MUBUTV Insider Podcast Episode Transcript
[Hiba Irshad]

Ritch Esra: Hiba thank you so much for joining us we really appreciate it!

Hiba Irshad: Thank you so much for having me Ritch.

Ritch Esra: Hiba when in your life, did you know that the music business was going to be your professional career path?

Hiba Irshad: So I actually didn't know I had no idea I started out doing Healthcare research but I've always been deeply passionate about South Asian entertainment, not necessarily music but my dad actually asked me to download this app that I've never heard before called Saavn and I said why not download Spotify and he said no this is the app that my friends told me to let you know consume Indian content through so I downloaded it for him and next thing you know I came to New York Met the team and 2 months later I joined Saavn and that's how I started my career in the music industry.

Ritch Esra: Wow, well that's… we've not heard that story before that's very interesting.

Hiba Irshad: So, I mean I've always grown up listening to Indian music. I was born and raised in the States but spent all of my summers in India and you know continue to go back and forth for work now but yeah, just deeply passionate about the music industry in India and I've learned so much about it of course being a part of of the of Saavn team and building a lot but their original content.

Eric Knight: Hiba let me ask you, how does being a director of A&R at Saavn differ from a traditional label.

Hiba Irshad: So it's very different because Saavn is first a music streaming platform so we use a lot of data to really inform all of our decisions of course we still really believe and just listening to your gut and intuition however, the data that we have available to us on the platform leads us to certain genres that are coming up and we're able to see trends were able see which artists are tracking and where you know what their demographics are so I think it's help to guide us and it would be much different you know to be an A&R without having access to all of that data

Ritch Esra: You developed and launched Saavn’s in house label, Artists Originals, what was the motivation behind it and has it presented any conflicts of interest with the labels that you stream on the service?
Hiba Irshad: Absolutely so the first year that I joined Saavn, we had a brand ambassador program called artist-in-residence where we were just working with independent artists across India and helping support their content on our platform and also funding marketing initiatives for them. We are very limited in what we were able to do and so that let us to launch our label, Artists Originals. it's been five years since we've got the label and there was a lot of pushback initially there definitely was. In our first year we actually didn't release too many records but it was a song that he actually ate hard that kind of changed the entire Landscaping called BomDiggy and it blew off. The labels were you know very worried and concerned initially but as a business and as a label we are very respectful and we didn't go after artists that were signed to the other labels in India if they had any sort of exclusivity we stayed away from them it was all word of mouth and I think after you know the first like year-and-a-half two years they kind of cooled off and they understood that look, there's a lane for all of us and the kind of contents we’re putting out was very different from what they were doing.

Eric Knight: You know, for our audience which is mainly comprised of up-and-coming artists, can you talk about what is happening with the music explosion in growth in the South Asian market and you know, why artists need to be paying attention to this market for their music.

Hiba Irshad: Absolutely so over the last I would say 6 to 7 years really, you know with so many different mediums for distribution, Independent Artists have just taken off in India and that has change how Indians are consuming music. Before it was primarily YouTube or they were discovering content or music through film and that's not happening anymore now people are discovering artists through platforms like social media you know, at a time Tik Tok when they was available in India, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube is still very big there but independent artists now just have that sort of accessibility to just release on their own. Like I said the music in India was always tied to film for many many years. It was almost like every film felt like a musical and that's not happening anymore. Now you're seeing you know, maybe two or three songs with no dance sequences in film and a lot of these film studios and composers that traditionally worked with for Hindi Artists or Bollywood Centric music are now tapping into the independent scene and they want to find new producers and songwriters and artists who are really different and unique. That is what the demand is showing everywhere right and we see that on Saavn you know there is a point where the majority of our music was coming as you know from film music and that's what people were consuming but now it is more and more independent and Regional music as well. What I think has happened is now you know it's not just Hindi it's Gunnada, Telugu it's so many different languages across India, are now being showcased on like they've never been before.

