Friday, June 19, 2015

Grammy winning Indian artist Ricky Kej shares his views on the indie scene

One of my life goals is to win a Grammy for my country (someday!) , so you can imagine my excitement when I read about India's big win at the 57th Grammy awards by an indie artist ."Winds of Samsara" by Bangalore based indie composer Ricky Kej and South African flautist Wouter Kellerman won the Grammy award for the 'Best New Age Album '. For someone who's not an Indian classical musician and is not working in Bollywood to have achieved this feat is HUGE! I had to talk to this guy ! I managed to get a phone interview with Ricky to get his insights and advice to other indie musicians on the scene. We talked about the indie scene, copyrighting music, how Bollywood is dominating the Indian scene, distributing music and more.Read on...

Ricky Kej and Wouter Kellerman -Grammy winners for Best New Age Album "Winds of Samsara" 

Me: Congratulations on your win Ricky! It's a proud moment for India.What were some memorable moments at the Grammies?Any behind the scenes stuff you'd like to share?
Ricky: Thank you. It was very memorable and exciting as you can imagine. The first person who congratulated me backstage was Hans Zimmer.There were a lot of famous people Katy Perry, Sam Smith, Beyonce & Jay-Z that I saw in the audience. You can check out the Grammy acceptance speech on YouTube(below).

                         Ricky Kej and Wouter Kellerman - Grammy acceptance speech and reaction

Me: That's Fantastic! So tell us a little about how you started your music career and some highlights along the way..
Ricky: I would be a part of bands in college . After college I started making jingles for commercials and for the radio. I realised when I started creating my own music that to keep it undiluted (from Bollywood influences) I needed to look for audiences outside India. My music is predominantly Indian and I work with musicians here but my audiences are outside India.I travelled extensively to foreign countries to find my audiences. I would attend music conferences, music concerts, meet other musicians, record labels, distributors.I would find artists that have a similar sound to mine and see how to reach out to their audiences. The last 7-8 years I have found lot of success doing that.

Me:  So how did you meet your collaborator Wouter ?Was it on one of your travels?
Dream Team- Ricky and Wouter
Ricky: I had seen Wouter performing at the FIFA closing ceremony in Africa where he played with Shakira. I was a big fan of his work. He had also heard my album "Mesmerising Flute" before and liked my work. We met in L.A. and discussed working together. I had written a song about Gandhi and he had written about Mandela. We worked on each others songs , he adding flute parts to my song 'The Mahatma' and I added Indian parts to his music and we created "Winds of Samsara" together.

Me: So Winds of Samsara was an independent album.How did you release worldwide? Was there any indie label involved?
Ricky: The album was an Indian release but it was distributed all over the world. We had separate distributors in America ,Europe , India & Australia . Although it's an indie release , we tied up with a lot of partners and distributors from  across the world. We were on Billboard for the top 12 weeks and one of the highest selling New Age Albums in America .We were also the highest played album on radio in America ( #1 on world radio charts for a month)

Me:  Thats quite an achievement. So how do you get your songs to play on radios abroad? Do you have to actively promote it or does it get picked up by the radios?
Ricky: We contacted radio stations with our CD's directly and they liked the music and played it. It's all about people listening to it on the radio, liking it and purchasing it. At the end of the day, without having a good album and music nothing can come out of only marketing.We put our hearts and souls into our music, spent two years making it , travelled all over the world & collaborated with more than 120 musicians on the album. It was a very uncompromised approach to making music as an art.We made sure that it was exactly the vision we had in mind. Since it was an independent album you're not answerable to anybody but yourself.

