When Jay Mehta met with Warner Music Group president of emerging markets Alfonso Perez-Soto about establishing an outpost in India for the major, he had a pretty clear idea of what he would be up against. At the time, Mehta was working as the head of digital business at Sony Music India, which, along with Universal Music India, had established beachheads there in the 1990s. (In fact, WMG had previously contracted with Sony to distribute its music there.) And local giant T-Series, an Indi-pop and Bollywood soundtrack label, had been in the market since 1983.
Warner Music India (WMI) would have a lot of catching up to do in order to fulfill Perez-Soto’s mandate that it become one of India’s “top three” music companies posthaste, but Mehta, who was born and raised in Mumbai, India, says that only intensified his desire to do the job. “I have never wanted to work with a market leader,” he says. “It’s always more exciting being the challenger.”
It’s a path Mehta has chosen repeatedly since graduating from business school in 2004. He passed on a job offer from a top retail bank to join Reliance Communications and become part of India’s telecom boom. Stints at three more telcos followed before Mehta switched to another rapidly growing sector, the privatization of FM radio in India, which took off in the early 2000s.
A successful run at the station Big FM, where he moved “from sales head to station head to business head,” piqued Mehta’s interest in knowing “how music is made and what goes into creating an artist’s journey.” That curiosity led to Sony, where, while running digital business, he emphasized the importance of data in driving decisions.
Mehta’s move to WMG came with an unexpected complication that threatened to derail his plans: WMI launched in March 2020 as the pandemic ground the globe to a halt, but the executive, who says his mantra is “Win every day,” wasted no time in putting points on the board. Within the first six months of WMI’s existence, the fledgling company executed a licensing deal with Mumbai-based label Tips Music, which owns rights to a trove of soundtracks from some of the most popular Bollywood movies of the ’90s and 2000s — music that dominates streaming in India. It also quickly closed a series of partnership deals to distribute increasingly popular Indian regional-language music and founded Maati, a label devoted to another emerging genre, Indian folk music.
With those sectors poised for growth, Mehta says WMI is now focused on two goals: “To make international artists household names in India and to take the Indian sound global.” He calls the latter his “passion project,” while detailing the steps WMI has taken to make inroads on the global charts. As for breaking Warner’s global stars in India, Mehta is showing progress. At one point in 2021, he says WMG had 11 of the top 50 songs on the Spotify India chart. “There was Alec Benjamin, Masked Wolf, Dua Lipa — it wasn’t just one artist.” And then there’s Nigerian singer-songwriter CKay, who is signed to Warner South Africa. His hit “Love Nwantiti” recently broke the record for most weeks at No. 1 on the Indian Music Industry (IMI) International Singles chart. India, Mehta adds, accounts for 15% of the track’s global streams on Spotify. “That really makes me happy,” he says.
What made WMG finally launch in India?
They had been planning to launch in India for some time. Sony was distributing Warner’s content here, and when that deal was up around the end of 2019, they decided to take the plunge.
Why did you want the job?
When I was talking about this role with Alfonso, he told me, “If you’re ready to push the boundaries, we will give you all the freedom you need to become a top three label.” That really excited me. Warner doesn’t want to be a small player.
How do you plan to take on established companies?
lt’s going to be a combination of things: inorganic growth through partnerships and acquisitions, signing leading artists and growth from [new and underdeveloped] sectors. The pace at which we’ve moved in the last 18 months — in spite of spending the majority of it in lockdown — gives me a lot of confidence.
What is your current priority?
Our single-minded focus, and the foundation of our [business strategy] pyramid, is to make international artists household names in India. What I’m most excited about — and what I want artists to take notice of — is that for almost all the top acts across international audio streaming platforms, such as YouTube, Spotify and Apple, India is a top five market. “Levitating” by Dua Lipa is the longest-running song on the IMI International Top 20 Singles chart, and CKay’s “Love Nwantiti” broke the record there for the most weeks at No. 1. India is driving more streams for the song than any other country.
What was the strategy behind your Bollywood play?
The second layer of the pyramid is the huge Hindi-Bollywood belt. Tips has the third-biggest Bollywood catalog after Saregama and T-Series. That’s why we partnered with them and distribute their content. They release three to four films a year, which already gives me my Bollywood market share. But we’ve also signed a long-term deal with Jjust Music and Pooja Films [which are owned by the same family] that have film and nonfilm music. The idea is building nonfilm music on the scale of film music, and since Pooja is a big production house, they have access to actors [who can record or star in the videos of nonfilm songs] and enable us to make this transition seamlessly. We’ve also signed a licensing and distribution deal with Vishesh Films [which has a number of hit soundtracks]. Obviously, I don’t have a strong enough catalog to compete with a T-Series, but eventually it will build up.
Was that also the thinking behind the regional-language music deals you’ve made?
Within regional-language music, the biggest is Punjabi. There, we did two big partnerships. One was with the company Ziiki Media, which is also a huge multichannel network on YouTube [with over 35 million subscribers in India]. The other was a partnership with Sky Digital, which has 65 sublabels [with rosters that include singers] Sunanda Sharma, Mankirt Aulakh and Kaka. Whichever genre or language we want to enter, we’ll get 50% of the top 20 artists.
What other regional-language deals have you done?
The next fastest-growing markets are the Bhojpuri and Haryanvi languages. If you look at the top 10 of YouTube’s India chart, at least three of the songs are in Bhojpuri or Haryanvi. That’s why we partnered with JetSynthesys’ Global Music Junction sublabel, which has a library of close to 7,000 songs. Those languages are going through the same journey that Punjabi music did. Almost 90% of their music is only on YouTube; just 10% is available for audio streaming. That’s a big focus for me: How can I bridge this gap in India, which has 450 million YouTube users and 180 million audio streaming users?
Why did you start Maati?
If you look at the last three years, the biggest hits have been based on folk melodies, but the original artists have not gotten any recognition. The idea of Maati is to build these artists. The initiative is very close to my heart because it will give folk music a national platform. Like the track “Phool Khilala” by the artist Priyanka Meher, which a lot of people were telling me doesn’t sound commercially appealing. It was trending on Instagram in December.
What are you doing to make Indian music hit globally?
We’ve taken small steps, like the Amaal Mallik remix of Dua Lipa’s “Levitating.” It’s an English remix with a Hindi verse, and, initially, the United States was its biggest market. That has never happened for Amaal. We did “Echo” with Armaan Malik, Eric Nam and KSHMR. Markets that were never open for Armaan opened with that release. We’ve now signed a singles distribution and licensing deal with him for all his Hindi nonfilm music.
Signing [U.K.-based, half-Indian, half-Serbian singer] Rika is an extension of this step. She can sing in Hindi and English fluidly. There are collaborations between her, Sean Paul and Alec Benjamin in the works. Recently, we signed Sunidhi Chauhan [best known as a playback singer who provides vocals for lip-syncing Bollywood actors] for an English album that will have a global release.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the Indian music industry today?
For me, it’s how soon India becomes a paying market. A few years back, we had the issue of piracy. YouTube, to a large extent, helps with this problem. All the new audio streaming services [such as Spotify and Resso], which have expanded the market, are helping. But a very high percentage of consumers use them for free. How do we transition to a robust return-on-investment business? In our conversations with digital service providers, we are putting additional restrictions by increasing the ad load. The pace at which YouTube is growing subscriptions in India is very encouraging, but the step before that is engagement. Only when consumers start using these platforms for a certain number of hours per day will they start paying for music.