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Making musical waves

Lahari Recording Company, one of the biggest names in the industry today, started with an initial investment of Rs. 500. It has to its credit several firsts, and has the rights of the best of music under its belt, writes DEEPA GANESH.

Pioneering the cause of music: Manohar Naidu (right) with his brother Velu at work.

A CENTURY of recorded music has fundamentally changed our experience of music — the way we listen to it and the way it is performed. There is no doubt that the impact of recording technology on the art of music has been tremendous. Recorded music has dramatically changed over the 20th Century, and perhaps electronic music has come to be avant-garde music of the latter half of the century. It has not just influenced our thinking, but has also transformed our lives.

Curiously, the first ever recording in India was on November 11, 1902 in a hotel room in Calcutta that was converted into a makeshift studio. Gauhar Jan, an Armenian Jew converted to Islam, sang into a huge recording horn which was fitted to a turntable that rotated at 78 rpm. The song was etched on a thick wax master record, and with it the first Indian record came into existence.

Considering the leaps technology has made since then, today's MP3 generation would find this story incredulous. Between 1902 and 1920, Gauhar Jan recorded over 600 songs in more than 10 languages.

Writing about the journey of recorded music, H.Y. Sharada Prasad who was Indira Gandhi's Press Information Advisor, noted in his column, All in All, that this Gauhar Jan's recording was significant in terms of commerce, communication, and entertainment.

The music industry has come a long way since then. Today, it has reached saturation point, and has to not just contend with piracy but also with sophisticated recording software that allows anyone to record from home.

After the discovery that human voice could be preserved for posterity, quite a few recording companies such as HMV, Twin Records, the Columbia Records, and then our own gaanadosé (the LP looks like a dosé, hence the name) entered the market.

Today, among those early pioneers, only HMV is alive and kicking. However, if there is a firm that has held sway over the music industry of South India over the last 22 years (which is a long period considering how technology renders everything outdated overnight) it is Lahari Recording Company, that has to its credit over 65,000 titles, 1,20,000 songs, even as it has kept pace with technology.

Their latest contribution to a never-before-so-competitive market is MP3, from which you can listen to about 50 songs at a go for a mere Rs. 170.

The story of Lahari's growth is reminiscent of Dhirubai Ambani and Reliance. Manohar Naidu, its founder, started out in the '70s as a delivery boy for a small business family. "You have to sell unsaleable goods," he was told. "Eventually, they asked me to even sell blank cassettes," remembers Manohar Naidu, Managing Director of Lahari. Those were the days when blank tapes had just come into the market, and Manohar, propelled by curiosity, wanted to try them out. With a friend's help he decided to record old Hindi songs broadcast on the radio. He organised a mono tape recorder and went to a friend's house. "We closed all the doors and windows and recorded the songs broadcast on Vividh Bharathi."

The next day, he took it to Hajee Jana and Sons in Majestic, to whom he supplied goods and requested them to play it on their sophisticated music system.

Cine actors NTR and Dilip Kumar at one of their launches.

Even as they obliged, a curious customer came up and offered to pay Rs. 150 for the collection. "Before I realised what was happening, it was gone. And there were more orders," recalls Manohar, still sounding surprised.

He went back to his employers, the Jain Brothers, and told them what happened. They encouraged him to start his own enterprise. Lahari was born with a capital of just Rs. 500. Today, it is one of the biggest names in the industry, with about 160 employees working for it.

Lahari was a pioneer in many ways. It was the first to introduce outright royalty to singers, producers, and writers. "We set a trend," says a proud Velu, Director, and Manohar's brother. He remembers artistes coming back to them with gratitude, telling them of the car or house they had purchased because of the royalty Lahari paid them.

Apart from Karnataka, Lahari widened its reach by buying music from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and even Kerala. They paid K. Vishwanath of Sankarabharanam and Sagara Sangamam fame, a royalty of Rs. 50,000 (a big sum then) to buy rights for the film Swayam Krishi, a Chiranjeevi starrer. When Mani Ratnam made Dalapathi, they paid him a record Rs. 70 lakh for the music rights. Such a huge payment was being made for the first time in the country. The industry then considered the move to be foolish. Dalapathi's music went on to be a huge hit, vindicating Lahari's position.

It is not as if Lahari is just interested in catering to popular tastes. It has genres other than film music in its repertoire. "We know we will gain a lot of respectability and goodwill among Kannada-loving people when we produce an albums such as MSIL Geethegalu or Ratnana Padagalu," says Velu, who has great respect for musicians and poets. "I consider myself blessed to be interacting with them," says the unassuming Velu. Lahari's regard for local talent and commitment to local issues have, in fact, been its big strengths.

For instance, during the making of G.P. Rajaratnam's Ratnana Padagalu, Shridhar Rajaratnam, his son refused to part with the poems. But Lahari intervened, convinced him and even paid Rs. 25,000 as royalty for the poems. "Nobody had paid money for lyrics till then," says Velu.

From film music to devotional, folk, classical, religious discourses, and chants, Lahari has everything. Another first for Lahari is its pricing. There are top quality cassettes priced at Rs. 20, and CDs at Rs. 60.

With big players — both national and international — in the market with their glossy packaging and ad campaigns, how does Lahari manage to keep itself on top of the list with such low prices? "With low prices, we are not just trying to keep piracy at bay, but also making ourselves accessible to more buyers," explains Velu, who has done an extensive study of the music market.

In fact, Lahari is on the forefront of fighting piracy, going about it in a very organised fashion with a full-fledged trained squad to keep a check on the menace.

So far, Lahari has conducted 680 anti-piracy raids.

Nevertheless, Velu feels that the music industry is going through an all-time low. FM channels, the ever-increasing music channels on television, downloading facility available on the Net, and the option of MP3s, make it very difficult for a recording company to survive.

He does some plain speaking: "Only because we have so many titles, and 60 per cent of what we have were superhits, are we able to survive. If there are people who want to enter the market now, even a capital of Rs. 200 crore is not sufficient."

The fact that they have in-house printing, duplication, and designing units, and that the three brothers have teamed up, works to their advantage.

In fact, Lahari has done the first production for many music directors who have gone on to become big names in the industry — A.R. Rahman, Hamsalekha, Keervani, and V. Manohar. Velu admits that Premaloka, the blockbuster Ravichandran film which created a revolution in the music industry, was their turning point.

One is also struck by Lahari's social concerns. It has marketed timely albums on issues concerning water resource management, caste oppression, and so on.

"Everything cannot revolve around money. Our satisfaction is also important for us," says Velu passionately.

Rakamma's hand jive

A TAMIL song was in the lead in the BBC poll to find the world's most popular, beating tracks by The Beatles, Queen, and Led Zepplin. The internet poll covered 160 countries, and for a while, the song "Rakamma kaiya thattu" from Manirathnam's Dalapathi, written by Vali, was at one point heading the list. It eventually ended up as fourth, beating Queen's seminal, operatic number, "Bohemian Rhapsody", to the 10th place. Incidentally, the same survey rated the original "Vande Mataram" by Bankim Chandra Chaterjee as the second most popular song and Rahman's "Chaiyya chaiyya" as the ninth.

The survey re-establishes Ilaiyaraja as the undisputed tune master of the film industry. But what is crucial to us is that a local company, with Kannada interests, has the rights to "Rakamma".

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