Me: You mentioned earlier that the album was made was according to your vision. What was that vision ?
Ricky: I wanted to make music from the heart. 99% of the music that sells in India is music for Bollywood. It's almost like an assembly line way of producing music where the music director describes what he wants ,the lyrics writer comes in and then the programmer, playback singer etc add their parts. It's not any one persons vision. If it's not music that comes from the heart it can be very popular music but it is also music that is forgotten easily.  Ultimately even though Bollywood music is highly downloaded , the music caters to only the Indian diaspora abroad and is unable to cater to the Western audience.There are very few Indians who break that cultural barrier. Pt. Ravi Shankar  for example decided he doesn't want to live in India anymore and Anoushka Shankar who reached out to audiences who are non-Indian in origin. She doesn't live here too because anything non-Bollywood doesn't work in India..for many reasons..the major reason being radio and television will not play her music even though she has an audience here.

Me: Don't you think however that the Indie scene is changing in our country, with channels such as MTV Indies and VH1 airing indie songs and platforms such as OKlisten and ArtistsAloud distributing independent music?
Ricky: I disagree. The scene is getting worse. In the early 2000's a lot of Indie musicians were coming out like Adnan Sami, Shaan and Agnee and their videos would play on TV. Now you hardly see anybody and if you do people ask "Who is this person"?
Right now the industry here has reached a stage where if you're a composer the first question that somebody asks you is "Which films have you composed for ?" and if you're a singer then it's "Which films have you sung playback for?" Everything is associated with the film industry.We have music awards and 90% of them are film awards. People want to see Bollywood celebrities in the audience else T.V. channels don't pick up shows for airtime. Awards ceremonies in the USA(Grammy) Canada(JUNO),South Africa (SAWA) and others are based entirely on the music.There are only a sprinkling of movie stars in the audience. A country like America ..their whole history is chronicled through music .When Adele and Sam Smith broke up with their boyfriends they wrote albums about it..these are real things that people connect with.
I definitely didn't want to go the Bollywood route because if I make one song thats a hit I don't want people to associate that with who I am as a personality.

Me: You haven't composed for Bollywood but you have composed for a few Kannada films and released music with Universal. Did you have to compromise on your style of making music for any of these ventures?
Ricky : I released some albums with EMI . The head of EMI at the time Suresh, already liked my music a lot so he asked me to compose pieces that were based on the music I was already making . I made about 21-30 songs for them and they didn't request for any changes when I gave them the masters. They would only change the titles of some of the songs and the song order according to how they wanted to market it.That was ok with me as they are the experts in marketing and my music was untouched.All three Kannada films I did were with a very visionary director who I enjoyed working with and who let me retain my musical style.

Me: There's a big debate amongst independent musicians on whether to stay indie (given the resources we have at our disposal today) or associate with a label. What's been your experience with both?
Ricky: It's very important to remain an independent musician nowadays. You have to own the rights to your own music. In the case of EMI, they gave me a production fee to create the album and a percentage of the sales. The EMI head had a vision to look outside Bollywood. I also did work for Universal in USA and so was not a newcomer. EMI contacted me because I was already established in the instrumental music industry

Me: Most of the music channels like Vh1 are playing pop and other mainstream stuff..Where do other genres like New Age ,Metal,Jazz etc get heard by consumers?
Ricky: Consumers that are into other genres of music know exactly where to look for that kind of music. Be it Metal, Jazz, World music there are specific radio stations, cable networks and channels that will play these genres of music in America and the consumers will know where to find it. These are niche genres and consumers know that they won't find it on network television. In India we don't have these channels yet. The only option here is Itunes.

Me: Where can Indians discover music from niche genres such as yours to listen to? Online radios? Itunes channels?
Ricky: Social media is the best bet. In America, it's on radio. In India there are no dedicated radio stations that play anything other than film industry music, so discovery is almost impossible here.

Me: In India, many indie musicians are now looking at making music a full time career.What are some ways to make it a sustainable career choice?
Ricky:  If you're an indie musician it's important to have perseverance and patience. I think it's very important NOT to have a day job .If you do you're not being faithful to either of your professions . You'll never have enough time to do your music, you never have enough time to network.You need time to rehearse, meet other musicians and collaborate. Having a day job is a major handicap and your music career will never be successful.

