Saturday, 6 October. 8.30pm. The NSIC grounds in Okhla, New Delhi. A 6,000-plus crowd is swinging wildly to the tunes of hip hop and R&B singer Akon. The crowd is growing delirious, their bodies possessed by the 60,000 watts of energy booming at them through the state-of-the-art EAW speakers.
All is going according to script for Owen Roncon and his team at Oranjuice Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, the producer of the show. Then, the Senegalese-American singer asks for lights at the back of the arena. “Is that a barricade I’m seeing?” he asks. He is unhappy with the segregation of the audience—into those who paid Rs900 a ticket, and those who paid twice that amount.
The singer wants the barricades down. The organizers resist; he threatens to end the concert. Then, the singer jumps into the arena with his band following, climbs atop a barricade, and tries to organize the crowd into coming to the front. The crowd runs after him, people fall down—soon, it’s a crowd-management nightmare. Akon realizes it and goes back—“at least we tried”—and resumes singing. Delhi Police get into the act. They want him to stop singing as children in the crowd are getting hurt. For a while, it looks as if Akon will be arrested on stage. But no, he’s back. “If anything goes wrong tonight, just blame it on me,” he says, and performs his hit lament: Sorry… blame it on me.
“Crazy stuff happens, you can’t do anything about it,” Roncon says. His is one of the three big event management firms which bring international artists to India, the others being Wizcraft International Entertainment Pvt. Ltd and DNA Networks Pvt. Ltd. It’s a small but growing business. By Roncon’s estimates, the industry turnover is about Rs50-60 crore annually, a minuscule fraction of the global concert industry—a single event in a mature market can gross nearly as much as the whole industry in India does in a year. For instance, the recent Austin City Limits Music Festival, a three-day event featuring artists such as Bob Dylan, The Killers, Muse, Wilco, Bjork and My Morning Jacket, among others, grossed $11,315,559 (approx. Rs44.5 crore). The 14-16 September event at Zilker Park, Austin, Texas, priced at $145 and $125, was attended by a capacity crowd—225,000—according to Billboard.com, the online edition of Billboard magazine.
Players across industries such as music, broadcast and event management say that it’s a business with high potential, and is only expected to grow. Yet, the going remains tough.
They have to fight event after event for 27 different permissions for each open-air concert, find a suitable venue, tackle counterfeiters, and even manage every semi-important bureaucrat who wants 10 free passes to attend a hip hop concert with family. Such red tape affects an uncertain margin that can be as high as 20%, or as low as 5%.
Going by the popularity of international music in India, the potential for such concerts is huge. The market for international music in terms of record sales in India is estimated at Rs200 crore, one-fifth of the Rs1,000 crore music market, according to Rajat Kakar, managing director, Universal Music India Pvt. Ltd. “There is a huge potential in the live music business,” he says. “But it’s a highly unorganized market.”
Internationally, artists earn money from album sales, live concerts and merchandise. “It’s a linear progression. Once you are successful in record sales, you start making money from live shows. When you do sell-out shows, you start making money from merchandise. For a very successful act—the Rolling Stones, for instance—the revenue share among these three channels is probably the same,” says Kakar. For Indian artists, most of the money comes from record sales alone, he adds.
Wizcraft organized the biggest concert of an international artist India has seen to date—the firm brought Michael Jackson to India in 1996. The then finance secretary, N.K. Singh, told Sabbas Joseph, a director and partner at the firm: “This is the best thing you could do to modernize this country.” But, Joseph and his two partners at Wizcraft were in trouble soon after the mega concert at Andheri Sports Complex, Mumbai, on 1 November 1996.
What a concert costs (Graphic)
In response to a public interest litigation, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court ordered all their properties to be impounded. The entertainment tax clearance they had obtained well in advance was cancelled on the day of the show. The case is still in the courts and all the money from the show is also stuck there, according to Joseph.
“Not too much has changed in terms of the regulatory environment since 1996, unfortunately,” Joseph says. “Way too many licences and permissions are needed, and they don’t give it to you till the last moment.” Wizcraft, which now employs about 150 people and has an annual turnover of Rs175 crore, more or less withdrew from the business of big international concerts after that.
