

Yet, passion isn’t enough. The business of music is about making money. Which comes from licensing rights. Which in turn means a knowledge of these rights. Which are found in a thin book called The Copyright Act of India! Which is not taught in business school. And is certainly not read for pleasure instead of novels by Ken Follett or Sydney Sheldon!

Not interested in licensing of rights? Want to work with artistes instead? No problem. Just meet Shubha Mudgal and walk her through the clauses of a contract of service. Oh! She said she thinks it should be a contract for service instead? What do you think?

And if you feel doing a degree in law takes care of that problem, here’s another one for you. The Black Eyed Peas management called and said they want to use a 30 second sample of ‘Ae Naujawan Sab Kuchh Yahan’ in their song ‘Don’t Phunk With My Heart’. Please negotiate a fair ownership of the work, a substantial royalty on the sound recording and an advance that makes sense but isn’t a deal breaker. Oh, did I mention there are 12 owners of the song?

If you’re not at sea after reading this, please send your CV immediately to your nearest music label!

You get the picture. Nothing trains executives to deal with issues like these, apart from experience. Which is why the music labels were an incestuous place up to about 15 years ago as experienced professionals switched jobs within the industry. Today so many more organizations have become part of the music business, like the multi channel networks, the streaming platforms, the VAS teams of mobile operators, artiste management companies, event organizers, digital music distributors, content aggregators, software developers….the list goes on. In addition to radio and television stations and copyright societies. There is opportunity to work with music in all these organizations but guess what? It all entails knowledge of rights, contracts, the law and a good evaluation of content. That’s the specialist part. Plus there’s the whole understanding of what makes for good marketing in music and of course, as I said in my piece on A&R, dealing with the sensitivity of artistes. Now you may see why an IIM doesn’t top my choice of places to look for music executives! 

Recruiting graduates from management schools became popular and then almost an obsession for music labels around the turn of the century. Sometimes the recruits shaped up brilliantly, like my Magnasound ex colleagues Deepak Jaswani and Vikas Tandon, both still in the entertainment business and doing extremely well. At other times the story wasn’t as shiny and bright. A lot depends on the brief the recruits are given when being hired. I’ve been horrified to hear these greenhorns being told by senior management that ours was an unstructured industry and with their qualifications, they could make it a more professional place!! Can you imagine the attitude that these kids then bring into the office everyday and the disrespect they have towards their seniors?

The funniest experience I had was when I was with Saregama and the then MD asked me to speak with a kid calling from some business school who seemed keen to join us. After half an hour, I managed to get a word in edgeways to tell the guy that the job he was looking for was at a film production house and not in a music label since he talked only about movies and movie making. He immediately asked if I could introduce him to Yash Chopra, since he could tell Yashji what kind of films to make, what stories would work in the Indian market and what was wrong with some of Yash ji’s films! I was flabbergasted. Obviously there’s more in those Philip Kotler books than I’m aware of!

So how did we learn the business since we never went to B school or did a course in music management? We learnt on the job thanks to some great bosses and mentors. I never tire of repeating that Shashi Gopal has been my greatest mentor and then some colleagues like Gautam Sarkar and Soumitra Maitra, friends like Hardeep Singh Anand and Vipul Pradhan and so many others, taught me the fundamentals of manufacturing, costing, operations, sales, digital, publishing, the functioning of copyright societies and so much more. It’s been 31 years and I’m still learning.

I was lucky. The industry was in transition. I had the latitude of time. Today it isn’t so and recruits can get pitchforked into any of these aspects of the business. Wouldn’t it be good if they already possessed a certain amount of specific knowledge before they took up their responsibilities?

We’ve sometimes discussed the setting up of such a school. Shameer Tandon, Archana Pednekar and I sat on a blueprint and even met a builder in Pune for campus space but being working folk, never could pursue it seriously. Another Saregama ex-colleague called Sareata Ginda who is based in London, tried to get the University of Westminster to start offering its music business course here but the issue really is that the business model isn’t attractive to anyone putting in the money. So the conversation veers off into teaching people how to play musical instruments, sing etc and the business school starts looking like a poor cousin of The True School Of Music! We need something quite different.

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Author: Shashank Shah

1 thought on “Needed: A School for the Business of Music”

  1. Being a Music maverick is a bliss. Far more when you can live music and live for music.

    Unfortunately, commercial dramas and traumas are hitting music and entertainment industries together. Sometime passion and originality are sidelined and shallow ideas are given prominence. If this mindset of label companies change, I am sure music can be more resourceful for business and reformat for society.

    Last we can do with the Music.

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