Atul Churamani, Managing Director of Turnkey Music & Publishing Pvt. Ltd has been a game changer ever since, being the man who managed to release Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ in India on the same day as it was released globally, a first for the Indian market, to creating another first of its kind Paddy Fields Folk and Fusion Festival. This man has put the role of A&R on a pedestal, as he knows how to create just the right mix for both the artists and their repertoires. Churamani talks about his journey so far and the way ahead towards reviving interest in Indian non-film music in an exciting conversation with loudest.in.
Having worked for over 4 decades since 1987, Atul Churamani is a name to reckon with, who started his career in the music business with CBS Gramophone Records & Tapes India Ltd, Magnasound India Ltd, Virgin Records India Pvt. Ltd, handling portfolios across divisions including International Music, Sales, Marketing, A&R, New Media, Publishing and Concerts.
Talking about his journey so far the veteran began the conversation saying “I think working as an A&R is the best job that anyone could have in the music business, and my journey has been fantastic. When I joined the music business in 1987, it was still the era of the LPs, while cassettes were the number one formats, until 1995 when it became all cassettes and by this time CDs had started to appear; thus the physical format was the only way to get the music out.”
Reminiscing his early days Churamani adds, “When I joined there was very little media attention given to music, there was one Radio and one television station which played either classical music or Sugam Sangeet, while there were bits and pieces of Bollywood, while there used to be international programs on select frequencies and it was tough to market music. I joined CBS to market international music in India and managed to release Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ in India on the same day as it was released globally, a first for the Indian market which became the first international music album to clock sales of over 100,000 cassettes in India. It set the benchmark for subsequent hits, and that’s how International music started being advertised and promoted in India.”
Promoting Indian Non-film music and exploring and promoting independent artists across genres, be it at the record labels, to TV programming or even the live acts, he has been a part of it all. At Magnasound he along with Shashi Gopal the founder of the company ventured into the indipop business for the first time and signed Shweta Shetty, the Colonial Cousins, Suchitra Krishnamoorthy, Shaan, Sagarika, Sonu Nigam, Baba Sehgal,thus creating many iconic pop albums. He is also credited for the collaboration between Asha Bhosle and Shujaat Khan for the album ‘Naina Lagai Ke‘ and its UK three concert tour for Saregama. During his stint at Virgin Records, as Director A&R & Marketing, Churamani signed artistes like Shaan, Shubha Mudgal, Baba Sehgal, Dr Bhupen Hazarika, Rahul Sharma, and Malkit Singh releasing two albums, ‘Tanha Dil’ by Shaan and ‘Ab Ke Swan’ that have become milestones in Indian pop music history. Recorded an album called ‘Confluence’, a collaboration between French pianist Richard Clayderman and Indian santoor player Rahul Sharma which did exceptionally well. While he also ideated the five-girl band ‘Viva’ with the Star Television Network, that ultimately became Coke (V) Popstars being himself the Executive Producer for the band’s first album. He also conceived collaborations between Sonu Nigam and the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the CBSO, both for Saregama India Ltd.
Talking about his recent stint, dwelling with folk fusion and the live music scene at Turnkey Churamani said, “We saw a huge gap in the market for folk fusion, although folk artists were performing on different festivals, there was no dedicated folk fusion festival. Fortunately, NESCO approached us to design amusical IP for them, so we together came up with an idea to do the Paddy Fields Folk & Fusion festival.”
Talking about the genesis of the only folk festival and bringing forth hidden talents on the forefront Churamani says, “In the very first year in 2016, we focused on Rajasthan, Assam, Bengal and Punjab, which reflected in the artiste line up. Colonial Cousins opened the show, while Mame Khan brought the rustic flavour of Rajasthan. We introduced husband-wife duo Gangadhar & Tulika who presented West Bengal folk and the band called ‘Char Yaar’ from Delhi performed Sufi poetries of Rumi to John Lennon, both being quite popular in their regions, while ‘Nooran Sisters‘ were doing a lot of private concerts, so Paddy Fields became their first commercial platform in Mumbai.“
“Ironically the representation of Folk music in India has always been by the males of the folk communities, who perform the folklore. A child hears the first story from the mother or the grandmother, who tells the tales of bravery of their husbands and sons going to wars or their lovers have gone to the sea.”