“The vagaries of the business are too many. The market is very good right now, though. It has expanded. In 1996, you had, maybe, four to five sponsors willing to invest in music,” Joseph says. He lists BPL, Pepsi, Videocon, McDowell’s, Royal Challenge, Shaw Wallace and Four Square. “Today, you easily have about 25-30 of them. All the youth brands are interested.”
Wizcraft now does a lot of Indian concerts. “Bollywood stars are India’s rock stars,” Joseph says. Artists such as A.R. Rahman, Lata Mangeshkar, Sunidhi Chauhan, Shankar Ehsan Loy, etc. can fill arenas of 10,000 people, he says.
The Bandra-Kurla Complex grounds in Mumbai, the Palace Grounds in Bangalore and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi are popular concert venues. Roncon broadly divides concert sizes into three. “The A+ acts, say U2, Aerosmith or Metallica, will pull a crowd of 15,000-20,000. The A acts, such as Akon or INXS, can pull anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000. Then, you have your jazz acts and other smaller artists.”
“There is no venue in this country you can call a concert venue. So, you basically have to get an open ground, build your fences, build your barricades, build the stage; and the costs we are talking about are horrendous,” says Joseph. For the Akon concert in New Delhi, for instance, organizing the venue cost almost Rs80 lakh, almost one-third of the total costs.
Venkat Vardhan, managing director of DNA Networks, which is producing the Beyonce Knowles show in Mumbai on 27 October, agrees. “One of the challenges of organizing a big concert is the lack of good permanent infrastructure to host mega events that can cater to 30,000 capacity,” he says. DNA Networks also produced the Black Eyed Peas (BEP) show on 16 October in Bangalore.
Arjun Sankalia, marketing manager at Sony BMG, says smaller concerts at ‘plug and play’ venues are the way forward. “A fillip to growth would be more ‘plug and play’ venues. If we have more indoor places that have their own sound and light (Hard Rock Café in Mumbai being an example), it’s much easier.”
“Complimentary tickets kill live music,” reads a banner on Oranjuice’s website. Laws permit concert organizers to give away 7% of tickets as complimentary—this is meant for distribution among sponsors. “Sometimes, organizers end up giving away 50% of tickets as complimentary,” says Joseph. Roncon says he tries to say no as much as possible. “When you need 27 different permissions, you can’t escape a lot of it,” he says. Does he have to pay bribes? “Yes. I won’t pretend we are exempt from the norms of the country we live in.”
He says Indians do not have a culture of paying for entertainment. “We are only slowly realizing that free entertainment is not necessarily the best entertainment.”
Prices of tickets for such concerts, however, vary a lot. The Roger Waters’ concert in Mumbai was priced at Rs3,000, while tickets to the Jackson show cost between Rs3,000, and Rs15,000. “Ticket prices depend entirely on the artist,” a spokesperson for DNA Networks said. BEP concert tickets cost Rs1,000 and Rs1,650, while those to Beyonce’s concert cost Rs1,650 and Rs2,750. Shows featuring Indian artists are priced much lower. While the highest price is usually Rs1,500, it is the Rs100-200 tickets that pull in the crowd.
Taxes are quite high, too. The big component is the 33% withholding tax on the compensation paid to the foreign artist. And, artist compensation can be the single-largest component of the cost of producing a show. “It varies—for an Akon, maybe it’s 50%, but for a Beyonce, it may go up to 80%,” says Roncon. Entertainment tax ranges from 15%-25%, depending on the city.
Counterfeit tickets were a big problem till recently, Roncon says. Barcoding has curbed this to a great extent. “Holograms, etc. did not help. Our counterfeit industry is excellent,” he says. The industry needs to work on making access to tickets easier. “The day you can print out a concert ticket from a website, our sales will shoot up,” says Roncon. Oranjuice and its ticketing partner Ticketpro are working on it.
