music

No longer just moneybags, corporate brands are now shaping India’s independent music

A number of companies are helping bridge the gaps in the Indian indie ecosystem.

From sponsoring competitions such as the ITC Simla Beat Contest in the 1960s and ’70s to backing compilation series such as the Levi’s (and subsequently Seagram’s) Great Indian Rock in the 1990s and 2000s to, more recently, bankrolling festivals such as the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, brands have been associated with India’s independent music scene for decades. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that much of the country’s live music industry wouldn’t exist without the surrogate advertising done by alcohol companies at events. However, over the past five years, a few brands such as Red Bull, Levi’s, Budweiser and Bira 91 have increased their involvement to a level that goes far above just handing over a big cheque to promoters or acts.

This clutch of companies seeks to contribute to the music “scene”, as it’s colloquially referred to, in a way that helps bridge the gaps in the Indian indie ecosystem. They don’t see this as surrogate advertising but as experiential marketing through which they develop a bond with their customers. Each of them has in common a target demographic that can loosely be described as the youth and a popular nationwide gig series.

Creating a stage

While Levi’s 501 Friday, which was launched in February 2015, and Budweiser’s What’s Brewing, which was started in September 2016, are held in bars, Red Bull has been taking its Tour Bus, a vehicle that can be converted into a stage, to college campuses and venues around India, since October 2013. They brought this property, which is operated in 13 countries, to India because of the lack of touring infrastructure here. Over the last four years, over 120 acts have played the Red Bull Tour Bus in 24 locations, from Chandigarh to Kozhikode.

The Ganesh Talkies on the Red Bull Tour Bus. Image credit: Redbulltourbus/Facebook
The Ganesh Talkies on the Red Bull Tour Bus. Image credit: Redbulltourbus/Facebook

“The intent behind” 501 Friday, which was previously held in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai and was expanded to Chandigarh and Hyderabad in 2017, was “to establish a platform for original, independent artists and give them a stage, which is permanent and recurring”, said Meeta Bharvani, director – marketing at Levi’s India.

In December 2016, Budweiser brought Boiler Room, the popular UK-headquartered online gig streaming platform and global event series, to India. Exactly a year later, the brand, which has been associated with electronic music festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival India, Sunburn and Supersonic, held BUDx, a three-day conference that focused on the genre, in Delhi. Since August 2017, it has also been supporting BoxoutWednesday, Indian online electronic music radio station Boxout.fm’s weekly residency at Summer House Café in Delhi. This year, it plans to take Boiler Room to cities such as Pune and Hyderabad; BUDx to Mumbai and Bengaluru; and What’s Brewing to under-explored markets like Kolkata, Shillong, Guwahati and Puducherry.

Building a community

This past November, Levi’s opened in Mumbai’s Lower Parel neighbourhood the Levi’s Lounge, a split-level, 2,240 feet venue, which comprises a co-working space, a 100-capacity gig area and a recording studio that musicians can use for free. “Giving back to the community is an intrinsic part of the brand’s DNA,” said Bharvani. “We [had] been talking to a lot of artists and management companies [and realised] the sheer difficulty people have in getting a space where they can just create.”

That same month, Bira 91 introduced FreeFlow, which Rohit Pillai, the head of events and partnerships at the beer company, said is “an on-ground property that supports hip-hop, not just music but the lifestyle”. As of now, FreeFlow has taken the form of tours by international artists that help put the spotlight on local talent. The first instalment was a three-city trek featuring American rapper Lady Leshurr and Delhi-based MC Prabh Deep that took place in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. Bira 91 also has a three-year contract with the organisers of the electronic music festival Magnetic Fields, where in addition to sponsoring one of the two main stages, they run the hip-hop-showcasing FreeFlow Garden. “Our plan is to grow the hip-hop community in India,” said Pillai.

Prabh Deep at Bira 91 FreeFlow in Delhi.
Prabh Deep at Bira 91 FreeFlow in Delhi.

To this end, they will endorse artists and provide them with both the “funds and resources they need to get more people to hear” them via shows as well as singles and videos. Their first signee, of the half-dozen they plan to enlist over the next 18 months, is Prabh Deep, who will release a series of tracks through FreeFlow. The artists they programme and endorse also create playlists for the FreeFlow hip-hop channel on the streaming platform Saavn. Through the Red Bull Music Academy, Red Bull conducts lectures and workshops and every year, sends an Indian producer to attend the academy, a fortnight-long music school that shifts to a different country annually, where they also get studio time.

A communication channel

The choice of music as a key area in which to pump in marketing money is a no-brainer. “For a youth brand, music is one of the angles you would use to get in touch with your demographic,” said Levi’s Bharvani. For the beverage makers, pubs and music festivals are among the main spots where core customers congregate. “Whether it’s small gigs, where we can potentially move 30 to 40 cases of beer, or festivals where you’re looking at 400 to 600 cases, [music events are] a great way for us to activate consumers.” said Pillai. Similarly, for Red Bull, an energy drink aimed primarily at young people, music fans are an obvious audience.

“We believe this is one of the most important markets for the brand on the planet [where] every year, 20 million people turn 21 [the legal age for the consumption of beer in the country],” said Kartikeya Sharma, the India and South East Asia marketing director of AB InBev, which owns Budweiser. “When we wanted to find a passion point where we could have meaningful engagement with consumers, we realised that electronic music was what people had a lot of love for.”

