Interview: Dev Bhatia (UnMute)
11 September 2014
Music is cathartic. It is visceral; an all-consuming in-the-moment experience that excites immediately and should always leave listeners wanting more. Concerts, genre irrelevant, draw throngs like ants to sugar, LPs are hoarded and protected like pirate chests spilling over with gleaming jewels and screaming fans lay shrines to their gods with posters and memorabilia. It’s an obsessive art, and not without reason.
But what many fail to see behind the glistening veneer of its final product is the sweat that goes into making music happen. Dev Bhatia is the perfect example – he’s the man responsible for UnMute, an agency that revolutionised the way techno and electronic dance music was perceived by listeners in India by encouraging upcoming artists from the subcontinent and spreading their sounds to seemingly unreachable corners of the country.
After years of dabbling in digital media and radio broadcasting at iBibo Web and 93.5 RED FM, Bhatia began managing Jalebee Cartel, continuing to do so for over 6 years. In 2012, Dev teamed up with Jalebee Cartel member, friend and one of India’s biggest techno exports, Arjun Vagale to form UnMute, an organisation that represents a number of electronic and underground artists including Sound Avatar, DJ SA, BLOT!, Kohra, M.Mat, Oozeundat, Big City Harmonics – we could go on for a while. We got in touch with Arjun and asked him about his experience working with Dev, here’s what he had to say:
“I've known Dev for many years, from when he was a diehard fan boy to now - a thorough professional. He has the strongest work ethic I've ever seen. His dedication and passion for music has made him one of the key players in the business and I'm proud to have him as my business partner and one of my best friends.”
There are clearly a lot of superlatives associated with the man – professionalism and dedication to music are the two that immediately come to mind. It’s barely a hyperbole to say that since its inception two years ago, UnMute has become an institution in the game; pioneering contemporary sounds to the masses and changing the way we think about electronic and techno music.
In his interview with Wild City, Dev talks music, professionalism and the challenges and rewards of working in the Indian music industry:
What vision did you have in mind when you started UnMute back in 2012?
I think UnMute was always meant to be, even before I envisioned what it was, the idea was always there. I was working two jobs at the start of 2012 – a radio job during the day and managing Jalebee Cartel along with that. Things were great on both fronts, and it simply came down to choosing the one I was most passionate about.
In terms of music, we started as an out and out techno agency, but have now expanded the fold into other genres of electronic dance music.
UnMute has managed to stretch its circles to regions in India where these genres had virtually never been heard before. Do you feel like you’ve taken your artists to all corners of the country?
Yes, we’ve managed to open up many new territories in our first year. From Shillong, to Indore and Raipur to Guwahati. These cities definitely love the music and are looking for quality gigs to go to, so we were more than happy to oblige, but having said that, I don’t think we have unlocked India’s full potential yet. In my eyes, this is just the tip of the iceberg and I’m excited to see how the future pans out.
UnMute is definitely partly responsible for the Indian ‘techno takeover’. Was this always a part of your vision and how did you go about this?
When we started (and even now) our vision has been steered by the music that both Arjun and I love. Arjun produces and plays a certain level of music and has taken Indian techno to another level globally, which is something we knew other talented artists from India could also do. It was simply a matter of bringing them all together, and creating something amongst ourselves. You can see now that even most commercial music promoters / festivals are taking the genre seriously, while a few years ago I had the same bunch tell me – this (techno) is not going to work.
What are some of the differences you’ve noticed in the industry since UnMute came into being?
I think professionalism is something we push in a big way. We’ve seen things change across the board. To be honest, our friends as well as other agencies are using our methods as well, and we don’t mind because it’s good for the scene as a whole. One of the biggest issues we are currently facing is losing a few clients (venues/promoters) because they feel that we’re too “anal” and too “professional”. Maybe they just don’t want to work with a system in place and sadly for them, they’re still stuck back in the days where things used to happen in a haphazard way and everyone involved was “friends” (a term commonly used to negotiate/bring down artist fees).
