Why Brands Are Spending The Moolah To Sponsor Music Festivals In India
In just six years, around 30 homegrown contemporary music festivals have sprung up across India, covering folk to electronica, jazz to indie. It is a sign that despite India’s faltering economy, the influence of its youth population and the confidence of its creative classes are growing. And when you see a growth like that, sponsors are bound to pay heap loads to get their names associated with such events. One event held this month on the Formula One racetrack on the outskirts of New Delhi attracted about 9,000 people.
Today NH7 Weekender has rapidly ascended to become one of the biggest music festivals in the circuit, with events being held in four cities – Pune, Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. The other top festival is Sunburn, the six-year-old event that began in Goa and spread to other cities. The number of festivals has risen swiftly, despite the difficulties of staging large-scale productions in India. Organizers might have access to world-class equipment and musical acts — attracting bands like Megadeth and Basement Jaxx — as well as the attention of a population that, for the first time, has discretionary income. But they still need to battle India’s notorious bureaucracy to obtain sometimes up to 20 permits, licenses and permissions, a process that takes months. “It would be nice if it were easier,” Mr. Nair said.
When the latest music festival on the sub continental circuit, Magnetic Fields, opened on December 13, the crowd was the same as that in any other music concert around the world – young music lovers with their skinny jeans, thick-rimmed glasses and swigs of rum. But when the same event is held at a 17th century palace in Rajasthan, you know it can only be in India.
Today, large scale events are not a new thing anymore, but the music festival scene did not arrive in India until 2007, when the Big Chill, a British Festival, decided to hold a one-off event in the country, engaging a young band manager, Vijay Nair, and his company Only Much Louder as a local partner. Big Chill never returned to India but the experience left Mr. Nair to continue such events. Then, Martin Elbourne, a talent booker for the Glastonbury Festival, and Stephen Budd, a British music industry executive, came on board and NH7 Weekender was born, with its first event in Pune in 2010. (National Highway 7 is the country’s major north-south roadway.). “There’s now enough content in India that we can do festivals,” said Mr. Nair, 29. “In the past you just had musicians doing covers, but now for the first time we’re seeing a movement of bands playing their own music.”
While most organizers immediately look for sponsors to reduce their probable loss and risk, Munbir Chawla one of the organizers for Magnetic Fields, chose to run a different cycle. They chose to run their festival on private funding increasing the risk factor. But why did they take this option when big brands are more than willing to associate themselves with such events in today’s time? “That’s because we wanted complete control over the event, no big sponsors pulling the strings from all sides. We stand to lose a lot of money but its about building it up, year by year,” he said.
Magnetic Fields might be independent, but sponsors have been quick to jump on the music train: Bacardi is the key supporter of NH7, which also gets financing from other alcohol brands. Though still a nascent scene in India, music festivals have a great potential to generate money for the local economy and promoters alike. But breaking even is elusive, and Indian organizers say they expect the process to take years. NH7 costs anywhere from 20 million to 40 million rupees, or US$330,000 to US$658,000, for each event.
Other festivals celebrate India’s regional diversity. There is the Storm Festival, in Coorg, a misty mountain range to the southeast of Bangalore; the Escape Festival, which is held in the foothills of the Himalayas; Ragasthan, staged among the sand dunes of Jaisalmer; and the Jodhpur RIFF, which hosts global folk artists in musical collaborations with local Rajasthanis.
Initially festivals roped in big crowds by pulling foreign artists from around the globe, but now the scene has changed. Festivals are also promoting home artists and bands, in fact one such festival is the City of M, Hyderabad, that promotes only local artists and bands – no international ones. A formula for success initially, foreign artists are no longer running the show.
Members of the New Delhi-based rock group Menwhopause, Anup Kutty and his bandmates, were on tour in 2011 when they discovered the remote town of Ziro, in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh — most famous for being part of a border dispute with China. With its rolling green hills and friendly locals, the band members decided it was just the place for a festival. “It’s a logistical nightmare as the nearest city is a 17-hour drive away, so you can’t afford to go wrong,” Mr. Kutty said. But what Ziro does have is the enthusiastic support of the government. The Ziro festival in September was headlined by two members of Sonic Youth, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley, performing as Lee Ranaldo and the Dust. Two thousand people attended, a large number of them traveling from elsewhere in India. Ziro, which costs 6 million to 7 million rupees to produce, gets about 50 percent of its funding from the government, while the rest is a mixture of ticket sales and a handful of corporate sponsors like the United States Embassy and the guitar makers Gibson and Fender.
Key to Ziro’s success has been the involvement of locals, who agreed to provide homestays for visitors and transportation services. Northeastern India has emerged as a an incubator for rock music, and numerous musicians from the remote region are being noticed on a national level.
An overlooked but pivotal part of the festival scene is the college circuit, mostly in smaller regional cities. Here, festivals attract sponsors like Nokia and Pepsi, and operate as competitions. Winners can walk away with a recording contract and prizes of as much as half a million rupees. And in the next five years, it will only get bigger.
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