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How a multi-city live music festival reimagined itself

Only Much Louder explains how it turned NH7 Weekender into a successful online experience T. M. Yadhukrishnan Project Coordinator, The Art X Company

Some background first.

According to this article, the organised events and activations industry is pegged at ₹10,000 crore by a 2017 Ernst & Young and Event and Entertainment Management Association (EEMA) report, which also noted its hyperactive growth at 16% CAGR annually. But as per EEMA’s informal estimates, if the unorganised segment is included, the industry size could be as big as ₹5 lakh crore.

Over the last two decades, India has seen the emergence of a culture of privately funded arts festivals, which informally fall under the events and activations sector. A growing interest and engagement with the arts, culture and heritage and rising disposable incomes of younger people has led to an exponential growth of the festival sector in the past decade.

And then, COVID-19 happened.

Though growing, the festival sector was still in its nascent stage, with no formal working culture, platforms or industry bodies representing their needs and voices when the pandemic hit. With peak culture season behind them, festival teams were preparing for their next editions, planning curation, reaching out to sponsors, shortlisting venues, building marketing and audience engagement strategies.

EEMA conducted a survey earlier this year with the help of 170 COVID-19-affected companies. The report, that was shared with the Government of India, stated that 90% of businesses were called off for 52.91% companies between March-July 2020, and around seven companies laid off 50% to 80% of their workforce.

Festivals thrive on the coming together of people, but they work mostly with freelancers and consultants, and operate on a shoestring. Lockdown resulted in festivals being postponed indefinitely or transitioning to online versions. Some, who have been striving to make physical editions happen, have been battered by the uncertainties that now rule our world. According to a survey of 106 festival directors and managers undertaken by British Council and Arts & Culture Resources India as part of its Festival Connections programme, 35.8% of the respondents had already organised their festivals in FY 2020-21, 22.6% had moved them to FY 2021-22, and 23.6% had postponed their festivals indefinitely.

Cut costs, and also change the way you think

In a Festival Connections session, Only Much Louder (OML) Entertainment Pvt Limited COO Dhruv Sheth spoke of how the company pivoted financial strategies and operations, its proactive research into changing audience behaviour, and experimentation with small format events to transition NH7 Weekender 2020 into a virtual avatar.

OML is an Indian artist and event management company and a new media enterprise. It has founded and organises the decade-old, five-city NH7 Weekender Music Festival, which gets about 1,00,000 attendees every year, over events across different cities in India. The festival also has an active online community of 5,00,000 people across its social media platforms.

In March, OML was preparing for NH7’s next edition, slated for December 2020. With India imposing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, OML took a cue from the global festivals sector and cancelled all its live events until September 2020.

Sheth says, “We reimagined our planning keeping in mind the worst-case scenario: assuming that there are no events happening for the next 6-9 month.” He advises that a company be split into two groups: “The job of one of the groups in the company should be to look at how to survive this period in time. The second group should look at how to prepare the company for the future.”

In keeping with financial management best practices in times of crises, one of the first decisions OML took was to pare all non-essential expenses. This included cutting down on rent, electricity and internet connectivity. It also quickly cancelled new contracts, closed related formalities with their vendors, and got back advances paid on bookings. Like other companies, there were pay cuts too; but at OML, the cuts were targeted disproportionately towards the top management and high-earning employees. Sheth explains that the 25% paycut top management took helped OML retain a bunch of more junior employees.

These measures didn’t just help OML keep its teams intact: they gave the live events department precious time and human capital to rethink its festivals and experiment with new formats and experiences.

Reimagining the concert experience

The key concern: how to imagine a festival of the scale of NH7 Weekender in a virtual edition. There were no roadmaps; they had to start from scratch. Already adapting to remote working, OML’s people had to simultaneously learn new tools and creatively adapt them to suit their needs and keep up with the changes in technology.

Other festivals, big and small, had begun using digital and social media platforms to both understand the pulse of their audiences and keep them engaged. OML too tracked their audience’s moods and needs online. They concluded that while fans were disappointed to have no live gigs during lockdown, they were already looking out for new avenues to engage with. “Trust your audience,” Sheth said. “Trust the cultural needs that you have created. The audience will find you.”

So, in June, OML experimented with transitioning some of its live branded events to digital. They started with easier formats like comedy shows and creative conferences before trying out smaller music gigs. Then, from July, the live events team began organising an online gig every month, using them as pilot events to experiment with formats, design, interactive experiences and platforms. They also stayed in touch with professionals from the virtual experiences space everything from social media experiences to more immersive AR-VR experiences to find a format that worked successfully for them.

More than music

The team spent the major part of their time in designing the smaller, intricate aspects of the festival: whether an act needed to be live or pre-recorded, how an experience would look on screen, and so on. What would the metrics be? ‘Footfall,’ they decided, would be a combination of tickets bought and minutes of content consumed. For revenue, they had many choices: pay-per-view, subscription, donations, sponsorships and different types of ticketing. They decided on a ticketing plus sponsorship model. After bagging a title sponsor, they priced tickets in slabs from ₹199 to ₹9999.

Manish Chandnani, V.P, OML Live, says, “In comparison to an onground festival, I would say, this took half the time to organise and put together.”

Going live

From 4–6 December, NH7 ran entirely on an interactive digital platform designed to adapt the festival-going experience to the needs of their core audience, the urban youth. Aside from the artistes — the line-up included The Lumineers, CAS, Hiatus Kaiyote, Prateek Kuhad, Shruti Haasan Ft. Murthovic & Karan Parikh, Raja Kumari — there was a photobooth, a mash-up station, private virtual parties, an F&B lounge, and an interactive global stage to connect with fellow audience members. Depending on ticket slabs, attendees got with various levels of personalised experiences, including home-delivered customised NH7 kits or at-home F&B experiences like a bartender who visited the buyer for the duration of the festival. Some numbers: the global chat feature recorded over 170,000 messages between festival attendees; over 1,100 attendees shared spotlight videos of themselves enjoying the festival from their homes; attendees started over 26,000 private parties with their friends logging in from all over the world. In all, NH7 Weekender’s 2020 edition was attended by over 65,000 people consuming 7,000,000+ minutes of festival content over the three days, and the average attendee consuming 108 minutes of content.

This case study was written for and published in the second edition of the 'Taking the Temperature' report, an initiative by the British Council, FICCI, and the Art X Company to examine the impact of COVID-19 on the Indian cultural sector.


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