Interview - Mar 20, 2003
“Until now it has been very difficult to break Asian music because it is always seen as world music.”Ninder Johal owns and runs Birmingham, UK-based Asian dance music label Nachural Records, who have recently hit the European charts with Panjabi MC's Top 3 track “Mundian To Bach Ke”.
How did you get started in the music business?
I play the tabla with a bhangra band called Achanak. I really enjoy performing and music in general, so I decided to quit my job as a management consultant and go into the business full-time.
What experiences have strengthened your music business skills?
I have a Degree in Finance and an MBA, which has helped me in the areas of management and business. Having performed and played with the band before I set up the label was valuable; Achanak still exists and I still perform with them.
What is Nachural Records and how did you get it off the ground?
Nach means “to dance” and it was always meant to be a dance label, because bhangra music in its essence is dance music. The band I play with play dance music and it was a natural progression from performing with the band to releasing the records. From that I expanded into finding and releasing other artists as well.
I started the company in 1991 and five people now work here, handling distribution, PR, A&R, production and licensing; I oversee the whole operation.
What are your main activities?
Production, licensing and distribution. We’ve also just set up a publishing department.
Who financed the label at first?
The company is fully owned by me, and it was initially financed with a bank loan.
What are your primary markets?
Until the Panjabi MC release, the primary markets were the Asian markets. But due to the success of Panjabi MC, we're now dealing with a global market: Europe, North and South America, South Africa, India and Australia. We’ve only got the Japanese market to tie up now.
What genres of music do you focus on?
We've always focused on Asian dance music, because that’s the market we know. I'm not yet sure whether we’ll look into other forms and move into other markets in the long run.
What outlets have helped promote your music?
It started in the clubs, but up until now it always has been very difficult to break Asian music because it is always seen as world music. With the success of Panjabi MC, it's now easier to promote our products.
Who distributes your records?
We have our own distribution company, which also operates in the Asian market. Panjabi MC is also more widely distributed by Instant Karma and Pinnacle.
How has the market for Asian music changed in the last five years?
It has really opened up in the last twelve months. The demand for Asian music has always been there, but now it's just exploding.
Why do you think this is?
Panjabi MC, but also a few other things. Last year, the Indian cricket team came over to England to play and suddenly there was a lot of interest in Indian culture. In Europe, the Persio act has done very well, and Bollywood music sparked a lot of interest when Andrew Lloyd Webber, the music composer, introduced it in the UK. Europe has become much more open now and is quite prepared to listen to anything that sounds good.
Who are the artists on your label?
Panjabi MC, obviously. Then we have Achanak; Saqi; ADH, a potential star; Sahara; Pav and Ravi Rai. They're all great and there are a number of other artists that I'm in the process of signing.
How do you find new talent?
In the early days I used to go to nightclubs and check what artists were performing. Of course now that the label is so strong, many people approach us with product.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, of course. We get between five and ten demos a week, all of which I listen to. We're very particular about who we pick and generally speaking we only pick about one out of ten. Panjabi MC actually came to see me; he gave me a demo and I liked it.
What happened in the early stages of the Panjabi MC project?
In 1993, I asked him to remix some tracks, which he did; what he showed me was fantastic, so it just went on from there. Initially, he remixed Nachural artists.
Panjabi MC is a DJ who DJs at clubs and remixes songs?
Yes, but he’s also a producer. You give him the vocals, or he goes and gets vocals, and once that’s done, he puts the music to it. He doesn't sing the vocals himself.
How did his first releases do?
The first release was an album called “Souled Out”. The Best of Panjabi MC is going to be released in Europe, with tracks from that album on it. The first releases did OK, but “Mundian To Bach Ke” is his first big hit. It was first released in Germany and it went crazy there, then it got picked up everywhere else.
How have you worked to make the public aware of his material?
I made sure that I picked the right licensees, who would go out and promote the product in their territory. The product was good, but it was the heavy marketing that did the business. Lots of press, and radio, and lots of club play as well.
Did you license the material to labels in overseas markets?
Yes, we licensed it to Superstar in Germany and quite a few of the world's major labels too. We hadn't licensed anything other than a few compilations before; we hadn't actually licensed an artist.
How did the “Mundian To Bach Ke” track come together?
The guy who sings on it is called Labh Gingua and he lives in India. Panjabi MC went to India, recorded his vocals there, brought them back and then put the music to it. It was recorded in 1998.
How did the German label Superstar get involved?
They heard the track in a nightclub in Germany and decided to license it.
How did Superstar work to promote the track in Germany?
They went to clubs, shot a video and got a lot of radio and TV exposure.
Was it after it was a hit in Germany that you licensed it to Instant Karma in the UK?
No, Instant Karma licensed it at around the same time as Superstar.
How important was it that it had been a hit in Germany when you released it in the UK?
It wasn't important at all. The British public bought it because they liked the track; it had nothing to do with the German market.
Do you use the Internet to promote your artists?
Not particularly. The word just gets round.
What aspects of the music industry would you change?
Before we had a hit with Panjabi MC, I would have said that I wanted the music industry to listen to different forms of music, and for people to except non-western music. But now that Panjabi MC is doing very well, I don't think I'd like to change anything, although if artists had access to more live performances it would be an improvement.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Seeing “Mundian To Bach Ke” go to No.5 in the UK charts was a really precious moment.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
It would be wonderful to be able to say to people that I've had four or five No.1 hits.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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