By Ankush Chibber
It’s been 14 years, but Kuvar Udawat remembers the day very clearly. A marketing consultant, Udawat is telling us of one hot August day in his hometown of Gwalior, when he and his friend Ankit bunked school half way through the day and sprinted home, making a detour only for the local book depot to pick up some empty 90-minute TDK cassettes.
Throwing down their bicycles in the driveway of Udawat’s home, the two rushed to the TV room and hooked up the Aiwa music system, his Class 10-passing gift, to the television. Cassettes popped in and Channel [V] tuned to, the boys pulled in their chairs, the kinds you can only find at a civil servant’s home, right in front of the tube and waited for Woodstock 99.
One of the largest musical festivals to have ever been organized, Woodstock 99 was the ’90s take on the famous 1969 edition of the Woodstock festival. Organized in upstate New York, the festival attracted over 200,000 music fans, who came from all over the US and abroad. In all, there were three stages and concert spaces erected at the festival grounds, a former air base, including one specifically for emerging artists. The entire setup resembled a mini-city, complete with a small police force, 15-feet high walls and ATMs.
Back in Gwalior, the two boys watched (and recorded), with bottles of Citra in their hands, the four-day extravaganza that was edited into a two-hour program.
Udawat remembers that the likes of Jamiroquai, Live, The Tragically Hip, Fatboy Slim, Metallica, Counting Crows, Moby, Everlast and Elvis Costello played at the festival. You could stretch the truth a bit, he says, to state that almost everyone you could call a star in that decade’s music scene, played at Woodstock 99.
As the two sat in open-jawed amazement, Udawat remembers the 17-year-old him thinking that as long as he lives in India, THIS would be the best music festival he would ever see.
Changing the game
At age 31, Udawat is willing to change that decision. In 2011, he attended in Pune what was the second edition of the NH7 Weekender—a three-day multi-artist music festival that began in the same city in 2010, but whose latest avatar will see it travel across four cities in 2013 including Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata.
“Everything felt international. Right from the ticketing to the way the volunteers behaved with you. The wrist bands, the F&B, the different stages, the artists…somebody finally got the brief spot on,” says Udawat, who in the meanwhile has attended many concerts in India, some he would like to forget.
The Weekender, which is now perhaps THE music festival in South Asia, is unique in the sense that its core is made up of original independent music or indie music—not Bollywood, not Indipop and not regular pop from elsewhere. Last year, 45,000 people attended the NH7 Weekender in three cities.
It has featured independent acts from India and abroad including headliners such as English singer and composer Imogen Heap and British act Asian Dub Foundation. The festival has also broken many acts in India like The Manganiyar Seduction ensemble last year.
But that is not all that Only Much Louder (OML), the firm founded by CEO Vijay Nair, along with Co-Founder Girish ‘Bobby’ Talwar, is doing. Started with no more than a year’s commitment and a small home office, OML has all its fingers in the pie that is India’s music scene.
Apart from the Weekender, it has multiple properties under Motherswear, the festivals division, including A Summer’s Day, which saw them bring in American crooner Norah Jones and Invasion Festival, an electronic music event. It also does one-offs, like the one that saw them bring in house music star David Guetta. There is also a college outreach program, where it is taking bands to the smallest of college festivals across the country—making something like the Carnatic rock band Raghu Dixit Project playing at a college fest in Guwahati a reality. It has an artist management agency, The Syndicate, where it manages top Indian acts including Swarathma, Karsh Kale and Midivial Punditz. Its production arm, Babble Fish Productions was behind The Dewarists, an acclaimed music reality show on
Star World and MTV’s Sound Trippin’ as well as branded web content like Eristoff’s Bring On the Night. Its editorial arm,
NH7.in, is a platform for indie music and alternative culture that covers everything from new music to graphic novels. There is also a tech arm under NH7, where the company has launched inTown, a hyper-local app focused on food, culture and nightlife.
The sum of all of the above is slowly making OML the go-to firm for brands that want to tap a demographic that brands and companies so desperately pine for—India’s young and mobile.
