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Music to Her Ears

Jan/10/2023 / by Abhijit Masih
Sujata Murthy
Image credits: Ash Gupta

As executive vice president of media and artist relations at Universal Music, Sujata Murthy is one of the most influential South Asian executives in the industry

The wall of Sujata Murthy’s Santa Monica office at Universal Music Enterprises (UMe), a long way from where she was born in Chennai, India, is adorned with multi-platinum music albums representing some of the high points in her TK-year career in music. In addition to creating music campaigns, the music veteran spearheaded the transition of the music industry from the days of LPs and cassette tapes.

Murthy, who was promoted to her current role at UMe last March, is one of the most-sought after South Asian senior executives in the industry. That makes her responsible for the label’s media department where she oversees press strategy and campaigns. She also has the desirable job of working closely with artists, managers, and estates across Universal Music Group’s roster. The lineup includes legendary recording artists, both old and new, includes ABBA, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Chuck Berry, The Carpenters, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, The Commodores, Def Leppard, Neil Diamond, Guns N’ Roses, Amy Winehouse, and many more.

Image credits: Ash Gupta

While it may not have been preordained, a career in music was in her blood. She was born in a South Indian Tamil family, and she grew up in the culture-rich city of Kolkata. Her grandparents were patrons of the arts and very involved in the music scene of Bengal. Her grandfather was a prominent music critic who could make or break an artist’s career. Her grandmother was a song composer who penned over 2,000 songs.

“Music was an integral part from my grandparents down to my parents who sort of absorbed all that and then they sort of carried it down to me and my siblings,” she said.

Murthy’s parents carried with them their passion for music when they moved to the United States. They were pioneers in promoting music, particularly Indian classical music. They created a platform for Indian artists in the U.S. for the small diaspora that was united by music.

“Because my parents had these great connections with all these Indian musicians, they wanted to bring them to the States,” Murthy said. “They brought everyone from Lalgudi Jayaraman and T. N. Krishnan, to Ravi Shankar and Parveen Sultana. In fact, they used the fundraising money from an event with Vyjayanthimala to start building the Malibu temple in Los Angeles.”

What began as small house concerts, soon expanded to larger venues going beyond the Indian community to larger and more diverse audiences. They not only broadened the scope for South Asian music but, in a sense, opened the doors for Murthy to a career in music. But not before going a short distance on the traditional South Asian career path — medicine.

Breaking Into Music

Murthy enrolled in the University of Texas to study medicine but soon realized that she didn’t see herself as a doctor.

“I love the field. I love the science of it. I love discovery and new innovations. However, what I wanted to do day to day was not to be a doctor,” she said. Murthy graduated with a degree in PR and journalism and switched from a potential career in scrubs to one before a stereo. At a time before the notorious hip-hop rivalry between the West and East coasts, Murthy chose Los Angeles.

AMERICAN IDOL DETROIT
American Idol contestants visit with Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and Smokey Robinson at the Motown Museum, Hitsville USA in Detroit, Michigan on Thursday, March 19, 2009. Photo by Jeff Kowalsky

“That’s where the music and entertainment industry was, and I like warm weather. So I came to LA,” she said.

To break into the music industry for a South Asian woman back in the 80s would have been as difficult as Asha Bhosle opening for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square. She started working for a producer which lasted only a month. She hated it. To fend for her housing, she ended up dog-sitting till she figured her next move. Soon she got a job at Ticketmaster, which turned out to be the learning ground for her to manage venues, shows, tickets and artists.

The next move for her would set her on course to a solid and secure career in the business.

Her parents, through their association to music, knew the South Asian-origin president of a major international record label. Bhasker Menon became her guiding angel.

Murthy fondly recalls her late mentor and friend: “He was an amazing mentor and an amazing person to follow. Not only was he smart, but he also had this amazing connection with artists. He made friends and understood them from the artist’s level. It was not just business. It was about how do we take this to the future with a relationship that was going to last a lifetime. He always kept those Indian roots, bringing a gift when you meet someone, offering food, taking them out, remembering their children. Keeping the cultural piece that we all learned from our parents, and he continued that in his business life as well.”

SiriusXM's Town Hall With John Travolta And Olivia Newton-John With Host Didi Conn At The SiriusXM Studios
attends SiriusXM’s Town Hall with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John hosted by Didi Conn at the SiriusXM studios on December 12, 2012 in New York City.

