THE ALTERNATIVE CULTURE

A college dropout and his IIM grad brother are making India sing and laugh like nobody’s business

Quartz india
Quartz india

India’s digital entertainment industry is on fire.

For decades, movies and soap operas were the best options available for people to have a good time. But with smartphones and laptops increasingly replacing television screens among young, urban Indians, a world of new opportunities and revenue streams has opened up for content creators. And nowhere is this more apparent than in India’s booming stand-up comedy scene.

Today, comedians are popular on platforms like YouTube, drawing millions of viewers. That, in turn, has helped them take the next big step from open mic nights and college shows to signing deals with brands and creating exclusive content for global online entertainment giants such as Amazon and Netflix.

And behind this transformation is a 16-year-old event and artiste management company, Mumbai-based Only Much Louder (OML).

Over the past few years, the firm has become the go-to option in the business, drawing pretty much every major Indian comedian and comedy group, from Biswa Kalyan Rath and Kenny Sebastian to All India Bakchod (AIB) and East India Comedy (EIC).

India’s digital media industry is expected to hit Rs20,000 crore by 2020 (pdf) and OML, co-founded by 33-year-old Vijay Nair, is at the forefront of the revolution. And it’s not just comedy. The company manages a roster of some of India’s hottest bands, including Nucleya and The F-16s, and has organised concerts of international stars like Enrique Iglesias and Mumford and Sons in India.

With a finger in every pie, Nair has come a long way from when he dropped out of college.

Bands to brands

Nair founded OML in 2002, after years of earning a living managing bands. A dropout from Mumbai’s Sydenham College, he started out by handling his musician friends. Eventually he got so good at the job that he switched to it full-time. By 19, he was even managing Pentagram, one of India’s first independent bands to find fame.

“Everyone was happy to let somebody else do the dirty work. I had no competition, and there was no stress at all in getting work,” Nair told Quartz in an interview at OML’s office in Mumbai.

However, at the time, there was very little business he said. “Shows were priced at Rs4,000-5,000, so I was making Rs700 as commission in 2001,” he said.

Eventually Nair decided to expand to concerts. After OML was established, its big break came with the launch of NH7 Weekender in 2010 an annual music festival dubbed India’s Glastonbury, the iconic British event that draws some of the world’s biggest bands and celebrities. NH7 Weekender is now held across Indian cities and has attracted musicians like Steven Wilson, Anouska Shankar, and AR Rahman, besides bands such as Megadeth, The Joy Formidable, and Indian Ocean. In fact, its very first event was attended by some 10,000 people in Pune.  “Everyone was happy to let somebody else do the dirty work.” 

The event provided a platform for independent musicians in India and established OML as a force to reckon with in the country’s evolving entertainment industry. In 2010, Nair’s brother Ajay, an engineer and an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, joined him.

Today, OML has around 130 employees and generates annual revenue of Rs100 crore. The company has received funding from two investors: CA Media, the Asian investment arm of The Chernin Group, an entertainment and digital media company; and the family fund of the Jains who own the Times Group.

Monetising comedy

OML’s first brush with comedy came in 2013 when AIB’s Tanmay Bhat contacted Nair on Twitter, seeking help for a show.

Initially, the Nair brothers were at odds over comedy. Soon, though, they realised that the tricks of the trade in music were applicable in the business of making people laugh, too. OML signed up AIB and thus began the development of India’s comedy industry.

For creators like AIB, OML was attractive due to its reputation of doing big things for artistes. It delivered in comedy, too, taking AIB to YouTube and helping it launch a channel on the video platform. Today, that channel has over two million subscribers and has made icons out of its stars.

“I owe a lot of AIB’s growth to OML and NH7. They’re the only people we’ve met who ‘get it,'” Bhat told YourStory in March 2014.

After this, other stand-up comedians, mostly referrals within the artist community, began approaching OML, making it the dominant player in India’s nascent comedy space.

But managing these artistes involves a lot of work.

“It literally is everything except the content part,” Nair said. “Our idea is from handling their taxes to getting them business to making sure they don’t go to jail to everything else.”

Moreover, the company also guides comedians in managing their YouTube channels, which, without any brand deals, is not financially sustainable in the long run.

“The money you get from YouTube is 10 paisa per view (the revenue share for the ads they run),” Ajay Nair, OML’s COO, explained. “So the only way you can monetise is to work with brands.”

And now that is paying off. For instance, AIB and a host of others have signed exclusive streaming deals with Amazon Prime, in partnership with OML. For Hotstar, Star India’s digital content platform, AIB and OML created the first original show called On Air with AIB, set for its second season. OML is also producing an exclusive show for Amazon with AIB called The Ministry, which will be a political satire.

Meanwhile, startups are increasingly approaching OML to rope in comedians to create branded content. Earlier this month, AIB released a video in collaboration with Flyrobe, a Mumbai-based startup that provides designer clothes on rent. In the process, OML and AIB created a fake app called Fevente—a Flyrobe spoof—which soon was among the top 10 most downloaded apps in India. Startups give content creators flexibility. 

Vijay Nair says startups give content creators the flexibility, something traditional companies rarely do.

“There’s no chance that a big brand would’ve allowed us to do something like this where we are creating such fictional stuff,” Nair said. “The big brands come and say, we want to do something big, and then the ‘buts’ start. The big brands need glorified ads, that’s the world that they’re coming from.”

Speed bumps

While OML does make money, cash flow is a problem because of the nature of the industry, where shows work on advances and the funds only come in after 60-90 days.

The biggest hurdle, though, has been the regular clashes with Indian authorities.

In December 2014, OML organised the AIB Knockout, a “roast” show in the insult-comedy genre that is popular abroad. The event was a huge success, with some 4,000 attendees, including several A-list Bollywood stars. But once the show’s footage was posted online, criminal complaints were filed against AIB by right-wing activists who decried its alleged offensive content, prompting a police investigation and forcing the group to issue several apologies.

Later, OML had to cancel a much-anticipated show by American comedian Jerry Seinfeld because the local police wouldn’t allow it, alleging that the venue did not have enough parking space.

While Nair lost a lot of money in the latter affair, the AIB fiasco demanded intense firefighting, ultimately forcing it to take down the video in the face of serious threats.

However, OML itself has progressed in leaps and bounds since then.

The future of content

Digital media is still evolving in India and there’s a lot of ground to cover when it comes to tapping the masses. For instance, comedy is still restricted to urban centres like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru. So there’s scope for even bigger growth, and OML is primed to seriously benefit from this.

“OML sits in a space that sees a significant overlap between music and youth. And it covers all bases in this space. These guys do everything…have four or five revenue streams from music and are moving towards becoming a full service agency that commands a captive audience,” Rajesh Kamat, CEO of CA Media, told Firstpost in 2013.

Today, the company is branching out with even more collaborations, working with Anand Gandhi, the maker of the critically acclaimed movie Ship of Theseus, and with Bombay Canteen, a fine-dining restaurant in Mumbai that’s about to start its own video channel.

“Now we are looking at brands who can actually become content brands. A lot of them just exist and people know them, but they are not really in the online world,” Vijay Nair explained.

And that’s what OML is prepared to change. In the process, it plans to do much more than managing artistes and festivals. The real goal, according to Nair, is to build a community of artists for India’s evolving modern culture, touching everything from music and comedy to movies and food.

In short, it’s an empire in the making, and everyone’s invited to the show.

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