For Nusrat Durrani, senior vice president and general manager of MTV World, the connective tissue that binds cultures and countries is music. It also provides the insistent beat that drives MTV’s newest multi-platform global music brand, MTV Iggy, a channel that aims to bring artists and pop culture from around the world to America.
Unveiled just two weeks ago, MTV’s Iggy (so named because it evokes the global collage of rock, hip-hop, funk, punk, and pop) is already amassing a huge global following. MTV Iggy has over 330,000 Facebook fans and its Best New Band in the World program boosted fan interactions and feedback on the social networking site by over 136%. Competing bands have already received votes from 167 countries (out of the 194 recognized by the United Nations).
At the helm of this latest innovation is Durrani, an avid consumer of all manner of music no matter its country of origin. As Durrani talks about the genesis of Iggy and MTV World, it’s clear that global tunes are the soundtrack of his life’s work: creating platforms for anyone to discover, share, and enjoy music. Yet just like a patchwork quilt of cultures stitched together with disparate melodies, Durrani’s journey proves that innovation is often risky and sometimes even counterintuitive.
At 35 years old, Durrani took a huge risk. He quit his cushy job as marketing manager for Honda in Dubai UAE, hopped on a plane to New York City, and proceeded to reinvent himself and his career. All because of David Bowie.
Durrani’s not some weird celebrity stalker. Rather, he took this leap of faith after seeing—for the first time—the music video for Bowie’s Let’s Dance on MTV. Raised in Lucknow, India, Durrani grew up listening to many genres of American music, "But I’d never seen it," Durrani tells Fast Company. "It was a turning point culturally and professionally."
Durrani says he stayed up into the wee hours that night in 1993, transfixed by the visual pageant of music. The very next day he was on a mission. "I took a deep dive into MTV," he explained, exhaustively researching every detail of the company. It wasn’t long before he high-tailed it out of the Middle East "like a mad man" and arrived at MTV’s door to ask for work.
At first, Durrani was politely turned away because he didn’t have a communications background. Undaunted, Durrani showed his dedication by signing up to become one of MTV’s oldest unpaid summer interns. At the end of his stint making copies and sending faxes, Durrani’s persistence was rewarded with full-time employment.
His timing couldn’t have been better. With an eye toward reinventing himself "within one of the world’s coolest brands," Durrani landed on the team that would launch MTV.com on the nascent web. "At the time, the knowledge and awareness of the web was vast, nebulous, and obscure," he admits, but the experience would prove to be a fertile training ground for what was to come.
Rising up the ranks, Durrani met that initial career goal within a few years. Then the itch to innovate set in. "I really started thinking about what I was contributing to the company," he recalls. For instance, he still remembers the shock of arriving in America with fully formed images of the country rooted in the lyrics of artists such as Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey. "I assumed there would be equal awareness about where I came from," he says, yet quickly discovered there wasn’t.
Though MTV broadcasts spanned 155 countries, it mostly served up American music to the global masses. Not content to continue such one-sided distribution, Durrani bridged the divide with MTV Desi, MTV K, and MTV Chi channels for South Asian, Chinese, and Korean-Americans, an emerging hybrid audience in the U.S.
Yet just like MTV’s early forays on the web, global pop music continued to represent the same kind of resistance and lack of awareness. Durrani wanted to push past that and encourage a cross-cultural conversation that would go beyond borders and perceptions.
"We as a collective media codify cultures and countries. When I say Congo, Iran, or Pakistan, it all evokes specific imagery in political terms," he explains, "But as far as music and pop culture, there’s great hip-hop coming out of the Congo." Durrani also points out that people would form a very different image of Pakistan based on Atif Aslam, a "sweet" folk singer he says is adored by half the world, but virtually unknown to Americans.
Durrani says Iggy aspires to be a platform for acts that normally have a hard time gaining exposure to a wider audience. So far, it’s helped Korean girl group 2NE1 capture the attention of Will.I.Am, and Jamaica’s Vybz Kartel hook up with Jay Z. And it’s also given Venezuela’s La Vida Boheme an opportunity to grow its fan base far beyond Caracas, where the quartet says they must get government permission to perform in any venue.
However, in keeping with his two-way strategy, Durrani says it’s also a timely way for the American mainstream to diversify its audio vocabulary. "Millennials are connected and open; to them music is homeless and without boundaries," says Durrani.
Timing has also provided unprecedented access to the tools of engagement. Durrani says thanks to social media, Iggy’s devotees can carry on multi-way conversations across continents beginning by voting for their favorite act for Best New Band in the World. The voting has delivered surprising results, such as a flurry of activity from the Phiippines, despite the fact that a native band isn’t in the top 10. Says Durrani, "No one really cares what country they come from; they care that the artist connects with them." As such, Durrani says Iggy is staying in step with the likes of Spotify as well as MTV’s own Music Meter.
"We can’t create music in a vacuum any more. If you want your product listened to and promoted to reach a wider audience, you have to have the platform for conversation. Social media is the underpinning of our project in cross-cultural exchange."
Photos of Cultastic and Nusrat Durrani courtesy MTV Iggy