How Shailendra Singh went from being the face of Sunburn to organising free concerts to educate underprivileged children
A firm believer in the power of music to unite and heal, Shailendra Singh launched Guestlist4Good, the world's biggest entertainment-for-good event, to make a difference.
When a film studio tried to hold one of Percept’s ad films to ransom, Shailendra Singh retaliated by starting his own production house. When he couldn’t make the top-11 and play cricket for India, he launched a talent management outfit to represent the Indian cricket team and ended up with a mention in the BCCI handbook for having pulled off massive “cricketainment” events, years before IPL.
It doesn’t take an analyst to gauge the theme in his entrepreneurial temper - pun intended. In his world, every gap is an opportunity, and every opportunity is afforded the respect of immediate and whole-hearted action. This is how Shailendra Singh, widely credited with being one of the driving forces behind Sunburn, Asia's largest music festival, built such a diverse portfolio. Shailendra has, in 32 years, launched 23 startups spanning talent management, cause cinema, sports marketing, and cricketainment.
Today, as he stands on the threshold of the one event that is closest to his heart - set to take place in Mumbai next week - he recounts his journey of “finding the love” in his work again.
Always a hustler
“I dream big, and I have the gall to turn dreams into reality,” Shailendra says to kick off the conversation.
Shailendra’s beginnings were humble; he began by working as a waiter at Shamiana, the popular Taj coffee shop, immediately after finishing his BCom. He busted his chops there for about $12 a week. While he may not have known the names of the expensive wines on the menu, he knew to remember the names of the people that walked in. When an incident occurred with a guest, he jumped in to fix it and was promoted to manager at the nightclub.
“I had a strong gut and good reflexes,” he quips.
He would go to Scotland in the summers, whenever he got time off from work, to play county cricket. It was during one such summer when his father called him back to India to join Harindra Singh, his brother, as a partner in the family’s first business – Percept - an advertising company at the time.
“When I entered advertising, I didn’t know a thing about it. But I studied every international magazine, saw what the world was doing, and found ways to do similar things in India,” he recounts.
Serving as the Joint Managing Director of Percept Limited, he masterminded some memorable ad campaigns, including the long running Desh Ki Dhadkan, Jai Ho, Bharat Nirman, the Coming Home to Siyaram’s series, and the Force India and Bharti Airtel campaigns, among others.
Under his tutelage, Percept also scaled and diversified to take on film production, distribution and marketing. Shailendra, meanwhile, is credited with introducing and promoting alternate sports such as boxing to Indian audiences. He launched Fight Night, a tournament that brought international boxers to India to compete with Indian players. He even created the animated show Hanuman.
The burning desire to fly close to the sun
Tracking these global trends threw open another chasm in the Indian market - the rather limited music appreciation scene.
“We have the largest youth population in the world, but when it was time to relax and enjoy, the choices they had were basically cinemas and shopping malls. I firmly believed in the power of music - to unite and to celebrate,” he says, speaking of his eureka moment for Sunburn.
In 2007, Shailendra Singh, along with Harindra Singh and Nikhil Chinappa, launched two music festivals – Sunburn, with electronic music, and Metalfest, with metal music. “Sunburn was an experiment and Metalfest was a commercial success, but, as I stood in the middle of the Sunburn crowd, listening to Carl Cox play his closing set, I realised that this was the future,” he says.
Electronic music is about energy with few lyrics and Shailendra knew that in the “United States of India,” with so many different languages, religions, castes and creeds, EDM would be the leveller, the uniting force.
“So, I threw the kitchen sink in and grew it to the 3rd largest electronic music festival in the world (IMS 2014 report),” he says.
The only two homegrown, made-in-India IPs to be exported from India and consumed by the world are IPL and Sunburn. For this, Shailendra received the rare distinction of becoming the first Indian to make it to the EDM’s POWER 50 Global Rankings in 2013.
Over the years, Shailendra made the festival bigger and better by solely focusing on the fan experience beyond the gates.
“Artist lineups come and go, but it was all about the experience of the festival; gathering your friends and leaving the planet behind. I always dedicated 50 percent of my budgets to the artists, and 50 percent to the experience. That’s what worked,” he says.
However, Shailendra grew a little disenchanted when, having built the electronic scene and opened up the market, the competition got so neck-and-neck that success became more about chequebooks and less about the experience.
“Competition is fantastic for business – it compels you to reinvent yourself. But it was turning into bidding war, and Sunburn was losing a bit of its essence of being fan-centric,” he says.
This feeling motivated the decision to become a silent partner at Percept in March earlier this year.
“I had to ask myself – where is the love?”
Looking for newer horizons
The official announcement came recently, but Shailendra had returned to the drawing board years ago to rehash the old epiphany of bringing genuine revelry in music to India.
He shifted gears – and paths – after observing the plight of the 84 million children from the bottom of the pyramid who cannot go to school.
“That statistic was shameful. I just couldn’t ignore that,” he says.
Still a believer in the power of music to unite and heal, he crafted a concept that would turn the whole money-mongering attitude of music festivals on its head. This new paradigm shift in the music scene was Guestlist4Good.
The plan was to have artists “donate” their performances – basically perform for free. In return, tens of thousands of fans got to on the “guest list,” by registering on a first-come, first-serve basis to attend the show for free as well. Fans who would like to contribute to the cause could buy donor passes. The resulting proceeds, generated from passes and supporters’ money, would be funnelled to the Magic Bus foundation to educate underprivileged children in India.
Having associated with many NGOs, one organisation and individual that truly struck a chord with Shailendra was Magic Bus, and its Founder, Matthew Spacie.
“They are the most transparent and effective NGO that I have worked with, and Matthew Spacie is a superb human being,” he says.
For their first event, Shailendra invited globally popular Dutch DJ Hardwell to return to India and “donate” his performance.
“He didn’t hesitate at all. He realised that with just one day of his life, he could make a massive difference,” Shailendra says.
The event was groundbreaking, and even earned recognition from the United Nations, since they were able to educate 18,200 children, by taking care of the fees of the full ten-year program at Magic Bus. Chasing the dragon, they attempted a second event, bringing Martin Garrix to Mumbai in November last year. With a footfall of 50,000 fans, they managed to raise funds to educate 10,000 children.
“It’s been magic! 150,000 fans on ground and we’ve educated 28,200 children so far,” Shailendra says.
This weekend, they are to put this grand experiment to the ultimate test. Their biggest “Guestlist Festival” is scheduled to be held on December 2 and 3, 2017, at Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium, and they plan to hit the 100,000-beneficiary mark through this festival alone.
“What’s special is that it’s an exclusive lineup of only Indian artists, from start to finish,” Shailendra says.
They are Bollywood superstar Adnan Sami to perform his first public live concert in Mumbai, after breaking the record for being the first Asian to sell out Wembley Stadium eight times.
This will also be the world premiere of Mithoon, our “most reclusive composer”, Shailendra says.
“Mithoon and I are releasing an extraordinary Anthem4Good during the closing ceremony. This is a first-in-India, Olympic-style ceremony from 9:50– 9:59 pm,” Shailendra says.
DJ Hardwell will be returning to India, along with some other popular Dutch DJs like W&W, Kill the Buzz and Suyano, for this festival. Popular singer Shaan will also donate his performance.
“I believe in music and entertainment to unite people and make a difference. This is how I have brought back the lost “love” in what I do,” Shailendra says, signing off.