‘Bringing This U2 Concert to India Has Not Been Easy’: Ashish Hemrajani of BookMyShow
The promoter reveals how it took a village to make the finale show of the Joshua Tree Tour possible in India
Ashish Hemrajani has all the reasons in the world to be exuding the enormous amount of passion and thrill he is when we meet for a chat. The BookMyShow honcho is bringing U2 down to India for the first time, in partnership with Live Nation, and it is a quite the feat, he says. The iconic Irish band’s maiden Mumbai date will also mark the finale stopover for the Joshua Tree Tour, which has been running gloriously since the album came out in 1987. “It’s momentous for us as a nation,” says Hemrajani, the CEO and founder at BigTree Entertainment, which operates BookMyShow. Hosting one of the greatest bands of all time for their very first show in India might be a huge milestone but it hasn’t been a cakewalk. Hemrajani points out that it look collective cross-continent efforts. “I always say it takes a village to bring up a child.”
Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
The U2 show is a biggie and we know it must have been a colossal exercise to make it happen. How did it all come together at the start?
While we are the folks carrying the message, I don’t think all the credit goes to us. There’s a ton of people involved in making this happen. As you know, in India it’s not easy. It’s the first time, it’s fraught with a lot of challenges and you have to overcome all those challenges. The time has come… and it begins with the fact that the band wants to play.
It is a global event with global infrastructure, global production qualities. The pricing, the cost, the timing all of this had to add up for it to be where Joshua Tree stands after 32 years. That it ends with a Bombay show was the cherry on the top and that’s what everybody wanted — for it to be the most memorable, the most momentous occasion. Because this is the messaging that will get carried to the rest of the world…. The concert will give 50,000 fans the opportunity to come to gig like that and I think they [the band] are privileged and honored because it’s a heart and head thing. You do a lot of work in life but this is music we have grown up on, music that we love. We had the opportunity to work with the best in the business, to be able to pull something off. I think it means a lot on various levels, professionally and personally. I think that’s where the privilege and the honor come from. It’s momentous for us as a nation.
When I met Bono and The Edge in New York recently, they told me how they had been meaning to do an India show for year, but it just wasn’t possible due a bunch of things. As a promoter, what are the urgent things you think India needs fixing so that we are on the touring map?
I just feel there’s a lot of storytelling yet to be done. Because I think a lot of people have had miserable experiences in production. And you know that being a musician miserable experiences in production on under-declaring tickets, not sharing data on comps, taxation, infrastructure not being right by the end consumer, not doing enough work of safety and security, food and beverage, thinking about parking lanes, about timing, weather-wise. There are so many ways in which things can go wrong and with India a lot of things have gone wrong unfortunately in the past. I think that’s why the market hasn’t scaled enough. You know, one story goes back and nobody wants to come. A lot of people didn’t know about the scale the size of the market, potential partners, relevant partners, vendors, and I think it’s about establishing those norms which are global norms. It’s also about wrong expectations from promoters on what they want out of talent in terms of PR or stories or to further their own cause of their own brand by riding on the talent and the concert, which is not, this is all about. When it’s a show you are fully focused on delivering that and making that successful and I think this is not understood by a lot of promoters and event organizers and so if the market has to grow someone has to do it.
It’s a tricky proposition then – how did BookMyShow take the plunge?
So all these years, BookMyShow was upfronting resources in terms of capital, strategy and a lot of that. In some cases it was hit-and-miss and in some cases, it worked. So two years ago, we took the decision to work with promoters, partners and event organizers to see if we can help them succeed and they can help us grow the market, so that sort of symbiosis started. It’s working with a lot of them, and we are constantly working with people who own IPs and have their events, and to see how we can make their event successful and grow the market and in some of the cases it’s become [about] ego. Where folks have started confronting us saying, ‘Look, you’re into our space so we’ll show you. But that was not our intention.’
And I’m sure it’s required a whole different sort of capability building as well as messaging for your company too?
Our intent is to say we are not a company that does B2B, brand launches, car launches. We are not B2B. We keep the customer, audience, the fan at the center of our universe. Everything we do is for the fan; we do it for the fan experience or for what fans want.
Also, there’s no job that’s small or big, no area, which is big or small as long as it’s in the framework of what we have designed for ourselves. People say you’re an online company; you’re not an infrastructure company, you’re a live events or ticketing company. I hate these boxing us in those. We are a consumer company we will do right what our customers wants. Does anybody ask Tata that question? What sort of company you are? You have a defined business and then you take decisions based on that. Bookmyshow has a long standing tradition of relationships.
The expansion and diversification of your business must have witnessed friction in the cut-throat entertainment industry. Tell me more about that.
We are standing in the middle as a guarantor. And I think a lot of people didn’t understand that. The folks that understood it partnered with us. Guys that don’t, they find a confrontation.
I think it’s a delicate balance — if you want to create a market, you will find friction. It’s about infrastructures that come with venues, sound, staging… It comes with trucks, festival grounds, payment mechanisms. All of these forms into creating a foundation or the necessary pave the road for effective touring market. Then we have a harsh climate. There are countries where they have snow, but they have indoor arenas, they have a city that gets involved in transportation. The mayor, the sheriff, the fire department, the police, all come together because they recognize it aids to tourism. And taxation is not that tough, unlike India where GST forms a very large part in live events. It’s 28%. While rest of the world it’s non-existent or miniscule or that country gives you waivers. It’s doesn’t happen in India. I think we’re getting there where some of these pieces are getting solved. So all of these will define what will happen in the future. It’s not going to happen overnight.
As an entrepreneur who is invested in scaling up from the ticketing foundation, what have been the core learnings for you so far?
Right now, we’re at the forefront of regional theatrical cinema. A lot of us have not even heard of it. We have done a Marathi play which has got more than a 1000 admits. Nobody’s even heard of it but successfully running through one year. For us, it’s about taking these controlled experiments and having the ability to take those controlled risks, and run up the hill roll down, learn from those mistakes but keep running up the hill again and again. And as a part of that, we believe the ticketing was where we started off which was necessary to build the foundation. The next is to build the right metrics as to what we are doing and why. And not get consumed by the starry-ness of live events. It’s a business at the end of the day and it’s about the fans being able to come through the gates safely to buy tickets, have a good experience, eat good food, have a drink, buy merchandise, get out of the gate, being able to call someone if there’s a challenge. Be able to provide a world-class experience in terms of the music or show. And to be able to do it constantly and to deliver consistency. Then there’s infrastructure and other elements that go into this. All of this put together we’ll go where our fans and customers require us to go.