Sudhin Prabhakar is the head of ProMusicals. His journey in life took him from studying marine biology and playing in notable rock bands while in college, to working in his family’s construction business, to now running one of India’s largest musical equipment distribution companies.
For our third edition of Electric Talk, we spoke to him about his history performing on stage, transitioning into running a music equipment business, and what he thinks the future holds for music technology and the music industry in the country.
Neerav Gupta: ProMusicals was founded in 1991. At the time, you began with just a small store. What made you want to transition from playing music to retailing music equipment? Wasn’t just playing music satisfying for you?
Sudhin Prabhakar: I never ever considered myself a musician. I played the guitar in church and it was just three chords for many years. It was only in college I got together playing with a band. And it was a successful band, so it kind of put me up on stage when I wasn’t really ready for it. With Down Sterling [first band Prabhakar played for], we won every single contest all across India for three to five years in a row, including BITS Pilani and one of the biggest beat contests by Wizcraft in Bombay called Conga in 1988.
We were greater than the sum of our individual capabilities, [it was] that sort of a band. Average talent but together we made a winning combination. I enjoyed playing in short, but I was thrown onto a big stage and made more popular than we actually deserved. I never had aspirations to become a big guitar hero but just enjoyed the whole thing of being there in the scene.
I was working in a machinery company with my father’s business selling heavy industrial equipment for construction, mining and major government projects. This was just after college. At that time we used to travel all over the country and we were playing with a band called Nemesis Avenue. We used to specify in our band contract that sound had to be from Reynold’s in Bangalore. Good presentation is critical to make your band successful, so it worked if we sounded good, and we used to put it in our contract itself. Reynold’s was very happy with us. They used to entertain us and we became good friends with Felix [Remedios, owner]. One day he said, “why dont you start a shop? You run a business and it’s a heavy machinery business. Why don’t you run a business in music?” It’s like asking a kid to open a candy store.
He [Felix] said, “I’ll send you stuff and you keep it and sell it.” I had no money and my salary was only ₹1500, and here’s a chance that someone’s giving you gear. I jumped at the idea. I had an old office which was unused. It was on the 4th floor, and no internet, no advertising and no one would even show up. We would sell a few second-hand electric guitars in those days because taxes were so high. You couldn’t import anything because it was too expensive.
That’s how the business started and if you ask me what I enjoyed at that time in ’91, I was working and playing music. So I was definitely enjoying playing at the time. But when the band [Nemesis Avenue] split, I opted to put more effort and time into ProMusicals. But still working in my day job. Took about ten years before we kind of established ourselves in the industry.
NG: When did you move to working for ProMusicals full time?
SP: I think that was pretty recent, maybe about a decade ago. I was working my job because of the legacy my dad had left. I was doing it more out of honouring that. It became too difficult and demanding because ProMusicals had grown by then. My machinery people were expecting equal growth, and it was physically not possible. You can’t have two masters, you had to choose.
They [machinery business] were happy because we had done a fair amount of work over many decades and that generation of people who knew my father, they also had passed on. So it became easy for us to slip out and focus on music, which was by then making enough money to sustain me and a family.
NG: When did you transition into the office space you are in presently?
SP: That was around 1992 or 93. That was an interesting change also. My brother was running Headstart Computers, a computer school with a few friends, and they were teaching COBOL and BASIC [computer languages] long before NIIT and Aptech appeared. Their place came up vacant when they moved out, and they asked me if I would like to take it. And I just moved in. The rent was ₹5000 at the time.
I had some money saved up, and I had no idea how I was going to pay the rest. But in those days decisions were so much simpler. You’re not spending millions, or rather investing in 10s of lakhs. It was significant at the time but manageable.
It’s been about 25 years since we first moved in and it’s been pretty good. We’ve taken up the whole building now, all three floors.
NG: Who at the moment is part of the ProMusicals team?
SP: We’ve always prided ourselves at being a musician based shop. For a long time it was just me. Like a mom-pop kind of store. The whole business centered around me and I kept it that way firstly because of lack of capable people. When we started off the internet was not even around. Nobody knew what was going on due to lack of information. What we heard through some vague magazines was what people were following. Where could we get people in staff?
It was only my interest and my exposure to the international market that I was inclined to take on companies that had revolutionary products. Because in my business also, everything we did was revolutionary. Like we introduced fax machines, vacuum de-watering machines from Sweden for making airplane runways and even concrete pumping equipment. Everything we had done in the construction business I carried forward to the music industry.
Where were other people like that to hire? There was no chance to expand, so it remained just me until recently maybe about five years ago we took on Vivin [Kuruvilla], who is a trained engineer. That was the sign of changing times like various audio engineering colleges came up like SAE. He is heading marketing for us and is also a fabulous pianist.
