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The Rolling Stone Interview: Raghu Dixit

“Last year we spent about Rs 39 lakhs and earned back about Rs 11 lakhs…”

Bobin James May 03, 2011
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Shiv Ahuja

Raghu Dixit’s journey as a musician has run in tandem with the recent surge in interest in original music in the country. But even for someone as popular as he is, it has been tough going. His experience provides a peek into what it is to be a fulltime musician in the country. And his efforts to break into the UK market, though partially successful, also came at a considerable cost. As he readies for yet another Blighty tour including the Glastonbury festival, he sat down for an interview with Rolling Stone.

2009 and 2010 have been pretty significant for you. Run us through the milestones.

I would say though the symptoms have shown in 2009 and 2010, the actual seeding happened in 2007 through the album [self-titled debut] release by Vishal & Shekhar [Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani’s label], and them pushing it with all their might. My signing with them was not like a business relationship at all. We didn’t say these many albums would be sold and this is what I’m going to get in return, nor did they promise the world to me. They just came and told me, “Look, we will help put your album out.” And that’s all the faith that I needed from a record label. I knew they didn’t have a distribution network. So while we expected a bigger label to distribute it, it never went out into the stores for the first three months. And that’s when, with Vishal’s permission, we started selling it at our own gigs. And with things we were doing at that micro level, it took about two years before people found out about the existence of Raghu Dixit. And once they found out, it became viral – it was mainly friends telling other friends”¦

You also gave away a free CD”¦

Yes, that was [then manager] Vijay Nair’s idea of trying to recreate piracy in a legal way [laughs]. So we just gave away a free CD of two songs ”“ ”˜Mysore Se Ayi’ and ”˜Ambar’. That went out to a lot more people. People who liked those two songs eventually went out and bought the album. The best part was that we sold it only at our gigs and that really helped. We sold about 20,000 CDs in two years. That’s massive”¦ but it’s also shameful, considering the Indian population.

But going by the standard numbers”¦ 3000-4000 is usually a good number.

Yes, but that’s a shameful ambition for major record labels despite having their marketing spread and media support and all that. We as a band could do this, with support from evangelists like Vishal and Shekhar, and people who helped us. We count that as major reason for our success. Music was perhaps just 30 per cent of the story. We needed people to push the right buttons, introduce us to the right people, and put us on the right platforms. I know how many shows we did for free just to reach out and stuff like that.

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Are you still a believer in the format of a physical album?

I completely believe in it. Eventually you might give it away online for download or on iTunes or whatever. About 60 per cent of people who listen to music are actual lovers of music. And once they like the music, they want to own the artist. The easiest way to do that is by buying the CD. It’s a memorabilia. It’s something they will carry and say, “I bought this CD at his concert.” And that is the value we are cashing on. And it’s not just about the CD. It’s me personally standing there and giving my CD into their hands, giving them a hug or taking a picture with them or signing an autograph, exchanging those words of appreciation and thanks. The CD is just a medium to kickstart that fan and artist relationship. I think the next time I release a CD, I know on the first day I will sell a minimum of 1500 to 2000 CDs. Because these are the guys who have been waiting for three years now for the next album. So that’s the relationship building that has happened over the last few years. And that is the biggest milestone for me. The rest were all symptoms of that.

How did you break into the UK circuit?

Vijay Nair introduced us to Paul Knowles [of Jenral Group, a UK talent management company known for their work with breaking acts].We went to the UK in 2009 to perform at a festival called Lovebox, which went off extremely well. And somebody saw us there on stage and got us a slot at the WOMAD festival in Charlton Park. We also did at a showcase at a Gibson showroom where among the crowd was Robert Horsfall [of Sound Advice, one of the leading UK music industry lawyers].

After I came back to India, I wrote to Paul saying, “We just came all the way to play at Lovebox, played for 30 minutes and got WOMAD and we played one more club gig and the Gibson showcase. I think we did pretty well to make people stand up and dance. I think I can do really well in those markets and I want to look out for management. Can you help me out?” So Paul said, “Would you want me to handle this for you?” And I said, “Definitely.” He seemed like a good man. I didn’t know his experience, his work, his modus operandi, his plan. It was more about meeting a person and getting those good vibes. With me, it’s always been like that, with musicians, with people. It’s always the first instinct that gives me the positive vibes.

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By that time Robert had written to Paul saying he liked what he saw and that he would love to work with me. And that’s when Paul proposed to Robert that they co-manage me. That was the beginning of the whole thing. And the results started showing almost immediately. What we wanted was that I keep coming back to the UK.

So till date, how many gigs have you had in the UK?

Almost 43 I think. We played 36 gigs in the summer and then did a shorter tour later. We went on from strength to strength. We divided the entire summer tour into three stages. The first stage was the showcase stage, which was about shorter tours. And I would recommend that to every band which wants to do it. Don’t go expecting a huge crowd waiting for you. Instead spend money on a short tour where you rent a venue or get somebody to get a venue and invite industry people. And no event will have all the industry people coming to watch you. So you need to have 8 to ten venues at different areas of London. We played about 11 shows like that in 22 days. [We were] playing small acoustic sets to full band shows, and each time inviting a different set of people.

And in terms of the kind of people in the audience”¦ were they primarily Indians?

Not at all. When I set out, this whole ambition of performing abroad, it was not meant to just go and perform to the Indian diaspora. If that were the case, I would rather establish myself as a Bollywood singer first and then go there.

So the idea was first to focus on getting the industry to talk about us. And once the industry starts talking about you, then they are pushing buttons automatically.

And it is important for any artist that you have to be able to perform what you have on your CD. Unless you can charm your audiences through your live performances, chances of you becoming popular and making a living out of it are very slim. Because eventually what I’m looking at is that I and my bandmates will be able to make a living out of performing abroad. I don’t want to go abroad and come back with bragging rights that I performed at such and such festival. I want to come back and say that I made money too. And that’s the goal I have with me for three or four summers.

So the second stage was when we got bookings at festivals. We did about 30 shows in 45 days. And then at the end of that Wrasse Records was interested. So we went back again for the third phase where we did a shorter tour of about six shows promoting the album.

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