India: State of Hindipendents
If there were an award for the greatest potential touring market, India would be on that stage, brandishing the trophy, year in, year out. With a population nudging 1.4 billion and projected to surpass that of China by 2022, India is about as vast as countries get. Nonetheless, when a big band comes to town, the comparative rarity of the event still makes global headlines.
U2’s show in December at Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium, the very last stop on the fifth leg of The Joshua Tree Tour, wasn’t the first superstar show to come to India – far from it: The Stones played Mumbai and Bangalore in 2003, while Beyoncé and Shakira came in 2007, Metallica in 2011, Coldplay in 2016, and Ed Sheeran in 2015 and 2017, with other significant visitors in between.
But each major concert fires up the expectation that India’s biggest cities could soon become routine destinations for the world’s biggest artists. And U2’s show before a crowd of 42,590, staged by local ticketing giant BookMyShow in partnership with Live Nation, got the country dreaming once more.
“There were a lot of reservations from everybody coming into India,” says BookMyShow CEO and founder Ashish Hemrajani, who freely concedes that India has failed to meet international expectations for live shows in the past. “It was the first outing for U2 here; it was the first show of this scale and magnitude; it was the last show of the tour. There was a lot riding on it and everyone was on tenterhooks.”
BookMyShow has been scaling up its promoting exploits in recent years, bringing Cirque du Soleil, NBA pre-season games, an adapted Hindi Aladdin and the Coldplay-headlined Mumbai edition of the Global Citizen festival, but Hemrajani says U2 represented a new level and a new set of pressures.
“There were a lot of reservations from everybody coming into India”
“We have got a great team in India, but nothing prepares you for dealing with Arthur Fogel, with Jake Berry and the whole team,” he says. “But if you talk to the folks that we dealt with, they were very pleasantly surprised by the level of professionalism they found.”
More than anyone else in the Indian business, Hemrajani has both a vision and a platform to bring about a revolution in the nation’s live entertainment offering. BookMyShow sells between 35% and 50% of all cinema tickets in a cinema-mad nation (“we are a hot, dusty country, which is an assault on all your senses, and cinema is the cheapest, most comfortable form of indoor entertainment,” he explains), and played a part in the massive success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) of cricket. If Hemrajani judges that India is ripe for some concert-going, the chances are he knows what he is talking about.
The same feeling has recently been in the air across the country. The preceding month, also at DY Patil Stadium, Katy Perry and Dua Lipa inaugurated the OnePlus Music Festival, along with local acts Amit Trivedi, Ritviz, as we keep searching and The Local Train. Both of the top-billers were new to the market, and again, the show was an unconventional labour of love, this time organised by the local operation of Chinese smartphone brand OnePlus, which rivals Samsung and Apple in India.
As OnePlus India general manager Vikas Agarwal told India’s The Telegraph newspaper: “[We were] not looking to organise everything by ourselves, but the country [was] not yet ready to organise such a large-scale event. [So] starting from the artist selection to the whole conceptualisation of the event, logistics – everything was done for the first time by the brand. I hope more such events will be organised in India.”
And then, of course, came Covid-19, to which we will inevitably return in a minute.
“The folks that we dealt with were very pleasantly surprised by the level of professionalism they found”
Still a mostly rural nation of numerous languages and cultures, heavily regionalised laws and huge inequality, India has always had more pressing priorities than slotting conveniently into a Western live music model. All the same, its entertainment market is highly evolved. The homegrown cinema industry enjoys a sophisticated, mostly mobile ticketing infrastructure, spearheaded by BookMyShow, with strong competition lately from Alibaba-backed Paytm. Both have diverse businesses and are busy across many sectors, including cricket, theatre, food and mobile payments.
Online ticketing was reckoned to be worth $330 million in 2017, according to Indian management consultant RedSeer, whose prediction of $580m in revenues this year has sadly been scuppered by recent events. In the past, the lion’s share of online ticket sales (55%), was for movies, with sport on 25% and events taking the remaining 20%, though both the latter categories are growing.
EDM, in particular, has found a booming home in India, where there is a large network of clubs and established festivals, from OML’s multi-city Bacardi NH7 Weekender to the monster Sunburn in Pune.
“The electronic music scene in the country has developed into its own industry and it’s spread to wider parts of the country,” says Dev Bhatia of dance music management and booking agency UnMute. “Having said that, I still feel we’re barely scratching the surface. Considering India will [soon] have five to six hundred million people under the age of 35 with cell phones and accessibility, the potential is endless.”
That potential is currently on pause. At the time of writing, India was attempting to relax its notably strict lockdown conditions even as it faced a record spike in Covid-19 infections. In a country where many millions of informal workers live on a daily wage, the economy can’t stand idle for long.
