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It's Different! Discovering pop legend Michael Jackson's popularity in rural India


Photo courtesy - MJworld.net

It was my first trip to Vijaywada. I was on official duty on my first job. My assignment was daunting and challenging yet exciting nonetheless. 

To get specific, I was given the target of increasing the sale of prerecorded cassettes in the international music genre for my company across South India by at least 200% in the next twelve months. My company was a license affiliate of EMI London that boasted of arguably the world's most comprehensive and exhaustive catalogue across all genres of international music. The artistes included The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and many more.

Those were the early days of the invasion of satellite channels in India. It was too early to determine what the impact of MTV would be on the cultural metamorphosis of modern India.  Sure, the metropolitans in the south had their share of decent exposure to the Beatles and Pink Floyds of the world. But once we went beyond the metros to the satellite cities and smaller towns, the only note worthy album in our catalogue that received any recognition was "Man Machine" by Kraft work, which owed its success primarily to the fact that it somehow found its way to be played during the interval breaks in most cinema halls thanks to its "then'' innovative use of the synthesiser. 

So when I was asked by my boss to make a market prospecting visit to Vijaywada during my next trip to Hyderabad, I was not too sure if it was worth it.  When I checked with our territory representative in coastal Andhra, he encouraged me to make the visit as he felt that I would enjoy the 'company paid holiday' in Vijayawada, as there was only one outlet that sold international music there and they purchased only "Man Machine" from us and anything else would be accepted only on consignment basis i.e. payment on sale basis from our authorised distributor. This meant that I had no significant work in Vijayawada. When I mentioned this to my boss who came from a hardcore FMCG background, he gave me that age old spiel of the Bata salesman who went to Africa and reported a huge potential for shoes since no one there wore shoes.

With no further scope for argument, I headed to Vijayawada. I checked into a lodge and at around nine in the morning, took a rickshaw to our local distributor's office. Our distributor was also the authorised dealer for a host of other labels…a common concept in the economics of nodal distribution that you will find as you go to smaller towns. In the few minutes of my interaction with him, I realised that I was just an unavoidable distraction and source of nuisance to him. 'Unavoidable' because I represented his principal and 'nuisance' because both of us knew that there was no way that the genre of music I represented could add value to his business. 

After some initial pleasantries and a cup of tea, he suggested that I do a round of the local wholesale and retail music shops just to get an idea of the market before meeting him for lunch when we could discuss further proliferation strategies for international music in Vijayawada. I knew that it was his ploy to get rid of me during his busy morning hours. I was also happy to oblige since I could keep myself occupied instead of just watching him ramble over phone to someone or the other in Telegu which I understood not.

My market visit began at about 11 AM and as the sun got hotter, my spirits got damper. The only types of music that mattered in these markets were devotional and film music. M.S. Subhalaksmi's Venketasha Suprabatham was a hot favourite for obvious reasons. Religion would always be a safe segment to be in as long as man's insecurities grew exponentially. There was also a brand new audio release of a Chiranjeevi film which dominated the shelf space in all the shops.  

Finally I came to the shop that sold international music. And all that I saw there in international music was 2 copies of Man Machine and 5 copies of a pirated compilation of that year's Grammy winners.  

As I spoke to the shop owner, I understood that the rich catalogue that I had to offer held absolutely no bearing in his shop. As I reached back to my distributor's office thoroughly demoralised, there was a call for me on his phone. It was my boss. He enquired about my visit and I told him that I managed to get orders for just 15 cassettes from a rooster of over 5000 titles and out of these, 10 were for 'Man Machine', three for the original sound track of "Pretty Woman" (Since the movie was playing in one of the theatres…probably more for the bath tub scene with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere) and the other two were for any instrumental album of my choice and at my risk. (with heavy drum beats as a must!!) 

"Boss, the trip was just not worth it. It would not even cover my train fare." I told my boss.

"Well at least you know that first hand." he replied as he hung up.

Just then the phone rang again. My distributor answered. He spoke in Telegu interlaced with broken English. He seemed excited. 

"Give me 3000 copies. I will courier the Demand Draft tomorrow. But one condition... I want the stocks to reach me on the same day, otherwise the material will flow into my territory from Hyderabad." he said over phone. He hung up and looked at me and said, "Babu, your presence has brought in good news. Today I will take you to some nice restaurant. Come…let's go fast. I have to get back as I have work to do. There is a new release and I have to take advance orders from the market. " 

Before I could ask him further, he was already outside starting his scooter. I hopped on behind and we drove into a restaurant. The air condition was a great relief from the merciless sun outside. He offered me a beer which I refused since I was on duty. He seemed to be in a mood to celebrate. I asked him what the 'good news' was? I guessed it must be the release of some new Chiranjeevi film sound track. 

He looked at me with an expression that suggested excitement with a tinge of guilt. 

He said, "Babu, we are getting dangerous!" 

I did not understand. I asked "Why..are you planning to join the Naxalites?"

I knew that Andhra Pradesh has had its share of Naxalism.

He laughed. He said, "No Babu, I meant we are going to get the stocks of Michael Jackson's new album 'Dangerous' anytime. The release is this week. I just got a call from the CBS office." 

It took me a few seconds for the matter to sink in. 

"So is that what its all about? "

"Yes, of course."

"You ordered 3000 copies of Dangerous????" I asked with my mouth open.

"Only for the first lot" he said with no mercy to my feelings.

"But where will you distribute these. You have only one shop in your area that sells English music and I don't think he would take more than 20 cassettes at a time."

"That is only for English music. But my territory covers around 1000 shops and each of them can sell Michael Jackson's music." 

Suddenly I felt like the representative of a downtrodden lot.

"But Michael Jackson's songs are also in English…"I argued. "On one hand I'm told that this market doesn't take more than 20-25 cassettes of international music in a month and on the other hand you order 3000 tapes of 'Dangerous'?"

He gave me a benevolent smile as an old man of wisdom would give to a young rebel with a sense of denial.

"Babu…" he said, "How can you compare….you should know better…Jacksongaaru is different!"

I tried to argue but held back. I reflected on the Bata salesman's story. No. That story would not apply here at all…for this was not the endorsement of any management or distribution theory. 

This was just the endorsement of a 'phenomenon'. An endorsement of God's mysterious designs.

Here I was taking an early lesson in life. A lesson that not everything in the world can be formulated or empirically defined, a lesson that not everything needs to be explained. Some things in the world, like the shining of stars, are meant to fascinate and not be analysed. That's the way they are and that's the way God meant them to be and we need to be thankful to Him for sending one such star to shine in our lives and shine abundantly in a way that only it could. Thank you God for sending us 'Jacksongaaru.'

And then he asked me with a smile, "Babu…shall I order some spicy Andhra meals for you?"


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