Five years ago, Anjula Acharia-Bath was working as a senior partner at the London-based executive search firm Forsyth Group.
Today, she runs an entertainment/lifestyle website focused on South Asian (Desi) culture called Desi Hits! (desihits.com), has an imprint with Universal Music Group (UMG) and counts Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine and Lady Gaga manager Troy Carter among her trusted business partners.
The last few years have been a whirlwind for the Buckinghamshire, England, native, who launched Desi Hits! in 2006 with her husband Ranj Bath and his cousin Arun Sandhu as an outgrowth of their popular South Asian music podcast Desi Hits Radio.
By January 2007, the site completed a series A funding round with investments from venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and venture capital/private equity firm Trident Capital. And a year later, it announced a second round of funding totaling $5 million from DFJ, Trident and investment firm D.E. Shaw Group.
In addition to its business-savvy founders, Desi Hits! has attracted the interest of investors and recording industry big shots thanks to the sprawling size of the global Desi diaspora, the commercial potential of the Indian market and the increasingly frequent incursions of South Asian culture into the West, as evidenced by the success of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire," the music of M.I.A. and the Bollywood influence heard in the production work of Timbaland and RedOne.
The latest venture from Desi Hits!: signing Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra to a recording contract with an eye on crossing her over to a global audience.
In an interview with Billboard, Acharia-Bath discussed the strategy behind Desi Hits! and the lessons it holds for artists and labels hoping to connect with new international music fans.
What kind of entertainment programming is your audience most interested in?
We wanted more than just Bollywood or just Western music. There's a lot of people like me. The South Asian demographic is one-fifth of the world's population. They're all over and they're eclectic, they're bicultural, they're bilingual. And they're not just interested in one type of content. I don't think there was anything out there that allowed them to really experience that in one place.
So myself growing up a South Asian born and raised in the U.K., I'd go to Indian sites for my Indian content, and I'd go to American sites or English sites for my Western content and I had to put it all together in my head somewhere and there was nowhere I could go that gave me all of it. We wanted to create content for that demographic and that demographic is global. It's in the U.K., it's in South Africa, the Middle East, Malaysia, India, Canada, the U.S.
One of the things that we've really built is the following of people that want to see big stars, whether it's Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Nicole Scherzinger, 50 Cent, whoever. They want to see big stars, great content, all related to them.
I could be sitting in India or I could be sitting in the U.K. and I could be watching an interview with-let's just say Lady Gaga-and Lady Gaga would be talking to a host and they'll be asking them about what's important to them. But there's nobody sitting there asking Lady Gaga, "Well, have you thought about India?" or "What are your thoughts on this or anything that relates to me as a brown person?"
I think having content which addresses you and having those stars address you-and actually talk to you in a way that really resonates with you-is very powerful. It's like BET. They're serving a black audience. There's a lot of crossover there-I watch BET, I have for years. You know when you're watching as a black person, it's made for you. I think Desi [Hits!] is made with a brown person in mind. But like BET, it has a lot of crossover opportunity. And I think if I'm a fan of Lady Gaga, for example, and I see her do something Bollywood or different, that's interesting to me whether I'm Indian or not because it's her and I love her.
What's your business model? the business model for Desi Hits!?
When it started off we were thinking very much around advertising and sponsorship and being a typical content company and licensing our content, and it has sort of evolved in different directions. Now we're also involved in our music label. To be honest with you, we're not focused on selling records. We leave that to Universal to do. What we're focused more on is building massive opportunities for our artists around touring and things and getting them into movies.
Bollywood is a huge film industry and it's all musical. The opportunities for music artists are immense. Our recent signing of Priyanka, I think, is going to be really trend-setting in India because up until now, it's been a different world out there. You've got singers and you've got Bollywood stars. Actors lip sync to the real singers and you've never had someone that's been a major Bollywood actress evolve and actually be a great singer. It's a really exciting time.
Has Priyanka Chopra recorded music before?
She'd done some demos. The way we found her was she was working with two producers called Salim and Sulaiman, who we've done some Gaga remixes with. She'd recorded a couple of tracks with them in their studio and those tracks would come over to me through our India office and I was like, "Wow, she can sing." She'd done one English song and one Hindi song. I was surprised and really excited. Myself and David Joseph, who is chairman/CEO of Universal Music U.K., went out to meet with her and we heard more of her music and that's when we realized we wanted to sign her.
There's never been a Bollywood star that has done this-come from Bollywood to Hollywood to be a Shakira or [Jennifer Lopez]-that sort of artist that's sort of taken over from that part of the world. We wanted to be the first to do that.
