reportage

When the Loud Get Going

How a college-dropout pulled together India’s indie music scene

By AAYUSH SONI | 1 October 2012

ONE AFTERNOON IN JULY THIS YEAR, inside the air-conditioned Mumbai office of the music company Only Much Louder (OML), 25 or so employees in their mid- to late-20s sat staring keenly into laptops on either side of a long table dividing the office’s expansive central area. The next installment of the company’s music festival NH7 Weekender was scheduled to be held in the outskirts of Pune in November, four months away, but its organisers had already finalised the line-up of bands that would play, and had moved on to the next stage of planning. Communication between the young employees was brisk and efficient: questions were asked precisely, answers provided instantly, decisions were taken without hesitation. The office had the kind of buzz one would expect to find in a newsroom.

Inside a separate room at the far end of the office, two curly-haired men sat editing videos on their 24-inch iMacs, while OML co-founder Girish ‘Bobby’ Talwar, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, reclined on a bed behind them, playing with his Blackberry. At the other end of the office sat Dhruv Jagasia, who, before joining OML in 2011, had served as the manager of Indian Ocean, the band often credited with kick-starting the genre of Indian fusion rock. A large, voluble man with a handlebar moustache, Jagasia is now NH7 Weekender’s festival director, in charge of the company’s most recognised undertaking.

Neither Jagasia nor Talwar have their own cabins in the office, an arrangement that will persist even when OML expands into a 10,000-square feet space in October this year. The move is in anticipation of an expansion in the company’s workforce—by next January, OML plans to add nearly 45 people to its current 75-person-strong staff. The employees will occupy an office free of dress codes, monotonous eight-hour shifts and sterile conference rooms; instead, the space will be equipped with features that may call its categorisation as an office into question—like the employee bar planned for the mezzanine.

“The guy made something on the layout called the directors’ toilets,” Jagasia said, referring to the architect who had designed the new office. “So my question to him was ki yahaan par mootne ke liye kya qualification chahiye, yeh bata mere ko (tell me, what qualification does one need to take a piss here)?”

Jagasia’s breezy dismissal of traditional office culture and hierarchy belies the enviable growth of the company he works for. What began 10 years ago as an artist management venture representing a handful of up-and-coming bands in a then fledgling independent music scene has since grown into a robust company with four additional arms—a TV production house, an online music and alternative culture magazine, an online music store and a music festivals division. And the person who oversaw OML from its inception through that growth is Vijay Nair, the company’s founder, who now also holds the incongruously corporate designation of CEO.

That July afternoon, Nair, wearing an olive green Sex Pistols T-shirt, and jeans, strode into the OML office and quickly disappeared into the bustle of work. The immersion in work is characteristic—on a typical day Nair spends at least 12 hours overseeing OML’s various divisions, starting off at 8 am by answering emails, coming into the office by around noon and winding up between 8 and 10 pm. In between, he convinces sponsors to back his shows, signs on new bands or works towards bringing international stars and David Guetta to India. “I prefer working most of the time because it’s fun,” he said.

His world may seem glamorous and he may navigate it with ease, but the soft-spoken Nair is an uncharacteristic CEO, whom one OML employee described as the kind of person you call if it’s 3 am and you find yourself in a spot of trouble. And for someone running a company with a projected revenue of Rs 50-60 crore, Nair’s life is surprisingly low on flash—he lives, for instance, with his family in a modest middle-class home in the Mumbai suburb of Malad.

During OML’s early days, when it had no office space of its own, the company was run out of Nair’s parents’ earlier apartment in Goregaon—Nair worked from his own bedroom, as did co-founder Talwar, who is a lawyer by qualification, but now heads the artist management branch of OML, called the Syndicate, and is also a member of Zero, one of Nair’s early favourite rock bands. Jishnu Dasgupta, bassist with the band Swarathma, which is managed by OML, remembers Nair’s generosity in opening his home to them when they were on tour. “When we used to play in Bombay,” recalled Dasgupta, “there were no sponsors [for the shows]. So Vijay would put us up at his house. All six of us would eat the same food as his family, cooked by his mom.” Nair said that nearly every indie band in the country had stayed at his house. “My folks love it when bands come and stay over,” he added. “I guess for them this is a way to relate to what I do. They didn’t understand what I did for a long time.”