My wife joined us taking on the financial side. Apollo [James] has been our rock on the infrastructure and logistics side. Designations aren’t important in our store because we are doing everything, director to janitor to coffee boy. We all crawl under the speakers and fit the cables. It’s not that we are disorganized, we are a small tight company, and if we have to crawl under the car and fix it we do it. Whatever the job that needs to be done for the customer.
We have Shekhar who has manages our store for many years. Tarumal is our installation guy. He has done some major installs for us for pro sound. Augustine Paul is the head of faculty for the music school. He is the director of the Madras Musical Association choir and has done a lot of work for film scores. We are proud to have such a distinguished person handling the school.
NG: In today’s age where buying online has become the standard, how has the response been to your brick and mortar store? What would you say to a person to convince him to visit your store instead of buying online?
SP: Tell you frankly, we beat the online thing by getting into distribution before the online thing came about. Our store is more of a goodwill thing than anything else. We don’t call it a store anymore, it’s an office. But by habit people have been coming, and they walk in and say, “where is the music shop?” We take them in, and we give them the whole experience.
I can’t remember exactly when we got into distribution, maybe 15-17 years ago. It actually came about due to poor distributors at the time. We required so many things and there were no proper distributors at the time. Anything we needed was never available. We were always waiting. So it was very frustrating and I thought I’ll get it myself.
We got all kinds of stuff imported because distributors didn’t respond at the time. So it came out of a need for proper distribution, so we filled that slot. We found that we could add value to this whole chain.
NG: What was the first product you started importing?
SP: I think it was Midiman, two years before they changed their name to M-Audio. I remember meeting them at the winter NAMM and at the time they had just two black boxes with pins on them. It was a 2-in 2-out MIDI interface. And I got excited for the little thing thinking that this is the future.
We took them on, but nobody in the industry knew what we were selling because they didn’t know what it was. This was the late 90s.
It’s not me changing the world, I’m just a facilitator. I can’t change the world and you have to adapt. The world is going digital and if you aren’t on the bus then you’re going to be off the bus.
NG: Did you see a change in the industry at the time you started to distribute equipment? Did you see other people taking on responsible distribution?
SP: The big music instrument distributors somehow never supplied us. We would ask for gear and we would have communication gaps with the managers. They were not delivering goods. There was a huge apathy toward musicians. They didn’t seem professionally run at the time. We thought there was a slot that we could fill. And in the home studio line, no one was doing it, and till today nobody has a clue what is going on.
We brought digital DJing here, and young DJs were already into gear from M-Audio like the Torque. And we had DJs saying that we were spoiling the market because real DJs only use CDs. And I thought that was funny because all the vinyl guys say that CD DJs are frauds. It’s not me changing the world, I’m just a facilitator. I can’t change the world and you have to adapt. The world is going digital and if you aren’t on the bus then you’re going to be off the bus.
If you look at abroad, distributors would be doing four or five brands. We already have 29 brands, which is ridiculous. There is scope for other distributors to come. If some company appears on the horizon that will add value to your life as a musician then I will take them on immediately.
NG: What is, in your opinion, one piece of equipment that you retail that has the best combination of value for money and quality?
SP: I think the Apollo range [by Universal Audio] is doing that right now at the moment. That is doing for us what M-Audio did for us in those days. In the past when you were working in the box, you had to work with the limitation of latency. Musicians and engineers complained bitterly about latency in Pro Tools systems. But they kept quiet and carried on working. Any issues would be shoved under the carpet.
Pro Tools suffered from latency due to the computer system and not on-board DSP [digital signal processing]. The musician could not play their instrument in real time. Universal Audio came up with the UAD2 solution, where you could hook onto a Pro Tools system and get no latency from your computer because this was a DSP board. It was a huge leap for a musician.
Their plug-ins are exquisite and people were giving up hardware because hardware is becoming damn expensive and unrealistic. Large studios were closing down. Here these guys were recreating to a huge percentage and accuracy the sound of vintage analog gear. So for just a few hundred dollars you could add multiple instances of a LA-2A compressor, which costs ₹3 lakh for a single hardware unit. It was revolutionary because it brought value to musicians and made them in control again, otherwise they were out of control.
Another revolutionary product is the Slate Raven controllers which bring touchscreen control to the whole industry. That is a huge step ahead. It has changed the way the studio looks itself. Apart from touchscreen controllers they are bringing out the VMS [Virtual Microphone System], which is the first of it’s kind.
NG: Are these emulations on the Apollo units comparable to real hardware?
SP: I’ll put it to you this way – the first answer is yes, I think they do a great job. The second answer is a bit more ambiguous, which is something I wish people would pay more attention to. Do you know when you listen to an album – what mic was used by Bon Jovi when he sang? What console was it mixed on? What cables were used? What connectors were used? What guitar strings did he uses? What pedal effects were used?
