Axl Rose, the lead vocalist of Guns N’ Roses, is famously moody. The stellar performer, who recently declined his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and insisted that no one could accept the award on his behalf, is prone to surly answers during interviews and walks off abruptly from concerts.
He also shares a contentious relationship with nearly all his former bandmates, especially former lead guitarist Slash. For good reason, G N’ R is christened “the most difficult band in the world”. So when the red-headed banshee, as he is often called, thunders on stage with his quixotic labour of love, Chinese Democracy, in the band’s maiden tour of India next week, diehard fans will wonder — will Rose throw another one of his legendary tantrums?
Rose’s reputation for being temperamental doesn’t bother the folks at Mooz Entertainment, the live entertainment company which is bringing the explosive American hard rock band to India. For the last few weeks, they have been exchanging three-hour long conversations and over 500 emails daily with G N’ R’s tour managers. As organisers, Mooz will do the entire bandobast — from accommodation to medical needs, security, local transport, production prerequisites and local transport. The number of retail outlets (over 80) for selling G N’ R concert tickets are the highest ever done for any concert in the country.
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At the venues in Gurgaon, Mumbai and Bangalore, the grounds are being levelled to avoid injuries to fans. Mooz’s responsibilities also include pandering to artistic whims — be it a specific brand of mineral water or a 24/7 personal chef — and catering to the entourage of agents, technicians, stylists and bodyguards, reportedly numbering around 50. Rose, who, rumour has it, doesn’t come on stage before 9.30 pm has assured Mooz that he will be there at 6.45 pm. This is in keeping with the Supreme Court’s ruling that all loudspeakers need to be put off at 10 pm. For crowd management, Mooz has roped in a security agency “which can tell the difference between a rally and a concert”.
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Music aficionados, concert- and festival-goers across the country are a happy lot today. India’s once-empty music calendar has never looked better. In the last five years, there has been an explosion of big-ticket gigs and multi-genre festivals, each with a USP of its own. While big names like Koßn, French chart-topping DJ David Guetta and Electronic Dance Music trio Swedish House Mafia have already enthralled thousands this year, sources say that eccentric guitarist Slash and South Korean rapper PSY, (of “Gangnam Style” fame) will also perform in India sometime next year. Destination festivals like The Escape Festival of Music & Arts at Naukuchiatal in Uttarakhand, Storm Festival in Coorg, M.A.D Festival in Ooty, and Gulmarg Winter Festival in Srinagar have kept the festival hopper’s itinerary loud and busy. E-ticketing company BookMyShow alone has partnered with over 200 of these events this year. Cashing in on the growing fanbase are successful properties like Percept’s Sunburn and Only Much Louder’s NH7 Weekender which held “mini-festivals” across Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore this year.
Behind these well-executed shows are a handful of enthusiastic, professional and passionate individuals with one goal — to make India music-savvy and concert-friendly. Leading the charge is Shailendra Singh, Percept’s joint managing director who has been helming the carnivalesque Sunburn festival in Goa, now Asia’s biggest EDM festival, since 2007. Capitalising on his experience in advertising (he conceptualised the popular Desh ki Dhadkan campaign for Hero Honda) and movies (Percept Picture Company has produced critically-acclaimed movies like Firaaq), Singh has used clever marketing and promotional tactics to put EDM — a genre that is essentially “music without any lyrics” — on the Indian map. On the sands of Goa’s Candolim Beach, the flamboyant Singh does away with his sharp business suits in favour of casual denims, complete with an earring and fedora, as he networks with artists, mingles with crowds and sways to the electronic beats.
Known in the music circuit for convincing sponsors to back his shows with surprising ease, OML’s reclusive CEO, Vijay Nair, a college dropout, has created a firebrand event in NH7 Weekender, “the happiest festival in India”, launched in 2010. Along with co-founder Girish “Bobby” Talwar and Weekender’s festival director, Dhruv Jagasia (manager of Indian Ocean), Nair is currently expanding his workforce in his eccentric office in Lower Parel, Mumbai. Talwar calls the vibrant 10,000 square feet space “the coolest office ever”. After all, it houses a mezzanine (a “halfway house”, says Talwar) for meetings, a stage for artists to jam and a “torture room” for “intense discussions”. It even has a well-stocked bar. “When I hire people, I never look at their résumés All I want is a passion for music, some common sense and good people skills,” says Nair. OML, he says, has crossed its projected revenues of nearly Rs 60 crore this year.
Inside the Mooz office in the mid-scale neighbourhood of Kalkaji in south Delhi, an orange wall displays framed posters of American legend Ray Charles and the famous Newport Pop Festival (held in California in 1968, it was the first music concert to have more than 100,000 paid attendees). Seated against this cheerful backdrop are Rashmi Kant, the company’s chairman, and Karamjeet Singh, Mooz’s senior vice-president (planning and operations). Witty, smooth and suave, the affable 50-year-olds call Mooz “the new kid on the block” and a “game-changer”. “We are 30 years late in doing what we wanted to,” says the portly Kant, adding that he wanted to bring Miles Davis, the American jazz trumpeteer, to India in the ’80s. Alongside Mooz, Kant is also chairman of Zoom Communications; he has also made films on contemporary issues like terrorism. Singh was project director for the broadcast of the past two seasons of Indian Premier League, also produced by Zoom Communications. The 70-odd “Moozheads” (as Mooz employees are called), most of them under 25, are now a flurry of activity and enthusiasm. “We are the old fogies who pretend to steer the ship,” adds Kant with a guffaw.