From this low-key beginning, Nair went on to become a pioneer in the indie music scene in India, a fact that is as apparent in the scale and professionalism of the events OML has organised, as in the way that the company is structured and managed. The five outfits are separately run, but Nair encourages staff—who range in training from journalists to sound engineers—to constantly explore new avenues and learn from each other. Event managers work with programmers to create 3D models of stages at music festivals. Babble Fish Productions, the video production arm, recently conducted a film production workshop to ensure that they’re on the same page. Motherswear, OML’s festival production wing, organised an event production workshop earlier this year where staffers were given a tour of what goes into making an event—from stage construction to crowd management. A sense of enthusiastic exchange is apparent in the company’s functioning, for which credit must go to the CEO.

Nair’s vision for OML has paid off in many respects—most recently and prominently, in April 2012, when the Chernin Group, a Los Angeles-based media and entertainment company founded by Peter Chernin, the former Chief Operation Officer of NewsCorp International, announced that it was going to invest in OML through its Asia-based investment arm, CA Media. After a decade of gradual progress, OML leapt into the big league, with Nair at the helm.

IN 2000, VIJAY NAIR HAD ENROLLED as a student of commerce in Mumbai’s Sydenham College. He was a far from model pupil—according to Nair, in the two or so years he was associated with the institution, he attended a total of three lectures. But while he may have been a slacker as far as attendance and exams were concerned, his pursuits off campus kept him busy: he worked first as the operations manager for Proctor & Gamble’s Indian teen portal masti.com, and then for Gigpad.com, an online resource for Indian music enthusiasts that went defunct in 2006. It was during this second stint that Nair decided to drop out of college, because, in his own words, “I was learning shit”.

But Nair’s restlessness would spill over into his work with Gigpad too.

The company’s founder Sandeep Mittal remembers Nair as an “enthusiastic, wide-eyed youngster” who was passionate about music. But while he had hired Nair to “help out with content” for the portal, Mittal said that “in the two or three years he worked with Gigpad, Nair never wrote a single article”.

“He ended up just doing a lot of networking, which is what he does really well,” Mittal added.

Nair had been following the independent music scene for some years, though venues and opportunities for performance were sorely limited. Music journalist Arjun Ravi, now editor of NH7.in, remembers the hiccups that enthusiasts of the scene could expect to face at the time. At Not Just Jazz By The Bay (now known as Pizza By the Bay) on Marine Drive, bands that were given three-hour sets often ran out of original content within 45 minutes and began replaying their set. At Razzberry Rhinoceros, a nightclub at Juhu Hotel in North Bombay that could accommodate 200 people, bands that performed often had to compete to be heard, and not with each other. “Just outside this club area, was this sort of garden that faced the sea, and at that garden they used to have a lot of weddings,” Ravi recalled. “You’d go to Razz for a death metal gig with a Maharashtrian wedding happening just outside.”

The most prominent and respected event was I-Rock, a 24-year-old music concert held at Rang Bhavan, a dilapidated amphitheatre in South Bombay, where rock bands belted out covers of songs by international bands like Metallica to an audience of 6,000 people. Nair’s OML co-founder Talwar has fond memories of I-Rock. “It was almost like an annual pilgrimage for the rock community,” recalled Talwar. “You’d meet up with people who had similar musical tastes.” But Nair, who went to his first I-Rock in 1997, remembers it in distinctly different terms. “It was very badly organised,” Nair recalled. “If a sound check was meant to start at 10 am, it wouldn’t start until 3 pm and there were no green rooms for artists.”

