Music discovery is a hobby for many Millennials; they love being the first in their social circle to find out about a band and share the info with their friends, particularly online via social media. At the same time, young people are more globally aware than ever, thanks to social media and the Internet. MTV recognized the combination of these two trends among youth as an opportunity to bring music and youth culture from around the world to American audiences via MTV Iggy. Part of that process involves showing a different, often unexpected, side of cultures from countries like Congo, Malaysia, and even Pakistan.
We chatted with Nusrat Durrani, SVP and General Manager of MTV World about the origins of MTV Iggy, global youth culture, and the channel’s Best New Band in the World program.
Ypulse: We’ve notice that young people are more globally aware than ever. Are you seeing that too, and how does that impact MTV and the development of MTV Iggy?
Nusrat Durrani: MTV is one of the world’s most international brands. It’s been very successful at taking the idea of MTV, customizing it and making it relevant for numerous markets around the world. The brand has taken a somewhat different shape as it has been localized, but the core brand attributes have remained the same. It was exporting American or Western pop culture. Growing up outside the U.S., young people were listening to, knew about, emoted with, had a relationship with numerous American artists, and not just the blockbuster names, but also niche music because the U.S. did such a good job as a country exporting its culture to other parts of the world. And it wasn’t just music. Around the world, young people would know Coke, Pepsi, Levi’s Madonna, Michael Jackson…
What didn’t happen was Americans bringing similar parts of other cultures back to the U.S.. Part of the problem is that the technology wasn’t there; we didn’t have the Internet then. Another reason is that at the time, there was the assumption that the world should only celebrate our [American] culture. That’s just not relevant anymore. What’s happening now is a beautiful intersection of social media, digital technology, young people traveling and studying abroad, and, sadly, even political events that have forced us to notice other parts of the world.
YP: Is that where the idea for MTV Iggy started?
ND: Yes, all of this has given MTV and the mainstream American audience the opportunity to actually let the world in. It’s not even an option anymore. It’s happening already, and if we use this opportunity to make our pop culture a little richer and more colorful, I think we would be doing the right thing.
MTV Iggy isn’t just about launching a website — it’s an umbrella brand that is all about cool music and exciting emerging trends from around the world. We want to help fans take deeper dives, vertically, into whatever interests them, K-pop for example, or South Asian pop music, Hip-hop from around the world, or even Death Metal, which is a genre often vilified, but actually stems from the same philosophy as punk music. This is a chance for us to bring the world to the US, which hasn’t ever been done meaningfully.
YP: Do you think that is something you need to encourage young peple to do, or is that something they’re doing already that you’re just helping them run with?
ND: I think we’re only being a catalyst. We’re simply enabling connections. As an example, anytime we bring an act from another part of the world that already has a cult following, and we present them to American audiences, there is an explosion of passion. MTV is not really sparking that. We’re only connecting fans to the artist, we’re not originating a passion. Millennials don’t suddenly get passionate about something the first time they see it. We recently had a K-pop showcase featuring 4minute, G.Na, and Beast. They’re not the top tier acts in terms of fan base, but thousands of people showed up after we mentioned on Facebook that these bands would be at our studio.
YP: Do you think that is because you’re in New York, which has a strong international culture already, or do you think that would have happened if you were in middle America?
ND: I think being in New York does make a difference, but things shouldn’t always be about the mainstream views. In general, we’ve created shorthand definitions for entire cultures. In our Best New Band in the World program, we’re featuring an artist from Pakistan, Atif Aslam. The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Pakistan…terrorism, misogyny, earthquakes? But that’s not all that’s happening there. Atif Aslam has 4 million fans on Facebook. Iran is another example of how our opinions are skewed. I learned recently that 70% of Iranians are under age 30, and at that age, your passions are music and ideas; you’re engaged, hopeful, optimistic, and experimental, and still defining who you are. Music is a huge part of that. There’s a very rich, active underground community of indie rock, pop, and hip-hop in Iran. And we’re hoping to bring some of that out. In making those sweeping judgments about other culture, we’re completely whitewashing any youth culture that might exist. At MTV Iggy, we want to create an environment and a culture that is open. As curators and creators of content, we have the responsibility to draw from a wider pool of choices. If we can be a part of changing perceptions about entire communities, then I think we’re doing something right.