I will play five recordings for you and I will challenge you to a blindfold test. Or any engineer you want. I guarantee you it will be a failure. My point is to not win a contest, my point is to tell people – focus on the music. Use any gear you want that will help you make your music happily. We would de-sell a lot of equipment telling people, “You don’t need it. You sound great. Why should you upgrade?”
Talking about blindfold tests, we did tests with people and we had them listen to my ₹19000 Aston microphone and people were saying it’s a Neumann U87 or something. We don’t have people with trained enough ears. We are also playing to an industry or a market who is listening to your music on ₹500-1000 headphones, cellphones, laptop or bluetooth speakers.
There are many uninformed people, and there are people who are taking people for a ride in the industry. We are big on myth-busting and we’d like to think we are adding value.
NG: I’ve often heard complaints from aspiring and even professional musicians on how buying gear in the country is expensive due to high prices and import duties. As a major musical instrument distributor, what is your take on this?
SP: Firstly, high price of gear in every country is a reality that you can’t change. For example, if duty in the country is so much it’s a duty that everybody is paying. All music distributors have the same tax so it’s equal.
I have met musicians who ask me why a product is $140 in India when it is $100 on Sweetwater. They are unaware of the legalities. The truth is we are cheaper. If you bought a $100 product in the US, they would another $20 for shipping. Then you add 30% import duty. Whereas I’m selling it to you for $140 or $145. Plus there’s no warranty when you get it from there.
You have to calculate the price in India, not the price in USA. That is the state of legal affairs. I can only tell you the legal tendered price in India. We are all subjects to Indian government laws.
NG: What are some problems that you face that also contribute to these issues?
SP: If you’re legal there are no problems. We can import whatever we want, pay the duty and sell it. Different manufacturers give different discounts to you based on the economics of their business. So some products appear closer to the international prices, some appear further. But people are thinking that we are setting the prices and making money, but the manufacturer itself is not giving the discount. It would be nice if the government had lowered duties.
NG: Now with the implementation of the GST [Goods & Services Tax] from July 1st 2017, which will double the tax on musical instruments from 14% to 28%, so instruments will get pricier.
SP: The thing on GST is still unclear, I’ve spoken to many distributors they are all waiting for clarity. But practically prices may come down. It may stay the same or come down a little. Other duties may be changed or adjusted due to GST.
[This interview was conducted before the GST was fully implemented in India on 1st July 2017]
NG: Do you import everything ‘on the books’?
SP: Absolutely. That is why people have always considered us to be expensive, because we’re honest. We were compared to chor baazar prices and similar markets and I would be deeply saddened by how churches and religious institutions would buy from illegal vendors. We were going all out on a limb to help musicians to do everything for them only to be told we are more expensive.
Things have changed now, 80-90% have gotten used to it and just want to get on with it. Everybody has fallen in line and nobody is under-invoicing the way it used to be done in the ‘smuggler’ days. You can’t get caught doing all these things. For our kind of line of products it’s not worth it. We’re selling 20 of this, 3 of that. What’s the point of under-invoicing and get sleepless nights for this?
It is important that musicians understand this. We are running a business for them, we are giving them advice, warranty and tech support. I have superbly loyal customers who have patronized our store despite all odds and would never look anywhere else, and we would respond by giving them the best we could.
The level of ignorance is also astounding. Intelligent looking people, coming up with absurd conclusions. If you ask me what what the biggest problem to the growth of pro music in India is the well-meaning but incorrect and uninformed advice of friends.
NG: In the past three decades, have you seen major shifts in music technology or instruments? Where do you foresee music technology progressing?
SP: You can’t change the way the world is going. When I referred to digital DJing, you can cry and crib about how orchestral instruments are dying, but it’s the same in the US and western countries, where who wants to be a tuba player? You don’t want carry a big tuba or a french horn and sit in the back of the hall to play five notes at a concert. You don’t want to be that guy, correct?
People are not willing to invest time in learning to play an instrument. But as a seller of gear and a promoter of music I’m not a judge of it. I may personally feel something, but I’m not judging. I’m just a facilitator.
There are two aspects to it. I don’t think music gear has changed significantly over the years, but that comes from a bird’s eye view. It all depends on who is asking and who is viewing. From which perspective are you viewing this? I’m looking at it from a high point of view, an overall view. In that aspect not much has changed.
Always being ahead does not pay, you have to be on time. There are some products that I have not taken on aggressively because it’s too ahead of its time. The level of ignorance is also astounding. Intelligent looking people, coming up with absurd conclusions. If you ask me what what the biggest problem to the growth of pro music growth in India it is the well-meaning but incorrect and uninformed advice of friends.