Nair was already thinking like a manager in a culture where no managers existed. There were, nevertheless, figures in the music scene who were pioneers in their own right, from whom he drew inspiration. Prominent among them was Amit Saigal, the former member of a defunct rock band Impact, who founded Rock Street Journal, one of India’s first music magazines, from his hometown Allahabad. In Saigal, Nair saw someone who was working in a profession with no rules, and therefore, was making them up as he went along. As photographer Vinay Aravind wrote in an obituary of Saigal published in the Business Standard soon after his death this January: “The challenge then [of publishing a magazine] was distribution. So Saigal, and his then wife, Shena, took the magazine to college festivals in Delhi. They sent bundles of copies to musician friends around the country for free, asking them to do with it as they pleased. An informal distribution mechanism evolved, and then gradually, in the most improbable manner, this little publication started to gain a following among fans of rock music in India, from the North East to Kerala.”

The magazine’s success and the subsequent realisation that an eager albeit scattered audience for Indian rock was forming, prompted Saigal to start The Great Indian Rock Festival in 1995. A three-day music concert at Hamsadhwani Amphitheatre in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, it gave prominent bands like Indian Ocean, Thermal and a Quarter and Parikrama a rare chance to perform in front of audiences as large as 10,000.

“Amit genuinely did the one thing that we needed—helped in changing people’s appreciation from cover bands to original music, which is the single most important thing to have happened in this country for musicians,” Nair said.

Ravi accords the most credit for injecting life into the music scene, not to an organiser, but to the band Zero, and specifically, its second album Hook, which was released in 2002. “It inspired countless young Indian bands to write and perform their own material, and give up covers-dominated sets,” Ravi wrote of the album.

Nair had been a fan of Zero from the band’s early days. In fact what had initially drawn Nair to the Gigpad job was the promise that he might get to meet Zero in the course of work. “What was clearly very evident was that he had phenomenal drive. Gigpad was just too content focused—he wanted to do events, manage bands,” said Mittal.

While Nair was a fan of rock, and felt drawn to the world, unlike most young men his age, he felt no inclination to be a musician himself. Ironically, it was perhaps distance from the art that more precisely defined the role he would play within the industry. “I think it [not learning music] helped me because I’ve never been involved in the creative aspect in terms of telling bands what to do,” Nair said. “It’s about doing the best job of getting across to people what they have already done.”

The established Pune-based rock band Acquired Funk Syndrome (AFS) didn’t have a manager at the time. Few bands in India did. Nair, familiar with the concept in the West, spotted the vacancy here and decided to try his luck—to use what he knew about the world of music in India, gathered after careful observation from attending hundreds of shows and events. “I’ve handled the entire backstage for a film awards,” he said. “I used to look after a lot of the events at Andheri Sports Complex, the main venue for these events in Bombay, so anything that came there we used to organise. So from Indian Idol 2 and Sa Re Ga Ma 2 to every single Marathi and Hindi film awards, that gave me a lot of production experience.” He felt like he could offer something useful that bands themselves couldn’t devote enough time to—from booking shows and planning tours to liaising with event planners. “At that time, they [AFS] were happy for someone to do the dirty work, and now, we have a reputation that no one will say no,” Nair said. “From that day to this day, it’s never been hard to convince a band to get managed.”

Nair used his savings from his days at Masti.com to attend music gigs around India, often with AFS. “It pretty much seemed like the thing to do,” he said casually. “I’d go for any concert across the country if it was big enough. So I’d go for every IIT competition, NLS [National Law School], any international act that came to India—and just do a lot of alliances for Gigpad, get the word out there and help with day-to-day stuff.” He quickly learned about production values, what makes an event run smoothly, and began to intuit the things that bands needed most—organisation.

Soon after he began representing AFS, Nair took Zero under his belt, just five years after first swaying to their music at I-Rock.

Nair and Bobby Talwar had over time become good friends. Before Nair came on board, Talwar had managed the administrative and logistical aspects of the band himself, balancing them with his creative commitments. It had never occurred to him to hand over those responsibilities to another person, till Nair offered his services. “It allowed us to write more music,” Talwar said. “We’d actually end up jamming a lot more and it just helped that there was another person in the band that was not thinking music but what else can we do.”