They know that metal and rock are the biggest crowd pullers in India. To concretise the “manager-artist-promoter relations” internationally, Mooz has chosen former pro-wrestler and tour manager Rick Bassman to head business development in North America. Also on the board of advisors is Bill Curbishley, the hard-bargaining manager of guitarist Jimmy Page, former member of English rock band Led Zeppelin. “Sometimes, I call Bill in the dead of the night to ask if we’ve got all our bases covered,” says Kant.
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Last month, a group of around 30 musicians and festival-goers gathered at inconspicuous bus stations in Delhi and Mumbai in the wee hours of the morning to board the “Ragasthan Caravan”. They were headed to Jaisalmer where Ragasthan (November 16 to 18) made its debut across the Kanoi dunes of Thar Desert. During the journey, passengers were regaled with impromptu jam sessions by bands such as Half Step Down, Chalo Africa and Rajasthan Roots. Ragasthan is cleverly pitched as a “mystical and surreal escape, under a blanket of stars” by its young, enthusiastic organisers. A week before the festival, 28-year-old Supriya Sobti, whose easy demeanour and petite frame make her look more like a college student than one of the festival’s organisers, was apprehensive about only one thing. “I hope people don’t crib about the washroom facilities. We’re in the middle of a desert after all!”
As she predicted, Ragasthan wasn’t without its share of hiccups — of the 1,800 who thronged the festival, several complained that the facilities inside the “Maharaja-style” Swiss tents (with a verandah and bathroom) didn’t match the hefty cost (Rs 26,000 for two). Drinking water wasn’t easily available. Yet, after the madness of the festival has subsided, Sobti is unperturbed. “At Glastonbury [a contemporary performing arts festival in London], people don’t shower for days,” she says with a laugh. “As an organiser, you have to be open to criticism so you can create a loyal fanbase.” While some of the acts were mismanaged and two were even cancelled, what kept Sobti’s spirits up were the impromptu jam sessions between artists outside the tents. The different stages offered an eclectic range of music like rock, EDM, alternative fusion, folk and even jugalbandis between emerging artists and veterans.
Sobti, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, wanted a “chai paani” festival (chai was offered free at Ragasthan). Along with the other organisers (Smriti Ahuja, Keith Menon and Anshuman Jeswal), Sobti dipped into her savings, borrowed from friends, family and a few sponsors. The foursome put around Rs 2 crore into the festival. “I have no unrealistic ambitions of breaking even this year,” admits Sobti. To support the festival, she adds, many bands and artists dropped their gig rates. At Ragasthan, Sobti put into practice what she learnt from attending “party in the park” concerts that English and Welsh radio stations and local authorities organise, typically in parks in the summer. “Every festival has teething problems, and we had many,” she says candidly. “But now we know where we lack. I’m already excited for Ragasthan round two!”
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Known to anticipate and handle last-minute hitches with ease is Lalrinawma Tochhawng, fondly known as “Mama”, the founder-director of The Escape Festival in Naukuchiatal, which started in 2009. Once, remembers the quirky 44-year-old, an entire stage was demolished by torrential rains. Within hours, another was put up. The peaceful crowd simply jammed while the organisers got their act together. “There’s no point losing your cool. You just have to get music to the crowds somehow,” says Mama. A case in point is the cancelled Metallica concert in Delhi this year, where some of the organisers turned abusive when speaking to the already agitated crowds.
The scenic lake resort of Naukuchiatal, says Mama, offers more freedom than landlocked Delhi. The festival is a creative retreat with a “relaxed vibe”, featuring bands, writers, photographers, painters, graffiti artists, performance artists, tattoo artists and potters. “We steer clear of commercial acts,” he says. In May this year, the festival saw crowds of over 3,000. While Escape began with an investment of around Rs 14 lakh, today, the money has gone up to nearly Rs 50 lakh. Mama, a musician himself, understands the tricky business as he candidly admits, “I don’t think we’ve broken even now! But I don’t do this for the money. A festival is the only venue for artists to mingle and network.” Sponsors, he insists, must be kept at the fringes and all creative control must lie with the organiser. Mama is assisted by 26-year-old Anoop Sebastian, Escape’s festival coordinator. Sebastian, who worked at Rock Street Journal for many years, ensures that Escape retains its “youthful vibe”. “And I deal with the older lot,” jokes Mama.
“Times are changing,” says OML’s Talwar. “Infrastructure is improving. Venues like the Buddh International Circuit in Noida are promising.” The circuit was the venue for Weekender’s Delhi edition. “We no longer have to scout for wedding venues for gigs,” he says with a chuckle. “There was a time when people went to a concert [in India] with a sense of dread. Now, they expect things, big things.”