Kingpins of music festivals: Harindra Singh, Vijay Nair & Jaideep Singh
“Music makes the people come together. Music mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel…” Madonna’s year 2000 hit single beautifully indicatesthe power of music to overcome divisions of race, gender and sexuality. She spoke of nothing new really. If at all it only brought to the fore what several thinkers and dreamers have echoed for centuries – Music is the universal language. It possesses the ability to connect people.
The last 15 years or so have been transformational for India. With better connectivity came greater global awareness, the steady arrival of MNC’s created more employment opportunities and larger disposable incomes among middle income groups led to deeper interests in varied forms of entertainment and recreation. There was a clear demand to be entertained as live performances began driving the non-film scenario and the live events sector noticeably flourished. It may well be the youngest facet of the Indian entertainment industry. And yet, almost overnight, no one could do without it.
This is exactly what was needed in our country, a reason for people to get together and collectively celebrate, defying the long-drawn complexities of caste and inequalities.
Smaller events led to enticement and greater demand heartened enterprising Indians to look beyond borders for inspiration. And just like that, two years after the launch of leading EDM festival Tomorrowland in Belgium, Percept India created its very own music IP in 2007 by the name of Sunburn. Little did one know at that time that ‘Sunburn’ would go on to be recognized as a common household name among Indian youth. Its immediate acceptance gave way to a multitude of similar format events in urban India. Music had become the reinforcer.
Fast forward to 2015, and the three large format music IP’s that unmistakably dominatethe Indian music scene are Percept’s Sunburn, OML’s NH7 Weekender and Live Viacom18’s Supersonic. Each, with its campus brand-extensions and multi-city tours, has continued to grow significantly in scale and attendance allowing sponsors the opportunity for two-way engagement with an audience considered gold.
In conversation with Harindra Singh, Co-Founder, Percept;Vijay Nair, Founder, OML and Jaideep Singh, Business Head, Live Viacom18, Yamini Singh traces their journey to the top.
Harindra Singh, Co-Founder, Sunburn, Percept
Tell us how you got into the business of events?
I got into the advertising business by default not by design. The first 10 years were challenging because I started off with nothing. Its not like I had amassed a huge capital or had family wealth backing me- nothing! But we emerged unscathed from the initial years of struggle, I think it lasted a gruesome decade, and we soon began receiving a lot of appreciation for our work.
Around 1994 we suddenly realized that lot of our clients were beginning to look for ‘special’ solutions. And if we don’t get into the so called specialist zones we were going to lose our clients. We realized around the same time that as a result of entering these specialist zones, we might actually have new products giving us greater market access. So we made a decision- whatever were these so-called specialist areas, we were going to do those. We didn’t have money at the time to actually acquire any knowledge or expertise. So our first step was very simple- we had an office where we had these little rooms, so we labeled one of those cabins- Event Division.
Things got off to a rocky start. But I’m a firm believer that a brand- agency relationship is like a marriage. Even if things don’t work out properly you just don’t switch off. I guess 2-3 years is the minimum time to spend with an agency to really understand it. We sailed through and soon established some stable client relationships that entrusted us with major events.
From an advertising solutions provider to the owner of an IP, how did that transpire?
By the late 90’s we had emerged as one of the top integrated marketing solutions provider. Soon a realization dawned upon us that we have been surveying all our clients, we’ve given them some excellent ideas, we’ve also implement them, only to receive a 5-10 percent fee! Many of these clients took these ideas and continued to use them. For example brand slogans Hero Motors Deshh Ki Dhadkan and Coming Home to Siyaram are still being monetized and we are not getting a penny from it. See what happens in our business is when you do something for a client, he pays you a bill and becomes the owner of everything that you’ve done. But that’s not fair. If you go to Tata Consultancy Services and ask them for a software solution, they will sell you the right to use that software solution, you don’t own it, you cant sell it. It is subject to limited use, and for upgrades and maintenance you need to go back to them. In our business you give a solution to a client and you are out the scene. So we thought lets try and tell the client to not pay us now but pay us a certain amount every time they use the solution. Rather than selling the solution we decided to lease the solution to them. But the clients were rigid, they would rather pay us a larger one-time fee but never settle on such an arrangement. Therefore it didn’t work.
So we thought why not try and make our ideas work for us. We decided that when we develop an idea we either lease it or monetize it ourselves. When this thought came to us it remolded our business model. So we raised a lot of capital and made our first movie- Hanuman, and also christened Sunburn shortly after in 2007.
