Thursday, February 19, 2015

Meera Music: The Importance of being Ajay Ginde

At a time when the music industry majors have virtually abandoned Hindustani music, Meera Music is fast acquiring stature as a specialist producer.  Its Director, Ajay Ginde spoke to Deepak Raja and Dr. Shreyas Masrani on February 15, 2015. Excerpts from the interview:

Ajay Ginde   
What is the origin of Meera Music?

I qualified as a Mechanical Engineer. From 1975 to 2009, I worked in the textile machinery industry managing production and exports, including a stint in Indonesia. The global recession came in 2008, and  there was no work. I got bored with sitting in the office with nothing to do. So, I decided to do something more interesting with my life. Classical music was an automatic choice.

My father, Prof. KG Ginde’s had wished that his series of lecture-demonstrations on Raga Vidya at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan should be published. So, I started with publishing the initial episodes, along with some of his concert recordings under the Meera Music label. Meera is my mother’s name.  They sold well through my father’s friends and admirers. Over the years, I published all the 38 lecture demonstrations in that series, and they have remained in demand amongst serious music lovers and institutions.

I was also concerned that the music of the old masters should be brought back into circulation, so that they are not forgotten. My father had been a disciple of Annasaheb (SN) Ratanjankar. Through my father’s circle of friends, I acquired the publishing rights for a couple of recordings of Annasaheb.  They did well -- again through the same limited network. In later years, of course, I could add several more titles of Annasaheb to my offering, all of which have done well.  The initial success encouraged me to enlarge my portfolio and reach out to a larger market.  

To enlarge my offering, I established contact with the Sangeet Kendra, a trust run by the Sarabhai family in Ahmedabad.  They had started publishing some of the old masters from their own archives. So, I took over their distributorship. From this source, I was able to offer concert length recordings of great musicians like Kesarbai Kerkar, Rasoolan Bai, Sharafat Hussain Khan, The Senior Dagar Brothers, Nizamuddin Khan (Tabla solo), Hanuman Prasad Mishra (Sarangi) and Asad Ali Khan (Rudra Veena). Around the same time, Mr. Kishor Merchant launched the Musicians’ Guild label and gave me distributorship for 120 titles – these included several old masters, along with a broad spectrum of contemporary musicians, including promising young talent. So, I now had a diverse portfolio, with the old masters giving me an edge.

Obviously your distribution strategy changed at this stage?

I could not think of going through the retail channels because I did not have the capital to block in inventories and receivables, nor the ability to accept the credit risk.  So, I had to turn part-producer, wholesaler and retailer, all rolled into one. The market is small but geographically scattered. I saw the opportunity in the music festivals that are held in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka during the music season (October to March), which would give me focused access to potential buyers. So, I hire stalls at all the music festivals in this region, and service the customers myself. I could not afford to hire staff anyway. But, more than that, interacting personally with music lovers gave me – and continues to give me – priceless insights into their tastes and preferences, and changing needs as listeners of Hindustani music.

I started servicing Indian retail stores and foreign wholesalers only in 2013. It has given me larger geographical reach, helped me to enlarge by distribution business for other recording companies, and built volumes. In addition to 124 titles of my own production, I am distributing about 300 titles for other producers: Sangeet Kendra, All India Radio, T Series, and a few Calcutta based companies -- Bihan Music, Inreco, Megaphone, Quest Worlds and Gattani.  But, I am still limiting the retail network to ensure that my working capital requirements do not go out of control.

My principal retail associates are Rhythm House in Bombay. I enjoy an excellent relationship with them, and they now account for a major part of my retail sales.  Their online sales operation gives my products a wider geographical reach.  They have an efficient customer service infrastructure, which I do not care to replicate or replace, even if doing so could mean higher profitability for my firm. 

But, even today, in terms of net sales realizations, my direct sales to customers at the music festivals would account for a major part of my business. This can change over the next few years. But, I never plan to discontinue my direct sales operations – they constitute my profit generators, my continuous market research, and an unending joy.

How has your product policy evolved? 

For quite some time, my primary interest remained in unearthing and releasing the unpublished and rare music of the old masters, with a bias towards vocal music. With this mission, I was able to release recordings of Wadikar Buwa of Chinchwad, Vasantrao Deshpande, Dayanand Devgangandharva ( Bhendi Bazar Gharana), Kesarbai Kerkar, Shivrambuwa Vaze, Pannalal Ghosh (flute),  Devendra Murdheshwar (flute) Chidanand Nagarkar, Kagalkar Buwa (disciple of Sawai Gandharva), Rasiklal Andharia, Lakshmibai Jadhav, Ramkrishna Buwa Vaze, and DV Paluskar.

Gradually, I also shifted my attention to the living performers of orthodox music, who were groomed by the early 20th century masters – but still very much the pre-independence generation. Amongst them, I could release recordings of Yashwant Buwa Joshi, SCR Bhatt (solo, and also duets with my father) Chhota Gandharva, Dinkar Kaikini, Kaushalya Manjeshwar,  Sangameshwar Gurav, and Jayshree Patnekar.

