A&R Spotlight #01: Abhishek Patil from Warner Music India on redefining modern-day Indian Pop music

Abhishek Patil, the Head of A&R for Warner Music India, started as an A&R at Sony Music India in 2016. Abhishek has many insights and examples to share, being front and centre of many cultural moments in the Indian Pop space.

A&R Spotlight #01: Abhishek Patil from Warner Music India on redefining modern-day Indian Pop music

What I love about A&Rs is their unique approach in the studio and when it comes to signing content. No two A&Rs think the same, but they all serve the artists and enable them to overcome the anxiety of writing and releasing music while ensuring the audiences find new experiences through music. An A&R is a link between labels/publishers and their artists but also between artists and their audiences. The role is nuanced, and learning from A&Rs helps shape a unique perspective on culture and its direction.

Abhishek Patil, the Head of A&R for Warner Music India, started as an A&R at Sony Music India in 2016. Over the last many years, he has studied music creation trends, analysed popular music in India and, through trial and error, found his sweet spot in his role. Abhishek has many insights and examples to share, being front and centre of many cultural moments in the Indian Pop space.

For Abhishek, it all began in a particular time frame in 2015 -16 when Indian hits DJ Waale Babu and Baaki Baatein Peene Baad came out. He calls these two releases revolutionary because of the unique songwriting and sound design that made the two stand out as what he calls “Proper Indian Pop”. It made him realise that this could be the starting point for a new Pop scene in India that is more International than the Indie-Pop scene during the 90s, with stars such as Alisha Chinai with her hit song Made in India and Shaan’s Tanha Dil. However, Indie-Pop lost out again to Bollywood, with many Pop stars like Alisha and Shaan moving into Bollywood. When DJ Waale Babu and Baaki Baatein Peene Baad Babu came out, it was a half gamble: either the new Pop music scene would become the most significant scene that finally goes global, or it may feed Bollywood and fizzle out the way it did in the 90s. With rising scenes growing around Bollywood today and charts filled with both Bollywood and non-Bollywood music, it’s safe to say Abhishek’s risk is paying off. Let’s hear more from him:

Srishti: How did you get into music, and what made you take up A&R instead of being a self-releasing/writing/producing artist?

Abhishek: I consciously decided to get into A&R because I saw a gap in this space, which would impact the pop music landscape in a rapidly growing market like India. Most A&Rs in India are curators, supervisors, artist relation managers and sometimes simply booking agents. I chose to be an A&R over a releasing artist because it was more about producing more music in the market that fits global standards while catering to local audiences. I wasn’t interested in being the face of something, but behind the scenes gave me the creative freedom in the studio to experiment with production and songwriting while having the power to enable a creative process for artists with a vision. I wanted to ensure great music was coming out from India for Indians and global audiences ready to explore new music cultures. As an A&R, nothing is about you; everything is about the artist, and everything is for the artist, and I was more than okay with that. It helped me develop an empathetic viewpoint toward everything.

Srishti: What skills or biases did you have to deal with as an A&R, and how has that impacted your career?

Abhishek: Everyone develops a listening bias based on the music you listen to from pre-teens until you’re twenty-one. That decade in your life dictates your taste in music for the rest of your life. As an A&R, you have to think beyond your own biases, your colleagues' biases and preferences in music aside, and focus on the artist and what the artist needs. It’s about pushing your creative barriers within a specific goal that isn’t your own. After getting a music production certificate, I wanted to get into a label and learn the business side. I learnt music production, focusing on Electronic Dance Music (EDM) because it is all about new sounds. The fundamentals stay the same, but what evolves is sound design and hybrid genres. When I was starting, I analysed where our country was versus where the global EDM market was versus the Pop market, and I realised that mainstage DJs are switching to using Pop as a genre. Songs like Lean On by Major Lazer came out, followed very quickly by DJ Snake’s Turn Down for What. Even globally, the entire EDM market was leaning into Pop. I put my bet on a Pop music-driven future in India.

Srishti: How important is the role of ‘people management’ for you as an A&R?

Abhishek: On an ascending scale of importance from 1-10, I'd rate it 11, it’s crucial. Let's take songwriting camps, for instance. As an A&R, you can't supervise these camps because of the amount of activity taking place. It’s all about matching the right person with the suitable people because every room has four to five people. We have to understand each personality and each set of skills that will suit each other. In the very traditional sense, when I started as an A&R in 2016, signing artists was one part of it, interacting with the artists is one part of it, but all of it also involves creating music, a lot of it also involves being in the studio and figuring out the suitable set of people to work with the particular artist. For instance, you might get the best songwriter in Bollywood, the best music director and even the best singers, but there's no guarantee that they will get along well to make something unique together. This is why the Bollywood approach to making music is more dictatorial. People management is a big part of the job, but it’s always exciting.