How would you describe the soul of Percept?
I believe the DNA of our group is consumer insight. Ever since we started off we’ve basically been trying to understand the consumer better. Everyone knows what the view is when they sit in the driver’s seat of the car, but you can’t see the same view from the outside. You can just have one view in real life. When you are in the marcom business you need to think like a buyer and also as a seller, and this is what you call consumer insight. So our soul is fundamentally consumer insight and creativity. I think both these attributes are very important in a country with the largest youth population.
As a kid, other than studying or socializing with family, all my time was spent on the street, in the park playing cricket, kho-kho and hide seek. I noticed that the kids today were investing a major chunk of their time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or watching television. Back in the day there was only one television channel running Mahabharat and Hum Log.
Opportunities for physical social engagement platform were becoming more and more limited.
The first thought behind creating Sunburn came from wanting to create a space where the youth could come hang out and engage. Music was our denominator. So we analyzed the music preferences of the urban youth with western influence and narrowed it down to EDM, rock and Bollywood. Soon we launched Metal Fest, Sunburn,Bollyboom and WindSong with a target to bring the youth together.
Did sunburn accelerate faster than the other properties?
We launched Sunburn and Metal Fest around the same time. I don’t know if it was by design or default, but in year one Metal Fest did better than Sunburn. If you go back to 2007 Indian youth knew rock and metal music more. Metal Fest markets were largely Bangalore and east India; rock music was popular in those areas. But these markets did not have as much capability to buy the tickets. Luckily we got necessary sponsorships.
However, we lost money in both Metal Fest and and Sunburn. Between these two we lost more on Sunburn. We continued with sunburn in year two, the clear mandate was that if we lose money we would kill it.
My team clearly had more faith in Sunburn than I did at that time, so they lied to me and showed me false projections. Closer to the event, I realized none of the numbers made sense but it was already too late then and we had a show to pull. We somehow managed that year. But a voice in my head always kept telling me to push it and that this thing had great potential, so we continued backing it. We ended up making decent amount of money from Sunburn in its 3rd edition in 2009.
What according to you worked in favor of Sunburn?
Any other music genre has lyrics and if you see the diversity of our country the language changes every 100 Km. Lyrical music could create limitations of geography and population. Whereas, music without lyrics i.e EDM, could go anywhere. Therefore Sunburn was a universal hit.
In the first 2 years people didn’t come for sunburn they came for the artists. In 2009, we made a conscious decision that we don’t want this anymore and we want people to come for Sunburn. In 2010 we sold tickets for sunburn Goa without announcing who is playing. That is how we got more confidence and pushed the brand.
What were the roadblocks you faced while trying to establish Sunburn? -
I love my country; I live here out of choice. Although we’ve tried to establish Sunburn and all our properties in the most legal ways, still everyday is a challenge. Even if you’re trying to do something according to the norms so many permissions are required and its generally hassling. We face new challenges everyday. But I am okay. You know why? Because if its tough for me then it must be impossible for others.
So currently the title sponsor continues to remain hero?
Do you have any other investors in the property?
We do have some international investors who own a 25-27 percent stake.
What is the turnover at Sunburn each other?
We did about 130 Cr last year in revenue. Plan to hit 250-260 Cr in 2016.
Speaking specifically about Goa – we do about 30-40 Cr.
What would be the profit margin?
You’d be shocked to hear this but we don’t make money in Goa. Our profits come from the satellite properties of Sunburn. We made money from Sunburn Goa in 2009-10 but not since then. So it’s a conscious decision- we run our flagship product which is Sunburn Goa as an investment towards building Sunburn as a brand.
How do you promise value to a brand when its contemplating whether it should associate with Sunburn?
Brands come to us to associate with Sunburn’s edgy, young, dynamic energy and to get a rub off. I have an audience, and if you want to come and reach out to those guys, you associate with me. Sunburn offers a great setting to activate a brand in fun and creative ways.
Vijay Nair, Founder, NH7 Weekender, OML
At a young age of 32 you seem to have accomplished quite a lot. Tell us about your early life?
I dropped out of college when I was 18 and was legally allowed to make my own decisions. Before I started OML I used to work with a website which was like the Reddit of those days. It hosted discussion forums allowing people to discuss music related subjects ranging from what gigs are happening where to which bands are hot and suchlike. It was a huge cult thing and had a massive following. I was helping them with PR and marketing related stuff. My college was one of those where no one would show up- students and professors alike- and there were rarely any classes happening. And when they were happening, I never went. There was never a roll call too, so I think I ended up attending not more than 3 lectures in my entire courseterm. I would directly go to work because I enjoyed that much better.
