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A new way to make music in India

June 21, 2008 10:29 IST

Tucked away inside an old textile mill compound in Mumbai's Lower Parel area, with no sign to announce its presence, is the Blue Frog, the city's popular live music nightclub and jazz joint. Life begins at 10.30 p.m. here, with the place packed with music-lovers from around the city and around India, and visiting foreigners in the know.

The Blue Frog has been around for a year, and on May 19 made a giant leap from nightclub to professional music production house -- India's first. The studios are located right behind the club, in a 10,000-sq.-ft. former mill, complete with skylights, high-tech equipment, and vibrant contemporary Asian art.

Based on the initial reaction from India's advertising and entertainment industry, Blue Frog's bold move seems to be a winning one. On opening night every important player from the music, film, and advertising worlds showed up to witness this new venture: singers Lucky Ali, Ila Arun, and Rags Khote were there, along with advertising filmmakers Prasoon Pandey of Corcoise and Ayesha Sayani of Shunyata Productions, and Sony-BMG chief Shridhar Subramaniam, WPP group's India country-head Ranjan Kapoor, veteran singer Gary Lawyer, hot young VJs, and musician-turned-politician Milind Deora.

Young, hopeful musicians were also there, including the Blue Frog record label's first recording artists, the duo Shaair 'n' Func. "This is the Taj Mahal of the music world," says Luke Kenny, a former Channel V veejay-turned-Bollywood actor. "It's especially great for aspiring musicians."

One-Stop Shop for Music

The conceptual guru of the Blue Frog is Ashutosh Pathak, a successful composer of ad jingles, operas, and rock music, who had been dreaming of a full-service, professionally run music studio for two years. Previously, India had none. Those great Indipop songs? All produced out of individually owned shops, mostly run by Bollywood directors or producers, who rent out the facilities.

Even sophisticated ad jingles are dependent on a fragmented system, where recording and production happen in different places. Worse, there are no standardized rates -- fees are ad hoc, making it hard to budget for films, for example, says Pathak. "This business was like the Wild West," he says.

Blue Frog, the studio, intends to change all this. It will be a one-stop shop for anyone who wants music of any kind, be it Bollywood, ad films, computer games, or rock. The studio is open 24 hours and every day. There are set rates for professionals at all levels, eliminating the usual bargaining, overpricing, and exploitation particularly of young artists. And best of all, the nightclub serves as a place to debut.

The venture is already starting to pay rewards. On June 2, for instance, Columbia Records announced its intention to enter the Indian market at the Blue Frog with a performance by Virgil Donati, an Australian drummer with a large following in the drumming world.

Fortuitous Partnerships

The boyish-looking Pathak, 36, is among the most popular composers for commercial advertising jingles in Mumbai. He also writes lyrics, sings, and plays guitar and keyboard as part of a duo band, Smoke, with partner Dhruv Ghanekar. Smoke cut its first record with Blue Frog last month.

He has also shown himself to be a typical entrepreneur who persists, persuades, and never gives up. When he came up with the idea of a nightclub and more for India two years ago, he knew he couldn't do it alone. So he flew to Singapore to meet banker-buddy Simrin Mulchandani, who had moved from an investment banking job at JP Morgan (JPM) in New York to run his own hedge fund in Asia.

The timing was right. Mulchandani was ready for a change and happy to talk music with Pathak. By September, 2007, Mulchandani had wound up his fund and moved to Mumbai to be the new venture's chief executive. Apart from the complexity of building a world-class, professional studio in India -- Blue Frog has the usual floating floors and Foley pits -- getting the talent with the appropriate skills for such a groundbreaking venture was a task.

"The execution was tough," says Mulchandani. It helped that two other partners, high-flying ad film and documentary maker Mahesh Mathai and his producer wife, Srila Chatterjee, were plugged deep into the music and advertising world.

Now that Blue Frog is up and running, the founding team wants to do it all over again. Plans are afoot to launch Blue Frogs in New Delhi, Singapore, and Dubai, the new music-tour circuit for the kind of music India is now producing -- a music that reflects "contemporary India," says Pathak. "Our influences are from around the world, and we are not afraid to express ourselves." The grand plan, he adds, is to funnel international talent into India and expose local talent to listeners abroad.

"Our company is the musicians' gateway to India, and Indian musicians' gateway to the world. If you come to India from anywhere in the world, for any kind of music, you can come to Blue Frog," Pathak says.

Manjeet Kripalani,