From Engineering To Singing With The Stars: Arul Kacker
It is impossible to pin down Arul Kacker’s job to one role. The multi-talented entrepreneur, who is an engineer, analyst, artist manager, music director, promoter and much more rolled into one, has made a deep impression on the Indian music industry within a short time since breaking into the scene. Invited to NIT Rourkela for giving a talk on Creative Industries during Roots 3.0, team Monday Morning sat down with the whizz-kid where he shared his personal and professional escapades.
Monday Morning: Tell us something about your early life.
Arun Kacker: Going way back when I was six or seven years old, I used to go to my granddad's house in U.P and he had a huge cassette collection comprising of mostly devotional music. I would put it on and I would really enjoy listening to it on the cassette player. It was back then that I started really enjoying the physical medium of music and I started buying a bunch of music CDs. The first CD I bought was the Roja soundtrack composed by A. R. Rahman. It was a fantastic soundtrack, acknowledged by all and I kept listening to it over and over again. I grew up listening to what any other boy would've listened to, like backstreet boys etc. but, it all started with cassettes.
Another early memory I have is of going to PlanetM, which was a music store chain in Mumbai. They used to have these listening stations where you could put in the CD you wanted and get your headphones to listen. I would just go there and listen. They would usually kick me out because I wasn't actually buying anything. So, yeah, early memories.
MM: You have worked as an intern trainee at different companies like Schneider Electric, Vodafone, Deloitte, etc. How was your experience working with them?
AK: Initially, I wasn't quite sure what to do. Around 2014, I realised that I wanted to do a bit of everything. Back then, it was a hard dilemma when you had to think about whether you should work in music, or technical domain or electronics or in a studio. I decided that I will just jump on whatever opportunities come to me, and see what happens.
The story of the Schneider internship went down when the director of R&D at Schneider Electric came to give a talk at my college, MIT Manipal. Afterwards, I just went up to him and pitched him my idea of a research project which I had thought of during the talk. He liked the idea and offered me to come to Bangalore. So, yes, I did that for a year.
Same with Phillips. I was looking for internships between semesters, and Philips had an opening at Bangalore; I got in. I was working in health care electronics. So, while they had nothing to do with what I eventually ended up doing, I learned a lesson from each of these places.
In Vodafone, for the first three days, I didn't have a desk so I was just basically walking around the office. They eventually gave me a desk, and when I opened the drawers to look at what was inside, all I found were lawsuits. So, there, I learned that getting sued is part of the business. I had interesting experiences in each of the companies.
MM: What brought you in the loop of the creative Industry?
AK: My initial idea of studying electronics engineering was that I wanted to work in a studio. I wanted to become an audio engineer, I wanted to mix audio, work in recordings. It seemed like the perfect marriage between my two main interests, which were science and music. But when I graduated, I realised that I was also good at a bunch of other stuff as well, mainly getting things done from a management perspective, getting thing planned and being able to promote shows (something I learned as a college student). When I graduated I had a job offer via the campus placements from Deloitte. This was when I started thinking that I really needed to make a choice. If I took this job, then I was going to have very little time for anything else, and it is a tough job as well. But then an instinct kicked in telling me that there are 24 hours in a day and not 12 or 9 or however long your job takes. So, I decided to look for something else that I could do in parallel with my job, this led to the starting of Sofar sounds, Bombay. Back then I was looking at studio internships, interning with artist managers, and meeting people. I was just going around meeting directors and basically anybody that I could meet and learn something from. This led to my first opportunity SoFar sounds which I took on and everything began from there for me.
MM: What were the initial challenges you faced? How did you overcome them?