Nair came on board on the cusp of the release of Zero’s album Hook and began aggressively promoting the band. But he also had broader ambitions within the music business, which he began to develop with Talwar, whose legal training gave him useful perspectives on the opportunities in the industry. “Record labels were not giving platforms to independent artists, music channels [on TV] were not playing English music and [private] radio stations were not even around at the time,” Talwar recalled. “As a lawyer, I couldn’t even advise somebody into a legal contract and say ‘don’t do this’ because nothing existed. Which is when we realised that a scene needed to be built.” It would be some time before the birth of OML as we know it now, but Nair had begun to fill in the missing role of manager in the Indian music scene.

One evening in 2003, Nair approached Pentagram’s vocalist Vishal Dadlani at the Bandra restaurant Just Around the Corner. The band was one of the biggest on the Indian music scene at the time, performing an average of 25 gigs a year and selling  between 3,000 to 5,000 copies of each of their albums; Nair hoped to persuade them that they needed management. Nair had prepared a presentation for Dadlani to win him over. Nair’s wide-eyed earnestness and sincerity were worthy substitutes for whatever the young entrepreneur was still figuring out—and so the band decided to come on board. “He basically took charge of [booking] the college circuit,” Dadlani recalled. “Every year, there would be a new set of organisers who would make the same mistakes in terms of getting sound and light. So he would tell them how to get good sound, light and other vendors.”

Although OML has grown in size, Pentagram’s relationship with Nair and his team, Dadlani said, is “very personal”—a sentiment that’s common amongst bands Nair represents.

BY THE TIME NAIR HAD SIGNED on Zero and Pentagram, India’s independent music industry was in the middle of a major transformation. In the early 2000s, dial-up Internet connections had enabled “scene kids”—bands, fans and music journalists among others—to download international music for free. “Piracy created a kind of self-awareness among bands,” Arjun Ravi explained. “The attitude now was ‘why should I listen to a mediocre budget version when I can get the original for free?’” Music labels like Sony, Universal and Virgin limited themselves to selling albums that were on the Top 40 charts, and that too at a cost ranging from Rs 400-500—prices that would burn a fan’s wallet. “So even if you wanted to download an album by, say, Sonic Youth, you had to go to Kazaa, Audiogalaxy and Napster,” Ravi added. “That’s when a lot of quality music out of bands like Shaa’ir and Func, Thermal and a Quarter and Zero started coming out.”

With a reinvigorated demand for original content, Nair figured that, over time, newer indie music bands waiting in the wings would spring to life and follow in Zero’s footsteps. And that, soon after, with a fan base mobilising around bands with greater resources to promote themselves, an independent music industry would emerge that he could shape and structure. Nair, whether he knew it or not, had anticipated the growth of a subculture that itself may not have known it needed organising. But as he imposed his vision, his existing artist management operations wouldn’t be enough.

In 2004, Nair met Talwar to discuss in detail his entrepreneurial ambitions. After studying the architecture of the only entertainment conglomerates around—Sony and Viacom18—Talwar drew a skeleton of OML with multi-colored crayons. He distinctly remembers sketching five arms—an artist management firm, a production company, a record label, a music publishing entity and a radio station—that were similar to the structures they had studied.

Nair and Talwar decided to give the idea of OML one year of their lives—an idea endorsed by Pentagram’s Vishal Dadlani, and named by him as well (he had read an advertisement for speakers, which ended with that catchphrase). If OML didn’t accomplish anything in those 365 days, both of them would return to the monotony of regular jobs. To keep things simple, Nair set up the company as a sole proprietorship firm and opened a bank account in its name. Their respective bedrooms substituted for office space, where Talwar and Nair created account sheets, agreements and confirmation letters for clients.

A year later they took Pentagram to their first music festival abroad, the SunDance music festival in Tallinn, Estonia. And in 2007 Pentagram performed at The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts—the Mecca of all music festivals in the world. “Glastonbury absolutely changed my world,” Nair said. “It taught me what the vibe of a festival is and how important people are. How important art is, how important programming is, the format of multiple stages… Glastonbury was a huge turning point.”

