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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

Sharin Bhatti Mar 12, 2013
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Seymour Stein. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/ Getty Images

Seymour Stein. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/ Getty Images

Veteran record man Seymour Stein was in Mumbai recently while in transit, on his way back to New York. He had flown in from South Korea where he said he discovered the best things about Asia: hot woks and pop music. Stein’s found a culinary hotspot in Mumbai as well. “I can come here every week just to go eat prawn biryani at Trishna [South Mumbai seafood restaurant],” the 70-year-old tells us, while sipping a cup of black co†ffee at the Taj President in Mumbai. Stein has been returning to India since the Seventies. “Some of the best talent and music is in India and it’s a wonder how the world can dismiss 40 per cent of the population that resides in Asia,” he says. 

Stein is the Vice President of Warner Bros Records worldwide and co-founder of Sire Records, where the careers of Madonna, The Ramones, Depeche Mode and Talking Heads were launched. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has spent half a century discovering new musicians, creating rockstars and mentoring promoters around the world. For the past 13 years, Stein has been making annual trips to India and China to attend various seminars like Mumbai’s TEDx Gateway two years ago, to promote local talent. 

What brings you to India so often? 

India has become a second home. I am closely associated with the Times Music group and local promoters, whom I mentor. I think India has a great growth potential and the music of tomorrow will come out of countries like Korea, China and India. I’ve been looking for Indian talent to sign on, but it has to work for both 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 called Atif Aslam. He had this really great song called “Doorie.” But it didn’t work out. I think the problem with India is Bollywood. Bollywood is a gigantic carriage. It o† ers so much in the way of money and recognition that it takes some of these great producers. I’ve met Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy. These are the people 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. When I started out at 13, working with Paul Ackerman at Billboard magazine and then Syd Nathan at King Records, I was as excited about listening to new music as I am now. You should always be listening to new music and always follow the charts, they speak the truth. In today’s day and age, there are so many parameters to tell you what sounds good and what doesn’t. Musicians and promoters should use them to their full advantage. 

At a time when music sales are hitting an all time low, what do you think is the future of the music label? 

Oh the label will always be around and should be around. There are so many things a label can do for young talent. Musicians always need mentors around. I would have been nobody had I had no mentors either. I think the phonogram is the way to go. It seems there is a large novelty about it now and we are going back to the illustrious era of the Fifties and the Sixties, when record players decided how popular your song was, you know. We [the label] escaped the cassette and the walkman, but not the CD. The distribution pattern must adapt and give musicians a real chance of being heard and continue growing. That can only happen if the label is around.

Who are the new artists of today? New bands you feel will break big?
I think the music revolution is shifting to Asia. Until the day I can travel, I will continue traveling to Asia and looking for new talent. We at Warner Records have just finished signing a Chinese artist and three South Korean artists. Unfortunately, I cannot talk about them right now. But in the coming years, you will be hearing a lot more of them because they make music that the world should hear. And I believe in them. I hope to someday bring them to India and take Indian artists to parts of South Korea, because these are the right markets now.

The article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Rolling Stone India

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