The Swamy of entertainment
Aditya Swamy, the head of MTV, MTV Indies and EVP Viacom 18, talks about ‘screenagers’ and attending live music concerts for a living
With advertisers for parents, Aditya Swamy’s childhood was rather bohemian. Transfixed, he often watched as “crazy” photographers, “eccentric” jingle writers, and musicians belting out high notes take over his typical Tam-Brahm, Chennai home and transformed it into a set for an ad shoot. “In those days, work and personal life gelled well. I remember spending a lot of time at my mother’s ad agency, but I cannot imagine that happening here today,” says the 40-year-old, looking around at the vibrant MTV office at Vile Parle East.
Aditya Swamy at the MTV office in Vile Parle East. He took over as channel head two-and-a-half years ago
Swamy pursued his undergraduate studies at Madras Christian College (MCC), a college spread over 100 acres in an erstwhile jungle and known for its illustrious musical history. “Most of our professors were ex-students, who were young and friendly. As the tradition goes, every student graduating from the college would donate a long-playing (LP) record. The 175-year-old institute has a rich collection of classic rock, from Jeff Woods to Grateful Dead. Little wonder music has played a huge role in my life,” says the Napean Sea Road resident.
Aditya Swamy at MTV office in Vile Parle East. Pics/Khushnum Bhandari
“Like all good Tam Brahms, my parents, too, encouraged me to learn Carnatic music, which I didn’t enjoy too much. But since the age of eight, I was exposed to some good Western much thanks to my neighbour, who was a promoter for Magna Sound,” says Swamy. All the musical influence sparked an interest somewhere and, while at college, Swamy began organising cultural events, zeroing in on artiste line-ups and finding sponsors. “I never really got down to playing music, but I often toured with musicians,” he recalls.
In 1996, Swamy moved to Mumbai to pursue his MBA at SP Jain College and his world could not have been more different. “From listening to music in a lush campus, donning jholas and chappals, I found myself among 120 cut-throat, corporate guys. I felt like a fish out of water, but eventually adapted to my new situation,” says the avid air-guitarist. Befriending two musicians in college had a lot to do with it. Melody found its way back into Swamy’s life as he formed a band with Anand Rangachary and Peter Thomas. It was also the first time he was singing Western songs. “We dedicated evenings and cancelled lectures to jam together,” says the music buff.
In the second year of college, Swamy realised marketing was his true calling and began work on a research project for Coca-Cola. “I bought myself a full-sleeved shirt and tie, walked into the company’s office and saw half the people dressed in shorts. What a waste of money!” quips Swamy who later joined the company’s Gurgaon office as a management trainee in 1998. “We were expected to deal with a lot of pressure and I worked my butt off. Marketing executives, in general, are thoroughly ghissaoed,” guffaws Swamy, who stayed with the company for eight years. It was there that Swamy met his wife, Neelima, who now runs a travel company and nurtures an organic farm.
Heading the channel
During his stint at the cola company, Swamy, who was involved with music, films and Internet projects, worked closely with MTV, especially on the branding and marketing of their music concerts. “Most people move from the broadcaster side to the client side, but I wanted to do something different. In 2006, a decade after the channel launched in India, I joined as marketing head. I still remember what my interviewer told me as I contemplated the offer — ‘Which other job will give you the opportunity to attend a U2 concert?’ I jumped at it, though I am still waiting for them to play for us,” says the channel head with a chuckle.
Swamy joined the company at an interesting time. The channel was trying to redefine what it stood for. Swamy was of the opinion that music is the voice of the youth, but it is not the only way to connect to them. So, it was under his leadership that MTV launched It’s My MTV, which telecast 15-18 new shows on fashion, lifestyle, careers along with Roadies and Splitsvilla. Swamy also handled the channel’s sales for three years and soon took charge two-and-a-half years ago. “My aim is to surround sound our audience on every platform — be it television, Internet or the cellphone. We are content creators, not just people running a television business. We don’t talk to teenagers, we talk to screenagers,” says Swamy, who recently launched MTV Indies, a channel that promotes indie music.
Young at heart
Swamy believes in surrounding himself with his target audience — he says young trainers and interns keep him going — and he closely listens in to know what’s on their minds. “Once, I was walking in our corridor and overheard an intern telling a friend about an upcoming gig and whether he would pay a certain amount for the pass. Now, that’s information I might not get authentically in a survey,” says Swamy.
He admits that the toughest part of his job is managing a team of 100 youngsters, each of whom wants to feel driven and motivated. “As a leader, I keep throwing challenges at my teams. We have an open culture, and we catch up over beers every Monday, but it should never be mistaken for a ‘chalta hai (it will do)’ attitude. Departments don’t have doors, but windows,” he adds.
Swamy doesn’t draw a line between his work and personal life either. “If your personal and professional lives are entwined, either you are always working, or always chilling. I like to consume entertainment to the fullest, so I go for a lot of plays, music festivals and gigs,” says Swamy, joking that his dog Sheeba takes up his time at home, while his wife does all the work.
Swamy leaves home at 7.30 am for a yoga session or a gym workout before hitting office by 10 am. He gets his fair share of travel thanks to his wife’s profession. “We have a deal of sorts — I take her to all the music gigs and she takes me on holidays. We are always looking to conquer something new and explore,” says Swamy, who recently vacationed in Jaisalmer. “We spent time on the sand dunes and enjoyed a meal under the open skies. I am a single malt connoisseur, so I enjoyed my poison under the stars,” says Swamy who hasn’t given up hopes of forming a music band in the future. “It would be something out of the movie, Rock on! I want to perform, at least semi professionally. Neelima gifted me a guitar a long time, which is sadly gathering dust. But, someday!” he says confidently.
Film: The Usual Suspects
Destinations: Goa, Africa
TV series: Entourage, House of Cards, MTV’s Fanna
Band: Steely Dan
Drinks: Cheapest beer, single malts
Born: April 22, 1974
Education: MBA from SP Jain, Mumbai, Madras Christian College, Chennai
Best advice someone gave you: Connect at a personal level with whatever you do