India's new license to rock

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.

“Over the last four years a huge number of venues have opened,” said Ravi. “Now when I sit down to list gigs in Bombay every week I list 20 to 25 gigs in just one week.”

Sales are climbing, too. According to a website devoted to the Indian music industry, non-Bollywood pop music now accounts for as much as 8 percent of the market — a dramatic change from yesterday's complete dominance of film and devotional music. And more radical changes are in the offing. According to consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, India's radio industry grew nearly 40 percent from 2004 to 2008. But, just as in the rest of the world, music industry revenues dipped almost 15 percent last year. PwC says that means digital music will be the key driver of growth for India's music industry in the future — with digital's share of the pie growing to 60 percent in 2013 from 16 percent last year. That could be the web-savvy indie bands' chance to shine.

“The Internet has been the biggest boon,” said Nair. “Before that it was more or less impossible to reach out to people across the country, and now it's become fairly easy.”

Already, indie bands like Pentagram, the Raghu Dixit Project and Indian Ocean are breaking through into the mainstream music market. And as Bollywood seeks to reinvent its evergreen genre flicks, the fringes of the film business are beginning to look to the indies for source music instead of purpose-built studio tracks. Director Anurag Kashyap, for instance, tapped Indian Ocean for the soundtrack to his 2004 film "Black Friday," about the investigations following the 1993 serial Bombay bomb blasts. Though Anurag Basu selected Bollywood veterans Pritam Chakraborty and Sayeed Quadri for the soundtrack to his 2007 "Life in a Metro," for the first time instead of lip-syncers Pritam himself appeared in music video-style interludes within the film as the front man to a real-life rock band. And then last year Bollywood insider Farhan Akhtar created a real, though fictional, band for the surprise hit "Rock On!"

“People are getting bored of Bollywood, to be frank,” said Ravi. “Over the next four or five years, or maybe the next 10 years, we're going to get into a mindset where we're open to far more entertainment options.” And indie music will be a driving force through that transition, Ravi believes.

For OML, one day that could mean big bucks. The company has already begun to get nibbles from international players in the music business. But for now Nair is looking to take it slow and build a domestic music scene organically. That's why in November OML organized a conference for independent musicians in Mumbai called Unconvention — not for the artists they promote, but for the whole industry.

“They know that for them to grow as a company, the scene needs to grow, so it's not just about the bands that are there on their roster,” said Nair. “And I think people recognize that. Vijay [Nair] got a standing ovation at the end of Unconvention, and it wasn't one of those standing ovations that you're almost forced to give. It was a very genuine feeling.”