In Conversation with Tej Brar, the Man Behind India’s Rising Indie Music Movement

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A pioneer of the local music scene and an advocate for sound, Tej Brar has been much of an unsung hero in the Indian music industry. With an extensive background in artiste management, audio engineering, radio, venue programming & music licensing, Tej has been making waves with Third Culture Entertainment, of which he is both the Founder and Managing Director. Fresh off of the success of the debut edition of their large-format IP, Neon East Festival 2019, we got talking with Tej as he spoke about his personal history with music, and the indie scene here in India.

“Back when I started out, there were just a handful of producers in the country”, Tej says. That number has exploded astronomically, thanks to the proliferation of the internet and the democratisation of music production software. “It’s enabled anyone to become a producer, which I think is quite remarkable.” Tej adds.

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Born in Delhi to a Punjabi father and an English mother, Tej spent his early years moving from continent to continent. Studying sound design in Boston, Tej worked as a radio engineer at college radio station WERS 88.9 FM. This is where he met such purveyors of the arts as Vampire Weekend and Modest Mouse, who were at the top of the charts at the time.

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Moving back to India after a short two-year stint working in LA, Tej deep-dived to run the TLR Café in Delhi, the launch-site for such indie icons as Dualist Inquiry, Reggae Rajas and Ska Vengers to name a few. It wasn’t until Dualist Inquiry asked him to come on as their manager that Tej entered the realm of artiste management. With four years’ worth of experience working at OML, Tej founded Third Culture entertainment, known for such breakthrough events as the Dengue Dengue Dengue showcase and Third Culture Presents: Kamasi Washington.

 

The Bigger Picture

Tej shares his insider view of our country’s strengths and flaws concerning our approach to the music scene, shaped by qualified numbers.

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“We have a young, English-speaking population that is always wired to the internet– this alone represents the single biggest potential market for entertainment anywhere in the world. Third Culture was started with an idea to spread culture across the two markets- Western culture in India, and that of Indian artistes playing abroad. That cultural exchange is the core of what we aim to do.” He adds.

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Yet, all is not as easy as it seems. “We have no government support whatsoever. If you look at ADE in Amsterdam, the government there plays an important role in putting on shows. Similarly, in countries such as Australia, artistes receive grants to go outside of the country. In India, such opportunities are restricted to very orthodox and traditional styles of art. Newer art forms, such as EDM, are still not seen as truly Indian. I would argue that they are Indian to their core, and we need to respect them as such. The government needs to do everything in their power to encourage young artistes.” He hopes.

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Tej believes that such a situation could change if the common fan and lover of music were mobilised, taking a more vocal stance against the existing regulations. “The arts in India have a long, deep, illustrious career. We need to implore the government to revisit their policies and encourage younger contemporary Indian artistes to make a living out of their art.” Tej muses.

 

Building a Culture

With an aim to “build culture, not individuals,” Third Culture’s approach to artiste management is admittedly not driven by short-term financial gain, but rather by an innate desire to watch the artiste make a cultural impact in the long run.

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“Sometimes the decisions that we make on behalf of our artistes seem counterintuitive. We might spend a tonne of cash doing something that seems unlikely- Like strapping a sound system on the back of a Ganpati Mandal and launching an album there, or renting out the whole of NSCI stadium and literally burning a ton of cash to elevate the performances. For us, it’s never been about just booking shows or endorsement deals- it’s been about the impact an individual can make on the musical landscape of India.” Tej reveals.

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A collective that aims to further the existing infrastructure of artiste management, production and promotion, Third Culture is revolutionising the way the industry looks at and treats music. Whether it’s shelling out for an international-level venue for the debut edition of their large-format musical event, or constructing 8-foot rises for drummers accompanying Kamasi Washington, Tej places great value in the idea of putting in effort, and loving what you do. The god is in the details.

