Q&A: Seymour Stein
The legendary music executive on the future of music in India and why he thinks the phonograph
can save the label
Veteran recordÂ man SeymourÂ Stein was inÂ Mumbai recentlyÂ while in transit, on hisÂ way back to New York.Â HeÂ had flown in from SouthÂ Korea where he said heÂ discovered the best thingsÂ about Asia: hot woks andÂ pop music. Stein’s found aÂ culinary hotspot in MumbaiÂ as well. “I can come hereÂ every week just to go eatÂ prawn biryani at TrishnaÂ [South Mumbai seafoodÂ restaurant],” the 70-year-oldÂ tells us, while sippingÂ a cup of black coÂ†ffee at theÂ Taj President in Mumbai.Â Stein has been returningÂ to India since the Seventies.Â “Some of the best talentÂ and music is in IndiaÂ and it’s a wonder how theÂ world can dismiss 40 per centÂ of the population that residesÂ in Asia,” he says.Â
Stein is the Vice President ofÂ Warner Bros Records worldwideÂ and co-founder of Sire Records,Â where the careers of Madonna, TheÂ Ramones, Depeche Mode and TalkingÂ Heads were launched. The Rock andÂ Roll Hall of Fame inductee has spentÂ half a century discovering new musicians,Â creating rockstars and mentoringÂ promoters around the world.Â For the past 13 years, Stein has beenÂ making annual trips to India andÂ China to attend various seminarsÂ like Mumbai’s TEDx Gateway twoÂ years ago, to promote local talent.Â
What brings you to India so often?Â
India has become a second home.Â I am closely associated with theÂ Times Music group and local promoters,Â whom I mentor. I think India hasÂ a great growth potential and the musicÂ of tomorrow will come out of countriesÂ like Korea, China and India. I’veÂ been looking for Indian talent to sign on, but it has to work for bothÂ Warner and me.
Have you ever come close to signing any Indian artist?
I came close five years ago, when I met this great artist calledÂ Atif Aslam. He had this really great song called “Doorie.” But itÂ didn’t work out. I think the problem with India is Bollywood.Â Bollywood is a gigantic carriage. It oÂ† ers so much in the wayÂ of money and recognition that it takes some of these great producers.Â I’ve met Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy. These are the peopleÂ who should be taking the scene forward.
What is the current music scene in the world like?
I think now is the time to discover and hear a lot of new music.Â When I started out at 13, working with Paul Ackerman atÂ Billboard magazine and then Syd Nathan at KingÂ Records, I was as excited about listening toÂ new music as I am now. You should always beÂ listening to new music and always follow theÂ charts, they speak the truth. In today’s dayÂ and age, there are so many parameters toÂ tell you what sounds good and what doesn’t.Â Musicians and promoters should use themÂ to their full advantage.Â
At a time when music sales are hittingÂ an all time low, what do you think is theÂ future of the music label?Â
Oh the label will always be aroundÂ and should be around. There are soÂ many things a label can do for youngÂ talent. Musicians always need mentorsÂ around. I would have been nobodyÂ had I had no mentors either. IÂ think the phonogram is the way toÂ go. It seems there is a large noveltyÂ about it now and we are going backÂ to the illustrious era of the FiftiesÂ and the Sixties, when record playersÂ decided how popular your songÂ was, you know. We [the label] escapedÂ the cassette and the walkman,Â but not the CD. The distributionÂ pattern must adapt and give musiciansÂ a real chance of being heardÂ and continue growing. That canÂ only happen if the label is around.
Who are the new artists ofÂ today? New bands you feel willÂ break big?
I think the music revolution isÂ shifting to Asia. Until the day IÂ can travel, I will continue travelingÂ to Asia and looking for newÂ talent. We at Warner RecordsÂ have just finished signing aÂ Chinese artist and three SouthÂ Korean artists. Unfortunately,Â I cannot talk about themÂ right now. But in the comingÂ years, you will be hearing a lotÂ more of them because theyÂ make music that the worldÂ should hear. And I believeÂ in them. I hope to somedayÂ bring them to IndiaÂ and take Indian artists toÂ parts of South Korea, becauseÂ these are the rightÂ markets now.
The article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Rolling Stone India