Sunburn’s founder reflects on the birth of the Indian EDM movement
The man behind the largest festival in Asia, Shailendra Singh, is far more than an enthusiastic electronic music fan. He’s an entrepreneur, Bollywood producer, and advertising wiz who is responsible for some of the most forward-thinking and progressive entertainment shifts in Indian culture. The Sunburn story is just one chapter in his impressive career, but despite being only a part of a much larger story, the festival and the culture it represents are close to home for the Percept founder. A fan first, promoter second, Singh’s deep connection to the burgeoning EDM industry in India is one that began in the 90s with psytrance. We spoke with Mr. Singh a few short days before Sunburn arrived for its 8th year on Vagator Beach to gain some insight into the man behind Asia’s premier EDM festival.
How were you personally introduced to electronic music?
In the early and mid-90’s, I had the good fortunes of experiencing and consuming some intense, raw and underground psy trance parties in Goa. Back then, I never used to drink, and have never taken any drugs, but those beats used to keep me dancing all night long. To my surprise, I also happened upon smaller, but more intimate experiences in the Northern mountains of Himanchal/ Manali.
How did it develop in India? Was there an underground culture?
I may not necessarily term it as underground culture, but certainly there was a sort of cult following for trance and psy trance in Goa and some sporadic parts of those mountains in the North. It wasn’t only a hippy trend, as it gets type-cast, but it had gathered momentum with music lovers from all walks of life, including me. You have made me go down memory lane, and I must confess that I truly miss that party scene today. Nothing can replace the Goa trance parties, deep into the forests, wired up electronics through car batteries and those white sand, beach parties, where the only lighting you experience were the candles placed in the sand.
What sparked the motivation to create the Sunburn brand?
At the turn of the millennium, it was reported that India would have the largest youth population in the world – 600 million under the age of 25. 600 million kids, studying, working, living up to expectations. My career, across entertainment, media and communications, was always driven by the consumer. I knew that, when it came time to party, these kids only had three choices: cricket, Bollywood and shopping. We wanted to offer the youth another, better entertainment choice. In 2007, Percept launched two music festivals: Sunburn and Metalfest. Commercially, Metalfest was more successful, but upon witnessing that one first dance music experiment on the Goan beach, I knew that Sunburn was the future. It’s important to remember that India is larger — it is actually the United States of India. Fly just one hour in any direction and you are in a different state, with a different language and a different cuisine. Electronic music has the power to erase those borders, transcend those differences and speak the universal language of emotion. It brings people together. Once people felt that, there was no going back. And Sunburn was able to, year after year, provide a larger platform for Indian DJs, and global DJs, to reach and communicate with India’s youth. We dropped Metalfest, and put all our energy into guiding Sunburn into the social movement and lifestyle brand that it has become.
You have a ton of experience in marketing and branding, how do you think that has affected your approach towards developing the festival and the Sunburn brand?
My experience and exposure allowed me to create a non-compromising DNA for the brand Sunburn. Since inception of the idea, Sunburn was always for the fans, of the fans, by the fans – with a single-minded objective of creating a social lifestyle difference, through dance music. While it often gets a bad rap, consumerism and the knowledge of it, can be used towards positive effects, if your intentions are pure and your goal always remains focused on satisfying your fans/ consumer.
What separates Sunburn from the rest of the festivals in the world?
I am not an authority on the international scene, to answer this question, but if I must, I would say. . . Sunburn’s soul. Quite to the contrary and belief of much of the world and many of the dance music gurus, it really is not all about the DJS, technology, light and sound. The dance music experience and a festival brand is created by the aura and energy of the experience for the fans. I feel that, due to our Indian history, traditions, culture and emotions, Sunburn has a soul that has managed to unify and build relationships – not just with its Indian and global fans, but also with the DJs and music industry from all over the world. Using our minds, we usually speak at each-other, but through our souls, we truly speak with each other.
Do you have any plans for expansion? Are you looking internationally?
I think the United States of India has huge potential for the growth of the Sunburn brand. It is our mission to unite and celebrate with the length, breadth and depth of India first, and then look to connect and expand into the world.
How has the cultural climate in India in regards to dance music’s presence?
Initially, there was intrigue. Intrigue turned into appreciation. That turned into passion and subsequently, nurtured by Sunburn, dance music turned into a lifestyle. Now, it inspires an aggressive demand. Fans are consuming, and their appetite is voracious. I would estimate that 80% of the fans consume the hype and the showbiz of dance music, and the balance 20% know their music and love their artists. After seeing so many of the World’s Top ranked DJs, fans are educating themselves, and digging deeper. In times to come, it will certainly settle into a more interesting balance.
The explosion began in India around the same time as the US, how has the growth been? What sort of trends does you see now?
The overall infrastructure for music tourism in India, is non-existent. So the growth of the scene was not planned or structured, but was rather adventurous and experimental. As the culture of India is very versatile and open-hearted, it has permitted dance music to grow at a much faster pace than any of us expected. It will take a bit of time, before a formal structure will be in place for an organized and systematic growth for dance music in India. We are the world’s largest democracy, but it is a very complex one. And one must not forget that we are a very young nation — 60 years since independence. We are progressive in our intent, but very old-school in the methods.
The growth of the dance music scene has to be credited to the unconditional love from the Indian fans, and the die-hard spirit of Team Sunburn – as we dominate the market with nearly 90% share of the market, as well as being Asia’s #1 dance music brand and festival experience.
Have there been any cultural hurdles?
To be honest, there have not been any cultural hurdles whatsoever. Dance music equals energy. And that’s exactly what the youth of India craves and what they go mad on.
I have to ask, Supersonic – does competing for the same weekend hurt both festivals?
In my personal opinion, I saw zero logic and 100% arrogance in Supersonic intentionally trying to cannibalize the Sunburn dates. Since our inception, Sunburn has been held on Dec 27, 28, 29. (And with sound logic – not on Christmas, out of respect, and not on New Year’s, which was Goa’s peak earning period.)
In the music business, all of us are known by the success that we achieve, as well as the milestones that we create. In Season 8 of Sunburn (2014), we successfully executed 212 events in 365 days in 78 cities across India. There are many baby steps our alleged competitor should have taken, before wanting to own the Grammy slot. Having said that, there is enough space for everyone to grow, and Sunburn, being the market leader, respects its responsibility to inspire all competitors in the larger interest of giving more exciting dance music experiences to the fans of dance music.
Where do you see the Sunburn brand and the India EDM market headed in the next 3-5 years? Is the current growth sustainable?
I think the pride of Sunburn being a ‘glocal’ brand – produced locally and consumed globally, is just exciting not just for Team Sunburn, but also the fans and the media and sponsors equally. The strategy of the brand is top down and bottom up. The top is Sunburn Festival (a lifestyle experience) and Sunburn Arena (talent/ DJ experience). The bottom up is Sunburn Reload (club engagement program) reaching out to small cities in India as we believe the spark for the forest fire of dance music starts from the clubs, and Sunburn campus – a free Sunburn experience for students in the comforts of their campus. It’s Sunburn’s philosophy of giving back to the students what they possibly wouldn’t have been able to buy in the commercial world. In the coming years, we want Sunburn to become an even larger, national movement. We want to expand the brand deep into the fans 360 degree lifestyle. And last but not the least, it would be a moment of pride to take Sunburn — the Indian dance music experience — on a world tour!