Ritch Esra: Yeah it's interesting you know I was in India in 2009. I was in Mumbai and the thing that surprised me the most in among other things I mean it was my first time it in India. My Grandmother Had lived in India and my mother is Indian and it was like no matter what stratosphere of life you were in, you had a cell phone. When I'm listening to you now, since you've been sitting down speaking about the Indian market, I realized part of that activation of Music a new independent artist comes from the ability for people to access music not having to listen to it on the radio or television or go to a movie theater but because of the cell phone.
Hiba Irshad: Exactly it's really interesting because when we first started out as Saavn, we were just a streaming service and then you know we've brought on Artist Originals and started that but we merged with Jio, hence the name JioSaavn. Jio provides data too, almost the entire country for free. It's very very cheap. Everyone's got it. They have made mobile phones extremely accessible and cheap so that's another reason why. I think it's just so easy for artists you know, to get their content out there because everyone's got a phone. Everyone's got you know, if you have a Jio phone then you've got JioSaavn preloaded on there which is wonderful but you're right you know, that's all you need to record music these days is your cell phone.

Ritch Esra: Let me ask you, as director of A&R for the label, talk to us about the criteria that you're using in not only evaluating talent but in making your selections as to what artist you're willing to sign to the label, what would make up that criteria?

Hiba Irshad: Sure, so I think the number one thing is authenticity. You know, what really makes these artists stand out first and foremost. The music has to be good, it doesn't have to be perfect but they have to have potential. We've had artists you know, bring to us records that are completely ready to go. We just package and come out and then we have artists who have come to us with you know just very scratch demos and repair them with producers and songwriters and the right video director and completely having to take full partnering with them to you know really create this vision for the for the record but I would say first and foremost the music has to be good they have to be willing to take feedback well and I think that's that's really difficult for a lot of artists. You know what they want to hear like, you like this or do you not like it and there's so much more to that right? There's being collaborative with who you want to partner with and that's how we view our relationships with artists as a partnership. What can you do, what are you willing to do and what can we do? How are we going to work on this together? If it's and you know people in your network that you want to work with, let's you know, decide and figure out who those are, if there are other artists, if there are people who can help promote your content on social media. What kind of you know, relationships can we leverage from each other? I think that is really important. At first we really thought we'd be using a lot more data but it went the other direction and it's almost completely on intuition and gut for A&R.

Ritch Esra: That’s fascinating to hear!

Eric Knight: Let me ask you, are there any unique factors that JioSaavn being a streaming service can offer an artist more than a traditional label?

Hiba Irshad: Absolutely just access to our platform right we're able to put things on home page and certain playlist and notifications to phones which you know have done very very well. We as, from the Artist Original standpoint, we try not to rely too heavily on JioSaavn because we know that. We know we have that you know, in our back pocket. We would like to see our content you know perform better on other platforms. I think that has always been our goal is to know how it’s performing on YouTube, how it is formed on Spotify, Apple music. Even you know, qualitative metrics as well as are people talking about this on social media or is it being played at weddings, is it being played or going to, are we getting a request for sync. That is really important for us so I think it's not just about numbers and it's not just about using our platform it's about success on other platforms as well.

Ritch Esra: Is there a way for you to determine, as a label, when you put a record out that has potential beyond the markets that you're going for like International markets? Beyond just what you reach?

Hiba Irshad: Absolutely! How we do that is via collaboration and not something that you know I'm extremely passionate about because I think it's a great way for two artists to bring you know, together two completely different audiences in different markets and then you can really test, hey you know is Marshmallow’s content going to work in India and is is Prethum’s content going to work in the states and wherever else marshmallow has you know of a big following so I think that's the best way to kind of test that out.

Eric Knight: You know being that you're a streaming service, what is the deal structure that you typically offer artists that you sign are you guys offering marketing? Is it a long-term deal? Is that a short-term deal? Do you take publishing? Is there a recording budget?