By this time, I started receiving offers from credible musicians of the 40-50 age group, who were looking for greater visibility. Amongst them, I released Milind Raikar (Violin), Basavi Mukherjee, Ram Deshpande, Raja Miya, and Kaivalya Kumar Gurav. These musicians have credible pedigree. But, even musicians without respectable backgrounds are interesting for me.  

For instance, I was in Ratnagiri once for a music festival. There, I heard an excellent vocalist, Rajabhau Shembhekar, an entirely self-taught musician. Enquiries revealed that he was a State Transport bus driver who drove only night-journey services between Bombay and Chiplun. In day time, he slept and practiced music. I persuaded him to record for me, and his recordings were immensely successful, and continue to sell even today. He was even invited to perform in Bombay and gave an impressive 3-hour performance at Karnataka Sangha!  Even after gaining recognition as a musician, Rajabhau continues to drive his night service ST bus between Bombay and Chiplun, and is a contented man.

What is your current thinking on your portfolio?

I will remain interested in the old masters and orthodox musicians who are either living or have just departed. But, there is a risk attached to the concentration of old music in my portfolio. An entirely new generation of listeners has now emerged in the market, and I find that there is a growing demand for fresh talent. The old masters are still selling, but their proportion in sales is declining.  This may also be because of the small presence of instrumental music in my portfolio.

Therefore, I am now actively interested in contemporary musicians in the 40-50 age group, and promising musicians in the 30-40 age group. In fact, I have recently released two CDs of Meghana Kulkarni of Bangalore, who is in her mid-30s; and they are selling very well.

Instrumental music now constitutes a big chunk of the recorded music market. I need to look at this angle also. In the vocal segment, we have produced only Dhrupad and Khayal music.  We should now consider the Thumree group of genres, raga-based Natya Sangeet in Marathi, raga-based Ghazals, other “Sufi” genres, and even tastefully rendered raga-based fusion.

People have been asking me why I have not entered the video (DVD) market with Hindustani music. The problem with the video medium is the format. Unlike the audio CD which can be played on any equipment, the DVD format is not standardized globally. So, we cannot address the global market with a single product. Moreover, the video medium demands undivided attention from audiences. Those who can, and want to, give Hindustani music undivided attention, are very few in number. So, the size of this market may be too small to be interesting.  Yes, indeed, there is a TV channel devoted to classical music. It may have a sizable listenership. But I don’t know if it has a sizable viewership.

Do you sense any threats to the audio CD market itself?

Right from the days of the audio-cassette, unauthorized copying has been a threat. And, I am sure that the total number of my CDs in people’s homes far exceeds my unit sales. But, the classical music market is too small to attract the hard-core piracy operators.  So, the loss of sales to the producer is acceptable so far.

The audio CD format may go out in a few years, and some other storage media might replace it. The pen drive is doing so partially already. But, people will continue to need a tangible and portable medium for music because increasingly, listening to music is happening in cars and other modes of transport.

Some people see the YouTube as a possible threat. But, YouTube is a video medium and demands undivided attention. Yes, YouTube audio downloads in MP3 formats are possible. But, this is a lot of effort. And, MP3 sound does not match Audio CD quality. Fortunately, very little of the music I offer is available on YouTube.

I do not see either our unit sales or growth rates weakening for the next five years. Ultimately, of course, the trends in storage media and audio technology will affect us, and we will adapt ourselves to these changes.

How do you view the business today?

Basically, what I am running is not a business. It is a hobby which keeps me comfortable, while giving me a lot of joy.  I get immense pleasure from dealing with musicians, unearthing talent, editing and processing concert and archival recordings, and interacting personally with my customers.  I do not want this enterprise to grow to a scale where I have to hire people to do any of these things. Nor do I want to grow it to a scale where somebody will buy it out for a handsome amount.  It will live and die with me. This may be the main reason for my success – if you wish to call it that.

We found a foothold in the market when the music industry was going through a substantial consolidation. In this frenzy for building up scale, Hindustani music, which could be less than 1% of the recorded music market, totally vanished from the radar screen of the organized sector. Some of the old labels still have valuable assets, which they repackage and recycle sporadically under different titles. None of the industry Big Boys has an active portfolio development program for Hindustani music. This is understandable because this segment requires specialized handling. The overheads required to exploit this small and scattered market would make this segment unattractive to music companies.

This environment was ideal for specialist producers to emerge from within the classical music community, and run reasonably profitable enterprises. We have survived and grown at a steady pace for several reasons -- I can acquire music on attractive terms. I am able to offer my customers a wide product portfolio. I can respond to their changing preferences through constant personal interaction.  I operate a frugal establishment in terms of production costs without sacrificing product quality. And, my pricing policy is moderate.

As I move from orthodox music to more contemporary music, none of this is likely to change. Meera Music is not going to transform itself into a “Business” as the term is commonly understood -- because it has a lot to do with the fact that I am the son of Prof. KG Ginde.

© Deepak Raja and Dr. Shreyas Masrani 2015