Dev Bhatia. The demeanor may be muted, but the man has spearheaded the UnMute revolution for the country’s independent music scene – and made it blaze loud & clear. Co-Founders of the country’s leading artist management venture, UnMute, Bhatia and Arjun Vagale have rejigged how the music industry operates. From artists, to music quality, to audience experience, UnMute has grown to become an Asia-wide agency & consultancy all in five short years. Sparked from the idea to bring forth a ‘superior experience for the artist, both on and off stage’, now represent the likes of Sound Avtar, DJ Sa, and more.
Decoding the man behind the mammoth task, #DSSCSecretConversations got chatting with Bhatia on fine-tuning the strings of the music industry. When he’s not busy headlining this metamorphosis, Dev can be found indulging in three phenomenon: Football, Movies, and Family. With Manchester United inked into his soul (and arm), “Football isn’t just a game, it’s an escape from everything else” for Bhatia, “It has given me hope when I needed it most and brought me to my knees when I was getting too big for my boots!” as he says. When not watching the red devils, Dev mingles his love for family and films in the form of no-holds-barred movie escapades. As he continues to live life to the fullest, we dig deeper into the makings of this science lab-level conscientious man.
You dropped out of college just before graduating, how did that decision impact your journey?
It was a family emergency that led me to dropout. I won’t deny that I felt lost at that time, but sharing the family’s financial responsibility at an age when most kids are busy drinking and hanging out taught me a valuable lesson – to do whatever it takes. I still rue the fact that I missed out on the final days of college (given a chance I would go back even now) and think it’s important to complete it if one has the opportunity, but I also believe that there’s nothing like early practical experience on a day-to-day basis. Dropping out of college made me work harder and longer, so I could compete with those who had the luxury to attend one.
You worked in diverse fields (Hospitality Management, HR, Accountant) before the entertainment industry. What led you to embark upon & stay on in this industry?
Good ol’ luck and lots of help from friends. Year: 2005, location: Dubai; I’d ticked off all these career moves, and a chance encounter with a producer from Dubai 92 Radio coupled with my passion for football got me a sports segment. Eventually, I was bumped up as a producer on 104.4 Awaaz and it was a whole new world; I had finally found my calling!
Then it was only natural for me to look for a radio job in India, where the scene was exploding, so a one-way flight got me to Delhi in February 2007. Here Ash Roy helped me settle in initially, soon I joined the 93.5 RED FM as a Show Producer, and was introduced to the Jalebee Cartel crew at the same time. This period totally changed my life and my perspective on the Indian music scene. I decided instinctively that I wanted to learn and work with the band, and grabbed the chance when it came my way. After managing them for six years, Arjun Vagale and I started UnMute in 2012, and here I am sharing gyaan with you. What made me stay was the fact that each time I thought I was done, something new & challenging kept pulling me back in, and even after 10 years, I’m still surprised every single day.
What prompted you to spearhead UnMute with Arjun Vagale of Jalabee Cartel?
UnMute was always meant to be. Even before I envisioned what it was, the idea was always there. We had set up a perfect back-end system needed for an artist to thrive with Jalebee, which was lacking in our scene. One serious conversation with Arjun Vagale led to our partnership and eventual launch of UnMute with some of our friends on the first roster.
Arjun and I have an ideal working relationship. We might be yin and yang, but we understand each other’s shortcomings as much as we appreciate the talent each one brings to the table.
UnMute has grown from an Artist Management firm to a regional agency for international artists. What have been the major hurdles in achieving your vision?
Five years in, I’d like to think we’ve changed the way the industry functions from an agency’s perspective, by bringing in a more professional approach. Subsequently, we are also lucky to be working with some of the finest talent from India and the world. However, a major part of the struggle is the general perception of electronic music and nightlife in India. Culturally, it’s not something parents encourage for their children, but this is changing quickly; For example, there’s a 16 year old artist, Chrms, whose parents have supported his interest since he was 12. Seeing this excites me.
And what have been UnMute’s most glorious high points till date?
Our vision has always been steered by the music that Arjun and I love. What I’m really proud of is that we have helped create an industry from what used to be just a “scene”.
In 2014, we ventured into doing our first large scale event with only Indian artists. RESET was a pioneering concept that travelled to four cities and changed the scene. Now there are 20+ festivals each year with Indian talent. We were lucky to get the support we did, though we also lost a lot of money in the bargain, but we’ll be back soon!
According to you, how has the industry evolved in the last five years?
Industry wise, things have gotten more professional; from sponsors finally jumping on the bandwagon to more folks taking music as a career seriously. Artists and agencies have worked hand in hand to make this change happen. We now have a group of professional artists who understand the processes and see the need for it. There is still some pushback from the old school camp, but in the coming years the templates and processes we’ve set in place will accelerate the careers of talented individuals who stand by them.
Among the audience the biggest change has been people understanding that electronic music is not “drug music”, and the huge misconception that Techno has no melody has been busted as well. The audience has diversified and gained more knowledge. There is a demand for new genres and people want to listen to the next big thing.
The one trait our entertainment industry can pick from the more established entertainment industries of the world? And vice-versa?
The more established entertainment industries of the world have government support and amazing infrastructure in place, so that’s the one big thing we’re missing. Plus, audiences are willing to spend on ticketing there, which is slowly trickling into India as well. Some of the biggest nightlife hotspots like Berlin, Amsterdam, London have dedicated Night Mayors – and that’s definitely a job I’d raise my hand for if someone offered it.
As for vice versa, I think our industry has tremendous perseverance and patience. You can try and knock us down, but we keep coming back!
What’s the next Plan of Action for Dev Bhatia and UnMute?
We’re moving into working even more closely with brands, creating IP’s – both medium scale and grassroots, and curating concepts.
On the personal front, besides music I have one other big passion (read: football), and it’s natural that I’ll gravitate towards that. Expect good things ahead!
As we press play for the next music movement, we bid adieu to this man full of life, spice, and everything nice. But, not without belting out our signature DSSC Rapid Fire.
One up & coming DJ the country needs to look out for?
dotdat, he’s a fantastic producer too.
Top 3 music finds in the last 3 months?
Reminder by Moderat, Whir by Affelaye, Digging For Windows by Zack De La Rocha.
One thing you love about the music industry? And the one thing you hate?
Love – the people. Hate – the politics.
Your top 3 destinations across the world for their music scene?
Berlin, Amsterdam, Tokyo.
Last song stuck in your head?
One tip for those looking to enter the entertainment industry?
Do it – it’s fun! Just ensure that your intentions are right. You are going to fail if you are in it because it’s cool or if you (only) think of it as a money making exercise.
One change you’d like to see in the industry?
More women as artists, managers / agents and just generally have better representation in the industry.
Tune into Dev’s #DSSCExclusive playlist, where he curates his fave artists across India:
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of DSSC & its affiliates.