Label taps into the universal appeal of new Indian artists
Jai Ho, the Academy Award-winning song written by the Indian composer AR Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire (2008), raced up pop charts worldwide as its catchy dance beat shimmied across borders with ease. And Universal, the largest of the four major record companies, believes that western audiences might have an appetite for more music with an Indian flavour.
Universal says it has agreed to work with Desi Hits!, a company that promotes South Asian entertainment on desihits.com, to create a new label for musicians from India or with South Asian roots. The goal is to reach a global audience.
"There's a huge amount of opportunity, given that it's relatively untapped," says David Joseph, chief executive of Universal Music UK, referring to South Asian pop music. "It's far from a vanity project for us."
Anjula Acharia-Bath, the chief executive of Desi Hits!, which is based in New York, says the new label, called Desi Hits! Universal, is going "to give this genre a home".
Since Acharia-Bath started Desi Hits! in 2007 with Arun Sandhu and her husband, Ranj Bath, it has gained the support of some of the biggest names in the music business. Jimmy Iovine, who runs Interscope, a Universal label, sits on the board, as does Charlie Walk, a former president of Epic Records.
Timing is everything, and Desi Hits! started out just a year before the release of Slumdog Millionaire, which grossed more than 117 million at the UK box office alone, and set off a mini-boom of interest in Indian culture around the world. The Slumdog soundtrack sold nearly 400,000 copies, and Jai Ho won a Grammy in addition to an Oscar.
"There's never been an infrastructure for this music," Acharia-Bath says. After "Slumdog," she says, "everyone saw that with some resources some of these songs really popped."
By starting a label now, Acharia-Bath says, she hopes to "leap ahead of the competitors" and to have a first crack at signing artists. However, neither of the two companies wished to disclose financial details about the partnership.
"As India keeps building itself, there's enormous potential," says Iovine, whose Interscope label released the Slumdog soundtrack. "There's great cultural potential that's only started to be tapped by the West."
Iovine thinks Indian-infused pop music could have a trajectory similar to Latin music, and as in Latin music, the artists will need to be able to sing in English (the original version of Jai Ho was in Hindi, and a remixed version was released and performed in English by the Pussycat Dolls).
Vin Bhat, chief executive of Saavn, a company that distributes entertainment from South Asia, pointed to Shakira and Ricky Martin as singing stars who were able to make the language leap.
"That is something that really needs to be nurtured among the younger singers," Bhat says. For South Asian musicians "to go really big it needs to be delivered in an accessible way".
But Joseph cautioned that making any such comparisons could be premature. "We want to identify the right artists and go from there," he says. "I want to be careful and not get ahead of ourselves."
Some of the South Asian potential has already been tapped by hip-hop artists, including Maya Arulpragasam, or MIA, who was born in London and grew up in Sri Lanka, and Rihanna, who released a remix of Rude Boy with Indian beats.
Ajay Nair, an associate vice provost for student affairs at the University of Pennsylvania and an editor of Desi Rap: Hip-Hop in South Asian America (Rowman & Littlefield), says that as hip-hop has become a global art, it was natural for Indian music to become integrated into it.
"It should come as no surprise that Indian music and hip-hop can have a symbiotic relationship," he says.
Interaction between Western acts and Indian music will be encouraged, Acharia-Bath says, but the goal for the label is to sign Indian artists and expose them to both European and American audiences.
In the end, says Walk, the former Epic executive, "this particular partnership will hopefully produce big artists with big hits.
"It's like low-hanging fruit ready to be picked."