Kiran Gandhi Interview Transcription

By March 8, 2016


Music2020: Let’s just dive in! So, Kiran Gandhi, What’s the music industry you want?

Kiran: Well, I was thinking of two particular things, the music industry is a business, and so you have to start with, where is the value in a chain of events? I was thinking about how there’s the artist, and she sings, she plays guitar, she has her band, she’s creating music. Then, there’s the person who is the intermediary like the label, back in the day, or the manager, someone who polishes it, knows how to blast it out to the channels, and make it accessible to the consumer. Then, there’s the consumer, who decides that they want to buy it, and unfortunately, when you think of where the value is, the intermediary has always been the one who makes the most money because as they say, “Without me, you’re just going to play guitar in your basement by yourself, so fuck you. I take the most risk, so I get the majority of what we’ve created here, because without me, you don’t exist.” And so, rap is something that will continue to have it’s own version. We used to have labels, now we’re seeing it more with Soundcloud, gatekeepers, radio DJs, everyone has their own kind of say in saying they made this artist relevant. I think I want to have–maybe we can do this together–what would a world look like in which that value is something the artist can be responsible for, instead of feeling dependent on the person who’s the business entity. Because, that’s where what you talk about with regards to the information asymmetry enables that person–because they don’t know all the rules, because they’ve written the rules. And that’s really always been the theme of the arts. And maybe that’s not necessarily the direction you want to go, but I was speaking on a hip-hop panel last night at UCLA…

Music2020: Always the direction I want to go!

Kiran: Ok, great! That’s perfect! I was thinking about the influence of technology on hip-hop–both in terms of the creation side and the distribution side, and everyone else on the panel was a black male. I felt like maybe they can’t talk about race relations as aggressively as I can, because I’m neither white nor black so maybe that’s a good thing. I was going to say thatvthe power of the white consumer has always kept black music relevant. Jazz was there because white people listened to it, and then funk was there because white people listened to it.

Music2020: Oh, I‘d go deeper than that. I’d say it was appropriated by white people. Right? I mean, in the most egregious and racist way possible, it was, “Hey, Little Richard and other people! Let’s find ourselves a white, more palatable variant of you. Ah! Elvis Presley! And hey, Chuck D, Scott La Rock, and all the founders of hip hop, let’s find a more palatable white  version of you. It’s sort of the Beastie Boys but really, it’s Eminem, or really, it’s Vanilla Ice.” As a society, we have just aggressively stolen almost all of our culture from certainly, African Americans, but just marginalized people generally. I have LOTS of theories on that. I think a lot of it is because marginalized societies find ways to take their voices back that have been silenced by the white people, but also have less to lose. So they create art because, as you’re saying, they are not necessarily in a position of gatekeepers, and the gatekeepers are irrelevant to them because they can’t even get into the world in which a gatekeeper would be relevant, so they make the stuff that they want to make!

Kiran: You’re right–

Music2020: Nothing to lose!

Kiran: And that is the irony! That stuff that comes from a true place of pain, about constant struggle and experience, it does create music that is really enjoyable and relatable to listen to.

Music2020: So that’s a really interesting point. So I get on my little high horse, but then at the end of the day–you said it better than I–art created by marginalized people that then does become enjoyable by the non-marginalized people, expands the empathy circle. Right? So where as, arguably racism and whatever progress we’ve made for racism, it wasn’t the laws leading, it was the culture pushing. Some white kid going, “Wow, even though mom and dad think black people are bad and evil, I actually like this music!” So empathy expands. And so, I’m desperate for more crisis zone music. Just drummers’ word would be combat-rock. But I want crisis-zone music. I want more Syrian music. Because these people that now, are the new “other”–not to say that we’re a post-racist world with African Americans–but it’s ISIS or Muslims or whatever, that are the new “other”. Well, we need more art! Right?

Kiran: Right, right! I agree with that. That’s actually very profound. I was thinking about that more in terms of the gay-rights movement. Every time someone knows someone who’s gay, it’s the same thing.

Music2020: If you look at disco, people will throw disco out because the Bee Gees sort of destroyed it, but in the early days of disco that was very much gay people taking power back and creating their own culture and their own music around it, and guess what? Just as you said: “Straight people found it enjoyable and all of a sudden, empathy sort of built around it”. So my little cliche now is, “more art equals less war!” It’s because of that! Art expands the empathy circle!

Kiran: Amen! Well we can actually tie that back to where is the value that you can be identified with along the chain?

Music2020: Please do.

Kiran: Because if what you’re making has value to it to a large enough group of people, then you end up having the power. If you’re by yourself, playing the guitar, you have no power. That’s really the interesting part of the conversation. Go ahead.

Music2020: No, no, so I want to pull this back, because to a certain degree, this is you. Right? Just as you said a minute ago–and it’s interesting the way you framed it–you were the only non-black male on this stage of hip hop artists. So what is the landscape out there currently with respect to access to the market, intermediaries? You, a female artist that is Indian, some of the people watching this will identify with you, and others will only be able to identify intellectually. So, how do we relate this back to the music business?…is my long-winded question.