It was also the year OML entered into a partnership with Babble Fish Productions, a production house started by Talwar’s old friend Samira Kanwar, a former producer with Channel [V], to create “music-based content”. She was commissioned to do videos for Myspace.com, Pentagram and Shaa’ir + Func.

That same year, OML produced The Big Chill Festival in Goa—Nair’s first attempt at organising a major event. Spread across the expansive Ashwem beach were three music stages, which held simultaneous live performances, and a bazaar. Three thousand people attended the two-day event in 2007, giving Nair the confidence to scale up his ambitions. A 15-minute documentary film about the festival produced by Babble Fish Productions shows an assortment of Indian and international musicians praising the festival’s relaxed vibe and exhilarating ambience. In the film, Nair sits reclining on a chair, against the backdrop of palm trees swaying in the wind. “I think for a month-and-a-half or two we’re just preparing for what’s required to put up a festival of such large scale because there was no benchmark,” he says. “Just the fact that there were three stages multiplied the entire requirement. So we had three sound systems, thrice the number of lights we typically have for a concert and huge power requirements.” A few seconds later, Samira Kanwar chimes in about how it took them 10 days of on-ground activity to prepare for the event. Apart from the three stages, a bazaar, back stages, artist rooms, make-up rooms, air-conditioners and refrigerators had to be installed on an empty plot of land. “That’s what it takes to get 3,000 people to party, I guess,” Nair says in the film, reappearing with a smile on his face. The successful party he had organised was only a trailer to the carnival OML would create three years later.

In 2009, Nair met the two people that would help him shape the most recognisable imprint OML has left on the world of independent music in India—the NH7 Weekender festival. Stephen Budd, the founder of one of Europe’s largest artist management firms, which represents producers who work with musicians such as Dido, Sting and Madonna, was in India to judge the British Council’s International Young Music Entrepreneur Award, for which Nair was named a finalist. When Nair went on to win the international award that year, he travelled to the UK where he met another judge, Martin Elbourne, then a band booker for the Glastonbury Festival. Budd and Elbourne would later become equity shareholders in the Weekender. “We literally walked into a room, all three of us not having discussed anything, with the same agenda, saying let’s do a music festival in India,” Nair said. “Stephen said it before I could even mention it. Martin said we’ve got to do it and it made perfect sense.” The first attempt in 2009 failed due to a lack of sponsors and the absence of an appropriate venue. “Honestly, we went after the sponsors before we could even get everything else right,” Nair added. “The next year, we got everything—the venue, the artists etc—and then went after the sponsors. We decided we’re going to do it, irrespective of money coming in or not.”

Preparations for NH7 Weekender—known formally as the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, named after the highway on which it is located—begin a year in advance. The first step is always to secure all the licenses—around 15 of them—followed by blocking venues. The next step is the booking of artists, followed by walking through a 60-day pre-production schedule. On-ground preparations for a festival of its size take about three weeks before the actual festival begins. In December 2010, NH7 Weekender made its debut in front of 10,000 music fans at Pune’s Koregaon Park and attracted instant praise—not just for the music but also for its tight security, smooth ticketing system and clean toilets. In 2011, the festival found a new home in suburban Magarpatta City because it could accommodate 25,000 people. This year, the festival will travel to Delhi and Bangalore. OML calls Weekender “India’s happiest music festival” and has lived up to that reputation. Inventive signboards leading to the venue, plentiful clean toilets and an online ticketing system built from scratch are just some of its hallmarks.

One reason for NH7 Weekender’s success is its meticulous planning. “We literally made a list of all the chutiya things that happen at an event—we will not do it,” Nair explained. “It was a very big list—we wrote down about 70-80 points, saying these are the little, little things because we knew everything.” Work on the 2012 edition had already begun in January and yet, Nair claimed, they were a month behind schedule.