Earlier, Oranjuice used to print its own tickets—at a cost of Rs12-15 per piece. With Ticketpro, it shares 10% of the value of the ticket. But, the ticketing solutions firm also takes care of the distribution. For the Jackson concert, Joseph distributed tickets through banks. “Nobody believed he would actually come,” he says.
How do they decide which artists to bring to the country? Vardhan says his firm does research based on album sales before zeroing in on an artist; Roncon says it’s more instinctive. “I have a core group of friends who sit around and discuss. My partner Brian Tellis has a lot of friends who are really into music. Sanju pitchesin quite a bit.” Sanju is Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt. Roncon is married to Dutt’s sister, and Congress MP, Priya Dutt.
So, what genre of music is currently the nation’s favourite? “It doesn’t matter,” says Luke Kenny, head of programming, Channel V. “We are so deprived of good live performances, and we get so few big acts, crowds lap up whoever comes.” He illustrates: “When Akon came in January to Mumbai for the Big V Concert, during the performance, which the crowd loved, he asked them, ‘Do you know what it is like to live in a ghetto?’ And the crowd shouted, ‘Yeaaaahhhhh’. We are talking about affluent South Mumbai types.”
Indian concerts are usually not big enough for big acts to tour the country alone. The shows here are usually part of a tour in the region. “First, you check which artists are available, then you zero in on a few based on their popularity here, check with sponsors if they are interested in pre-buys, and then you negotiate with artists,” Roncon explains. “We try to sell an artist to a sponsor whose brands go with the emotions the artist evokes,” he says.
Then, the artist’s management team is in constant touch. Riders specifying every little detail are sent to the organizers. “Every single (piece of) equipment to the coffee mug back stage has specifications. Akon, for instance, wanted all towels back stage to be black.”
It’s a small technique to make sure the organizers have read and adhered to the riders. “When they come, they don’t have the time to check everything. The black towels tell them things have been taken care of,” Roncon says.
The industry has to work out ways to give sponsors greater value from concerts, he says. “Else, this (lack of real, measurable value) can kill the industry,” he says. That is part of what makes bringing the biggest acts unviable. “Sponsors don’t want a name so big that it drowns out their name and message. We have to come up with new ways of giving them value, more than the conventional ways,” he adds. Sponsors typically bring in 60% of the revenues for a concert organizer. Only 40% comes from ticket sales.
It’s a heady job, organizing a concert. On the morning of the Akon show, Roncon is relaxed. It’s only when he is talking about permissions and taxes that he puffs vigorously on his cigarette. The next morning, he’s still calm, but he’ll never do a concert in New Delhi again. “One has to hear things like, ‘next time you are here, we’ll see,’ from the police.”
He’s in the business for the one hour an artist is performing, he says. His reward is in making someone’s day, to dance with a crowd that shares his taste in music. “But this harassment, it’s just not worth it,” he says.
• Black Eyed Peas, Bangalore, 2007
• Aerosmith, Bangalore, 2007
• Shakira, Mumbai, 2007
• Iron Maiden, Bangalore, 2007
• Roger Waters, Mumbai, 2007
V.G. JAIRAM & OWEN RONCON
• ABBA the show, Mumbai, 2006
• INXS Live in Concert, Mumbai and Bangalore, 2006
• Black & White VH1 Jazz Masters, Mumbai, 2007
• Johnnie Walker One Tree Music Festival, Mumbai, 2007
• I Can’t Stop Loving You: the Ray Charles Musical,Mumbai, 2007
• Akon Live in Delhi 2007
SABBAS JOSEPH, VIRAF SARKARI & ANDRE TIMMINS
• Michael Jackson – History Tour, Mumbai, 1996
• Diana King Live Concert, Pune, 2000
• Deep Purple Concert, Bangalore, 2006
• UB40 Concert, Mumbai, 1999
• Shaggy Concert, Mumbai, 2004
• Peter Andre Concert, Mumbai, New Delhi, 2002
• Air Supply Concert, Delhi, 2006
• Apache Indian Concert, Goa, 2007
(Priyanka Mehra contributed to this story.)