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“It’s really about caring- you have to care in your heart and your soul about what you are doing. Whether we’re producing a live show, or Bhavishyavani’s 20th anniversary- if you’ve attended any of these shows, you would’ve seen that there is a standard of quality that we espouse. We will always spend a little bit of extra time, energy and resources to get it right.” Tej explains.

 

Neon Ambitions

Over the years, this company has fuelled an exodus of Indian artistes who are promoting their styles and sound, and this may have turned things around. Inspired by the success of Third Culture Presents: Kamasi Washington, when a relatively lesser known artiste sold out tickets in under 10 hours of their announcement, Tej and Third Culture knew that the Indian music scene was primed and ready for more.

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Thus, NEF 2019 was born, a festival that took the ethos, sound and aesthetic of these alternative events and concentrated it into a large-format festival. “I wanted to showcase live music in a more meaningful way. For me, it was just about the kind of music I liked to tune  in to, and what I think is dope. If I think it’s cool, I can guarantee there’s other kids around the country that feel the same way.” Tej says.

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“In reality, that’s what’s in my heart and my soul. I’m not a hardcore techno guy. I have a very deep love and respect for all forms of electronic music, but the thing that puts a smile on my face is bands- watching people play music together- you can’t replace that energy with anything. There’s no DJ/producer in the fucking world that can do what a band like Little Dragon does when they’re on stage together.”

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Deciding to take on a full-fledged festival earlier in April of this year, Brar rolled out Neon East Festival in October, with an aim to set a standard in large-scale production. “We took a very different approach, to synergise the energies between what we are trying to do and that of the artistes, and the audiences responded with rapture.”

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Unlike other festivals, NEF 2019 prides itself on its policy of inclusivity, safety and minimal waste production. “One thing that became increasingly apparent to me is how much waste we generate- it’s just not okay. Our planet is at a crossroads. I didn’t feel personally okay contributing to that.” Joining forces with such ambassadors s of conservation as Skrap  and Cupable, on day 1 of NEF 2019, they only produced 4kgs of waste that will go into a landfill, with the rest being recycled or composted. “That was a real win for us!” Tej adds proudly.

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This ethos of eco-forward thinking is one that Tej and Third Culture hope to set an example in, even replicating the approach with their smaller-format events. “It’s not impossible to do, there are ways, means and organisations that help achieve this. You just need to have the willpower and desire to want to do it, and for the right reasons. Yes, it was more expensive, but it was the right thing to do, and I’ll stand by that decision all day long. What we chose to do was use completely generic, unbranded, reusable cups. What that means is that those same cups used at NEF can now be sanitized and reused at the next festival, they have no brand logos and NEF branding.”

 

The Future

The future holds great promise for such a harbinger. Tej gets sprightly, thinking out loud about the future editions of the festival

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“We are going to further diversify our musical programming. I think one of the big things I gleaned from this year is that we need to be having conversations with different communities. It’s not about programming the artistes with the same vibe and aesthetic as last year. There will be hip-hop artistes, reggae artistes, large-format bands, and the same standard of electronic artistes for the next editions.” He further adds, “We will be expanding our format further and will be more inclusive, opening up to different communities both within Bombay and across the country. I’d like to incorporate a visual arts element into the festival, and create a more immersive experience for our audience next year, collaborating with artistes all across the board.”

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Tej has high hopes for the company, and for the nation’s music industry as a whole, taking a radical approach to our country’s take on live acts and festivals as a whole. “We don’t want to be playing catch-up with the rest of the world anymore- It’s about us taking ownership of the future of alternative music in India and doing it in a professional way, adhering to international standards in a way that is sustainable for the planet. That’s where we’re going, that’s what we did this year, and I am so proud that we were able to tick all the boxes we set out to tick.” As we part ways, he concludes, “The next few years will see us with a more diverse line-up, supporting the scene and all of our partners, and moreover, putting on a sick fucking show.” We couldn’t be more kicked!

 

All the images used in this article are courtesy of Tej Brar and Neon East Festival.

 

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