Hiba Irshad: Absolutely, so yes it does function as a traditional label but, compared to other labels in the territory we are very, very artist-friendly. We don't tie artists down to long-term deals so far it's just been a project-by-project basis. Sometimes we'll throw in the right of first refusal on a couple of you know the projects but other than that it's not exclusive deals. There are artists that we'd like to develop long-term that we will explore doing more of a long-term deal with and the artists always have the option to come back and work with us. yes we do work with downtown music publishing to administer publishing we split publishing 50/50 and typically for most of our label deals we do own the master recording .

Ritch Esra: let me ask you, how important is…. I'm trying to phrase this in the right way because in America and a lot of parts of the world what you do one of the criteria factors is the team involved in an artist. Their manager and their team and the reasoning is they want to know if they're going to put time, money, effort, energy and focus into this artist that their efforts can be supported. How important is and artist’s team to you when you're signing an act to Saavn

Hiba Irshad: I love that you asked that question because it's extremely important. An artist team can make or break their career. We've seen that a lot. There have been artists who are incredibly talented and they don't have a professional team around them and you know they're just not willing to listen and it's very, very difficult. They don't have those connections in the industry. They don't understand how the industry works and I think when you, especially when I see a lot of the time friends or family, it's a different sort of relationship and so it's hard to have that professional boundary which makes things very difficult. There are cases where we've suggested management. A lot of our artists have been completely fresh and have not had management so we'll put them in touch with the right people and if it works out great, but that is extremely important and a huge factor in whether or not we're going to sign an artist.

Ritch Esra: Ok that’s great to hear

Eric Knight: What are some of the more innovative ways that you've been seeing unsigned artist marketing themselves?

Hiba Irshad: Absolutely so unsigned artists I think of course just like the different, using different platforms. Never expected that forms like Tik Tok or even Snapchat to sort of break some of these artists in some of these records so I would definitely say those for unsigned artists are probably some of the best ways. Using social media, using influencer marketing, those are some of the best ways and easiest right. If you're an unsigned artist or an independent artist you know some of these big Brands aren't going to go after you. I've been seeing a lot of very cool creative sort of you know brand plays with artists like McDonald's and byredo and just how you know people are blending lifestyle Brands into Artistry but again that's not going to happen for these independent artist so they really do have to tap into smaller influencers who can sort of connect them to a larger influencers in different demographics on various platforms. I think that's probably some of the best ways to do it.

Ritch Esra: What are some of the ways that artists are getting on your radar? To either evaluate or I guess the things that you follow. What are those, are they industry relationships? Are they social media or streaming networks? Are they all of the above?

Hiba Irshad: It's really all the above like when we initially started Artist Original, there were artists that you know, we kind of had our eyes on. We know that these artists in this territory are who we want to go after and then from there it became word of mouth you know. This artist really enjoyed the experience of working with Artist Originals and Saavn then you know, hey how about you know my peer here, we've worked together to produce this song together. You should really check out their stuff. Social media for sure and also something as simple as people sending us their demos. You know we have an inbox that we go through every single day almost with several demos and so we've signed a couple of those artists as well. I would say it's really all the above. Unfortunately you know, we haven't been able to attend shows like we used to in India our here in the US, but those are starting to pick back up again. That was also a great way as well because we wanted to see okay this artist you know they sound great when you listen to their music but do they connect with their audience and that piece is really important. We've missed out for the last couple of years and that also does help us determine whether or not we're going to sign an artist is not just about hey you know the music sounds great but you have to take that a step further and see how they're connecting with people in the live setting.