I’ll put it to you this way – everybody gets what they deserve. If you inquire, take the trouble and learn, you get a product that you deserve. The guy who didn’t bother, didn’t research, asked his friend got what he deserved. All we are saying is – give yourself a little more pride and confidence in yourself. Get a product that you truly deserve. Inquire, be intelligent, and use your own judgement. I’m not saying review specs and all that, use your own aural judgement, listen and grow in that way.
NG: If you had to speculate and look forward, do you think this trend of moving away from instruments and moving toward electronic or digital means of music will be standard in the next few decades?
SP: People are just demanding faster things. Instruments require years of training and expertise. Attention spans will get lesser over time. That’s why audiences have shrunk in some ways. People are going to festivals to have fun, not to listen to music. You go for everything around it. You’re going to a theater concert to listen to the artist perform.
But if the audience is not demanding they will get an artist who is playing crap. The audiences have to be more demanding and discerning. Just like handicrafts will die out, so also will many other musical instrument talents die out. It’s a natural process of evolution and evolution is not always good – it is what will happen.
NG: What has your history been with music instruments? When did you first begin to play guitar? Who are some of your personal musical influences?
SP: Guitarists who I vibed with were David Gilmour, Gary Moore, Steve Morse and Ritchie Blackmore. Those were the guys who first influenced me. For most people when they say they like somebody they normally play like them. In my case there’s no chance you can’t play like any of these guys. But in my head I would like to be like them.
Also the guitarists who are unsung heroes, for example the guitarist who tours with Bryan Adams [Keith Scott], his work is just exquisite. It brings Adams to his full capacity. Also the guitarist from Michael Learns To Rock [Mikkel Lentz] with his sweet melodic lines. James Taylor is known more for his voice, but few people listen to how subtly unbelievable his guitar work is.
But my biggest hero is one and only Steve Lukather. He is a living legend. His perfect mix of emotion and soul is unbelievable. I can’t think of too many people who mix technique and soul so beautifully. We did a Toto tribute show in Chennai once, and that’s when you really begin to study their music and get into it.
NG: Who are some Indian bands or musicians that you enjoy listening to?
SP: Nandini Srikar’s music is something I really enjoyed listening to. Prasanna is one of India’s finest and took guitaring somewhere else. It would be interesting to watch Rhythm Shaw grow. Mohini Dey is a young genius and her younger sister Esani is also a young talent.
Unfortunately someone we lost is U. Srinivas [Indian classical Mandolin player]. He was a legendary. I was not even a fan of the man until I saw him with John McLaughlin during the Shakti concerts. I thought, “how can this kid sit next to John,” until I heard him play. That tiny 8-inch fretboard, but what emotion he got out of that. A great loss for our country and our music.
NG: At the moment, where do you see the music industry is going? Do you think it is a good time for young people to consider being professional musicians?
SP: That’s a tough one. Because in my early days I kind of felt I knew where the industry was going. But then over time, I realized that there is very little I know. Apart from a few general trends, generally, we retailers know very little about this business, and how musicians react. Because it’s a very dynamic line and country right now. It’s changing faster than we can imagine, and in all sorts of directions. People are going all different directions and for me that is exciting. I don’t look at that as a negative. I look at that as a sign of, “wow what’s going on here?”
I’ve got lots to learn, and figure out quickly what’s going on. That’s a feeling that keeps us alive in this business. The uncertainty is exciting. We try and look at world trends and forecast what’s going to happen. 90% of the time that’s true. Industry will follow the world and the US the sad situation is that we follow the US market, rather than create our own. C’est la vie, that’s the way it is. But until we become confident of ourselves and that’s a confidence I’m trying to build in musicians now so that we reach there faster.
I think it’s a great time for young people in short. It’s a time where the myth of an old, existing, all-powerful composer suppresses everybody else in the industry is gone. There is a studio in all homes and everybody has the potential of becoming a music director. Yet, it’s a tough time because you have huge competition as a result of everybody having all the gear to qualify for this industry, which is a soundcard, a microphone, a keyboard and a pair of monitors, and you are a music director. And who is even buying your music? So it’s a tough time as well.
It may sound contradictory at times. It’s also a matter of whose perspective you are looking through. I’m saying for a person to be in this line [music retail] it’s exciting. If you’re a gadget head, these are great times. If you’re a classical musician, they are horrible times. So it’s perspective.
Take a breath, and take some time to smell the roses and enjoy your music. Don’t worry about the right chord or scale. Learn all that but don’t lose the fun. I feel people are losing the fun of making music. And that’s why maybe technology tools coming in are making it fun for the youngsters and that bit is showing in the growth of that industry. They wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t having fun.
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