Unlike many music industry executives, Murthy tends to be modest. That, too, is a legacy from her mentor.
Once she decided on a career in show business, with a little help from Menon, Murthy joined the Mecca of music, Capitol Records.

“Those were the glory days,” she recalled. “The days of big pop artists and rock records. Grunge was kind of bubbling under. They would throw big lavish parties to introduce a new record. I remember they turned the parking lot of Capitol Records into a carnival with Ferris wheel rides and games and food. Then there was another time where we filled the Capitol Records parking lot with 650 tons of sand and created a beach party for the Beach Boys.”

Hit songs and videos promoting them are created not just by the artist, but large teams working behind the scenes. Starting as an assistant, Murthy worked her way up in the publicity department.

“It was never about just knowing and learning about publicity. I learned radio, sales, video—I learned everything,” she said.

Murthy realized the importance of sampling music to find newer audiences for evergreen classic songs. She decided to pull the albums gathering dust, from the bottom shelves of the store to the Top 10 charts. She understood the need for an album to be heard, to be in the hands of people. You could produce the best record in the world, but if no one sees or hears it, it’s as good as a demo in your office. While true for new albums, promoting classic catalog music, the big money-churner for any record label, takes innovation.

“At Capitol, I was the first one to do calls with high school students on a conference line. No one did that before. At that time, they were just starting to put out CDs,” said Murthy, who has promoted some of the biggest musical icons of all time, including Frank Sinatra.

“I focused heavily on getting music out and information about Frank Sinatra to high school students,” she said. “The other campaign I’m proud of is that of Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens,” Murthy said. “I connected him with the folks at VH1, and they did a two-part documentary on him and his life after he had been quiet a long time.”

It takes a special acumen to manage extraordinary artists. The inflated egos, tantrums and notoriety can be challenging. Peter Grant, arguably considered the best manager in the business, who helped Led Zeppelin break out from the U.K., considered his greatest strength his ability to say no. Murthy has had her share of challenges dealing with music stars in her long career.

Dave Mustaine, American musician, singer, songwriter, actor, author, and businessman, visits the NYSE, as our guest of The NYSE Experience. Mustaine is best known as the founder, guitarist, lead singer, and primary songwriter of the American thrash metal band Megadeth, and the original lead guitarist of the American thrash metal band Metallica. Sept. 15, 2017

“Music legends are big mega stars for a reason,” she said. “They have their own way of thinking. I had one artist that was sitting in a conference room, and we were waiting to bring him out to sign autographs and take pictures with a ton of fans. He suddenly decided that he was not going out until he had chocolate chip cookies. I had to send somebody run to the store and bring back chocolate chip cookies. He had three cookies and then he was done. He was happy. He signed autographs took pictures for almost three hours.”

Murthy believes in being upfront and explaining to the artist the reason for declining a request, rather than giving them a straight up no. That authority comes from a trust based on an invested relationship nurtured over time.

“It goes back to the artists, where they trust you, and they know that you have their best interests in mind, as well as the company’s best interest,” Murthy said. “They need to know and trust you to give them guidance. That comes with time. And that comes with honesty.”

Career Crescendo

From Capitol Records, Murthy moved to Universal Music Enterprises in the late 90’s and has been there ever since. From being a music fan herself, listening to the radio and seeing concerts of these great musicians from afar, she has been a part of that inner circle that only few get to experience and live. There have been embarrassing moments along the way as well. Like when the lead singer of a leading band decided to ditch his limousine and hitch a ride in her car. “That was terrible. At the time, I used to take my big drooly dog in the car and all his hair was in the car. The windows had dog slobber on them, and the singer was wearing an all-black velvet suit,” she recalls. “We took a couple bathrobes from a hotel, put one robe on the car seat, had him wrapped up in the bathrobe, and drove him to the event.”

In addition to new artists, Murthy is also the primary publicist for artists reissuing classic albums on CD for the first time, including Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Dean Martin. She introduced classic artists to high school and college audiences. Over her long career, she has received numerous accolades, including Korn Ferry’s “Most Influential South Asian Women Executives in Media and Entertainment” and Business Insider’s “The 20 Most Powerful Indians in Hollywood.”

When promoted to executive vice president of media and artist relations at UMe last year, Bruce Resnikoff, its president & CEO, said, “Sujata is an invaluable member of my executive team, and she is someone who has earned the respect of our artists and their management teams. She has also built one of the best media teams in the industry and she continues to play an important role in developing and executing Ume’s successful release strategies for our artists.”