Knowing what not to do has come in large part from the fact that the OML team has spent considerable time, money, energy and air miles attending music festivals across the world. When I met Talwar, he’d just returned from a jazz festival in Turkey. Dhruv Jagasia, the man who executes Weekender on the ground, attended events in Glastonbury and Edinburgh—just to observe how mammoth festivals like these can be pulled off without glitches. “We’re the only chuts in India who start asking for permissions a year in advance,” Nair said.

As odd as it may sound, Nair’s manic obsession with an incident-free Weekender represents a break from convention in the history of music events held in India. Concertgoers are all too familiar with stories of shows being cancelled at the last minute. The much-hyped Metallica concert in Gurgaon last year is a recent prominent example. An hour before the show began, DNA Networks, the organisers who are 20-year-old veterans of the business, announced that it had been postponed by a day. An estimated 20,000 people rioted in response, smashing LED screens, sound consoles and drum kits; their anger was stoked by a lack of water and the long hours of waiting, which had only ended in betrayal. That night, Nair was in the lobby of Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road in New Delhi, supervising Lady Gaga’s press meetings ahead of her concert two days later. As he received updates about the fiasco, he reacted with calm incredulity. “It was a bit like Noam Chomsky watching the invasion of Iraq begin,” said Raghu Karnad, the former editor of the Time Out Delhi magazine, who was with him that evening. It’s a sharp contrast to the OML-organised concert held in Gurgaon in early 2011, featuring the electronic dance group Prodigy. An attendee told me that security guards handed out bottles of water to fans who had been standing for six hours and couldn’t get off the grounds.

Nair blames organisers in India for mishaps at events. They don’t apply for necessary permissions in time and frequently sell more tickets than the venue’s capacity. But he also attributes it to a culture in India where, he said, “people who pay money for concerts are not treated as consumers, we’re treated as wallets. Look at religious events abroad—there will be fucking production with huge sound, light… even evangelism will be done with fucking great production. Here, you go to a Baba Ramdev event, there’ll be 30,000 people on the ground with no toilets provided. There’s a general attitude that people can be taken for granted.”

OVER THE PAST FOUR YEARS, Nair has sustained a vision of OML as a pioneer organisation reaching out to an audience that had long been diffuse, and disseminating independent culture to a generation now eager to identify with it. A manifestation of that belief is NH7.in—Arjun Ravi’s indie music blog, earlier called Indiecision, that merged with the company in 2010.

Six months ago, the website expanded its coverage to comic books, graffiti art and Internet games even as it reviewed music albums and listed gigs. As a consequence, its readership has now expanded from just “the scene kids” to people aged anywhere between 18 and 29 “who would spend money on band T-shirts”, Ravi said. “As people here [at OML], we have interests other than just music,” he continued. “In my team, I have three people who are into comics. Two others are into zombies. These things are not talked about in the mainstream media.”

OML’s recent expansion and growth has also been a magnet for criticism. In an interview for Rock Street Journal in its July-August issue, Suman Sridhar, one half of the band Sridhar/Thayil, said that OML had monopolised the indie music landscape. Nair called it an “age-old argument” that’s afflicted the larger industry ever since major labels like Universal and EMI were around.

A non-alignment with these brands was, in the West, a qualifier for an “independent” tag. Nair cited London-based XL Recordings as an example, arguing that they operate multiple labels under their umbrella and their albums sell in large numbers.

“Now the independent tag makes no difference to us at all. There is no romantic notion we have attached to the word. Yes, when we talk about independent music, here in India, independent music is non-Bollywood music. Shubha Mudgal is as independent as Pentagram,” he added. “We’re still not producing content for the mainstream which absolutely doesn’t mean we won’t. If someone asks us to produce a TV special with Sonu Nigam and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the middle of a palace in Jodhpur, I’d love to do it. But if it’s Sonu Nigam performing at Andheri Sports Complex performing for 10,000 people, I might not.” he said.

