In this edition of Mind Your Own Business, we interview Arjun Sagar Gupta (proprietor) and Nikhil Mawkin (content manager) of The Piano Man Jazz Club, New Delhi. We focus on how they go about running their business, the obstacles they face, their experiences, and what sets them apart.
Please introduce yourselves. Could you tell us a bit about your backgrounds and your involvement with the Piano Man Jazz Club?
Arjun: My name is Arjun Sagar Gupta, I am an engineer and a musician. I stepped into the food industry in 2010 and though it didn’t work out as intended, it led to the formation of The Piano Man in the winter of 2012, and that path has since led us to The Piano Man Jazz Club.
Nikhil: Hi! I am Nikhil from New Delhi. I have professionally been typecast as a musician/artist. However, I was tired of the way things were working out for me in the music/entertainment business, and therefore I grabbed the position at The Piano Man Jazz Club as soon as the opportunity showed up.
How often do you host live music at your venue? Do you host live performances other than musical ones?
Nikhil: While we host live music every day, we do indulge now and then in comedy, poetry, theatre and even dance.
Arjun: I like to add the word ‘curated’. This small word completely changes the meaning of what we do. ‘Live music’ and ‘jazz’ are highly misused words today. We are open to all forms of performance art, and we host them in the non-music hours, though we have yet to start consistently programming off-hour events.
Could you give us some details about how you approach the process of programming acts at your venue? As a jazz club, are there other genres that you find yourselves hosting often?
Nikhil: Half the time, we come across artists because they have reached out to us. As for the rest, we try and find out about them through common contacts or other forms of media (usually online). As a jazz club, we do desire to focus mostly on jazz, but yes, we do often find ourselves programming various other genres. Some rock ‘n’ roll, some singer-songwriters and so on.
Arjun: Programming is Nikhil’s domain, and he is executing the job masterfully. My original take on it was essentially this — you cannot create a culture, and you cannot expect people to start appreciating something until they have exposure to it. Constantly. This is a factual media strategy; bombard people with something till it seems familiar, and that leads to recognition and appreciation. A festival here and there won’t seed a movement. I wanted to create a space that is constantly exposing patrons to great music, good culture, hard-working musicians. In the right context and in the right frame of mind.
How has your experience been so far in working within the Indian music scene? What are some of the things that stand out to you?
Arjun: That there is talent aplenty here is something we knew but couldn’t visualize until it came to our crazy programming schedule. I only feel bad that the industry is broken up into small groups. Many musicians with similar bents of mind, who live and work in the same small circuit don’t network… in fact, don’t even know each other. The industry needs a revamp.
Nikhil: Overall, the experience has been a roller coaster ride. Sometimes, of course, there are metaphorical power cuts and you are left hanging. The power dynamics and a kind of political environment amongst the venues, musicians and audiences does stand out quite a bit.
While setting up and running this venue, what has your experience been in dealing with Indian laws and how they are enforced? Is it difficult to obtain the appropriate licenses?
Arjun: The laws are archaic and difficult. I will just say they are confusing and very counterproductive.
Nikhil: I try and not get involved in that.
What would you change about the existing system in order to make it easier for the music scene to grow and flourish?
Arjun: Below a certain threshold of ticketing, there should be no applicable law except perhaps a simple sales or service tax. Within the confines of a venue, there should be no additional requirements for programming. The most content and trouble-free businesses are either entirely outside the law or above it. We are neither.
Nikhil: I wonder, if love and respect can form systems. More money perhaps!? Working with The Piano Man, it is indeed clear to me that an established environment of a venue can get the audience more interested and help an artist bring themselves into a zone that they feel most comfortable, in order to zone out or zone into themselves. So that expression is not blocked up.
Do you ever enter into a contract or written agreement with bands or artists you program at your venue?
Nikhil: We mostly have agreements/disagreements over email, other than the official confirmation email that we send out. We usually do not receive requests for contracts, but we want to wait and watch before we develop templates. Anything that brings about a clarity of understanding between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is surely welcome.
Arjun: Contracts, not yet. As a policy, anything we commit, we deliver, regardless of any other circumstances. Though, as a part of our drive to deliver better standards for the industry, we will very soon move to a contract model. It won’t change any aspect of our work ethic, but it’ll be a good place for musicians to discuss the implications of contracts.
The Piano Man has already gained a reputation throughout the country for being very welcoming to musicians, and for hosting nightly post-performance jam sessions. Both of you being musicians in your own right, could you tell us a bit about your approach in general towards running the club, and what sets it apart?
Arjun: It isn’t a club for us. It is our house, and the artist is our most treasured guest. It has taken us a while to drill this mentality into the team from top to bottom. And it really changes the vibe of a space once the team gets it. The next step of course, is the puzzle we are still trying to solve; how to get the audience to understand the value of music. This is a daily puzzle for us. We are constantly innovating ways to reach out to audiences and re-sensitize them to art. The silent song is our current secret weapon.
[Artistik License: For those of you who haven’t yet been to the venue, there is at least one piece or song in a performance (the ‘silent song’) during which the bar is closed, service is suspended, and the audience is not permitted to talk at all. This usually results in the audience being more engaged during the rest of the performance.]
Nikhil: We often try and open discussions/dialogues, and are as sensitive as we are allowed to be towards musicians. We do not demand excessively or hold anything against them. Anything at all. We pay the same day. We do not put a cap on F&B. We understand the importance of a green room. In other words, we love musicians, and we desire for them to grow, hopefully without any kind of pressure exerted by audience/business aspects. We try our best to keep the people quiet during a performance (SUPER challenging).
Do you find most patrons come to the venue primarily for the music, or is food and drink the highlight for some, with music being more incidental?
Nikhil: We do not allow music to be incidental. It is a house built of music, by musicians. Often, customers are annoyed that live music is the priority through the night, and we wholeheartedly guide them to more appropriate venues in town for their desires to be fulfilled (usually towards our restaurant on the second floor).
Arjun: …and now the terrace, beautiful weather. The jazz club is a space for music, for discovering artists, for continuous exposure to different genres of music. We supplement the music with great food and cocktails, but the emphasis will always be on music, in the jazz club.
What are the challenges you face in programming foreign artists, or even artists from different parts of the country?
Nikhil: We presently do not have big budgets, and therefore are not able to provide accommodation. Travel is a big hurdle we are waiting to cross.
Arjun: Budgets, airfare, accommodation, and so on are the basics. We are trying to find creative solutions to help with those costs. Beyond this, one of the issues we also face is that there is no qualitative way for them to gauge venues. Often a band will opt for a venue which is a little larger, but then find themselves facing poorly managed sound and a disinterested audience. Fortunately, our relationship with international musicians and embassies has been building fast and we find more and more artists prefer to play on our stage.
Is there anything else you would like to share with audiences, musicians and other venues?
Arjun: The industry is too fragmented to grow consistently at the moment. Most venues are run from an entirely business perspective and music is a gimmick to bring in customers. This creates two issues — the management has no respect for artists, and audiences get further desensitized to the music as artists are furniture.
From the musician perspective, ego battles and a lack of concern for the industry as a whole are two immediate problems that need to be addressed. If everyone got together to build something, it would get done. Our approach is to identify one problem at a time and focus on fixing that, and I think that would scale well to the industry as a whole.
Nikhil: Let us help each other. Let us understand each other. Let us work together. Let us spread love through music and art. No one has ever achieved nirvana through competition. Let us play together and let us listen together.