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Sunburn and the Indian EDM Explosion

With the success of the Hardwell concert in Mumbai and Bengaluru last month, the EDM season has truly taken off, with Sunburn leading the way

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Megha Mahindru Oct 22, 2013
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The crowd at Sunburn Goa in 2012.

Sunburn Goa, 2012

It will also come as a surprise to many that the man whose name is now a byword for the EDM industry in India did not attend a single international music for the first five years of Sunburn. He admits that his first festival trip was at the Snowbombing festival at Mayrhofen in Austria last year, which combines winter sports with EDM. He claims that this lack of international exposure helped him do many original things at Sunburn, without being influenced by what his global counterparts were doing. “Today, they [international EDM fests] are picking up our stages and strategies. The Butterfly stage (at Sunburn) was copied in Tomorrowland festival in Belgium; the Owl stage was copied in three other festivals like Coachella, “ he claims, “I didn’t attend any festival for five years because I didn’t want to prostitute my mind so I could purely think of how to create Sunburn. If I had seen it, I would have copied it.”

Singh, who started out as a trance-loving teen in Goa, says that his musical tastes lean more towards the likes of Bon Jovi, who he happened to accidentally catch at a Hyde Park show recently. As we speak, Shailendra has an assistant recording the interview on a video camera [“we want to document every aspect of this season of Sunburn,” he says]. He motions another assistant to pick out a picture of him with Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres from the photo gallery on the wall. The photo also features Singh gripping music promoter Ian Banner and tennis star Boris Becker on either side. “We are all friends,” he says.

Despite organizing a successful metal tour and his own musical preferences, the shrewd entrepreneur was prescient enough to realize EDM’s huge potential in India. “This Science of Sunburn came from the fact that we were able to forecast very early in the 2006, that by 2010, India will have the youngest population in the world. India’s not a sporting nation, where we build sports arenas or stadiums, so the youth can’t take up sports. There’re only malls and multiplexes, so dance music was a good avenue to take their energies out,” he says. Singh even has a theory about why EDM has gone on to become a popular form of live music in the country, far outstripping the likes of rock, pop and jazz. “When you have music with lyrics, you have to know your music. That’s why when Ricky Martin or Shakira perform here, most of the audience is just there to listen to that one track they know and are bored with the other songs whose lyrics they don’t. So if you bring in a band, you need over six months to build their music on the radio to popularize it before they arrive,” he says. “With dance music you don’t need to know the lyrics.” In a multi-lingual nation like India, EDM’s following can be explained by this logic. “One of the complexities of India is the language. Everyone understands different languages here and EDM has no language, just energy.”

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His other theory is that even among those who attend EDM concerts in India, most of them are there for the ”˜energy’ and ”˜experience’. “The ratio is that of 90:10. Ten per cent know the music and the other 90 are possibly in the energy zone or there for the experience,” he says. More than just the music, for Singh, Sunburn’s marketing proposition has always been about targeting the youth. So beyond the music spun by the world’s biggest DJs each year, the festival offers its die-hard fans newer ways to enjoy to the ”˜experience’ including a festival theme [such as Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland], flea markets, themed bars and adventure sports. Many of the regulars at the festival are from Shailendra’s wall of fame ”” celebrities who made their music festival debut with Sunburn: “I have people who come to Sunburn who don’t know what it is. Many powerful people, and I can’t name them, have called me to say ”˜Hey I’m coming and I’ve bought the VVIP tickets so I hope I have front row seats!’ When they come, they realize how idiotic they sounded.”

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The first big festival that tried to tap into Goa’s potential for music tourism was the Big Chill, the Indian edition of the pioneering international festival of alternative music and dance that was held amidst nationwide publicity on Ashwem beach in north Goa in April 2007. Despite its reasonable success, Big Chill did not come back to India. Eight months later, Sunburn made its presence felt, but on north Goa’s buzzy Candolim stretch as India’s first ”˜destination music festival’. The two-day festival attracted around 4,000 people in its debut edition. Percept claims they spent Rs 90 lakh on the festival that year, but recovered only Rs 45 lakh.

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The man whose name was more synonymous with Sunburn in those days was MTV VJ and pioneering electronic music promoter Nikhil Chinapa, who helped conceive and organize the festival. After being part of Sunburn for six years, Chinapa had a bitter parting with Percept and Singh recently. And the detritus of that unseemly separation has been floating around on the social media for months. Chinapa, who would not go on record when asked about it, finally posted a statement last month on Facebook saying, “Many of you have known for a while that all was not well between Sunburn and me, but I’d hoped things would be resolved. But it now appears from videos and other public statements that I’ve been pushed out of Sunburn – a festival that I conceptualised, gave its name to and helped create. I guess that’s life. Score one for big business.”

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