Ritch Esra: Yeah what one of the things that you know Sat Bisla, who runs this conference talks about because he makes trips to India at least once or twice a year, is the growth of the infrastructure in India as a country in that particular field of the growth of live performance. Live venues outlets for artists. That whole I guess what you would call, industry, it's being built in ways that you know a lot of other areas it hasn't been and that's very, very important for a country like India that has such potential to become an enormous power in the music world

Hiba Irshad: It really does and the thing is, the biggest problem we've seen is that there's venues that are you know, two or three hundred capacity or 50,000 capacity cricket stadium so the in-between is very hard and we're trying to see if we can be creative and you know figure out if there's a non-traditional venue that we can work with but yeah the music festivals is a really great example I've seen them you know go to grounds that you would never imagine a festival could be built on. A couple years ago I was at NH 7 which is a very popular music festival in India and I was so impressed with how they you know built the festival, the organization, I thought you know, it was like attending Coachella or any other festival here so I think they've done a really good job of making sure the infrastructure for festivals is done correctly and it's comfortable for fans and artists and I've really seen them scale over the years from the electronic festivals to Independent so I think the festivals are doing right but the actual venues for you know some of these smaller shows, they need to be built so that should definitely be a priority in India.

Ritch Esra: Absolutely

Eric Knight: You know one of our main initiatives here at MUBUTV for a while has been female representation on both the creative and business side of the industry. We know that you're super passionate about this issue with some of the causes you've taken on your careers such as JioSaavn International women's day event which just happened recently. What advice do you have for women who are committed to pursuing a career in the music industry?

Hiba Irshad: Stay true to yourself because I think they feel that they may have to change who they are, look a certain way, dress a certain way, sound a certain way and you don't have to do that. You just have to find the right people who believe in you and who are going to champion you but just stay true to who you are and I think the biggest thing that we can do in the industry is just have more female Executives because artists are going to feel more comfortable working with female Executives and I think that's such a wonderful thing that Artist Originals has done. Me and my colleague Layla we essentially you know, we run the label and where some of the only female music Executives India and we've drawn in so many female artists and you know it's wonderful to see you know Independence rising and India but they're very, very few female artist so I am very proud that we've been you know Haven for them a safe haven for those artists and been able to just support them and really just help them stay true to who they are.

Ritch Esra: In your life have there been any books or films that have really inspired you professionally speaking that you can recommend to our audience?

Hiba Irshad: Oof that’s a tough question. I’m not the biggest reader however I did read recently on Reed Hastings “No Rules Rules” Which I thought was phenomenal and I learned so much about Netflix and there were so many inspiring stories in there. I think that's a book that I would recommend to anyone and you can apply it to any industry really. It’s just about not giving up and working with the right people and talent density and you know all of those things that are so important and I really learned a lot from that and that inspired me quite a bit.

Eric Knight: What advice can you offer our listeners for wanting to pursue a career as an A&R executive such as yourself?

Hiba Irshad: Sure, I would say you don't necessarily have to stay on top of what's trendy right? If there is an artist or you know a genre that you believe in and it's not you know, top 40 or whatever, you should just go after that and you should carve out a space for yourself. I think that a lot of the people who are you know are A&R’s and work at labels, they think that they have to maybe listen to this genre of these artists but if they're artists that you are passionate about they don't fall under a specific genre you can carve out your own lane and you know really rise the ranks that way because you will be an expert in that field that no one else is. You're not just listening to everything that everyone else is listening to so I would say that's my biggest piece of advice.

Ritch Esra: End for artists wanting to pursue a career as professional recording artists in their lives what advice do you have for them?

Hiba Irshad: Again I think number one would just be staying authentic and true to yourself but also aligning yourself with the right teams. Being open to feedback and collaborative as you can be because I think that's what opens up so many doors. When you're working with people you know, who are completely different from you and can you know, share a completely different skill-set and network and that is so important right. A lot of artists, I think, they're too afraid to work with people who don't necessarily make a certain type of music and write music the same way and that's really not going to help you grow creatively. You have to be willing to explore a completely different subset of people that you're used to working with. I think that is what's going to help your career

Ritch Esra: Hiba, thank you so much for doing this. We really appreciate it.

Hiba Irshad: Thank you so much, this was really wonderful!

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