It’s natural for people in any subculture to be wary of a company like OML, one that has many enterprises under its umbrella. Indeed, some in the music industry mentioned the existence of an “anti-OML” sentiment. But by and large, most people in the indie music circuit gave Nair credit for what he’s done to organise the scene.

Last October, OML made its first venture into TV production with The Dewarists. In each of the 10 episodes that make up the first season of the documentary series, two artists collaborate with each other, make music and talk about their journey. The concept for the show began with a conversation in 2011 between Nair and his old friend Rasika Tyagi, the programming head of Star World India. “Ten years ago, Channel [V] had done something similar with Jamming,” she recalled. “And then independent music had seen a real slump when, at least on mainstream TV, there was not that much mention of it.” Nair proceeded to tell her that despite the relative smallness of the indie music scene, in the last five years “it had suddenly become cool to know independent musicians”. Tyagi’s biggest concern was that the concept was too niche for a sponsor and it would be a “tough sell for any sales team”. Nair seemed to have anticipated these concerns and, to assuage them, had started the preliminary groundwork. He had posted short video clips on YouTube of the proposed show that got 3,000 hits. “So the concept was there—it was just that could we scale it up,” Tyagi added. “Could we, suddenly, make it from 3,000 hits to three-and-a-half lakh hits—which is what happened.”

A hallmark of Nair’s success has been the discovery of a demographic that identifies itself with alternative culture. It’s a demographic that chooses to stroll in the narrow lanes of Hauz Khas Village rather than the air-conditioned corridors of a mall. They’d choose to watch Anurag Kashyap’s edgy Gangs of Wasseypur series and would turn up their noses at the mention of a Yash Chopra romance. They’d rather be sarcastic and provocative on social media than partake in politically correct drawing room conversations.

Nair has managed to convince advertisers, investors sponsors and other stakeholders that this is a lucrative demographic—that these young, urban Indians are not just indie music fans but consumers of an alternative culture. “For Bacardi it’s a great sampling exercise as well,” offered Arjun Ravi as an example. “They’re getting people to try some of their recently launched products, but they could’ve done sampling at any clubs or event around the country, they could’ve done it at a Bollywood event if they liked, [but] they’ve made the choice to do it here”—at NH7 Weekender.

One afternoon this August, I called Nair to ask what he had done to convince these companies to come on board. It was “festival time” at OML—the Weekender was going into pre-production mode. Unlike our previous conversations, this one was shorter than 10 minutes; Nair was polite but, as always, in a hurry. “It’s very simple,” he said. “We tell them that nobody knows the indie music business as we do.”

Correction: In the print version of this article, Stephen Budd was incorrectly identified as having represented Dido, Sting and Madonna. In fact, he represents producers who work with these musicians.

ONE AFTERNOON IN JULY THIS YEAR, inside the air-conditioned Mumbai office of the music company Only Much Louder (OML), 25 or so employees in their mid- to late-20s sat staring keenly into laptops on either side of a long table dividing the office’s expansive central area. The next installment of the company’s music festival NH7 Weekender was scheduled to be held in the outskirts of Pune in November, four months away, but its organisers had already finalised the line-up of bands that would play, and had moved on to the next stage of planning. Communication between the young employees was brisk and efficient: questions were asked precisely, answers provided instantly, decisions were taken without hesitation. The office had the kind of buzz one would expect to find in a newsroom.

Inside a separate room at the far end of the office, two curly-haired men sat editing videos on their 24-inch iMacs, while OML co-founder Girish ‘Bobby’ Talwar, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, reclined on a bed behind them, playing with his Blackberry. At the other end of the office sat Dhruv Jagasia, who, before joining OML in 2011, had served as the manager of Indian Ocean, the band often credited with kick-starting the genre of Indian fusion rock. A large, voluble man with a handlebar moustache, Jagasia is now NH7 Weekender’s festival director, in charge of the company’s most recognised undertaking.

