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India's new license to rock

Forget Bollywood. India's independent music scene is headed in entirely new directions.

Guitarists hold their guitars at a stadium in Shillong, the capital of India's northeastern state of Meghalya, Oct. 26, 2007. India's independent music scene is in the midst of an unprecedented boom. (Utpal Baruah/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — Vijay Nair, would-be Richard Branson of Indian rock, was still a kid when he floated the country's first artist management company, Only Much Louder, back in 1999. All he really wanted to do was tour with some of the garage bands he loved. Now he's almost famous.

Here's what happened. Nair was a normal 16-year-old South Indian geek living (and rocking) in Mumbai and trying to fly under the radar of parents intent on turning him into an engineer, when he got a gig working for a web design company that was making sites for Indian bands. Then one day the members of Pentagram, an up-and-coming rock act, asked him if he'd like to be their manager. Bye bye, engineering school.

"Basically, what 17-year-old kid wouldn't jump at the chance to travel and hang out with a rock band," said Nair in a phone interview with GlobalPost.

His parents bought the story that it would only be a year “break” from studying before he went to college. But Nair soon had much bigger plans. Within a year he was managing two more acts, and he'd booked gigs for Pentagram in Glastonbury and Estonia — breaking the group into the “mainstream” world of European rock. And that was just the beginning.

Fast forward 5 years, and Only Much Louder has 14 employees, reps three bands exclusively as their official manager and arranges gigs for a bunch more. The company books about 200 gigs a year these days, and recently set up Counter Culture Records, its own record label and distribution arm — releasing more than 10 albums in the first year.

“The biggest thing that has changed is that artists now are only performing their own music, as opposed to covers,” said Nair. “That changes many things, because once you have your own material, then you can do albums, concerts with only your stuff playing — it changed the whole value chain in that sense.”

With $500,000 in annual revenue, OML isn't exactly poised to break into the Fortune 500. But as AC/DC's Angus Young will tell you, it's a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. And with the British Council's selection of Nair for its International Young Music Entrepreneur award in 2010 and the naming of OML as one of India's coolest companies by a top business magazine, OML's already making waves. More importantly, along with a handful of other startups, Nair's brainchild is giving the country's indie music scene license to, well, rock.

“Artist management as a concept never existed in India,” said Arjun S. Ravi, the founder and editor of the online music magazine indiecision. “The bands would either manage themselves or they'd have a friend who'd book them gigs. [OML] is creating a business model of the way things can be done in India. It's not the way things should be done, or how things can be done abroad, but it's how things can be done here. India is a very specific market.”

India's music industry has always been dominated by the soundtracks churned out by Bollywood. Penned and recorded by side musicians and so-called “playback singers,” this bouncy, upbeat pop music is then lip-synced by the film industry's mega stars and receives nearly limitless promotion through TV trailers and the country's dozen-odd music video channels. But even though famous playback singers and singer-composers like Slumdog Millionaire's A.R. Rahman occasionally perform at socialite weddings and awards ceremonies, the combination of Bollywood's heavily produced studio sound and the dominant role of side musicians rather than bands has until recently prevented the evolution of any real live music scene.

“Even in Bombay four or five years ago we did not have many venues that would have live music performances regularly,” said Ravi. “For awhile we only had one venue, and bands could not play anywhere.”

Now, however, with the emergence of Only Much Louder and similar companies, peer-to-peer file sharing and new internet-savvy bands, India's independent music scene is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.