Have you ever made conscious/business decisions to pick more commercially viable and club friendly artists?
Not yet, but like I said, we’ve expanded our roster into different genres now, ranging from our core – house and techno to live electronic artists, bass music and hip-hop. Our aim is to promote the right kind of music, but having said that, we might pick something depending on the situation as this is a business after all.
What are the existing misconceptions about techno/electronic music that you’d like to debunk?
For starters, electronic music is not “drug music” as many people seem to think. Another huge misconception of techno is that it has no melody. I think one needs to listen carefully before making such careless, uninformed statements.
What are the most challenging aspects of running a business like this in India?
A lot has to do with the way electronic music and nightlife in general is perceived. Based on our culture, it was really not something parents would want to get their children into from a young age – they’d rather have us be doctors, engineers and what not – but this is changing quickly. I’ve noticed a lot of parents now support their children if they want to take up music as a career.
Another big challenge is professionalism. It’s slowly gaining ground and people are getting the hang of it, but there are still a few funny promoters / venues out there who want to stick to the age old ways of working without any rules.
Who are the figures you think are making changes in the industry?
A few names come to mind with regards the Indian music industry.
Vijay Nair: He’s revolutionised the music festival experience with NH7 along with being a pioneer in artist management. I was at the Great Escape in the UK earlier this year and everyone I met wanted to play at Weekender or sent their artists there.
Nikhil Chinapa: He’s always been one of the few people at the forefront of the Indian dance music scene. He’s curated some great festivals and organised world-class tours with his Submerge crew.
I don’t want to get into the gamut of artists making changes as there are quite a few at the moment, but special mention has to go to my partner at UnMute, the outstanding Arjun Vagale, who is simply the global ambassador of Indian electronic music. His music is released on the world’s biggest labels and is played by the crème de la crème of global artists. He reaches new heights every month and is an example to look up to for every artist in our scene.
With regard to UnMute, what are you most proud of so far?
We’ve been lucky to manage and work with some of the best talent in the country. I never imagined I would be doing this when I was working with Jalebee Cartel.
What I’m really proud of is that along with these artists, we have created an industry from what used to be just a “scene”. We are now also working on unearthing fresh talent in the country and preparing them for the future.
Have you always been a fan of techno?
Not always. I grew up listening to a lot of rock music. My introduction to electronic music was courtesy Prodigy back in 98 and then Paul Oakenfold’s ‘Tranceport’ tape. I used to listen to a lot of progressive house / trance along with rock and then got introduced to techno by the Jalebee crew when I came to India. Working with the Cartel was sort of an education for me.
What future projects can we expect from UnMute?
There are quite a few.
In the immediate future, we’re working on GRAIN’s (solo project of Gaurav Raina – Midival Punditz) debut album launch and tour.
We’ve initiated one property in collaboration with our artists called RESET – where the focus is only on quality Indian music and international sound (we use Funktion One). The first of this showcase was held at the awesome LICEC convention center in Hyderabad on March 22nd 2014. You can have a look at the aftermovie here http://bit.ly/resethydmov . We are working hard on taking this across the country.
Other than this a few interesting projects and collaborations will unveil themselves in the nearer future.
Have you ever thought of making your own music?
Haha, never! One must understand and accept their limitations and I realised early on that I could never DJ or produce my own music. I know it’s really easy nowadays with the kind of software that’s out there now, and there are many new artists using these tools as well, but that’s a farce according to me!
When will you DJ at conference?
I’m trying to find time to learn at ILM Academy. I’ll only do it once I’m sure I can pull it off and not fake it.
THE SAME 3 QUESTIONS:
3 most inspirational artists:
3 favourite albums of all time:
Prodigy – Fat of the Land
Depeche Mode – Ultra
Paul Oakenfold - Tranceport
Favourite 3 artists of the moment:
Words: Diya Gupta
Image credit: Ridhiin Pancchmatia