June 2021: Interaction with Billboard International Power Player – Devraj Sanyal, MD and CEO, Universal Music Group, India & South Asia

“My greatest strength is in truly knowing that India is not my marketplace anymore & it hasn’t been for a while so when you know that the world is your playground, it changes your perspective & plans greatly”: Devraj Sanyal, MD and CEO, Universal Music Group, India & South Asia.


Universal Music India & South Asia is creating landmarks and setting the bar high for the industry to measure up to. One of the main reasons behind this is the man who leads the organisation from the front, Devraj Sanyal, MD and CEO, Universal Music Group, India & South Asia, who is also celebrating his 10th year in this prestigious company. 


Very recently, we saw two major milestones that Sanyal and his team have celebrated. Sanyal became the first-ever music label & publishing representative from India who made it to the super prestigious Billboard International Power Players List 2021. An accolade that not only does Universal Music India & South Asia proud but the Indian music industry in general too. As has this mention brought glory to the Indian music industry, so has the latest collaboration between Tesher and Jason Durelo too. Both these events in isolation showcase the growing stature of the Indian music industry and the artists in itself, on a global level. All this and more are bound to come in future too. But for now, it is time to celebrate these two important events. They bring cheer in the times where we are witnessing unfathomable grief in the country. But, things like these keep us moving forward with the hope for a better future.


Billboard annual International Power Players List recognizes the contribution of international music executives from across the globe (ex-U.S.). And, this year saw Devraj Sanyal, Universal Music India and South Asia’s MD and CEO highlighted for his contributions to introducing original Indian music and culture to a global audience in 2021’s list of executives. 


This recognition in the Billboard International Power Players list is a testament to the path-breaking industry-leading moves that Universal Music India has been making over the last three years. The company has a multi-pronged approach towards how music is made and marketed in India across all genres. UMG’s initiatives in non-film commercial music, HipHop and regional music space has been instrumental in shaping the way the music industry is evolving in India.


In a country traditionally obsessed with Bollywood Music, Universal Music India’s VYRL Originals was the first label dedicated to creating artist-centric music. With a vision of shaping and creating a culture and category of non-film music in India, VYRL Originals has been launching artists in the commercial non-film music space since 2018. VYRL Originals has been the catalyst and a label that has set the standard within the non-film music space, which since 2020, every Indian label has been focusing its resources towards.


Recognizing the changing fabric of music and artists in India, the company launched India’s first Hip-Hop label with an international outlook, Mass Appeal India in 2019. The label’s mission is to bring the underground hip-hop movement in India to the fore and take it to international audiences. In just 2 years, the label has a solid roster of artists and a catalogue that has also seen international acclaim and support. 

Beyond commercial pop and Hip-Hop, Universal Music India has consolidated and solidified its position in the regional space by partnering with India’s pioneer label from the Punjab region, Desi Melodies. This budding partnership was solidified in 2020 and has seen releases like Titliaan, Baarish Ki Jaaye and Banglow amongst others. The label is also home to some of the best talents from the region.


We reached out to Mr Devraj Sanyal to know what this means to him, he said, “I have won a fair share of awards, industry honours & made some pretty cool lists in my 25-year-old career but the one list I have wanted to be on for as long as I can remember, was the Billboard International Power Players List. So, for me personally, it is a moment of pure & unabashed personal pride but more than that it is a win for my opco “Universal Music India & South Asia” and for the Indian Music industry at large as this opens up the gates of the global streamscape in a very real way”, something that we can totally relate to. For a long time, we have been talking about the potential aspect, when we see it being acknowledged by the majors, we know we are headed for the right space.


We did quiz him about the impact Indian music is making in the international markets and the catalysts that work towards it and he replied, “Thus far, the only real Indian music that has made a dent outside our borders has been music that is relevant directly to the diaspora which is film music. There have been very few examples over the years where any local language has ever crossed over or come close to doing that. The real catalyst for this was having the global streaming services here & we have had them for a while. For any music to cross over you need a song available at the same time at every corner of the planet simultaneously & we have that now. I strangely think as I write this, that today maybe is the day when legitimately we will have a song that is truly capable of crossing over. Earlier this week we dropped a south Asian artist called Tesher with his song called Jalebi Baby which is a collab between him & the very legendary Jason Durelo. It’s a global Universal Music Group priority & it’s going to do what no song has done before so stay tuned”. 


That Devraj Sanyal has touched upon the collaboration, let us share more details about it as this is a big moment in Indian music. Canadian Indian rapper & producer Tesher and award-winning singer-songwriter Jason Derulo teamed up to reimagine Tesher’s global hit, “Jalebi Baby.” This song signifies the real-time evolution of Indian artists on a global landscape. When asked to share his views, the maker of the song, Tesher said, “My goal has always been to bring cultures together and create music that anyone can enjoy, regardless of language or background. Seeing ‘Jalebi Baby’ find listeners all over the world has been amazing, as has seeing big Billboard hits that don’t neatly fit into one genre or aren’t completely in English. It just shows that people are not only open to hearing new and unique sounds, but they crave them”. 


