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India's music scene: Why nostalgia no longer sells tickets in India

By Reshil Charles

If The Doors front man Jim Morrison were to have accompanied Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger to the Fly Music festival that was supposed have happened in Delhi and Bangalore in mid February, then the reason for its cancellation would have not been that it "could not garner the expected reach and hype". Fans from the corners of the country of all ages would have descended to see the cult icon at least once in their lifetime. Mr. Morrison, however, passed away in 1971 leaving the remainder of his band with the task of riding the storm on the strength of their keyboard and guitar wizardry. Going by the statement on the Fly Music festival’s website, it seems recreating yesteryears glory is not something concert organisers can bank entirely on anymore.

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Photo courtesy: NH7

Nostalgia no longer sells tickets in India. The music scene has become all about the here and now.

"We have almost sold out our tickets for the Norah Jones India tour across Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore starting March 3," says Vijay Nair, CEO of Only Much Louder and Co-Founder of the NH7 music festival, noting the enthusiasm generated by the multi Grammy award winning singer of 'this' generation. Just a few weeks back, another current international favorite, Gotye, put on a sold out performance at the Blue Frog -- a few days before he went on the win this year’s record of the year at the Grammys for his hit "Somebody that I used to know" along with the best alternative music album award. Both performances took place within a month of each other and fans are happy to pay Rs. 1500 to Rs. 6500 a ticket to support domestic concert organisers who connect with evolving music tastes, which now extend beyond the big names.

There is, however, still a huge part of the country that loves Sting and Bryan Adams, and Top 40 ballads and pop. But that in turn raises the question: why no Justin Bieber concert yet?

"It's economics" says Vijay Nair, "The biggest artists of this generation are getting paid much more today than ever before, up to $2 million in some cases. We pay in dollars but earn in rupees. Venues are also an issue. Abroad there are venues that are ready and up to date with facilities to handle the huge logistical demands of major concerts. In India, we have to invest a lot in getting venues ready in many ways."

Nair’s statement doesn't ring entirely true since we've attracted artists like Beyonce, who performed in India six years ago. That means sponsors can cough up the money when needed. Yanni, Michael Jackson, Shakira, The Rolling Stones, Katy Perry, Aerosmith and off course Bryan Adams, have all performed in India at concerts organised by DNA networks. "There are phases of a few years from time to time when booking agents feel Indian organisers have the ability to pay more than they actually can. This leads to artificial pricing and the artists rates are hiked up," says DNA managing director Venkat Vardhan, explaining the up-and-down nature of the international music scene. As for sponsors, Venkat says "Earlier it was about catching eyeballs with brand presence. Nowadays its purely about making a profit on your investment."

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Photo courtesy: Reshil Charles

Given the changing priorities, it will likely be a while till someone feels the math is right for an iconic concert.

In the absence of big-ticket concerts, the music festival has emerged as a successful model for organisers. Sunburn and NH7 to be precise. While Sunburn started in Goa six years back as a DJ-focused three day annual electronic dance music gathering, NH7 spread 60 bands of multiple genres across three days in Pune three years ago. Both are domestic properties and went multicity last year with similar events in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, with Sunburn taking their act across borders to Colombo and Dubai.

These festivals bring together an all-day experience that goes beyond just music. There is a variety of food, clothes, foot massages and a flowing bar on offer. It might sound more like a party, but it works. Bacardi doubled its money as NH7’s sponsor and Sunburn is now valued at approximately Rs 140 crore.

"Fans are being treated well, word of mouth is positive and we are building an experience that is here to stay and not a one off," says Nair.

Festivals also offer the non-Bollywood domestic music talent a major platform, with bands and DJs from across the country playing on the same stage as international acts, reaching beyond their fans to gain an audience that has paid for the entire event.

For now, the music calendar will be defined by a mix of festivals and one-off acts that are not logistically demanding and yet bring in the money. That said, it still baffles me as to how we managed to bring Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabrial, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour to the Nehru Stadium, Delhi, in 1988 all in one night! The concert was called Live Aid and part of the Human Rights Now world tour. Surely the logistical demand must have been huge.

But that was a simpler time. I was 9 years old. My mother and I walked back over the Kotla flyover at 3 am amongst many concert goers flagging down passing by auto rickshaws and taxis. It may have been unsafe at the time even then, but we did it anyway. There was harmony amongst everyone. I think it came from being thankful that we saw what we had only heard on tape until then.

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