A glamorous dream for many, Murthy agrees that her accumulated priceless moments and millions of interesting stories are more valuable than the many honors.

“As a fan growing up and listening to these artists on the radio, never in a million years would you ever think that this would be your life. Standing on the side of the stage, watching the WHO, Steve Miller or Al Green, and you’re like, Wow,” she said.

Murthy keeps a close tab on the changing mediums of promoting music. When the shift from physical format to digital streaming really went underway, it opened opportunities for record companies to exploit their back catalog. Murthy recognizes the importance of new media and the shift of music distribution from sales to streams and what it has done for the artists and the fans.

“Before social media,” she said, “artists were always untouchable. They would be on stage, they left and you would not know what they were like, what they were doing, what their lives were like, what their families were doing. I think with the advent of social media, the artists can directly engage with the fans now. I think it’s more authentic. It’s not just somebody else writing up the answers.”

From her own experience, she advocates another important point. Murthy believes in speaking out for oneself to go up the corporate ladder.

“If you do a good job, let people know that you did a good job, and that you are the one that did it,” Murthy said. “Oftentimes, as women, you wait for somebody to acknowledge. Every year you should be advocating for a promotion for yourself. If they don’t give it to you, find somebody else who will.”

Murthy acknowledges the inherent tendency of South Asians to desist from bragging, but emphasizes the need for it in a professional space.

“I think it’s important, she said. “I tell my daughter all the time. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Don’t expect other people to hand you things. I think that’s really important for South Asians and for anybody, you know, male, female, not just girls. I think it’s universal that you need to really advocate for yourself.”

Away from the music world, Murthy’s other interests are traveling, watching movies and also supporting social causes. She said, “My day is filled with music. I love it. Where else can you listen to whatever you want all day, and that’s part of your work. But when I go home I watch movies and TV. I love to travel. I love to write about travel and our adventures.”

Employing her professional expertise of giving voice to a brand and getting it to the people, Murthy also is involved in social causes along with her sister, a consultant for philanthropy.

“My sister is an expert,” Murthy said. “She connects with me and we work on how to connect all the dots and put it in action. We work together and are always brainstorming on how can we change this, how can we make this happen? It’s fun actually, and it’s with purpose.”

Murthy sums up her journey: “I get to work with the best of the best artists that have a wide catalog. Then I also work with like these little baby artists. I am truly honored to work with the incredible artists and catalogs that are the very fabric of our musical heritage. I am excited to continue introducing classic albums and artists to the next generation through new platforms and technology helping continue their legacy.”

Image credits: lbertoRodriguez/BerlinerStudio/BEImages

It is Murthy’s relationship with Purple Rain singer and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Prince that she fondly remembers.

“I worked a lot with the artist Prince. It got to a point where we had become friends, and he loved movies. He would borrow movies from me all the time, I have quite a collection of DVDs. He would call and say, ‘Hey, do you have this movie?’ I would put the movie at my front door, and then sometime between 2 and 4 am, an assistant would come and pick up the movie. Then a couple of days later it would be returned to my front door. He called one time, and he wanted the movie “Almost Famous.” I didn’t have it. He asked if there was any way I could get it for him. At that time, there was Blockbuster video library. I called the Blockbuster near where he was living, and I told them that my friend would pick it up. They said you can’t do that; you have to come pick it up yourself against your membership card. I said look, it’s for the artist Prince. Will you give him the DVD? The guy was like, right, if Prince shows up and gets this video, I will give it to him. I called Prince and said you personally have to go into the blockbuster and get this video. And he did.”

Murthy’s Personal Favorites

  1. Favorite musician/band – That’s like choosing a favorite child! Music for me evokes a mood, mindset, so it’s entirely dependent on what I’m doing, who I’m with, etc.
  2. Favorite Indian artist – My grandmother Indra Natesan was a songwriter/composer who wrote more than 2,000 songs some in languages she didn’t even know.
  3. Best live performance/concert attended – Prince’s house parties included various artists who he’d invite to play-with or without him-including Stevie Wonder, Sheila E, Adam Levine (Maroon 5) and sometimes Matthew McConaughey on percussion!)
  4. Most memorable single/album – My first single I bought was “Ramblin’ Man” by The Allman Brothers.
  5. Your go to song – “Anything from Motown or rock!
  6. Favorite place in the world – Italian countryside

Favorite song/artist of today – The Buckleys’ “Oops I Love You”