Srishti: You have been successful in A&R-ing some big hits in the country. What do you think A&Rs in India need to do better to enable more of these success stories and a BIG international breakout?

Abhishek: Having production and songwriting knowledge is a definite add-on for understanding how things work. Understanding the process of making a song is always the most significant added advantage because translating feedback from the artist to the producers and vice versa becomes easy. Feedback is often very feeling-based when you speak to people who don’t come from music production/creation backgrounds. But, when converting that feeling into real-world feedback, you need to understand what they mean. For example, if someone says they want the song to sound more dreamy, they typically mean that they want a lot of reverb. When someone says they want more energy - it means a faster groove, harder drums or a more robust bass line. For an A&R, translating the feedback into the output is vital. Thus, experience with music education comes in handy every studio session because A&Rs look at things from a microscopic point of view. India is fighting now for a spot in the global market; we need more skilled A&Rs who understand production and songwriting. We need an influx of A&Rs that act as an interface to help artists deal with the anxiety of releasing music or even to help navigate the writing process and deliver the right music for their audiences.

Srishti: Many people think the job of an A&R is to deliver hit songs, but the definition of a hit song itself isn’t constant. How do you adapt to the pressure of having a hit in a divided music industry, and how do you protect your artists? What is your approach to settling creative differences and ensuring the best collaboration in the studio?

Abhishek: A&R is a mix of trial and error with no formula for success. If you try to A&R from a formula point of you, you are already setting yourself up for failure. You must think about what is new and what you can do to bring the best of all worlds within the studio. In my first two or three years as an A&R, I had many learnings while overcoming creative blocks. It was a lot of hard work that put everything in perspective. It sounds spiritual, but ultimately, keep in mind - we cater to the audience ( to an extent ). It has become more critical for me to have one-on-ones with each artist in the studio to understand what they want to achieve through the music and their goals. Some artists tell me that they're looking for numbers or landing on charts. Some artists tell me they’re not looking for chart positions; they want to express feelings or tell a story. Personally, artists with those stories provide me with some of the most rewarding music. However, it becomes effortless to put artists together when they are clear about what they want.

Regarding hit-making, no one enters a studio focusing on making a hit song. The one focus we keep in mind is to make something fresh sound familiar and make something familiar sound fresh.

One hundred thousand songs are released on DSPs daily. If these artists have songs coming around the same time and on the same day or week, it becomes nearly impossible to deliver a hit to more than a handful of crazy fans. Hits are not only made by A&Rs and Artists. It’s a joint effort of the Marketing, Streaming and Promo teams coming together to deliver that “hit”. When we enter the studio, I ensure everyone has their coffee, is well fed and is in a good mood. We keep the atmosphere light, crack jokes, take enough breaks and have a good time. During creative blocks mid-session, sometimes taking some time off is imperative. That’s the time to spot the session, get out for a while, grab some food and talk about other things as a group that helps everyone understand each other better and come back fresh the next day.

I have removed the word “hit” from my dictionary. Because the moment you put that as a parameter when you enter the studio, automatically, you have negatively impacted your intention as to why you are there in the first place - to make good, genuine music.

Srishti: Since music is very subjective, how do you approach finding and creating a perfect song? Do data and consumer insights play a role, or is it a creative focus?

Abhishek: At the core of it, I'm paying more attention to the lyrics and composition. It’s not the lyrics as much as the composition and the groove. India is a composition-first market, lyrics second. Then, I look at the music production value. Every sonic choice you make has the power of invoking a specific emotion. We try our best to make all our choices in a way that they honour the overall “vibe” of the track.

It's good to keep track of what genres are popping and what's happening in the universe, but I take it all with a pinch of salt. Things blow up in India differently. In an Indian-specific context, if you analyse the top 200 charts, there is no pattern showcasing what could work. It’s random because of it’s diversity. I focus more on compositional trends. I read an ASCAP report that analysed a couple of hundred popular songs and concluded that most of these hits have their hook lines coming anywhere between the 45-second to the 1-minute mark. That's number one. Number two, there is a significant amount of repetition in melody. Most hit songs don't have more than three unique melodic sections that repeat throughout the track. Every sentence has a particular rhyme scheme and a certain number of consonants. The music combines notes, sounds, and words in a pattern or sequence. You need to have a certain number of syllables, a certain number of sounds and a specific repetition bar tone. The third parameter is that intros must be short, less than fifteen seconds, to be precise. We keep an eye on what music we release are songs people associate with. There is no formula for what performs well. Sometimes, we expect one song on the project to do well, but something else performs better. People will remember and recall many of the choices we make in terms of either lyrics or rhythm.

