Q&A

Fellows Friday with Vijay Nair

Band manager Vijay Nair is revolutionizing the independent music scene in India. In an industry heavily dominated by Bollywood, Vijay has resorted to creative techniques like printing instructions of how to pirate one of his band’s CDs on the back of the disc. Though his quirky company has had a lot of success, all start-ups make the same mistakes at first – and they should, he says.

How did you get started in India’s independent music industry, and where has it led you?

When I was 17, I was working with a website called Gigpad. It was a networking site for musicians. I got into it from a designing and PR perspective, not really thinking that I wanted to get into the music business. But I was really well networked with musicians, since it was the only online community for Indian musicians. A band called Acquired Funk Syndrome (AFS) lived close by knew that I knew a lot of people. They needed some help getting gigs and spreading the word around. They came to me and said, “Do you want to travel with us and manage us?” And it obviously sounds like a good idea when you’re 17. So that’s how it got started.

Over the last eight years Only Much Louder has grown from one company to a group of companies, all dealing with the music business. Largely it’s the live music business that we’re a part of, so we do concerts, festivals … we have an artist management booking agency and a record label. It’s a lot of work revolving around independent music.

Being in India, Bollywood kind of takes away most of the space in anything that you do. But we’ve stuck around the non-Bollywood scene and have done independent music over the last few years.

This year is actually going to be the biggest for us. The kind of projects we have taken up are much larger than what we’ve done before. We’re putting together two big music festivals here this year: in December we’re doing the first indie music festival in India, and in January we’ve got The Prodigy coming down. It’s their first time coming here.

Right now every day life is pretty much consumed by work. But work’s a lot of fun, so I don’t really complain.

What sets Only Much Louder apart?

When we started, we were the first artist management company to work with independent artists. When we started the label, we were one of the first Indian labels to come out and have a proper set up. What differentiates us is that we’ve always focused on the non-Bollywood sector in India and that’s a pretty hard thing to do. Plus we’ve never really been limited to any genre; it’s just been about anything that’s independent, good, live, very flexible. So we’re managing everything form heavy metal bands to folk bands. We try to work with as many new artists as possible. Every year we sign on new artists – that’s been the goal of the company.

What innovative approaches has Only Much Louder taken?

Around 1999-2000, we had dial-up connections where you could download music that you never used to be able to get in India. Downloading music was really slow, but it opened this whole world up. Before that, let’s say you were a Pearl Jam fan, that meant you had one album. That’s what you’d get in India. And suddenly you had one hundred new songs to download.

I think a lot of the independent industry caught on to that much before the major labels did. The second band I started managing, called “Zero,” recorded some stuff, and we didn’t really know what to do. We weren’t going to go to a label, because it didn’t make sense. So we sat and burned about two hundred CDs. And I think at some point we realized that it would be much easier if people just burned it themselves and gave it to other people, rather than us sitting and doing this. It was really boring.

So on the other side of the CD we had instructions about how to burn it. All of that was pretty new here back then. So we explained this is what you do: get a CD writer, find a friend, buy a blank CD for just 20 rupees, and give it away. Just make sure that they burn another copy and give it to someone else.

We took a lot of pride in that. And the more we asked people to do that, the more people ended up buying the album, which was really strange. We did the first two hundred albums like that, but we were actually mass-printing albums after that. We did about eight to ten thousand copies by the end of the year.

How did you know it would actually make money?

There was no agenda of making money at all. You’re all 18, 19 and just putting out stuff … it didn’t cross our minds. In fact, all we were thinking was, “Alright, we’ve got to save up for two months to burn this CD and put it out.” We never even looked at it coming back. And once the money started coming in, we literally reinvested that in making more CDs, then we started making merchandise. Whatever you made in a night, you pretty much spent it in the same night. That’s what you did back then. There was no plan, really. In fact, I don’t think we would have survived if we had a long five-year plan or any of that. It was just about getting from one week to another and doing as much as you can.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes?
Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

If you’re a social entrepreneur or an entrepreneur in general, the first piece of advice is that almost all of us end up making the same mistakes in the first few years. And that’s absolutely fine. If we hadn’t made the mistakes we made at Only Much Louder in the first three to four years, I don’t think we would be where we are now.

The first mistake everybody makes is trying to do everything yourself. The biggest mistake and the silliest mistake is not having an accountant. When we sat down and looked at it, the better we did in every year, the less money we saved. Because we just didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t have the right kind of people taking care of the right things.

Second is trying to scale up too fast. You try to do too many things because you have many different ideas and want to do everything together. So you try to do a big project and it fails miserably. From that you learn that even if you have the greatest idea, start it one step at a time. Get that completely right, and it’s easy to scale up later on.

Those things can only be learned from mistakes. It’s just important that no mistake is big enough to pull you down. When those mistakes happen, it feels like it’s the end of the world. It feels like it doesn’t make sense anymore.But there’s always something else that comes, and you find another opportunity. From my experience, I see that people who hold on to it and really push it, survive.