Neither Jagasia nor Talwar have their own cabins in the office, an arrangement that will persist even when OML expands into a 10,000-square feet space in October this year. The move is in anticipation of an expansion in the company’s workforce—by next January, OML plans to add nearly 45 people to its current 75-person-strong staff. The employees will occupy an office free of dress codes, monotonous eight-hour shifts and sterile conference rooms; instead, the space will be equipped with features that may call its categorisation as an office into question—like the employee bar planned for the mezzanine.

“The guy made something on the layout called the directors’ toilets,” Jagasia said, referring to the architect who had designed the new office. “So my question to him was ki yahaan par mootne ke liye kya qualification chahiye, yeh bata mere ko (tell me, what qualification does one need to take a piss here)?”

Jagasia’s breezy dismissal of traditional office culture and hierarchy belies the enviable growth of the company he works for. What began 10 years ago as an artist management venture representing a handful of up-and-coming bands in a then fledgling independent music scene has since grown into a robust company with four additional arms—a TV production house, an online music and alternative culture magazine, an online music store and a music festivals division. And the person who oversaw OML from its inception through that growth is Vijay Nair, the company’s founder, who now also holds the incongruously corporate designation of CEO.

That July afternoon, Nair, wearing an olive green Sex Pistols T-shirt, and jeans, strode into the OML office and quickly disappeared into the bustle of work. The immersion in work is characteristic—on a typical day Nair spends at least 12 hours overseeing OML’s various divisions, starting off at 8 am by answering emails, coming into the office by around noon and winding up between 8 and 10 pm. In between, he convinces sponsors to back his shows, signs on new bands or works towards bringing international stars and David Guetta to India. “I prefer working most of the time because it’s fun,” he said.

His world may seem glamorous and he may navigate it with ease, but the soft-spoken Nair is an uncharacteristic CEO, whom one OML employee described as the kind of person you call if it’s 3 am and you find yourself in a spot of trouble. And for someone running a company with a projected revenue of Rs 50-60 crore, Nair’s life is surprisingly low on flash—he lives, for instance, with his family in a modest middle-class home in the Mumbai suburb of Malad.

During OML’s early days, when it had no office space of its own, the company was run out of Nair’s parents’ earlier apartment in Goregaon—Nair worked from his own bedroom, as did co-founder Talwar, who is a lawyer by qualification, but now heads the artist management branch of OML, called the Syndicate, and is also a member of Zero, one of Nair’s early favourite rock bands. Jishnu Dasgupta, bassist with the band Swarathma, which is managed by OML, remembers Nair’s generosity in opening his home to them when they were on tour. “When we used to play in Bombay,” recalled Dasgupta, “there were no sponsors [for the shows]. So Vijay would put us up at his house. All six of us would eat the same food as his family, cooked by his mom.” Nair said that nearly every indie band in the country had stayed at his house. “My folks love it when bands come and stay over,” he added. “I guess for them this is a way to relate to what I do. They didn’t understand what I did for a long time.”

From this low-key beginning, Nair went on to become a pioneer in the indie music scene in India, a fact that is as apparent in the scale and professionalism of the events OML has organised, as in the way that the company is structured and managed. The five outfits are separately run, but Nair encourages staff—who range in training from journalists to sound engineers—to constantly explore new avenues and learn from each other. Event managers work with programmers to create 3D models of stages at music festivals. Babble Fish Productions, the video production arm, recently conducted a film production workshop to ensure that they’re on the same page. Motherswear, OML’s festival production wing, organised an event production workshop earlier this year where staffers were given a tour of what goes into making an event—from stage construction to crowd management. A sense of enthusiastic exchange is apparent in the company’s functioning, for which credit must go to the CEO.

Nair’s vision for OML has paid off in many respects—most recently and prominently, in April 2012, when the Chernin Group, a Los Angeles-based media and entertainment company founded by Peter Chernin, the former Chief Operation Officer of NewsCorp International, announced that it was going to invest in OML through its Asia-based investment arm, CA Media. After a decade of gradual progress, OML leapt into the big league, with Nair at the helm.

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Aayush Soni is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and a former writer at Time Out Delhi. He graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2012.

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