Long Story Short: You need to hit the right balance between what sounds fresh and what sounds familiar. Newness enables your artist to sound fresh and cut through the clutter. Familiarity helps secure the track creatively from a pattern recognition perspective for the audience to understand what's happening.

Srishti: What has been your most enjoyable project - released/unreleased- that gave you personal satisfaction vs. one that gave commercial success, such as may be King? How were they different from each other?

Abhishek: King's next album, New Life, has been my most creative and emotionally satisfying project. We’ve pulled all possible stops to ensure we add a lot of sonic detail. This time, for King, the approach is straightforward in keeping the production and packaging at par with the global trends but melodically keeping the soul very Indian. We want to keep our home fans happy, but through King’s previous success in global charts, we want to grow his sound to new and international fanbases. This is our approach to making King a Global star after being a successful local star. It's still a mystery, but I am sure everyone will be excited to hear it!

When comparing new and established stars, the methods are more traditional for established stars unless they are timeless, like Beyonce doing a House record. With contemporary artists, there's a much higher and more extensive scope for experimenting.

Srishti: What are some native Indian genres and scenes that you think have the opportunity to make international success stories for India?

Abhishek: Finding new sonic paradigms by experimenting with scales and combining them with the familiar Western rhythms in dance music will drive the next big scene in India. Indian house music has a very realistic chance of hitting the global stage. That's like one genre, for sure. I am excited to see how it translates in addition to more nuanced Pop music. I'm excited to see Global Pop catch Indian rhythms. Like Latin music, Punjabi music also has that certain rhythm in its words. Still, I think diaspora markets drive the movement because their dialect is usually easier to understand, at least for Hindi speakers like Karan Aujla's enunciations are silky smooth. In contrast, local Punjabi artists usually have stronger accents. Pop music will be the first to catch the global market, but House and Punjabi Bass Music have a high potential to follow up on the Pop music from India.

Srishti: To close this off for our aspiring A&Rs who might need clarification about the role. What are the three most important skill sets required by an A&R?

Abhishek: Let me put it in points for you:

  1. Empathy - You need to be able to listen and hear people and understand the core reason why they feel what they feel. When handling sessions with multiple creative individuals, you must keep their best skill sets and interests in mind. Unless everyone is equally involved and creatively happy in a project, it’s natural for someone to lose interest. If that happens to even one person, the chances of not delivering a project are high.
  2. Knowledge of music production - Understanding the basics of how to put a song together from start to finish is always a bonus. It can make a difference because you'll be able to translate feedback that you get from all the teams involved in the release that may or may not need help understanding the technicalities of music. Translating emotion-based feedback into technical feedback is one of the primary roles of an A&R.
  3. Communication - It’s easy to solve problems, even when challenging. Being an introvert is not an option since you are constantly moving and often in groups. You have to connect with artists, producers, writers, and composers. You need to talk to many people, regularly communicate, and ensure everyone is on the same page. Everyone has heard this before - you must be the best friend, therapist, or whatever the artist needs. You need to be that for every single one in the studio. You need to service everyone. If you're not going to be able to settle differences and conflict, you’re not going to get the job done.

Srishti: What are your most rewarding projects in terms of personal satisfaction?

Abhishek: Honestly, there are two projects. From the point of view of having fun, I enjoyed the new King album. From the point of relatability and authenticity towards my own experiences and feelings, one of the new upcoming releases (I can't share yet!) is exceptionally close to my heart. Working on that project helped me connect with my emotions and address my internal conversations about how I perceive my feelings. Both of these projects have ticked something off my bucket list.

As Indian Pop music continues to make strides on global charts and builds its own space worldwide, A&Rs such as Abhishek Patil will play a crucial role in the future of music and listening culture in India. You can reach Abhishek on Linkedin or write to me for an introduction.

Other cool things this week

>> Recap of my talk on Water & Music available only for members: https://www.waterandmusic.com/srishti-das-music-strategy-emerging-markets/

>>Misaligned incentives make the music business a zero-sum game: Tatiana Cirisano, MIDiA Research

>> Build Careers, Not Moments: Rob Abelow, Where Music's Going

>> The Great Edits Debate Isn't Actually About Edits: Shawn Reynaldo, First Floor

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Hivewire is an independent music industry publication launched in June 2023 by Srishti Das. This dynamic newsletter offers a unique perspective on the music industry, focusing on emerging markets and the burgeoning music cultures gradually making their mark globally.