Me: I think the main problem people have leaving their day jobs for music is assurance of a basic salary to meet living expenses..where will the money come from?
Ricky: There are sacrifices you have to make. It depends on how badly you want to make it in your career. There will be times when you will have no money at all. If you've not started a family yet, sometimes even that needs to be sacrificed.You have to see what is more important to you and what you are more driven about. Drive and discipline are extremely important for a musician. An engineer studies for 4 years and then gets a job ; a musician expects to start making money the next day! Thats not going to happen.You need to have a music education, start off with low paying gigs, move up the ladder,then as you get famous you make more money.
At the end of the day a lot of people use creativity as an excuse for laziness.You have to be far more disciplined than you would ever be in a day job.
I've been doing this for 16 years. I studied dentistry but decided to do music. Imagine if I had left after 4 years saying nothing is happening... I would have never won a Grammy.

Me: A musicians life is full of highs and lows. What motivated you through life's lows?
Ricky: I would write music about it. I would use even those moments to keep making music.

Me: Some independent artists were approached by a music company in Mumbai to sell them their songs. What do you think about an artist selling their songs to other people (Bollywood/other composers)?
Ricky: You can make songs for other people but the intellectual property rights for those will always be yours. It's illegal for someone to pay you X amount of money for your songs and own the intellectual property rights.There is a law passed in India against that. You can sue the company if it specifies in the contract that they will own the IPR of the song.

Me: That's a very informative tip for a lot of indie musicians. How did you copyright your music to protect it?
Ricky: You  don't need to copyright your music , you need to register your songs with IPRS in India   ( I registered my songs with an organization called BMI ( in the US (for US citizens only). It's completely free of cost.Whenever people put it on Radio,TV, or use the song online BMI collects the money on the artists behalf. When I signed up with them , the very next day they were collecting money from the last 10 years for my music

Me:  What are some ways more Indian musicians can get their music heard globally?
Ricky: You have to travel to meet people, collaborators and other musicians in different countries.You also have to use social media. I may be completely wrong but it's next to impossible to make a living as an independent musician in India.You can live here and make your music here but you should get revenues from outside India. India is still not the best environment for an independent musician because sales are really dismal in India due to it's focus on Bollywood.Piracy is also very high here.If I'm speaking to someone about my album in a foreign country, they would preview it on Itunes and then buy it. Here people ask me "Could you share the Mp3's with me on my pendrive?" No one looks at music here as a commodity they have to pay for.  Bollywood doesn't care about piracy because music for them is a means of marketing their movie; their profits come from ticket sales and not as much from music sales.As a result there is a culture around free content being available online for download . Ultimately this affects the income of independent artists as well.

Me: Should people even make physical albums anymore or just sell their music digitally?Are albums on their way out?
Ricky: Physical albums will always be important. It's a very easy way to purchase music if people are in a store or to give your music to a promoter.It's also something you can touch, feel and gift wrap as a present to someone. Digital is the future. As houses will become smaller, having a CD collection will be a hassle.

Me: Where do you think the music scene in India is headed?
Ricky:  It's headed more towards the film industry. There will always be bursts of independent movements in India but the movie industry is here to stay.

Me: Whats your advice to independent musicians from India that would like to follow their passion ?
Ricky: Look outwards. They will have to make it big in other countries. India is not the place to be for independent music. If you want to be an independent musician here you will have to be a part of the movie industry. You have to be extremely perseverant, find mentors in the industry and truly believe in your music to succeed as an independent artist.

Me:What are your future plans?
Ricky: I've received validation for my kind of music and I am going to continue to make it to whoever wants to listen to India or abroad. If India wants to listen to it I would be thrilled because everybody wants recognition in their own country. I have a fan following in China, Austrailia and the USA so I'm happy to keep catering to them too.

Me: Thank you Ricky for your insights and for inspiring a lot of indie musicians to dream big.
Ricky: Thank you!

I hope this interview helped you with some insights into the music industry and the Indian music scene. If you have any questions do type them in the comments section below. We would be happy to answer them! Do share the article with any musician friends you know. Knowledge is power.

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