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McGuinness: Zoo TV tour changed the biz forever
Former U2 manager Paul McGuinness has spoken of the significant role he and the band played in the emergence of major multinational promoters such as Live Nation and AEG Live/Presents.
Interviewed by Ed Bicknell for the ILMC 29 Breakfast Meeting, McGuinness related how U2’s 1992–93 Zoo TV world tour indirectly laid the foundations for the rise of Live Nation et al. Describing the tour production as “extraordinary – but bank-breaking”, he said U2 were then “still operating like a punk band, with low ticket prices. If one of the promoters on that tour hadn’t paid, we’d have been ruined.”
“At the end of that tour – which made no money – I said we’d never do it again,” he continued. “I had to tell [then-agents] Ian Flooks and Frank Barsalona that I wasn’t going to use them anymore. That was quite an event…
“I decided the next tour was going to be underwritten by a single promoter. We worked with Arthur Fogel and Michael Cohl – that deal became SFX, then Clear Channel and now Live Nation.”
The interview, as is tradition, took place on the final morning of ILMC, following the previous evening’s Gala Dinner and Arthur Awards (see the winners here).
Bicknell began by asking how much of a role luck has played in McGuinness’s long career. McGuinness highlighted luck as one of the four key qualities needed in a manager – along with talent, stamina and ambition – and related an anecdote about Napoleon’s choice of marshals: “He said, most of all, they have to be lucky. Luck has an enormous amount to do with success in popular music.”
“U2 always understood they had two parallel careers: one in live and one in recording”
Reflecting on his pre-U2 management career, McGuinness said his first gig was for a Celtic rock band (a “poor man’s Horslips”) called Spud. “I managed to get them a record deal, and we did a little bit of touring, mostly in Germany and Sweden,” he explained. Spud, however, had “wives and responsibilities” and were loath to buy anything for the band – even guitar strings – feeling they were committed elsewhere. McGuinness said he thought they were “too old to make it” and resolved that “the next band I manage is going to be younger than that.”
Introduced to U2 by late rock critic Bill Graham, McGuinness said band and manager’s famous five-way royalty split was established from the outset. “I used to read about Brian Epstein, Andrew [Loog] Oldham… in the groups I was interested in there was an officer class and then the soldiers,” he explained. “In the Rolling Stones you had Mick and Keith and then everyone else; in The Beatles it was John and Paul, and then George and Ringo. That’s what broke up those groups.
“So, I said to U2: ‘There isn’t going to be any money for a while, so what there is you should split equally. And since there’s four of you and one of me, why don’t we split everything five ways?’”
On U2’s early touring career, McGuinness outlined how important the band’s live act was to establishing their reputation at a time when their records weren’t selling. “U2 always understood they had two parallel careers: one in live and one in recording,” he said. “We weren’t successful [with the latter] in the beginning – the first two records didn’t perform well, and there was the constant threat of being dropped.
“Only with the third album [War] did we have success on record. By then we were known across America, Europe… we had a very military style: we targeted each country one by one and tried to build ourselves in each at the same speed.”
“In the early ’80s,” he continued, “we’d do three months in the US in one go every year. That meant playing in as many cities as possible – and major cities twice each, so you’d hopefully see progress from a club to an auditorium [when you returned].
“Everyone liked the idea of touring an in-the-round stadium production, but it took a lot of money and imagination to turn it into a reality. I don’t think anyone will ever do it again”
“The first show we played in LA was the [600-cap.] Country Club, and because we had support from K-Rock and the LA Times, it was sold out. When we returned three months later, we were able to sell out the 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic [Center].”
McGuinness said a consequence of that early focus on live is that a lot of the promoters of their first shows “grew up with us.” Adding “Very often they’re now Live Nation territory bosses, so the sensation is often of still doing business with the same people.”
McGuinness stepped down as U2’s manager in 2013, two years after the conclusion of the innovative 360° tour, which saw the band play ‘in the round’ with the audience in a circular configuration around the stage – still the highest-grossing concert tour of all time.
Despite the tour netting him and his band more than US$736 million, McGuinness said his favourite U2 show is still their first performance at Madison Square Garden, in 1985. (The same is true for Dire Straits, agreed ex-manager Bicknell.) “Even though you get paid less, as the union has cottoned on to how sentimental bands are over the venue – I think there are union stagehands from New Jersey who haven’t left their houses in 20 years that are still getting paid – the vibe is just extraordinary,” he commented.
With discussion – inevitably – turning briefly to secondary ticketing, McGuinness said the price scaling for the 360° tour was “pretty good. We had $25 tickets further from the stage, with prices going all the way up to $120, $150, all sold out.”
“Everyone liked the idea of touring an in-the-round stadium production,” he concluded, “but it took a lot of money and imagination to turn it into a reality. I don’t think anyone will ever do it again.”
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