Were you always a music junkie?
I was never into music as a teenager in school. Its only when I stared working I picked up that interest from meeting new bands and learning about the space. Zero is the first band I ever heard in my life and fell in love with them. I became a hardcore fan and this brought me closer to music. Then a band based in Pune, AFS, asked me to manage them. They knew me since my Gigpack days. I started managing AFS and within 3 months realized that I love doing this band management stuff. Soon I was managing Pentagram, Zero and PDV- few of the top rock bands those days.
So you became an ‘artist manager’ as we know them now?
Well, I was surely managing these bands but artist mangement did not exist back then. There was no such concept. The closest to this was Suvir Malik of Parikrama, who managed his own band. There was always one person in every band who was good at doing all this, so he managed the band and its bookings. For Pentagram Vishal used to do that. And when I approached him he was very happy that some kid was taking that job off his shoulders. So that’s how things transpired for me- from managing bands to producing smalltime concerts with my own artists. Then I started a record label named Counter Culture, then came the production house.
When did OML take birth?
OML came a year or so later. I had to come up with a name, saw a cool identity in the name Only Much Louder and decided to go with it. It was a proprietorship for the longest time, then it changed to a private company.
So, how did I became we?
I had couple of kids who worked with me. They were 16 or 17 even younger than what I was but we used to do these things together. I became ‘we’ when Nissa, Sameera and Bobby joined in 2006. And then we started doing events. We drifted a bit along the way and began doing corporate events. We did that for a year or two then stopped because it was the most boring, soul sucking, mind numbing thing ever. We refoccued on music, Nissa running the Record label and Samira began managing Bable Fish Production. Another major development was when my brother Ajay joined me in 2010.
So, till this point you were making enough money to sustain your company?
Yeah it was profitable by itself. The only time it became unprofitable was when we started NH7. I think everyone goes through this passage and loses money because that is how festivals are. After its third year NH7 has continually been profitable.
Is that when your career took a different turn?
NH7 was the turning point which happened because of multiple reasons. After doing smallish concerts catering to 2000- 3000 people, NH7 felt like major league. Second, I began travelling abroad and was floored by the kind of stages, artists, music. That’s when I fixed my eye on the prize and the real journey of NH7 began.
So every IP owner faces his share of struggles and challenges in the initial years. What were yours?
In the first year NH7 was not received as well as we had thought. We thought 4,000 people would come but only 2000 came. I had to mortgage my dad’s house to pay off all expenses incurred. Next we got some loan to pay off the mortgage then we got some investment to pay for the loan that’s how somehow we got out of that. In the second year of NH7 8000 people turned up, much beyond what we were expecting, and we were back in the game.
8000 people is a lot for the second edition. What were you doing right?
Fortunately in its first year NH7 was actually really good. There were only 2000 people but I feel those who came in just couldn’t stop talking about it. We didn’t have any budgets for marketing but word of mouth did the trick for us. NH7 in its third year saw 13400 people. I think we consistently delivered a really good experience throughout that kept pulling in the crowd.
Also we’ve made it a point that our artists should always be looked after well. Unlike other large format music IP’s in India who delay their artist payments by months and years, we insist on paying our artists a 100% advance before they go onstage.
How many Nh7’s across a year?
This year we are doing five festivals- Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, Shillong and Calcutta, summing up to 11 days.
Are 11 days sufficient to sustain this amazing office and all these employees?
NH7 is only around 20% to 25% of our turnover. We do a whole lot of other work like event management, comedy shows, AIB is managed by us, so there are a lot of other businesses to support the outfit. The company is currently valued at 225 crores.
Are you planning any other music property or intellectual property?
Yes, we have plans to launch five new properties. We will announce it at the end of the year. Otherwise stage 42 is one property that is focused at music and comedy theatre. Then there is The Coalition that we do which promises to be parallel to the scale of Nh7 this year.
What is the footfall at NH7 Pune compared to Sunburn Goa?
First of all you have to realize how footfall is calculated. Let’s say you sell 20,000 tickets and you sell it for two days, as in it allows the visitor entry for two days. So should I count him as one person or two persons? 1 person is the correct count but what festivals in India do is 20000 tickets are sold into 3 days so that becomes 60000. So for NH7, the biggest show that happens in Pune gets 14000 people rest get 9000 and 10000. So I could either claim the correct count to be 14000 or smartly play it up and say the count is 42000 (14000*3). With that logic, the biggest one in my opinion is Sunburn which gets around 22000 to 23000 odd people but if you compare that to the total of events that we do we are 2 and a half times their size.