Chopra is recording her debut right now. Is she collaborating with anyone that we know?
It's too early to say at this moment in time but I definitely think there'll be collaborations. The amazing thing about Priyanka is that whoever collaborates with her, she opens a whole new audience for them. I mean huge. And vice versa-whoever she works with out here opens a huge audience for her too.
What kinds of artists are you looking to sign to your label?
Anyone that has roots in South Asia that we think can be a global act. We're not interested in creating niche artists. We're interested in big global acts, whether it be someone like M.I.A. or Jay Sean or Priyanka.
Are you looking to launch acts who will appeal beyond the Desi audience?
We're absolutely looking for universal artists, we're not looking for artists that just hit the South Asian demographic. We just want to be a platform for those artists that come from that world to go out to the whole rest of the world.
How did your partnership with Jimmy Iovine come about?
Jimmy Iovine was actually introduced to me by a fund that we didn't end up getting funded by. There's a fund called Greycroft and there was a gentleman there called Drew Lipsher. I pitched Drew a couple years ago, and we didn't end up moving forward with them. But Drew was like, "You have to meet Jimmy, he'll totally get this."
Other people didn't get us at all. I would meet people at UMG and they would just look at me blankly. And then I met Jimmy and I thought it was going to be another "I don't know what the hell you are talking about" conversation. I ended up spending the whole afternoon with him. We talked music and we talked India and he picked my brain.
We talked for hours about crossing artists over in Bollywood and this massive film industry that he was really intrigued by and understanding the economics of it and the fact that it was all musicals. And we talked about the whole U.K. demographic and how it's different and the remixes and how they've really developed their own subculture.
[On another occasion] he flew to New York and said, "Do you want to meet up?" He'd remembered the time I said to him there was this moment where everything changed for South Asians in the U.K.: the moment that Jay-Z and Panjabicq MC had done that track "Beware of the Boys." It kind of almost liberated the Asians in the U.K. We used to listen to Bhangra music in our cars with our windows up. And when Jay-Z jumped on that track and it became this international club track that everyone was playing, I remember those windows coming down. It was such a moment for South Asian people in the U.K. to be honored by such a huge mogul.
We were having breakfast and I was about to leave and he said, "No, no, hang on a bit longer," and I said, "Oh, OK." And then Jay walks in and he goes, "Oh, do you know Jay?" It was too funny.
[Iovine] kind of just shoved money in my hand and said, "I want to be part of what you're building."I knew I was doing something right when [Iovine]he described my business to Jay or other people. It was just incredible the way he summed it up and the way he saw it. Jimmy's about breaking barriers and doing things that nobody wanted to do. He's just got this foresight that I don't think anybody else has got. And he's been my mentor ever since.
How did you link up with Troy Carter?
Through Jimmy. We started working with Gaga when I first met Jimmy. Gaga wasn't who she is today. She was a fledgling act that he was talking about. We sort of grew her up in the Desi demographic and we started working with her right at the beginning. But I never worked with Troy, I always worked with Jimmy. A couple years later we were really focused on the U.K. and the South Asian demographic. We really weren't doing anything for India, we were just doing the U.K. demographic. Then Jimmy sent me an e-mail and said, "I'd like to introduce you to Troy to talk about breaking India for Gaga." The rest is history.
We started working really closely together and now he's on the advisory board for Desi Hits! as well and he's great. Then Priyanka came around and I said to Troy, "Hey, I have this artist I'm going to sign with Jimmy and David Joseph out in the U.K. and I think you'd be really great to manage her. Are you interested?" And he was like, "Sure why don't you bring her to the Gaga concert?"
He met her, they really clicked and then we signed her and Troy came to the party. He's got one of the most powerful women in the West and now he's got one of the most powerful girls in the East. He's got a great combination there.What kind of potential do you see in the Indian music market?
I think that India is an incredible market. I think you just have to know how to work it. I think touring is a really big opportunity there. Lots of bands, everyone from Taio Cruz to Britney Spears, Madonna-everybody has an opportunity out there. The key to India is to really understand Bollywood and figure out how to integrate what you're doing into mass pop culture, which is Bollywood.
One of the Black Eyed Peas' huge tracks was "Don't Phunk With My Heart." [It] is a complete take on two Bollywood1972 tracks ["Yeh Mera Dil" and "Ae Naujawan Hai Sub"]. if I played you those two tracks, you'd go, "Oh my God, that's "Don't Punk With My Heart," because they're exactly the same. I think Indian popular music merges so well with hip-hop and R&B and pop now because it's all sort of bled into one. I think there's a perfect storm going on right now.••••