The second piece of advice is that it takes time. I see a lot of people who want to do this and give it one or two years, and say, “It’s not working out.” I think the important thing is, if you’re really in it, if you’re passionate about it, it’s going to take a lot of time. We’ve been doing this for eight years and we still consider ourselves a start-up. Because every year you’re learning something new and trying to scale up. Give it time and patience.

Third, and most important, is the people and team that you build. So if you find the right kind of person, do whatever it takes to get him working with you. I think that’s the rarest commodity out there: finding the right kind of people to work with you on every level. Commitment-wise, mentally.

You’ve said that your aim is to empower and free musicians from labels, agents, and managers. As a manager, how do you reconcile that?

Management and labels and agents work in a very different format in India. So what I said is very contextual, because you don’t have this industry at all. You just have the artists, and you have the record label, and the record label controls everything in that. When I started out, it was almost as if I’d get into a business venture with each of the bands, and then we’d work it out together what we wanted to achieve, collectively. So it wasn’t us as a company saying, “Now you signed on with us, and this is what we do.” I think what artists need is basically to have one person be part of the team to take care of logistics so that they can focus on the music. So we see ourselves as part of an extended team, rather than a management company or a label.

The music industry is different here because if you just look at India as a territory, it’s like the whole of Europe. Every state speaks a different language. So you can’t have any strategy that can apply across the country. And that’s a big challenge when you market anything.

Second, the infrastructure is not that great. It’s getting better by huge leaps and bounds every year. When we started out, we had three venues in the whole country to play at. And how many times can you keep playing at the same venue, over and over again? So we had challenges like that. You kind of improvise, and start building your own venues in the sense that you convince people who just have spaces, to let you play. In universities, schools, and work it from the ground up.

One of the big differences, compared to any of the other foreign markets, is the film industry and the Bollywood part of it being so dominant. Here, the only reason ninety percent of music is made, is so that it will go into films. That’s the only reason the music industry exists here. And then you have about five percent devotional music, the other two percent is international music, and the remaining two or three percent is the independent music industry.

But the difference is, one percent of anything in India is a very large number, because of the size of the market.

So do you hate Bollywood music?

No, I think I started by hating it. Just because it was so commercial and it was all you heard. But it doesn’t matter anymore, for two reasons: I think the only reason the independent film industry exists is because of Bollywood. You’ve got something that is so dominant, so there’s automatically an underground that exists. There’s people who get sick of it.

Secondly, Bollywood has changed massively in the last few years. From A.R. Rahman, who kind of led the movement of different music coming into Bollywood, to a whole bunch of composers. In fact the biggest Bollywood composers have been in rock bands.

What have been some of your most memorable experiences from your job?

I started working with the band Swarathma about two years back. They’re from Bangalore, which is an urban-metro town and they use folk music, with rock, reggae, and different stuff. They use this very folk way of story telling and that’s how they tell about their songs. The way they dress up in traditional garb is incredible. But they were a big challenge. When you’re a band like that, you’re in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got your independent scene who thinks, “Oh, you’re singing in Hindi, you’re dressed up like this, so you’re trying to be commercial.” At they same time, they aren’t making songs for movies. So there is no commercial element to it. Developing a band like that is always a lot more challenging. But it’s really taken off. They’re going to Australia next month, they do about 100-odd gigs every year in India. That’s been a project I’ve been really attached to, and has worked really well for us.

Swarathma

In terms of events, I think the first festival we put together for a British company here was the Big Chill, which was the Indian version of the Big Chill Festival in the U.K. We did it as a two-day festival in Goa. It was outstanding. That was the first time that we saw people in India come for something with absolutely no big stars or Bollywood acts. It was just about music. There was no mainstream publicity, so it was just word of mouth. This was before the time of Facebook, so we had nothing. And still people turned out. And it was a great experience working with an international team, learning a lot from them. I think that was our learning grounds for how to build a music festival.

How has the TED Fellowship influenced you or your work?

It was huge. Before TED came to India, I was one of those people downloading every little TED episode that was out there. I was a TED geek. Still am. So getting the Fellowship itself was a really big deal.

It was incredible meeting the people at TED, and so many of them doing incredible stuff, all in India, and I’d never heard of them. And it was really diverse. I don’t know how TED chooses 100 people from an entire country, but the mix of people was just incredible. I think that’s the only three or four days that I’ve had in the last few years where I did absolutely no work. Phones were off. We just were there and soaking it all in. It was quite an experience.

Where do you see the music industry in India going next?

I actually don’t have any idea where the music industry is going to go, either here or internationally, because no one knows. You have to accept the fact that you have no clue what’s going to happen next. Just be ready to accept and work with whatever comes your way.

I keep thinking that in 1997 some record label executive somewhere made a 10 year plan. He didn’t know some kid was out there making an MP3 file. And that changed his entire world. And then came iTunes and the iPod and things keep coming, and it changes. You have to look at the immediate one year or two year plan, and that’s all that you can afford to do, if you’re being realistic. There are disruptive technologies being developed right now, which we have absolutely no clue about. And it’s going to happen whether we like it or not. So just keep it flexible and see where it goes.