“The idea was to bring to in forefront the ‘female storytellers of the folk music tradition‘ who are the originators of folk traditions. In 2017 we decided to pay tribute to the originators of the Folk Traditions with the theme ‘Celebrating Women of Folk & Fusion Music’ and did a festival with a full line up of women singing folk music to include Shubha Mudgal who performed the UP folk songs, Violinist Sunita Bhuyan performed with a set of Assamese folk musicians, Sona Mohapatra performed a set of Oriya folk songs, Tipriti Kharbangar and her band Soulmate performed a set of Khasi songs, first time with Khasi musicians flown in from Meghalaya to Mumbai. 2018 brought the concept of ‘Jugalbandi: The Classicism of Folk Fusion’, dwelling into the origin of classical music from folk music. So we combined the classical musicians with folk music where we had Rahul Sharma on Santoor with a Kashmiri folk singer Gulzar Ganai, While ‘The Manganiar Classroom‘ showcased 20 village children singing Rajasthani Folk dressed in school uniforms, in a classroom set up, who do a Jugalbandi with a teacher.“
Talking about the live music scene and how the role of A&R has evolved, Churamani Says, “At one time the only function that A&R had was spotting talent, and putting the talent to create great songs, while in my case I was also taking care of marketing them well. Today, if we see the live acts, the same thing is done but it is not done only for the labels, but it could be for putting together a music festival, like Paddy Fields where the traditional A&R is now called curators who find the talent and provide them with a stage, while they sit to discuss the performance bits of the artists right from selecting the right songs to the entire presentation made by the artists, keeping in mind the audience, and that’s where the marketing bits come into place.”
“Then comes creating interesting combinations of artists and repertoires like a the vocal-instrumental amalgamation that we did last year with the eminent Sitarist Ustad Sujat Khan on Sitar and the folk queen Malini Awasthi who sang songs like ‘Hamari Atariya’, while Merlyn D’Souza had put a band together to do Goan music. Thus, it’s doing the same thing, but only the format has changed, which has become multi-fold now. If we see the digital format it is similar to a traditional the album, but instead of a cassette or a CD, the digital stores have the playlists, but there is a similar sound recording which is consumed by the audience. In case of a music festival or the concert which has a live audience, you have to do the same job to present different artist together in a live presentation format to the audience under a particular title, so the role of A&R has not changed,” added Churamani.
Talking about the turnkey productions, “We look at the publishing part of the business, so when the artists release their music on any of the digital platforms, we come into play. We are not managing artist and shaping artist, which would be our next step. At the moment the creation we are doing is more on the live stage, apart from Paddy Fields we also have been involved with another IP ‘Sounds from the Dessert‘, which is a showcase of Rajasthan folk music. We have done two shows one in Mumbai at the Royal Opera House and other in Delhi at the Siri Fort Auditorium. We are getting interests from Calcutta, Pune, Banglore, Chandigarh as people are very fascinated with the kind of instruments the festival showcased, which are rarely seen.”
“The idea is to create exotic sounds of Rajasthan wherein the set has very few commercial instruments like a keyboard, a guitar or a drum, while their sounds are amalgamated with those of all folk instruments, which creates wonders. Elaborating on the rare instruments and the melodies presented during the show Churamani says, “The show brought into fore rarely seen Instruments like ‘Morchang‘, ‘Bhapang‘ which is a single string instrument like the ‘ektara’ which has different names in different regions, then is ‘Alguza‘, which is like a double flute that a man plays with both simultaneously. Then there are the ‘Khartals‘, the clappers made of the wood. The festival included not so commonly heard Rajasthani melodies ‘Choti si Umar‘ a traditional song where a little girl asks her mother, why do you want to marry me at this tender age ?… While ‘Jirmir‘ is another exciting piece that enthralled the audiences with popular songs like ‘Nimbooda‘ and Kalbeliya dance performances, to keep the mood going.”
Churamani sharing his experience and key take away at Music Inc. 2.0, while he moderated the session said ‘The Lost Genres in the Indian Music Landscape‘ Moderator, Churamani Says, “We had a very knowledgeable panelists Shubha Mudgal a classical music Stalwart, Papon Who’s deeply rooted in Assamese folk, Durga Jasraj, Who’s done a stupendous amount of work on both Classical music, Commercial and live events and Abhinav Agrawal who’s bringing back folk music to a larger audience and helping folk artists, so we had a holistic panel to address issues on classical and folk music which are not brought into the light and what came out especially was the need for the government to come out more effectively to create a culture policy to help the arts and the artists. Although there are a lot of private organizations, who are investing money to propagate and nurture art and culture and organizing music festivals. Shubha made a powerful point that we need to have a national census, to have the count of how many musicians, before the government can start establishing a policy for them.”
Talking about the challenges that the Music labels and music companies are facing to promote Indian music genres other than film music, and how big is the market for these genres, Churamani says, “Telling how big the market is, is difficult, but they are all doing it. Magnasound started it, but it would not have become a market segment if others were not doing it. It’s just that we need to figure out a productive revenue generation model, although Labels like Times Music and Saregama are still recording present generation artists like Kaushiki Chakraborty, a classical vocalist. While if we talk of folk music, any music lover is a potential listener of folk music, because there is something inherent in folk music that appeals to the audiences. Also, it is not as expensive to record these genres as compared to commercial artists. So, at the moment we see that some are promoting hip-hop, or folk or classical other than film music that they normally do, and that is more commendable!”