Kiran: Yeah, It presents the struggle. I think it’s like if I’m sitting here, proofreading music as an artist, and I’ve had all this education, I worked at a record label. Still, I don’t really have a formula as to where I would want to place my music or how I would get it accessible. Which actually relates to the second point I wanted to bring up: that many people are attracted to being a banker, or a lawyer, or any of those things, or being an academic, because in many ways there are clear paths, there are clear benchmarks.

Music2020: Right!

Kiran: You do this, then you can get to this next level. So then, you know what you have to do! As a human, I think that’s very satisfying. I ran a marathon recently because of that very feeling. I need to do 2 more miles, now 4 more miles…It’s satisfying.

Music2020: Super satisfying!

Kiran: With arts, especially with music, I do wish there were more contests that I could enter, or more guiding factors to teach me what would make me successful on the next level. Is it that I need to get my drumming up? Does it mean I need to get my singing up, my technology up, my production up? The artist development side basically that was a little bit more scalable and kind of machine-like, and I mean that in a good way. It’s more organized.

Music2020: Iterative, right?

Kiran: Yeah, iterative.

Music2020: I mean, in the sense–that you say–for many disciplines, it’s like, you must jump this hurdle. Whether it’s law school, medical school, or getting your master carpenter approval there’s this sort of iterative process. I think, generally, entrepreneurship doesn’t have that. You can certainly say, “Ok, look. I’m going to go get an MBA” or whatever, but as we all know, a lot of entrepreneurs aren’t MBAs. And so, certainly in music, you can, in certain disciplines, go get a masters in fine art and be a cellist and graduate from some conservatory, but the music that you make, and the music that we love, there aren’t iterative plateaus, and which ones there were, I think are increasingly irrelevant. I mean, if you even look at a record deemed platinum, that was a benchmark that was a million sales. Well, nobody sells a million copies anymore. Now it’s streaming.

Kiran: I love that you brought that up because when I used to work at Interscope Records, they brought me in to be able to create those barometers for other metrics like YouTube views, like Spotify streaming, like Twitter mentions. We didn’t have a sense. This is so embarrassing for Interscope Records for me to even show this on an interview, but I remember when we put out a Gaga video, I remember internally the conversation was like, “Ok, we got 1.5 million views in the first day. Is that good? Is that a disaster? How do we understand? We don’t know!” And it was early. It was 2011. I think now, everyone has a better sense of what those numbers look like, but that’s all we’re looking for as humans. We need feedback, we need to understand how we compare to other people, and we need to know if we’re performing well.

Music2020: I think you’re really hitting on an important thread. As we envision what a more sustainable music business model is, you’re talking about KPIs. What are those key performance indicators where a musician can go, “Ok, I’m on the right track. What is the feedback?” And so, for me–and this goes to your original point–the intermediaries, in some respects, control the feedback. One of the more egregious things that I thought labels did when the internet first started was, “Hey, we’ll build a website for you!” And many artists were like, “Great!” What they weren’t really thinking through was, “Well that means that the label owns the website and all the data that comes through it.” Right? So as we move into this realm of taking heretofore unstructured data–lots of stuff floating around–and then structure in it, through wearables, we should be able to define KPIs of relevance, not metric theater–where it’s like what you said about Gaga: “Well she got 1.5 million. Is that good or bad? Don’t know! It’s a big number, but objectively what does it mean?” So, I think one of the things that we need to think about moving forward in this business is: What are those KPIs? I mean, there’s the 1000 true-fan meme where it’s like, “If you can get 1000 people to pay you $8 a month, you make $100,000.” Fine. The problem with that is: to get 1000 people to pay, at the top of that funnel, you need a billion! So what are the KPIs to get to that? So again, I go to you. What are you thinking about everyday? You wake up in the morning, how are you advancing your career? What’s lacking, and what’s working?

Kiran: Well, to me, actually right now, I’m still early. The stuff I’ve been really focusing on is my skill set, because even if the show is not the highest performance or if the recordings aren’t good, I want my skills as a drummer and as a producer to be very sharp, because I don’t see a lot of people championing Ableton or tech in the way that they could. So I’m always thinking, “How could I do something different but also be the best at it.” It’s kind of a promotion strategy. Do something completely different and then, if no one else knows how to play the drums and use sensors correctly, or link their drums to Ableton, then I have something unique that people are like, “Oh, well that’s the Madame Gandhi sound. That’s where I go to get this kind of sound.” So that’s what I’m really focusing on, because I figure if it’s good enough, then the right people can help put me on, and then the power is the fact that the product is so good, I get to decide who I work with, who I trust, etcetera. So that’s my immediate focus.