AK: I think an important part of anybody’s story is the failures. People don't talk about them much. You get into a college and you see that Instagram is flooded with people flaunting their great JEE score, but nobody talks about their poor rank. Nobody talks about the 8 colleges that rejected them before they finally got admitted here. Nobody posts a rejection letter. It was very hard for me starting out because I didn't know anybody. How do you put together a secret show, where the people who are coming don’t know where they are going until a day before the show and they don't know who is playing? How am I supposed to get a room full of people to come to this place and just trust me? How do I get an artist to trust me that I would put on a good show and that there will be enough people for it to be worth their time? All of these things were incredibly challenging starting out but what I realised pretty early is that part of my job was not just doing the show but convincing this entire network of industry professionals around me that I was capable and that I had an idea that was gonna work. The hardest part, in the beginning, was just getting to know people. I would go off to work at 10 AM come back at 8 PM and then just go to a concert or meeting or have dinner with someone I just recently met and try and learn something from them. Now, I believe my most powerful tool is my network. I know so many people that if I want something, I can get it done. Back then I had none of this.
MM: You are the founder of Critical Asia. Brief us about that and what was the thought process behind making it.
AK: Back in 2018, I had a plan. I was going to quit my job at Deloitte, take a couple of months off and do my masters in marketing or music business abroad. So, I quit my job, gave my GRE, got a great score, spent two months on my applications and sent them all out. Within a span of one week, I got rejections from all of them. I was thinking what am I gonna do now? I had a job which I had just quit and they were not going to take me back now. For a little while, I was pretty upset and very scared. I thought whether I had let it all get to my head and blew it. But when I really thought about it, I realised that I could fall upon the one tool I had been investing in all this time which was my network. The first thing I did was decide that I’m going to stay in Mumbai for at least one more year. I reached out to everyone I had met with and said “Hey, I know a lot of you have reached out to work with me but in the past, I didn't have a lot of time because of my full-time job but that’s done now. I’m free, I’m willing to work, I’m willing to sit down and exchange ideas and finally commit all my time and effort into working in this business.” The response was overwhelming, all these people reached back to me to come on board with them. I realised what all of those people had realised - I had a very diverse skill set, and that meant I could promote shows, I could manage artists, I could execute events etc and that quickly led me to realise that I had a future in consulting. I had already been working in consulting in Deloitte as a tech consultant but I realised that I had so many ideas to share. So, I started off a consultancy firm, mainly to formalise my consulting work. I was working with Revolver club record store in Mumbai, the ITC Maratha for whom I did some event programming work for and managing artists. The basic idea that developed for my company was that it would help businesses entering into the creative industries grow and also helping businesses from outside the creative industry so that they can enter it. For example companies like Bacardi and Budweiser are constantly trying to leverage events for music, so its sort of helping them to do that in the most efficient way.
MM: You are a radio host at boxout.fm as well. How has this experience been instrumental in shaping your vision towards music?
AK: When I was a kid, I had a dream of what retirement would look like. Which is pretty sad in India, because kids don’t think about their career that they have to live with for 40-50 years but instead ponder over what they will do when they have amassed enough money. So my bucket list was that I’m gonna have a record collection, I'm gonna work at a record store and I’m going to have my own radio show. And the scary part is that I have already done all these three things now. So now what? What’s been amazing about the radio show is that I had always made playlists with friends, made mixtapes and all. I realised that so much of the time I spent growing up was just listening to vast amounts of music. This meant that I had a very esoteric understanding of music. So when boxout approached me about this radio show, I said that I don’t have any particular genre that I would like to explore, and they said that it's cool, play whatever you like. In my last podcast, I had a few days ago, I was playing some Iranian santoor music, the new gunner album, some Bach and just whatever I liked. It was fun because to anybody who’s listening, I'm talking them through how all of these things fit together. There are a lot of constructs like race, gender and privilege that influence how people listen to music. You show your parents' photos of Frank Sinatra dressed in suits and all and they’ll be like “he is so cool” whereas you show them pictures of Korean pop bands and they’ll be like “What are these kids?’. There has always been this evolution and I see it as my job with music being the unifying factor and the cornerstone of culture and youth to bridge this generational gap. If you really think about it a lot of the drawbacks we have in the world we live in today are because of a fundamental disconnect between generations. I feel that helping people understand other people through music is a very unique way of connecting.
