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Voices Behind the Music Podcast Episode 7 Vivek Agrawal

Posted by Jeff Yasuda on Mar 1, 2022 10:00:00 AM

Behind every favorite artist, song, or lyric, is a story you've never heard. Music is highly personal, and our experiences with it shape our memories, thoughts, and desires. So much goes into every note and lyric behind the scenes, which is why we’re bringing you Voices Behind the Music to share untold music business tales. Our guests range from artists, producers, and managers to tech creators and more, each sharing their unique past experiences, current projects, and visions for the future. Voices Behind The Music is presented by Feed Media Group, the leading B2B music licensing platform.

Hosted by Jeff Yasuda, CEO, Feed Media Group.


Episode 7: Pivoting from Tech Executive to Musician through Augmented Reality - with Vivek Agrawal

Vivek Agrawal makes Hindi music in augmented reality.  A technologist turned composer, Vivek has spent the past several years completing his debut album and developing mixed reality experiences to showcase his music.  He has worked with AR Rahman, co-created the Bose Frames, and is passionate about the power of immersive technology and the 3D metaverse to elevate the music listening experience.



Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00] Vivek: We managed to put together a video and Aerosmith ended up sharing the track. The fact that. They enjoyed the content that they were willing to share it, that's amazing. rIght? Like what else could you really ask for?

[00:00:11] Jeff: Behind every favorite artist, song, or lyric is a story you've never heard.

In Voices Behind The Music. We go much deeper than the front man you hear on the album or the guitarist you see on stage. People from all aspects of the music industry work together to make the business what it is and are often some of the busiest, but nicest, funniest, and smartest people out there. I'm Jeff Yasuda CEO at feed media group, the creators behind the leading B2B music licensing platform. Join me as I sit down with some of my favorite voices behind the music to hear their insider stories about what makes the music industry so exciting. 

All right today, I'm here with Vivek Agrawal, tech exec gone music composer. Vivek is finishing up his debut Hindi album and is an incredible vocalist and musician, but it's taken him a while to fully pursue his dreams.

Vivek was previously a successful tech entrepreneur and executive having successfully founded a music streaming product called playground FX. When he sold to Jawbone in around 2013, he then ran Jawbone's audio product line and then became the business lead for Bose in their augmented reality group, where he developed the one and only Bose frames, which I have tried and are truly awesome.

He left Bose at the beginning of the pandemic to pursue his dreams, being a full-time musician, where he successfully blended his knowledge of tech, AR and NFTs with some incredible Hindi music. And I'm sure he's going to tell us about it. Vivek, welcome to the show.

[00:02:03] Vivek: Thanks, Jeff. It's great to be here and it's great to see you again.

[00:02:07] Jeff: Yeah, man. Well, no one else can see us, but it's all good. Um, but look, you know, you are the archetypical dream of the tech exec, right? Somebody who's done tech paid his or her dues and then pursued one's dreams to actually do music full time. So tell me about that. Tell me what you're doing now and I want to dig into this great transition.

[00:02:35] Vivek: Yeah. I mean, it has been quite a wild journey because I think we have known the whole tech industry can certainly be exciting and thrilling, but it can be very consuming at the same time. Right? And so I spent over a decade in the music tech world and it took a lot of courage from friends and family and all that, to be able to

go ahead and pursue music. To be honest, when I started, it was kind of just like a blind dream. It's like one of those things where you're like, "Hey, I want to be a musician or I want to be an actor or I want to do something." And that's how I started when I came out, I just said, I just really want to do music and

I think what has been most fascinating is, one, just the fact that starting a music career in the pandemic feels like very counterculture to what most people need to do in the business, which is meet a lot of people in the industry, collaborate with them, you know, actually put yourself out there in very visible forms, not just social media, but

in touring and performing and gigging. And a lot of those things weren't available to any musician the same way. So a lot of folks had to reinvent themselves. The other thing that I learned was just this value of technology to actually help scale art. Cause if, if we think about it, before

30 or even 40 years ago, it was about, you know, running into a band at a bar or a local concert venue. You pick up one of their CDs from there, you'd listened to it at home and that was the extent of the relationship, and maybe you went ahead and gone on seeing them in concert one day. 

Where I've been very excited because everyone is on their phone or on their laptop, and especially because of the pandemic, that is our connection to the world. I thought it was an amazing opportunity to start a music career because it inadvertently turned me into.

"Okay. How can I use my knowledge in tech to be a musician?"

[00:04:23] Jeff: Yeah, well, let's take a walk down memory lane. It still blows my mind. When we played together, the first time when you came to my studio, it was kind of like this holy shizzle moment, like this guy has some pipes! Your story about becoming a vocalist and sort of how you trained in college you know, with your singing group is an interesting story. So let's kind of start with the musician element and then kind of go into your tech.

[00:04:50] Vivek: For sure. I mean, I started singing really earnestly in college at Stanford, there was an acapella group called RaagaPella, and we sang you know, a bunch of South Asian Hindi fusion songs, and that's where my interest in singing came. Truthfully, I was a terrible singer. I was the worst singer in the group and no one wanted to hear me, including myself.

But I actually purchased a microphone because I just wanted to hear how I sounded and, then I heard, oh, this is how I actually sound? I want to be better than this. And I used this as an opportunity to just really learn how to sing. And I remember there'd be one song with my group that I'd sing

every day just because I wanted to sound as good as possible on it. It was an exercise in discipline that I never knew that I had, but it was a beautiful one because I certainly got a lot of fulfillment out of the music that was ultimately created. But the journey of what it's like to really focus on something just because I was so interested in it, was very magical.