“Jalebi Baby,” which riffs on the classic South Asian dessert jalebi, was originally released in 2020. With its incredibly catchy chorus, an effortless blend of English and Punjabi lyrics and Latin-flavoured production, the song quickly became a viral sensation, topping the Shazam charts in 25+ countries and inspiring millions of videos across social media platforms. “Jalebi Baby” has amassed over 100 million combined global streams to date.


Talent recognition lies at the core of a good label. Tesher had recently signed a worldwide deal with Capitol Records in partnership with Universal Music India. Speaking about Tesher, Devraj Sanyal said, “We are excited to welcome Tesher to the global UMG family. His music has a unique and refreshing twist that has already helped him explode into global music culture, thanks to his exceptional tracks and remixes spreading rapidly across social media platforms. Together, we will work alongside Jeff and the team at Capitol Records in L.A., to ensure that Tesher’s music continues to reach new fans within India, South Asia and amongst the millions of diasporas around the world, but also to introduce his music to new audiences and other emerging markets around the world, utilizing UMG’s global network in more than 60 countries worldwide”. It is important to identify these talents and help them grow. This is being done well at UMI and is one of the reasons why Billboard recognises the same too.


It is important to know that in recent years, Universal Music India has led the Indian music market in the expansion of non-film music, and hip-hop in India, challenging the dominance of Bollywood music on the charts and accelerating the growth of original artists and music within the domestic Indian music market and beyond. One of the key persons driving this segment is Vinit Thakkar, COO, Universal Music Group, India & South Asia. Upon being asked about Devraj Sanyal being in the Billboard’s annual International Power Players List, he said, “This is a moment of absolute pride for not only all of us at UMG India & South Asia but also specifically for our region. In such a vibrant growing emerging market with culturally rich music and artists, it was time that we got some well-deserved global recognition. This is a collective victory for our industry and UMG India for our relentless endeavour to build an artist-centric music business in India. It’s now time to take our brand of music and artists on the path to global success”. While Vinit gave his views, we also had Shantanu S Gangane, VP Marketing Universal Music Group, India & South Asia share his thoughts, he said, “Devraj’s passion and infectious energy speaks volumes of how we operate at Universal Music Group in the region. It is a proud moment for us to see this recognition come through and I am sure it is a sign of how the Indian Music industry is now being perceived globally. The success of music and artists is more borderless than ever before, and I am confident that this paves the way for similar global recognition for Indian music and artists, and global hits in the future”.


In a nutshell, Devraj, Vinit & their teams are focused to take India to a global landscape, and this is not an ordinary goal. To reach this goal, one needs immense motivation. Hence, we asked Devraj Sanyal about his source of motivation to keep moving forward and keep scaling heights, to which he said, “I am my own motivation & I am crazy enough to think & know that my labels will be the first to cross over because we aren’t obsessed with film music like everyone else, so that gives us time, energy & resources to chase our vision & mission with alarming clarity. My colleagues both here & globally motivate me every day to get the next one, climb the next one, sign the next big one. My greatest strength is in truly knowing that India is not my marketplace anymore & it hasn’t been for a while so when you know that the world is your playground it changes your perspective & plans greatly”. And that truly sums up the vision once and for all, I guess!


But then again, building on this, we wanted to understand more from him about what is happening outside of India. Given his network, he would be one of the best to share insights. Given his engagement with international stakeholders, it was a natural question to ask, how does the outside world now see the Indian music industry and India in general? The reply, “I am definitely highly engaged with not only the UMG labels globally but the international bodies who represent the recorded music industry as well as the publishing industry. And all of them believe that India is an absolutely exciting future growth market despite all the issues. The fact that we are the world’s youngest middle-class group, have the cheapest data, our subscriber numbers on audio & video platforms are massive & internet penetration is fierce given the size of India, all make us extremely viable & future-ready for the BIG plays”.


Now that we know what the world thinks, it’s also important to know what we need to do as an industry. Awards, recognitions, what could be a needed thing, and he says, “I think locally we already have enough awards for artists, labels, music & entertainment companies and adding one more won’t make the cut. What we truly need are some legitimate charts that truly represent our work locally for all media like TV, Radio, the net & all other digital allied mediums. We don’t need any more recognition than our music working, delighting our audiences & being able to freely monetise all our assets as copyright owners with no impediments, legally & fairly”. Charts, one of the most opaque segments which needs to be addressed. Knowing real-time data will be an immense value add for the industry in general and we hope streaming services, telecasting platforms and airplay come together to provide the information which will take us a leap ahead.


The Indian music industry is growing at a great pace and it is the individual efforts that collectively drive the growth. Sanyal and his teams at UMI are putting their weight behind these many progressive initiatives for the future, and we see many others also now joining hands to make the vision come through. 

Congratulations again to Sanyal and the UMI Team for this twin achievement. It is a rare thing to happen so we hope that it becomes as common as it can get!


Article by Vishwa Deepak Dikshit


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