Armin van Buuren stood, eyes closed, arms outstretched at a music console, in front of 10,000 screaming fans at Mumbai’s Turf Club. Under the huge LED panels, psychedelic lasers and thundering speakers, he hoisted an Indian flag atop his shoulders and the crowd went wild. The skinny Dutch superstar had landed in India four hours earlier from a festival in Kuala Lumpur; four hours later, he would leave for Miami for another gig. His signature property, ‘A State of Trance’, showcases local and international support acts as it tours the world. But at that hour, on a balmy evening in March, the fans, in their 20s and 30s, had paid Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000 to see van Buuren perform. And he was there to make Mumbai dance.
Electronic Dance Music (EDM)—made up of genres like House, Trance, Dubstep and Drum & Bass—has become globally mainstream relatively recently and has taken India’s young, affluent urban populations by storm. In 2013, the Swedish House Mafia, Armin van Buuren and DJ Tiesto—arguably the three biggest names in the EDM scene—have all played their tracks at sell-out concerts in Indian cities. The top DJs all produce their own music. And if you think you haven’t heard or danced to their tunes, think again. “Go to any wedding these days and Avicii’s ‘Levels’ is always one that gets kids, aunties and everyone in between onto the dance floor,” says Nikhil Chinapa, whose company Submerge books and manages artistes when they come to India. A TV personality and a top DJ himself, Chinapa has seen electronic music in India grow from Bollywood remixes in the mid-2000s to today’s thriving nightclub scene that’s penetrating cities like Bhopal and Indore.
Electronic music has managed to do what other music genres could not: Tap into the potential of the Indian market and make money. Some 18,000 tickets were sold for the Swedish House Mafia concert in Mumbai in January at an average of Rs 4,000. Compare that to rapper Snoop Dogg’s concerts in Delhi and Pune where about 1,000 tickets sold, at an average of Rs 2,500. Sunburn, the three-day year-end music festival organised by Percept in Goa, is Asia’s largest. Sunburn Arena events with DJ Tiesto, Armin van Buuren and Swedish House Mafia sell 2,000 VIP tickets (at upwards of Rs 5,000 each); in contrast, when Guns N’ Roses came to India recently, 2,500 people showed up. Indeed, seven of India’s 10 biggest music concerts are EDM gigs: Tiesto pulled in more people than Carlos Santana.
Hermit Sethi, director-operations at Submerge, says that these arena events run up revenues of anywhere between Rs 3 crore and Rs 5 crore per city, or Rs 10 crore to Rs 15 crore for a tour. According to him, the live music market in India is valued at Rs 100 crore to Rs 150 crore a year, by expenditure.
For those who haven’t heard electronic music, the tracks are created on computers using sound samplers, synthesisers and mixing programs. A DJ’s skill is in putting together sounds in new patterns and layering them in ways audiences haven’t heard before—and doing it live, playing off the audience’s response to what he tries. As important as the music are the lights, speakers, pyrotechnics, C02 jets and the co-ordination between them. Revellers go to dance music events for the overall experience. Van Buuren, for instance, has such a fan following because he builds up such a frenzy as he tweaks the music and syncs it with the lasers, that young men and women forget everything and dance. It’s a very tribal, largely lyric-free kind of music whose sole purpose is to get crowds moving.
And move they do. Whether it’s at nightclubs or at concerts and festivals, EDM has made dancing socially cool for young people, especially men. They come to these events to express themselves physically and let off steam. Young urban men rarely have this opportunity outside of the sporting arena. Stand on the arena floor from 4 pm to 10 pm and you will get a fair workout too.
It’s no longer about hippies doing drugs; where Rock music is about rebelling against authority, the dance music culture is about reaching a euphoric state. At van Buuren’s concert, there’s a moment when the music reaches its crescendo and the lasers beam into action and the audience bounces as one—a moment where you’ll see some people stand still, with their arms in the air and their eyes closed. They’re experiencing the euphoria of dance music. It’s a drug in itself—the show is not called ‘A State of Trance’ for nothing.
EDM had been big in Europe since the emergence of Ibiza’s super-clubs in the 1990s. Festivals like Berlin’s Love Parade attracted more than a million people to open air street parties but it really came to the fore globally around 2007 when American singers like Rihanna, Pitbull and Flo Rida began collaborating with European artistes like David Guetta, Calvin Harris and Daft Punk to produce catchy electro-pop songs. The year 2011 saw electro-pop tracks ‘We Found Love’, ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and ‘Give Me Everything’ hit No. 1 on the US Billboard Singles charts for 15 out of 52 weeks. Billboard and iTunes both now have Dance Music charts, to go with Pop, Rock and Country. American EDM company SFX Entertainment was recently valued at $1 billion; globally, electronic music is very much mainstream.
