Music: Put a Label on It

Amit Gurbaxani is the editor-in-chief and founder of
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Independent music companies are putting the artist first and the moolah second to get musicians and listeners a better deal

“IT’S A ‘ZERO profit’ venture,” says Nikhil Kaul, speaking about the business model behind Lowlit. It’s hardly the kind of talk we expect to hear from the owner of a record label, but Kaul, who started Lowlit last year, is surprisingly not an exception. Also known as Frame/Frame, the Delhi-based electronic music DJ and producer formed the label with his Bangalore-based counterpart Soulspace aka Vishnu PS to put the artist first and commercial considerations second. It’s a philosophy shared by the founders of such recently-launched Indian independent music companies as Consolidate, Kadak Apple Records, Pagal Haina and Transcending Obscurity.

“We felt the Indian music fraternity has a shit load of talent but it’s not organised,” says Kaul. “Artists are popping up but nobody’s listening.” That’s pretty much also why Bangalore- based electronic music producer RHL aka Rahul Giri decided, two years ago, to bring together his brethren under a collective named Consolidate. “I used to spend too much time on [audio streaming platform] SoundCloud and would get excited [by what I heard],” Giri says. “[So] I started a Facebook group called Consolidate and added producers from Bangalore whom I’m friends with.”

That group now has a rotating membership of ten to 15 artists, a few of whom appeared on Consolidate’s first release Frnds & Family ’16, a compilation Giri put out in January this year. The reason behind converting this informal association, which includes Aniruddh Menon and Disco Puppet aka Shoumik Biswas, into a record label, says Giri, was “to put everything coming out of the collective through one channel”. Both Kaul and Giri belong to the country’s ever-growing electronic music scene and aren’t the first among their tribe. Two sets of DJ- producer duos from Delhi have come before them. Gaurav Malaker of the duo BLOT! and Kohra aka Madhav Shorey founded Qilla Records in 2009, and Ash Roy and Ashvin Mani Sharma, former members of the electronica collective Jalebee Cartel, launched Soupherb Records in 2013.

The electronic music scene, however, is expanding so fast that there’s more than enough room. When seeking music for Lowlit’s first compilation Better Late Than Never, which was released in May, Kaul put a call out for producers to email their tracks to the label. “We’ve got demos from [small towns like] Siliguri,” he says. “Maybe it’s generic EDM, but it just goes to show that this thing is spreading like wildfire.” Singer-songwriter Tejas Menon says the objective behind partnering with filmmaker Krish Makhija to start Kadak Apple Records in Mumbai, in early 2014 was to specifically support his fellow musicians, who he believes frequently get a raw deal.

“Our creed is at the bottom of the food chain,” says Menon. “I’ve noticed that no real thought goes into programming singer-songwriters because they’re cost-effective and travel-friendly. The good and bad thing [about it] is that I’ve played every kind of set and venue.” Singer-songwriters, in particular, felt Menon and Makhija, who worked together in a branding agency, lacked showreels, which serve as a handy tool while trying to score gigs. They began by filming and uploading on to YouTube the ‘Kadak Sessions’, a series of high-definition videos featuring a single artist performing a track.

Our creed is at the bottom of the food chain. No real thought goes into programming singer-songwriters

Working primarily with singer- songwriters was a personal, practical and business decision for Delhi’s Dhruv Singh, who owns Pagal Haina Records, to which Hindi and English composer and vocalist Prateek Kuhad is signed. One of the few non-musicians to have launched an Indian indie label in the last five years, Singh, who has a background in film and theatre production, figured such acts would have access to more revenue streams than bands. “For licensing music for TV shows [for instance], songwriters are a preferred option,” says Singh who has been working on Pagal Haina full- time since early 2013. “Also, I was doing it alone, so it would be easier to work one on one.”

Like Singh, Kunal Choksi, who runs the Mumbai-headquartered, metal- focused Transcending Obscurity, is not a musician. Choksi started out with a metal e-zine and found that many bands asked him to use his contacts with international labels to help spread the word about their releases. An Indian record company was the next logical step he felt and so he “decided to put my money where my mouth is”. At present, around 50 bands have signed with Transcending Obscurity. Apart from various compilations, it has released 25 albums over the last four years, including ones by Aizawl’s Third Sovereign, Kolkata’s Heathen Beast and Mumbai’s Albatross. “We need albums for the worldwide audience to take [Indian metal] seriously,” says Choksi.

UNLIKE TRADITIONAL record labels, most Indian indie companies don’t retain the rights to the recordings even if sometimes they help fund them. If artists don’t have enough money for studio time, Kadak Apple, for instance, will help them book enough gigs and save up until they have the cash. Right now, Menon doesn’t take a commission from any of his five artists— which include Bone Broke aka Dinkar Dwivedi, Short Round aka Jishnu Guha and Mali aka Maalavika Manoj—and only plans to do so after a year, by which time he hopes at least a few of them can afford to part with a percentage of their performance proceedings.