YP: Tell me more about your Best New Band in the World program.
ND: The program illustrates the philosophies driving this whole project. It’s been a bit of an experiment. We have 10 bands from around the world; they’re widely dispersed, so where’s the common ground? The bands are from Jamaica, New Zealand, Venezuela, Pakistan, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia, Mexico, the UK, and the U.S.
Some interesting things have emerged from this experiment. We received 4.25 million votes from 169 countries! Even countries like Togo and Tonga; to imagine that there’s a fan online in Tonga voting for an artist like Yuna or La Vida Boheme or 2NE1. It’s mind-blowing, but it’s a fact. Also, the idea that music is borderless has come alive in a very strange manner. We never knew that K-pop was so popular in Latin America. That’s not because there are lots of Koreans there; it’s just because they dig it. Americans have been among the top voters, and there’s only one U.S. act on the list, Skrillex, but they’re also voting for the other nine artists. The top voters lately have been from the Philippines, and there’s not even a Filipino act on the list. When we started seeing this cross-pollination, we sent teams to South Korea, and we found they love 2NE1, but they also have opinions on Yuna. In Pakistan, fans were shocked and excited to see Atif Aslam on the list, but they also had strong opinions on Ghostboy and Zowie. We saw the same effects in New York and England.
YP: How are you able to generate a sense of community on the site when you’re dealing with so many different groups of people and so many different types of music?
ND: It’s a challenge, but it’s a good, enjoyable problem. Part of the challenge is that we haven’t fully built out our content base. We just formally launched, but we’ve been creating content for a while, but we haven’t been able to fully build out all the genres. We don’t have the best metal catalog or the deepest collection of hip-hop from around the world yet. We have a lot, but we’re not the first place the people think of when they’re looking for hip-hop from around the world. Our pop rock catalog is very big and our K-pop catalog is probably the best in the world, especially in terms of original content, live interviews, shows, and performances.
So the challenge is when someone is interested in an artist, we may not be able to sustain their interest. For example, a taping we did with Jin Akanishi, a Japanese hip-hop/pop singer drew a huge crowd in Times Square with hundreds of people hanging out — in the middle of December — just watching him on our big screen. The video has consistently been one of our most popular pieces of content, but it someone comes to MTV Iggy today to find out more about him and J-pop, we probably cannot sustain their interest because we’re still building that section of content. What we can do for now is cross-pollinate. So if they come to learn more about Jin Akinishi, they may also like Big Bang from Korea. We can create that geographical connection, but not yet offering a deeper dive within the genre.
We’ve seen with Best New Band that there’s already a fan following, with fan communities on social media and they’re spreading the word. 2NE1 fans are extremely passionate—they’re called Blackjacks; Atif Aslam fans are Aadeez. All of these fan bases are very, very active. When we announced the top five bands in the program on Facebook, we didn’t get a couple dozen comments, we got thousands, and thousands of likes.
YP: We’ve checked out a few videos on MTV Iggy, and they all have very different looks. You do an amazing job of representing each artist’s culture rather than Americanizing them.
ND: It’s collaborative. We work with the artists and learn how they see it. You’ve got to be authentic; you can’t force people into formats. It’s an interesting phenomenon. There’s a hunger and appetite for music and culture from other countries, but I think one benefit of what we’re doing is making the visual vocabulary of pop culture so much cooler. We don’t need to understand the words. I don’t know Korean, but with K-pop acts like Big Band or 2NE1, we see American culture in them. But it’s American culture through a very different filter.
YP: One last question, what’s with the name MTV Iggy?
ND: It’s actually an acronym: Intelligent Gratification for Global Youth. But that’s a big of a mouthful, so we cut it down.
YP: We think that perfectly sums up what you’re doing and reflects what this generation cares about.