“The big difference between us and anyone else who has worked in India’s music scene is that brands are getting us,” says Nair. “Brands are understanding how music is a sublime and understated way to reach the urban young. And there is no one better out there than us who can do that.”
Nair, 29,believes that OML has had that bit of luck needed in getting any business off the ground. “I think brands have changed because people at these brands have changed. It’s in line with how our society has evolved,” he says, revealing that OML currently works with 30 brands.
Talwar, 34, who is on a one-year sabbatical, agrees. “We have supporters within India Inc who get what we have been trying to do in indie music.” According to Nair, there was a time that people at the front would tell them that their boards would not invest in something like indie music. “Today, the same boards are asking them why they aren’t? Why aren’t they doing something like The Dewarists or Sound Trippin’? That music is a gateway to India’s young is a reality that they are waking up to.”
The money has woken up too. Not too long after that Weekender that Udawat attended, US-based media and entertainment firm The Chernin Group (TCG) picked up a 49.9 percent stake in OML in April 2012 for an undisclosed amount through its Asia-based investment arm, CA Media. TCG comes with a global pedigree of having made several strategic investments in US-based companies like Pandora, Tumblr and Flipboard as well as producing TV shows like New Girl and movies like Oblivion and The Heat. In India, via CA Media, TCG also has a 49 percent stake in production firm Endemol India, says Rajesh Kamat, CEO of CA Media.
“OML sits in a space that sees a significant overlap between music and youth. And it covers all bases in this space. These guys do everything…have four or five revenue streams from music and are moving towards becoming a full service agency that commands a captive audience,” says Kamat.
This funding has given the firm, whose early roots are in a couple of young chaps’ passion for original indie music, the muscle to give established firms more than a nudge in the back when it comes to reaching out to India’s most valuable demographic.
Drop and Turn
At the turn of the century, Nair was following our society’s brief for young middleclass men to the letter. He had enrolled himself at Mumbai’s Sydenham College and a life in corporate India could not have been more than five years away. But in the way it happens with college kids in Mumbai more than kids from other cities, Nair found himself in pursuits far away from roll calls and submissions.
“After a short stint at Procter & Gamble, I was working at this online magazine called Gigpad. It was like a networking portal for Indian music fans and I had this writing role for which I had to travel across the country following bands and their gigs. But I never really wrote anything and graduated more towards the marketing and networking side of things,” he says. In his time at Gigpad as well as before and after, Nair saw a lot of concerts and shows up close. He could see the lacuna in the supply side, if you could call it that, where the bands were unable to control little else outside the music they made. He realized that with the right amount of planning and management, the business of making indie music could be made more feasible. The gigs were happening, Nair saw, but bands were either being wrangled out of their due in cash or kind by organizers or not getting the right kind of gigs. Some others just did not have the time or the inclination to go about anything remotely close to planning.
Eventually, Nair got to know one of these bands well enough to ask if he could manage them—Acquired Funk Syndrome. In about three months of doing that, Nair knew that he had found his calling—he dropped out of college to manage bands as a fulltime gig.
“I thought I will drop out for a year to begin with but then I started managing other bands and it just started rolling from there. It wasn’t like I learnt anything at college,” he says.
To the suit and perhaps the person who watches too much Entourage, the job of a band manager may seem all glamorous, high paying and all boardroom negotiations. But the reality in India was and is very different. “There was nothing as artist management back then. I did not have a pitch. Everyone was just glad that there was someone to sambhalo [take care of] things,” he says. One year after Nair started managing Acquired Funk Syndrome, he also came on board as the manager of popular Bombay-based rock band Zero. Here he met Talwar, the band’s lead guitarist and a lawyer by training, who had been managing the band. “I was thankful as doing both the roles was too taxing for me anyway,” says Talwar, who tells us that over time, the two became good friends and better colleagues.
In 2003, Nair made the big breakthrough in his small but fledgling artist management career. He approached Pentagram, arguably India’s most popular rock band, whose front man is the singer-producer Vishal Dadlani. Nair met Dadlani as a young novice but he clearly saw much more in Nair as he signed with him at a time when the band was far ahead of the rest of the pack—a big catch for the young artist manager. Incidentally, Dadlani also joined Nair later, partnering with him in the festivals division.