Nothing but the beat
Ten years ago, right after Acquired Funk Syndrome, a Pune-based rock band that is now defunct, won the Independence Rock festival at Rang Bhavan in south Mumbai, a tall, lanky 19-year-old with thick hair approached the lead guitarist, Fali Damania, with what was then an unusual proposal: He wanted to manage the band. They chatted for all of five minutes before Damania agreed, and the youngster, Vijay Nair, then studying commerce at Sydenham College, became possibly India’s first manager of independent musicians.
“He used to come to a lot of our gigs,” explains Damania. “Back then, bands were usually managed by one of their members, who booked gigs and took care of payments, public relations and travel arrangements.”
Outsourcing these tasks to Nair freed up enormous amounts of time for the band and soon its fortunes rose dramatically, and it became one of India’s hottest rock acts. “We were constantly on the road getting paid R15,000 to R20,000 a show which, at the time, was pretty good,” says Damania. “Vijay took care of everything, including getting shady organisers to give us our money.”
A few months later, after similar conversations, Nair started managing Pentagram and Zero, top Mumbai rock bands. “With Vijay handling everything, all we had to do was focus on the music,” says Bandra-based Sidd Coutto, drummer and songwriter for Zero. Says Vishal Dadlani, Pentagram’s front man: “Right off the bat, you could tell that he wasn’t in it for fame or money, that he wanted to establish the independent music scene.” Three years later, Pentagram became the first Indian band to play at UK’s Glastonbury festival.
By then, Nair, who grew up in Goregaon, had dropped out of college and given his hobby a name: Only Much Louder, or OML, which he defines as “a content-related company pertaining to music, especially live music, and alternative culture.” “Touring with Acquired Funk Syndrome was the happiest time in my life,” says Nair. “It was the business side of music, the feeling of building something from scratch that really excited me.”
OML rapidly expanded to include under its umbrella a host of subsidiaries: a booking agency The Syndicate, record label Counter Culture Records, production house Babble Fish Productions and OML Digital. To this day, their focus remains on the indie music scene.
Ten years ago, this scene was very different. Venues were limited. Audiences were interested in listening only to bands playing covers of Western bands such as Metallica, Nirvana and Guns ‘N Roses.
A lot has changed. “The scene has found a certain legitimacy,” says Dadlani, who is now also a prolific Bollywood composer as one half of music director duo Vishal-Shekhar. “Audiences are coming to watch bands play their own songs.”
In the past two years, Nair has gained a reputation of being one of the best concert organisers in India, largely thanks to the glowing reviews the annual Bacardi NH7 Weekender festival — which his company organises — has received since its first edition in 2010. “It is the country’s only complaint-free festival” says Dadlani. “That is because the organisers understand that one needs to respect the artistes as well as the paying public.”
Says Damania, now a freelance sound engineer who tours extensively with Bollywood singers Shankar Mahadevan and Sonu Niigaam: “I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve landed at an airport only to find no one there to pick us up. However, when I go for an NH7 Weekender, everything from transportation to people assisting with baggage and loading the cars has been sorted.”
The 2011 edition of the Weekender festival saw a 130% rise in footfalls, to nearly 16,000 attendees. But the festival will not break even for another three years, which according to the folks at OML is quite normal for music festivals. Neysa Mendes, an ex-OML employee, says Nair’s philosophy is less about making profits and more about providing memorable experiences.
It is probably this credibility that has resulted in Nair, in association with events company UKNY Music, managing to get Grammy-winning French DJ David Guetta to come to India (see on the right ‘Guetta’s house party’), where audiences are usually accustomed to seeing bands arriving way past their sell-by date.
Nikhil Chinapa, festival director of the annual Goa-based Sunburn Festival, Asia’s largest electronic music festival, nearly beat Nair to getting Guetta down to India when he met the hit-maker at a nightclub in Ibiza last September. “I was unfortunately very busy with the fifth edition of Sunburn at the time so I had to let that opportunity go,” says Chinapa. “But I’m glad Vijay is doing it and not anyone else.”