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Bhaskar Menon, Who Broke Glass Ceilings to Become the Most Powerful Man in Music Business, Dies at 86

Bhaskar Menon, Who Broke Glass Ceilings to Become the Most Powerful Man in Music Business, Dies at 86

  • Once responsible for almost 30 percent of the world’s recorded music, the founding chairman and CEO at EMI Music Worldwide, is credited for opening up the American music market for British bands like Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Queen and the Rolling Stones.

Bhaskar Menon, the founding chairman and CEO at EMI Music Worldwide died earlier this month at his home in the Beverly Hills section of Los Angeles. He was 86. He is survived by his wife Sumitra, sons Siddhartha and Vishnu, and sister Vasantha Menon. 

The India-born Menon, is touted to be the first Asian man to break the glass ceiling in corporate America. At the time he was responsible for almost 30 percent of the world’s recorded music, and is credited for opening up the American music market for British bands like Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Queen and the Rolling Stones.

In a statement after Menon’s death on March 4, Lucian Grainge, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group said: “Determined to achieve excellence, Bhaskar Menon built EMI into a music powerhouse and one of our most iconic, global institutions. Music and the world have lost a special one. Our hearts go out to his loved ones.”

‘A Sheer Accident’

Menon’s foray in the music industry began in India and thenLondon and eventually to the United States. 

Born Vijaya Bhaskar Menon in Thiruvanthapuram, India, on May 29, 1934, to father KRK — a civil servant who later served as India’s first finance minister — and mother Saraswathi, Menon graduated from the Doon School and went on to London to pursue higher education.

Pink Floyd with Bhaskar Menon, left, of Capital Records in USA. Top photo, Menon, the chairman and chief executive of EMI Music Worldwide, in the mid-1980s with, from left, Don Zimmerman, the president of Capitol Records, a subsidiary of EMI, and the Capitol artists Tina Turner and Bob Seger. (EMI Music Worldwide)

“Bhaskar had an extraordinary capacity to learn from others,” Mahatnu Curmalli, India’s largest record retailer, told India Today in a January 2014 interview. Curmalli has known Menon ever since the young Menon spent a week in his shop learning the tricks of the retail music trade. “He would go to the smallest towns and meet company representatives,” Curmalli said. “He would talk to peons and clerks and retailers to get an understanding of the business. And the amazing thing is that once a fact entered his elephantine memory it was there to stay.”

After earning his master’s degree from Christ Church, Oxford, he moved to EMI’s Indian subsidiary, Gramophone Company of India, in 1957. He was recruited directly from Christchurch College, Oxford, by EMT’s Chairman, Sir Joseph Lockwood, in 1956. Menon rapidly rose up the EMI ladder in their Calcutta-based Indian branch office. By the early ’60s he was appointed, general manager, and in 1964 he formed the wholly-owned subsidiary, Gramophone Company of India, of which he was the managing director. 

Menon told India Today in a January 2014 interview that he got into the music business by a sheer accident. “I could never imagine, while at university, that a serious adult could devote himself to making phonograph records,” he said. “But one day, while having lunch with my tutor, I found myself sitting next to Sir Joseph Lockwood, and he offered me the job. I had time to kill, so I took it.”

The most notable chapter in Menon’s career began in 1971, when he relocated to Los Angeles to be head of Capitol Music. He was instrumental in the success of the 1973 Pink Floyd album “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Under Menon’s leadership, Capitol went on to sign the likes of Sheena Easton, Blondie, David Bowie, Rosanne Cash, Natalie Cole, Sammy Hagar, Heart, Diana Ross, Bob Seger and George Thorogood. He married Sumitra Paniker in 1972 and they raised a family in California.

In 1978, Menon engineered the worldwide merger of all EMI operations to create the global music giant EMI Music Worldwide, of which he became the chairman and CEO. During the course of a 34-year tenure at EMI, Menon worked with a variety of artists like David Bowie, Tina Turner, Richard Marx, Duran Duran, Grace Jones, Pet Shop Boys, Queen, Roxette, and Spandau Ballet. At the time, Menon was considered the most powerful man in the music business. British music, film and culture website called Menon “The Man Who Runs Rock & Roll.”