Music2020: I dig it. So let me pause you there for a second, but don’t lose your thought. So take a snapshot of your thought. It’s been amazing to me over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been reflecting on the type of artist that I’m drawn to talk to. Whether it’s for Music2020 or my Forbes column. We’ve talked before for my Forbes column. None of them are what you would classify as just straight-line musicians. In other words, “I make music, I go out and play.” All of them have this really intricate other sort of vectors. So Imogen…she’s a technologist, Zooey a computer scientist, right? You are an activist, a technologist, and a Harvard business school graduate. So you’ve got all of these things going. To me, the thread through that is, “You know what, musicians? You’ve got to build this sort of rich mosaic of a story that music helps people contextualize that.” But it’s those other pieces of tiles that start connecting it, and I think that’s a key takeaway for what the music business might look like as we go forward. The idea that you’re just going to sort of “be the musician that plays”, and bear with me for a second, What I’m not saying is, “You have to be both a musician and a business person.” What I am saying is, “You have to be an artist with a capital ‘A’, and your art needs to go out and be expansive.”

Kiran: Right. That’s true, I know! I agree with you. I think what you just talked about, artist with the capital ‘A’. Sometimes when you have two brains or have too much going on – I do feel very self-critical at times to make sure I’m going to my weirdest places and kind of going to my strange places when I play and when I’m creating because sometimes when you know too much or you think, “This is the sound that’s hot right now, and I should create in that direction because that’s what I saw is trending on Spotify right now.” I actively have to protect myself from that and shut it out, because it does influence me. I’ll give you a very specific example: In a lot of the music I’m listening to right now, there is a lot of voice-warping that I’m hearing, so like “blahblopblahblopblah”.

Music2020: Yeah, the autotune thing.

Kiran: Yeah, the auto-tuning and then it’s pitch-shifted, and it sounds awesome. Diplo has that in all the latest stuff–”Lean On”, you know that song?–and I love that sound. So then I find myself doing it in my own music, and I’m like, “Oh, well that’s not innovative. When you put this out, it’s going to be two years after everybody was doing that.” You know?

Music2020: But there’s an example of what you’re saying, that data, that information that’s flowing at you from whatever way–is not only not useful, but potentially harmful. Potentially non value-adding. And so, again, I want to go back to the idea of structuring the data–somehow filtering it so it’s not just noise, and so it’s more actionable.

Kiran: Yeah, I agree. Last night, one of the biggest things we spoke about at UCLA was the lack of artist development. To bring it back to your initial question: What are the KPIs that I’ve paid attention to? Because I didn’t necessarily answer that part. We did speak about how there’s very little artist development going on right now. Where the label, or whoever takes someone on, and walks them through a 2 or 3 year process. Right now, with the way the strategy is, “Who’s already crushing it, so we can just latch on to their success?” “Who’s already doing it?” And that is unfortunate for the industry because then we, as artists, lose. I would love it if I had a mentor, and I don’t right now in terms of what I’m making. I would love to see that. And the other thing I was going to say with a more literal metric, is this notion that you get a “like” or some kind of “hater” comment on Soundcloud or whatever. It’s a like, or extreme love, or it’s like, “This sucks!” So the artist–they either see that they’re crushing it and are like, “Yeah, I’m awesome”, or they see haters, and their reaction is like, “Oh, well haters gonna hate. I must be doing something right because I’m causing all of these people to hate me.” But there’s no in between which is like, “I wouldn’t have skipped your song, if you had done this a little bit better”, or, “I would have loved to see more drumming”, or, “I wish you included the other bandmates more”, or actual developmental constructive feedback. And when the producer next to me said that, I was like, “That is so true! That’s profound!” We don’t get feedback that’s in the middle that we can receive and actually improve on. I think that’s one of the biggest things I would love to see if I was to reimagine a new music industry.

Music2020: I love it! Wow, what great points! The interesting thing to me, and it’s always interesting when you talk to people, I see you as an artist that’s out there, blazing the trail and paving the way, and being a mentor for other younger or older, younger in the sense of less far along in their career, and you see yourself as looking to it. I got to tell you, I’m looking for a mentor too. I think the smart people are always looking to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are and to find ways to improve. Man oh man, thank you so much for your time and your thought process. It’s been so great to talk to you.

Kiran: Awesome. I love it! Can I share one last thing that I thought was kind of cool?

Music2020: You have to.

Kiran: With the advent of technology–you know, Spotify has recently started giving to artists “the artist dashboard” or what’s going on with their music. And it’s not just who’s streaming, where, are they men or women–it’s more intricate than that. You know, at what point in the song do the majority of people skip it and go to the next song, or who else have people listened to in coordination with you? It would be great also to see a business entity arrive as sort of a new intermediary who knows how to interpret that stuff professionally and directs the artist. That’s a huge business opportunity. And I think about it a lot. If I were to start a record label, it wouldn’t be a traditional record label. It would be someone who knows how to interpret digital data very intelligently, and then can guide the artist based on that data.

Music2020: I love it!

Kiran: So that’s another part of the industry that’s huge, which is kind of a consulting arm, but for the artist.

Music2020: Structuring that data! Great! Well, we’ll keep checking back with you at Music2020 on your vision, but again, thank you so much!

Kiran: Thank you, Music2020!