“We put in our money with no hope of getting it back,” says Kaul. “We’re close to breaking even for the compilation as we’ve got some dollars from downloaders abroad. Whatever’s coming in, we look at it as a bonus. [It means] we can get some T-shirts made.” Currently, Lowlit’s main means of recovering costs is through the club nights it organises at venues across the country, for which Kaul’s own booking agency Mixtape forgoes its cut (Vishnu PS manages his own bookings). Kaul says that he’s not averse to the idea of getting into the artist management and booking agency space once the required resources are available.

Consolidate operates with a similar model. While it doesn’t handle bookings for its artists, Giri occasionally organises gigs, through which he recoups some of his expenses. Like Kaul, he’s open to managing acts when he finds time. Singh ,on the other hand, feels it makes sense to try and be a one-man solution whose activities include booking shows, handling social media, marketing and more. “I decided I would do everything so we can have a unified vision and have control over everything,” he says. “That’s why I decided I’m going to manage everybody I sign.” The flip side is that Singh and the musicians he works with have to necessarily agree on almost all decisions related to their careers. Two of his artists have recently left the company, but Kuhad has become so big (playing at major venues across the country) that Singh recently outsourced his bookings to Delhi-based Big Bad Wolf that has on its roster such veterans as Indian Ocean and Midival Punditz.

Singh, who sustains Pagal Haina on the monies that come in via his share of Kuhad’s concerts and licensing fees, developed different structures for Kuhad’s two releases. For the 2013 Hindi EP Raat Raazi, put out when Kuhad was still an up-and-comer, Singh invested in the production cost along with Kuhad and took an equal share of the proceeds. For the 2015 English album In Tokens and Charms, Singh did not put in any of his own money but instead charged Kuhad a fee “for the services we provided as a label that fell out of artist management”. This sum was based on and included such costs as recording the album, producing the physical CDs and putting and pushing it on various online distribution platforms.

We put in our money with no hope of getting it back. Whatever is coming in, we look at it as a bonus

As Kuhad’s manager, he’s recently reaped the rewards of advertising jingles, a song he scored for the documentary film Placebo (2015) and the placement of one of his tracks in an American web series Relationship Status. To supplement this income, Singh has started what he calls “a bit of a concert division”. Over the last year, Pagal Haina has been staging a series of intimate singer-songwriter shows at Delhi’s 96-seater venue Akshara Theatre, which have thus far been free to attend but which he plans to soon turn into ticketed events.

Choksi, who shut his family business to run Transcending Obscurity, says his “bread and butter” is the PR division of his enterprise, through which he charges acts a fee to get their music noticed by Indian and international publications. Unlike his counterparts, he has ruled out venturing into artist management. “I don’t have the time to run around,” he says, giving the example of managers who have to chase bands to the extent of making sure they land up at a gig on time. “At least I’m in control if a press release has to be sent out or the printing quality [of a CD or T-shirt] is not good.”

He works mostly with groups in the early stages of their career. The name Transcending Obscurity stems from the idea of taking “obscure bands” and “helping them rise”.

Indeed, most Indian indie record labels work with new and mid-level acts that most require the services they offer. “I’ve always thought of [Pagal Haina] as an artist development company,” says Singh. The common goal of these companies is to be considered connoisseurs within their niche. “We want to be seen as tastemakers,” says Menon. Kaul equates success to being “recognised as a guarantee of quality”.

Each has an international label they aspire to emulate. Menon looks up to James Murphy’s DFA Records and its “very great philosophy of finding great music and doing whatever they can to share it”. Kaul and Giri respectively cite Nicholas Jaar’s Other People and Kode9 aka Steve Goodman’s Hyperdub as inspirations. Singh loves Communion, founded by Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett (“Its idea is musicians come together and help each other”).

Notably, each of them is both maker and audience for the music being created. And for listeners often overwhelmed with information overload, an artist-driven label makes discovery that much easier. Fans of a specific genre are more likely to pay attention to something promoted by one of their favourite acts than by a corporate behemoth.

Already, the likes of Kaul, Giri and Menon are respected among their colleagues as artists who know their stuff. Both Consolidate and Lowlit’s debut compilations have been well received. More than sales, it’s the gigs that count—where they along with Singh and Menon have managed to put the spotlight on artists who have perhaps been able to shine brighter with a label’s stamp of approval. Short Round and Mali, for example, are slowly becoming regulars on the Mumbai gig circuit.

Somewhat ironically, Menon who had already outsourced his own gig bookings, has just been signed up by an international music company, the UK-based Silva Screen Records, and is technically no longer a Kadak Apple act. His ultimate goal is for all his artists to follow suit and “get acquired by a bigger label”. “We’re like the foundation course,” he says.