Menon retired from EMI and the music business in 1990. And in 1995 he set up his own company, International Media Investments Incorporated. Based out of Beverly Hills, the company invests in media around the world, including India’s NDTV.

Milestone Moments

In December 1971, Menon and Capitol joined with ex-Beatle George Harrison and Apple in releasing the live recording of the Madison Square Garden “Concert for Bangladesh,” by Pandit Ravi Shankar, accompanied by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on the sarod, Kamala Chakravarty on the tambura and Ustad Alla Rakha on tabla. The Daily Guardian reported that over 20,000 people attended the concert on Aug. 1, 1971. 

As per the Daily Guardian report, the idea for the concert originated in June 1971 when Ravi Shankar heard that Pakistani troops had destroyed the property of his guru, Ustad Alauddin Khan, in East Pakistan. The album was released three days after Indian Armed Forces liberated Bangladesh on Dec. 16, 1971. It topped the charts, eventually winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. “The first of a kind, it has since raised over $17 million and inspired the multi-star Live Aid along with thousands of other major charity concerts around the world,” the Daily Guardian reported. 

However Menon received flak from Harrison. In a November 1971 interview on the Dick Cavett Show, Harrison blamed Menon for the delay of the album’s release, “as he wanted Capitol to make profit out of this album, while all the other record companies let the performances of their artists be used for free.” 

In 1973, Menon played the central role in leading the promotion and marketing of Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side of the Moon. The album was hailed as a unique blend of studio wizardry and outstanding musical innovation. The Dark Side of the Moon spent 950 weeks on the USA-based Billboard 200 album chart, the longest duration of any album in history. It is also the fourth highest selling album globally of all time, selling more than forty million units.

The Man Who Ran Rock & Roll

Although Menon was primarily known as a manager of the business side of the labels he ran, he had the respect of many musicians. 

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In the 2003 documentary “The Making of the Dark Side of the Moon,” Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason acknowledged Menon’s influence on the album’s success. “The story in America was a disaster, in that we really hadn’t sold records,” he said at the time. “And so they brought in a man called Bhaskar Menon who was absolutely terrific. He decided he was going to make this work, and make the American company sell [“Dark Side of the Moon”]. And he did.”

Similarly, Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, praised Menon in his 2008 autobiography, “Wild Boy: My Life in Duran Duran.” “We decided to go with EMI because we knew they had a global network and could launch bands across America,” he writes. “The company was headed by the legendary music industry figure, Bhaskar Menon, who’d presided over EMI during the rise of the Beatles.”

However, the New York Times notes in its obituary that despite his popularity, Menon considered himself to be an outsider in the Southern California music scene. “I was a very unusual and unlikely sort of person to be sent here under those circumstances to take overall executive command of Capitol,” Menon was quoted as saying in “History of the Music Biz: The Mike Sigman Interviews,” a 2016 collection published by the industry magazine Hits, according to the Times.

In the January 2014 interview, Menon told India Today that he never thought of himself to be the only Indian to head a multinational entertainment corporation. “Actually, I’ve never thought of myself in that way,” he said. “As for heading a record company, it’s also a glamour business, everyone wants to know what we’re doing. But there’s one thing about the record business, it spoils you for anything else. Once you get into this you can’t ever work in any conventional business again.” 

He explained: “You have to get very close to the artist, have to know everything about him and deal on a totally personal level.” He recalled the time when John Lennon died. He was in London. “I caught the first Concorde out to New York to meet Yoko, spent some time with her before I left for India and my holiday,” he said. “And then, last week in Madras she phoned me at midnight and talked for half an hour. You get totally involved in the personal lives of artists.”

Menon served as president of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the trade association of the world recording industry, with 1,100 members and national groups in 71 countries. He was elected to the newly created position of chairman of the Board of the Federation. 

In 1990, he was awarded the IFPI Medal of Honor for services to the global music industry after serving for many years as IFPI’s chairman and president. That same year, he was appointed to the rank of Chevalier De L’Ordre Des Arts et Des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture for his service to the music and film industries.

Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.

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