The ‘scene’ has always been around in India—and MTV proved that—but we’re only seeing the potential being tapped into now. According to Chinapa, there are a few reasons why the dance music scene has done so well.
One, music producers and consumers now have a tool that previous generations did not have: The internet. Artistes have a platform where they can share their music and consumers have access to all of it on the go. Websites like Soundcloud and YouTube give producers, both amateur and professional, a chance to share their mixes (adaptations of existing songs) and sets (usually one- or two-hour-long collections of tracks, mixed together so they flow one after the other). It’s a platform other genres weren’t born into.
Two, through events like Sunburn, companies like Percept have been able to deliver international-quality live music events in India and package dance music as the ‘coolest genre around’.
Three, international DJs love India: Even though they receive as little as half their usual booking fee, they keep coming back (according to reports, DJ Tiesto’s average nightly gross fee is $250,000; his rate remains unchanged in India). This is because India is a hot, growing market where fans are incredibly expressive and responsive. “DJs feed off that energy from the crowd,” says Chinapa, “Making 10 people dance like mad is much better than playing for 10,000 who aren’t really into it.”
Lastly, India has incredibly good infrastructure, such as speakers, sound sampling, equipment, lighting equipment, and smoke machines for large dance music events. Local vendors and suppliers have been acquiring good equipment for a while and they’re now in a position to provide equipment that will stand the tests of outdoor events. Mark Ward, production manager of acclaimed artiste Fatboy Slim, recently gave India a 5-star rating when he returned to the UK after concerts in Delhi and Bangalore in May 2012. When Above & Beyond performed in Bangalore in November 2012, the event was broadcast live around the world—a first from India.
The day tickets for January’s Swedish House Mafia concert in Mumbai went on sale, they sold out the maximum allowed number of 8,000 tickets in just six hours; they had to increase the cap and sold 18,000 overall. Bear in mind that these tickets sold for Rs 4,000; over a thousand VIP passes went for Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 for a postponed gig, on a Tuesday evening!
For sheer numbers, EDM concerts rival an India cricket match at a smaller venue. But, much like the Indian cricket team, these events too are suffering from some degree of overkill. Fast-forward to March 2013, which saw van Buuren and DJ Tiesto play in India, and ticket sales were decidedly slower.
Chinapa says, “We may have overcooked the market because we’ve put too many big events too close together.” He’s seen something similar happen in Australia, where the scene was too ‘top-heavy’—there were too many big-name headline acts and not enough smaller club-nights for new fans on weekends.
The ideal model would be international acts at clubs every few weeks and a headline events every quarter with a few annual festivals—though, of course, organisers’ hands are tied by artistes’ availability. “As an industry, we have to figure out what’s best environment for the fans,” Chinapa says. “We are entering a phase where dance is omnipresent in our culture, in TV commercial or Bollywood remixes. India is a young, fragile market and we need to be responsible about feeding the baby.”
In the midst of all the money changing hands, many also feel that the ‘scene’ isn’t about the music any more. Canada’s Deadmau5, arguably the biggest DJ yet to tour India, recently said EDM wasn’t an acronym for ‘Electronic Dance Music’ but ‘Event Driven Marketing’.
Amit Gurbaxani, editor of Mumbaiboss.com and a music lover, says, “There’s definitely scope for more niche, non-commercial sub-genres in the Indian indie scene,” complementing the sentiment one gets at more alternative festivals like NH7 Weekender where the atmosphere is more laid back, more intimate. There is more to dance music than million dollar headline acts and that seems to be getting lost.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing dance music in India is the now almost totally damaged relationship between Submerge and Percept—the two prominent names promoting EDM events. In September 2013, Submerge’s Chinapa and Percept’s Shailendra Singh parted ways, leaving many to question what direction the movement in India was going to take. It’s no secret that Submerge sees itself as the more artistically inclined while Percept is more commercial, trying to bring fans a product that’s bigger and better. Chinapa teamed up with Viacom 18* to host a rival dance music festival, called Supersonic, in Goa at the same time as Sunburn. (Sunburn now organises arena events in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore as well as Goa.)
But dance music isn’t going anywhere soon. Though he isn’t an EDM fan himself, Gurbaxani says that EDM is not a fad, it’s the dominant sound of the current generation. “The number of big international DJs visiting India every year, the crowds that Indian EDM acts draw at festivals here, and how the sound has even found its way into Bollywood, EDM is certainly somewhere within Bollywood and the independent music scene in terms of nationwide popularity,” he says. A small announcement on Mumbaiboss about Swedish House Mafia performing in Mumbai in 2012 was one of their most read stories of the year. * Viacom18 is a group company of Network18, which also publishes Forbes India
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(This story appears in the 24 January, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)