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Hitting The Right Notes

Hitting The Right Notes

March 22, 2012

How one of India’s oldest and largest record labels is diversifying into live events with spectacular results.

Saregama India Ltd, formerly The Gramophone Company of India Ltd, was established as the first overseas office branch of EMI UK back in 1901. Since its birth, the name of the label has had many name changes from EMI India Ltd to HMV, before it was sold to a £5 billion conglomerate company by the name of RPG Group in 1985. The brand Saregama was created in 1999.

In this ever-changing digital world, the company has undergone more changes in the past decade than its entire life. Having organised his seventh live event for Saregama, Kailash Kher's first UK tour, we spoke to Amarpal S. Gaind, Head of Operations Europe, on how his time and business attitude with the company has changed over the years.

Saregama has an impressive history. Tell us more…

Saregama is one of the oldest record labels in the world, and one of the largest. We have produced approximately half a million recordings from the early 20th century to date making us one of the largest labels in the world. And by virtue of that, we are proud custodians of India's rich musical heritage and history. It is not a company, it is an institution.

What do you think separates Saregama from other Indian record labels?

Ours is a historical catalogue which has been collected over 100 years. Apart from having a vast archive of old Hindi films and contemporary Bollywood soundtracks, we also have an extensive library of Indian classical music, Ghazals and folk music from every region of India. We own nearly 50 percent of all the music ever recorded in India.

Some people feel that the traditional sound of Indian music is getting lost. Do you think the sound is changing?

I personally have very low opinion on what is happening. Melody has lost its meaning. Indian music was lyric-centric. If you look at songs between the 50s and 80s, they are poetic and a lyrical class lies within them. That has got lost now. If Indian music is to have an international impact, it will have to come from the folk music roots of India.

Would you say Kailash Kher could make a similar impact in the West?

Kailash Kher sits in a special spectrum. Kailash made it big without Bollywood. He had success with albums that were his own works. Success in Bollywood has only catapulted him further. I have a lot of respect for Kailash Kher. His roots are entrenched in folk music and he composes and writes lyrics of all his songs from the experiences of his life. If anybody from India can make it big in the west, it is him.

How did you come to work for Saregama? 

I have always indulged in music and been very passionate about it but the opportunity to work with Saregama came out of nowhere…it wasn’t by design!

How have things changed in the market?

I have been responsible for the business in my current position since 2003. I moved in at a time when the physical format contributed to over 90 per cent of the turnover. Today, not even five per cent comes from it. Having said that, the first thing I set my eyes on was to take our CD’s into the wider mainstream and world music audiences. We did this with a degree of success in the UK, Germany and France by conceiving bespoke albums and appointing specialist distributors.

But that's not how the company survived. The mainstay of our business has been the music publishing and licensing business. We have worked very hard to get our music out into the mainstream – licensing out to TV programmes, film production, advertisements and encourage use of Indian music samples in the mainstream artists’ community. We appointed agents across the globe to represent our catalogue and push it through. In nutshell we have had to create a market for ourselves.

More recently we have diversified into live events in the UK, which ironically is the oldest form of music consumption (considering recorded music has only been around for one hundred years or so!)

Which western artists have sampled Saregama’s music?

The Black Eyed Peas for their song 'Don't Phunk With My Heart', Dr Dre, Tony Yayo, Lil Kim, Jem, M.I.A., G-Unit, Transglobal underground, Jay Sean, Dot Rotten, Trickbaby...

This just about allowed us to stay afloat but CD sales kept coming down. A company that is not growing is actually dying. On noticing that in 2008, we thought we would go back to the oldest form of music production - that of live music. Since man stepped foot on this planet, there has always been live music.

How did your first live event come about?

A gentleman by the name of Tim Pottier had arranged some Mohammed Rafi songs and recorded the instrumentals with The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CSBO). They approached me to release these as a CD album. Having seen the sharp decline in CD sales I thought this was a great opportunity to start a live events business division and commence our journey with this very unique concept of fusing on stage a 75 piece western symphony orchestra with a Indian singer (Sonu Nigam) to pay tribute to perhaps the most iconic voice from Hindi cinema – Mohammed Rafi. That’s how ‘Rafi Resurrected’ the live concert tour was born in 2008.

Earlier I had noted a gap in the live entertainment scene within the South Asian market where on one end of the spectrum you had.

What did Rafi Resurrected entail?

It required a lot of forward planning and it took some fifteen months to put the tour on ground. On top of that it was a massive project with a huge financial exposure for us.

One had to deal with two complete different worlds of mindsets in India and UK. This project was a labour of love and since it was the first it required 200 per cent dedication to put together.

We launched the album some 6 months before the tour with help of Rafi sahib’s grandson Rizwan who lives in London. We had only two days of rehearsals before the first concert but that didn’t matter in the end as both Sonu Nigam and the CBSO have perfected their art so well. The end result was history for everyone to remember!

What did you learn from the Rahat tour?

The first tour with Rahat was a tribute to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with the CBSO. It was out of sheer chance that we decided to do two qawwalis without the orchestral backdrop. I was stunned to see the audience response on these. Therefore we quickly brought back Rahat six months later with the ‘Simply Rahat’ tour, this time with his own band of musicians. You have to listen to your market and respond quickly!

What was next?

After this we worked with Asha ji (Bhonsle), one of the living legends. We released an album called 'Naina Lagai Ke' which was a semi-classical collaboration with Shujaat Khan, the sitar maestro (and son of the sitar legend Ustad Vilayat Khan). Both came from their own individual musical institutions. So that project was very unique. The three city tour was also a sell out and got a lot of critical acclaim by mainstream press.

After big names like Asha Bhosle and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan why did you decide to bring Roop Kumar Rathod to the UK?

We had established ourselves as a professional outfit confident of giving audiences value for money. Roop Kumar Rathod has a beautiful voice, and although he had his success in Bollywood, not many people knew that he and his wife Sunali are accomplished ghazal singers. There renditions of Indian films classics were very well received by audiences.

In fact a lot of people have said to me that theirs was the finest live concert they have ever attended. Such positive feedback keeps you going in this business.

What should Kailash Kher fans expect to see at the upcoming tour?

On January 10th, 2012, we released Kailash's album Rangeele and this tour follows from the album. Kailash will be performing popular Bollywood hits, classics like ‘Chapp Tilak’ and some Nusrat favourites. He will also be singing his evergreen songs like 'Allah Ke Bande', 'Saiyyan', 'Tere Deewani'.

Kailash himself is a very young, down to earth personality. His engagement with the crowd and his sense of humour is amazing. Musically, he is a genius. The new album will only substantiate what I am saying, in that his music gets even better with time. In my opinion, this is the best album he has created. It is a privilege to do this tour with him.

We hear Kailash also has a celebrity fan following…

That’s right. A R Rahman himself has classified Kailash Kher as one of the finest talents in India today. He's stated 'Allah Ke Bande' as one of his favourite songs ever. His album Rangeele was launched by Amitabh Bachchan earlier this year.

What is your favourite Kailash Kher song?

My current favourite is 'Tu Kya Jaane' from the new album. It is a beautiful ballad - I can assure that song will be on everybody's lips once the concerts are over.

For more information visit www.saregamaevents.com 

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