Budweiser & Boiler Room’s What’s Brewing in Delhi. Image credit: BudweiserIndia/Facebook
Budweiser & Boiler Room’s What’s Brewing in Delhi. Image credit: BudweiserIndia/Facebook

Bira 91, on the other hand, decided to be a champion of Indian hip-hop because the genre possesses the “personality traits we hold very close to us – being bold, irreverent, playful and fun, which we try and make clear not only through visual representation but even through association”, said Pillai. While Levi’s doesn’t restrict itself to a particular sound – its “preferred artists” include electronic music acts Dualist Inquiry and Anish Sood. “The brand stands for originality, authenticity and self-expression and the artists that we have stand for these qualities,” said Bharvani. “[They] are a reflection of the cultural moment we’re in, and electronic music is, or at least it was when we signed these artists on, the cultural moment.”

Brand as a promoter

According to Uday Benegal, the vocalist of Indus Creed, one of India’s longest-running rock bands, the biggest difference he has observed between the 1980s and ’90s and the last few years is in the involvement of brands in music events. “It used to be that a promoter would want to host [a concert by] a band of certain renown [and] the sponsor just latched on it or was convinced by the promoter that it would be a good investment.” He recalled how in 1987, when Indus Creed went by the name Rock Machine, RV Pandit, the head of their record label CBS, tied up with Bombay Dyeing to organise a five-city tour. Along with performances by the group and singers Remo Fernandes and Ronnie Desai, each gig included a fashion show of the textile company’s wares.

Uday Benegal. Image credit: IndusCreedNow/Facebook
Uday Benegal. Image credit: IndusCreedNow/Facebook

Back then, “the control was more in the hands of the promoter in terms of the programming”, said Benegal. “What’s changed is that it’s working the other way round. Somebody in the marketing department of a company is [saying:] ‘We are launching a particular thing so let’s fashion an event around this and let’s find a band that fits or has some kind of synergy with what we’re trying to do’.” One of the upsides of this new model, said Benegal, is that the brand puts its marketing might behind the show whereas previously, the promoter had to get the word out on their own. The publicity push is necessary in an era when there are more gigs taking place than ever before.

On the other hand, Indus Creed was able to do things that would perhaps not be possible today. In the mid-1990s, when they needed money to make music videos for their tracks Top of the Rock and Pretty Child, they used their contacts in advertising agencies to strike deals with the makers of Haywards beer and Close Up toothpaste who agreed to put in the necessary funds despite the band’s stipulation that there would be no product placement. In return, they mentioned the companies in press releases and put up their banners at concerts. “We got a lot of support from MTV as well who were resistant to any product placement in the videos and we got a letter from them saying they didn’t do this as a matter of policy,” said Benegal. “A couple of years later, we saw product placements [on the channel].”

Building careers

For Dualist Inquiry aka Sahej Bakshi, associations with Levi’s, Budweiser and Red Bull have significantly shaped his career. Red Bull hosted him as a guest attendee at the Red Bull Music Academy in New York in 2013, the same year he toured South India with the Red Bull Tour Bus. They subsequently co-produced the video for his 2014 track Lumina (which incidentally features a fleeting but prominent shot of a can of the energy drink). He is an unofficial brand ambassador for Levi’s and was taken by Budweiser, in 2016, along with fellow electronic music producers Kohra and Madboy to film a documentary at the Tomorrowland festival in Belgium.

Levi's Lounge.
Levi's Lounge.

“If you look back to 2012-2013, when there was less infrastructure like media outlets, agencies and festivals than we have today, these [partnerships were] crucial and an important place where I got to have my ideas heard and fuelled,” said Bakshi. “A lot of these plans don’t necessarily make business sense.” Among his most ambitious endeavours to date is Boxout.fm, the online station he co-founded with DJ MoCity, which was launched in March 2017. Thanks to Budweiser, Boxout.fm has been able to book international DJs for its Boxout Wednesday gigs and thanks to Levi’s, it was able to take crew members to and set up a pop-up DJ booth at the Pune edition of the NH7 Weekender in December. Bakshi, who estimates that on average it takes an independent musician fees from at least five shows to produce an album, said he’s grateful to have formed relationships with the teams in these establishments.

Brand as the music label

By producing and distributing content, some of these brands are performing roles traditionally played by music labels. The Red Bull Music Academy Soundcloud page has premiered EPs by Indian acts and music by RBMA artists is streamed on Red Bull’s global online radio station. Its Red Bull Media House division has made a number of Indian independent music videos and documentaries. At festivals such as Magnetic Fields, where there has been a main RBMA stage since 2015, and NH7 Weekender, where the Tour Bus served as a stage in 2013 and 2014, Red Bull is a co-programmer with a say in the line-up.

Benegal, who performed with Indus Creed on the Red Bull Tour Bus in Bhubaneswar in January 2017, feels that Red Bull stands out for both the range of artists it works with and the skill-enhancing workshops it conducts through the Red Bull Music Academy, which he referred to as “stuff that doesn’t happen on stage in front of everyone”. Said Benegal, “The way I see it someone like [electronic music producer] Sandunes, who is not as commercial as say Nucleya, would really benefit from [their] support. It takes somebody special even from the corporate side to be able to recognise someone and say I think this person is special, not mainstream but really has the talent.”

The main distinction between these companies and the countless others that sponsor events is in their long-term commitment to improve the Indian independent music industry in both quantitative and qualitative terms. “Hip-hop is not an experiment for us,” said Pillai, whose goal is for Bira 91 and Indian hip-hop to be as closely associated with each other as folk-fusion and Coke Studio is today. “A measure of success would be if after 12 to 18 months, young, local artists start identifying this as a platform where they want to perform for some level of validation because of the authentic nature of the gig.”

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