Every time my dad walks into my room and I have some Jay-Z on, he keeps asking me why I keep listening to this. Then I took him to watch Gully Boy where my friends produced the score for the movie and he found the music pretty cool. So now when I walk into his room, he is listening to the gully boy soundtrack. So sometimes you just need to connect with people on their terms and find common ground. I think the radio show is my effort to do that.
MM: You are an engineer as well. How is that aspect going?
AK: I don’t believe I’ll end up working as an engineer ever again. A lot of people who I know in the music business keep telling me that I wasted four years doing engineering when I could’ve been done something else. But, I don't see any of that as wasted time. Anything you learn in engineering in an analytical sense is invaluable. I see a lot of the time when I’m working with other music professionals, planning something and I open an excel sheet doing finance forecasting, etc; they would not have any idea. They’re not wired to approach problems in a systematic and analytical way and I think that’s the most important thing you can take away from engineering. I think I have learned a lot during engineering, and it makes me who I am. Engineering colleges bring you to a place, take a bat and they beat your mind into shape. Your mind is not trained to approach things in a systematic manner especially these days with so much sensory and information overload. The approach to learning and projects I’ve learned during my engineering has been useful to me in the music industry as well.
MM: Hip Hop culture involving Rapping and along with it EDM has been quite a trend over these years. How do you see these areas integral to Indian Industry?
AK: Pop music is something any generation listens to at any point in time. At this point, I think it's useless to describe these genres separately as hip hop or EDM, etc. If you look at the Billboard chart for the past 10 years, it's 90% rap and like, 10% pop songs. In that sense, it is more sensible to think of it as pop music rather than hip hop or EDM because they are boxes of certain musical aspects of that genre. But, culturally, if you think of them as pop music, of course, they are influential in the youth culture. And, they have found ways to transcribe worldwide. It's amazing that so many people are listening to Korean Pop or Indian Music these days. From 1996 to 2005, a period of 9 years, there was only one song on Billboard Top 10 which was not English. But then from 2012 to today, there’ve been five. That, there, is the evidence that musical popularity is no longer dependant on cultural lines. People are more willing and interested in listening to music from around the world and being able to create music that they can identify with. As far as, hip-hop or EDM is concerned, it's simply amazing that so many people are trying it in India these days. Udyaan, who goes by the name of Nucleya, is a great friend of mine and has made such an incredible mark for himself. But what people don't realise is, he has been doing it for about 20 years now. He is a grown man, he has a son and a wife. But for a long time when he was in Jalebi Cartel and doing his music, nobody listened to him. But now he is doing a show every week, getting paid a lot of money to do it and basically living a good life. He can provide for his family, is quite stable and that's amazing. But what I keep telling people is that it's not because he found what clicked. It's my opinion that the audience caught up with him. People, culture, sometimes take time to catch up. I am really glad India is listening to more non-Bollywood music, especially hip hop and EDM. And it's a great place for those artists as well to explore their creativity.
MM: Anything that you would like to add to this interview as a message to our readers?
Don't be close-minded about anything. One of the most useful characteristics I have been able to leverage towards any form of success is that you can speak to anyone and learn from anyone. You see Nucleya up there, doing his thing, you see Ranveer Singh up there, who suddenly knows how to rap. None of those people tried to be anybody else. That's the biggest lesson you can learn. You can have residual shame or confusion about who you are. But that is the fabric of human existence. Everybody is concerned about it. When I started dressing the way I dress, I was like, what am I doing? I was like people are gonna make fun of me. I look like an idiot. But over time, you realise that you can't be anyone else. If you can, it's just worse for you. So, be open-minded, travel, meet people, don't be afraid of talking to people. I, myself go for concerts exclusively alone. I don't take a friend. Because I like to meet people, especially who don't know me. You can learn from anybody, irrespective of their calibre or experience. Everybody's opinion and experience are completely mountable.