Jaideep Singh, Senior VP and Business Head, Supersonic, Viacom18
After establishing Live Viacom18 under Integrated Network Solutions, you launched 12 new IP’s ranging from music to entertainment. What are your plans to scale further?
The strategy from the beginning has been to be high on content. Each property under the Live Viacom18 umbrella is backed by extensions that run throughout the year. Twelve events turned out to be a two hundred events in 2014 and this year it will be three hundred plus. These extensions help build the participating brands and create a better recall value.
Going forward the aim is to make all our properties larger, perhaps take them to other countries. We have teams across the globe, there are teams in Middle East, South East Asia and several newer locations that are under exploration. In one and a half years we have covered all genres of entertainment. And as we move into the year ahead we will look at new genres of entertainments to introduce to the market so I think that’s the key piece to look at.
What are these new genres of entertainment you speak of?
All I can reveal at this stage is, while you have the big music genres and other entertainments options, the space is opening further. A demographic that currently seems to be left out is the thirty plus age bracket. We have very clued in to the international scene and are surveying the new genres of entertainment that are working for them. We will have some very exciting news to share shortly.
But how do you differentiate yourself from a Sunburn or any other EDM festival?
Having a strong foundation and having a setup are two different things. We have a strong foundation and a broadcast unlike any other player in this space. They can never have it and they can never be a part of mine. Secondly, Sunburn has a million fans on Facebook, we also have close to a million fans on Facebook. But what matters is what all I have besides these million fans. I have forty five million people connected to me via social media and Viacom’s own websites. We have twenty-five websites that have millions of followers across the MTV and VH1 network. So for starters my reach cannot be matched by anybody in the industry simply because of the fact that they don’t have those assets. We have created in one year that which has taken 8 years for others to build.
What about the differentiation in the format?
The Supersonic talent mix is one of the biggest thing people talked about in our first year and in the second year we went across multiple genres of music where our lineup was at par with global standards. The audience and media has vouched for that.
Second thing is the vibe of the festival. We hear and observe our audience very closely and one thing that has emerged from this is that they associate Supersonic with friendship, happiness and, of course, real music. We maintain a balance in the vibe we throw out. We follow the same ideology with Bollyland where everything we do is based around the central theme of ‘desi cool’. So we ensure the balance between ‘desi’ and ‘cool’ is upheld at all times.
How do you compare the footfall at Supersonic with that at Sunburn?
I guess we are pretty much neck to neck. Supersonic had an audience close to 30 to 35 thousand in 4 days and Sunburn also had around 40 thousand.
Supersonic is a large format ambitious property that’s only 2 editions old. Is it profitable yet?
This year we should break even from Supersonic and its extensions. Up till now we have been facing losses but that’s only because we have pumped massive investment into this, what Sunburn may have invested in 5-6 years we have done in 2. Our cumulative investment towards the live music and entertainment space in India is without a doubt more than any other player in the market.
What has Nikhil channapa brought to the table for Supersonic?
Nikhil is a dear friend since a long time and for me he is the hygiene factor at Supersonic. He works very closely with the Supersonic team. Many people speculate that Supersonic is part owned by Viacom 18 and partly by Nikhil Chinnapa but that is not the case, Nikhil does own a stake in the property but it is negligible.
Besides Supersonic, what has been the response from your other music IP’s?
This year was fantastic for all of our other properties, most of them are in their second year now. Through Emerge in Bangalore I connected with ten thousand people. And Bollyland is a dominant player in the Bollywood genre. No one else has a property of that scale. Percept wanted to do Bollyboom, but they did one show in Noida and they announced it on the same day Bollyland launched. We have done twelve to fifteen shows and ten campus shows already.
What has worked in your favor?
While retail, finance and infrastructure have been able to make sense out of the vast Indian populace, the music industry has not been able to optimize its strength. At the end it is only about the live twenty thousand people for most concerts. With our network, we are empowered to multiply that reach and stand out from the rest.
Secondly, as a group we are fairly cash rich. Our eye is on the prize and we do not have any qualms about investing in something now that promises dividends in the future. Not many players have that sense of security. We believe in our ideas and will back them till we dominate.
(The story has been extracted from BW APPLAUSE)
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