[00:05:48] Jeff: Totally. Totally. No, I love it. So what are you working on now? You've got this debut Hindi album. I know you've been working with a series of amazing Hindi stars, singers and whatnot.

[00:05:59] Vivek: So I can tell you a little bit about the journey like what happened that I previously had worked with. AR Rahman in India, and he's an amazing composer and a good friend. I was lucky to spend time with him in a studio in Chennai, and both learn from him as well as a lot of colleagues that were working in the music industry with him in the Indian film industry.

And when I quit, right before the pandemic, I actually had a chance to visit him and some of my friends in LA and they kind of gave me the reassurances that, Hey, like I can actually pursue music if I wanted to. 

But the original plan was that I'd go to India and start recording an album and then kind of see what happens, and then I found myself at home.

[00:06:42] Jeff: So you made this transition from tech exec, what gave you the confidence that it was possible to pursue this as a full-time career?

[00:06:52] Vivek: Yeah. Well, I think that mindset is about defining what full time is, if that makes sense. Cause I think a lot of folks look at something as like, well, I'm passionate about it. And if you were to ask me in 2019, or even early 2220, 2020 I was just like "I'm passionate about music, I want to do it, I just want to do it."

 I think there's the commercial viability of music, which requires talent, no question. But it also requires opportunities by which you can cut through the noise. There's a lot of great bands out there. There's a lot of great songs out there that are undiscovered. And a lot of it's just because the discovery engine hasn't been kicked in for people to know that this stuff even exists.

 What I will say has changed is my mindset has turned from like this being, I'm passionate about this, and this is my own self-expression to now me being able to look at my art objectively and just say, hey, is this a song I like, is this a song that I think will work for the audience and market that I'm trying to reach?

[00:07:48] Jeff: I love the introspection, the ability to listen to your music objectively. That's not easy, 

You obviously have some serious music chops, but you also have some serious tech chops that probably give you a tremendous angle and avenue that you can really exploit to help get your music out there. So can you tell us a little bit about some of the ways and some of the tricks of the new trade per se, the pandemic trade that you've used to cut through the noise?

[00:08:21] Vivek: Yeah, and I mean, and to be very transparent, I'm still early in my journey in terms of growing my fan base. And truthfully I've spent most of my time just honing in on the musical craft and finding new ways to express the music. Right? So in some ways that we looked at music as MP3s before, you know, we looked at music as CDs before, and, you know, we even looked at music as Spotify streams before, My thing has always been, and maybe that's the techie side of me coming in, maybe just from our shared background in music streaming. Right? It's just, well, what does it mean to actually experience a song and how can we shift that? So I was leveraging that particular insight when it came to both how I create music, but largely how I release it.

And so some of the things that I tried at first were, you know, I, I'm not actually, one that likes to be on camera, I'm actually a very, very camera shy and I just,

[00:09:13] Jeff: Ah, nonsense.

[00:09:15] Vivek: But what I enjoy doing is like having folks dance to my music, and so I did a lot of collaborations with other artists and other live performers who could just create beautiful choreography to some of the music I made.

That was a great experiment to start getting a following because it's just, it's a way to share an audience. Right? I'm providing this track and then, a dancer who has an amazing act or following can collaborate. So there's actually one example where I did a cover of Despacito like a few years ago and it had a bit of a Bollywood vibe.


[00:09:50] Jeff: I remember that, that was awesome. 

[00:09:51] Vivek: It was fun and there was a dancer based out of Seattle. His name is Ricky Pond and he actually dances to Hindi music. He doesn't know a word of Hindi, you know, similar to me, but he has an insane following in India. So he's growing very aggressively on Tik ToK and also in India on Instagram.

And I reached out to him and I said, Hey, I have this track you know, if you want to branch out from just doing pure Hindi music and you want to do stuff with some like Hindi, you know, English fusion and, and he was very receptive and he said, yeah, I'll do it. And that actually did wonders for introducing my music somewhere else.

 It also ended up getting me some extra streams on Spotify, which, you know, it was just fun to kind of see that. Doing acts like that can give a boost. But I think one fundamental thing I've seen is just like collaboration with the growing acts that are accessible is one key thing to succeeding in this space and whether your music resonates or, you know, whether the content itself is right,

like that's where you have to keep trying and keep being prolific with content and new approaches to releasing the content until you get the thing that hits. 

[00:10:52] Jeff: So one thing that always has blown my mind is the fact that you don't speak Hindi, And or you don't speak Hindi.

[00:11:01] Vivek: Yeah, I don't understand it for sure.

[00:11:04] Jeff: Kind of like how I don't speak Japanese. Right. But you sing, can you please sing some lines of something you're working on? 

[00:11:13] Vivek: I'll sing a few lines like one of the singles from my album. The song is about, you know, when you get incredibly close to someone and then they disappear on you. And so the song is called Chip Jai and the chorus goes something like.

{ sings in Hindi}

[00:11:29] Jeff: I mean, it's beautiful. Right? What does that, what does that.

[00:11:58] Vivek: So the general sentiment of this in the chorus, it's really just like, you're feeling like you're in the middle of the storm. Like your heart's beating like dynamite. You're wondering why you're just feeling so crazy about everything that's happening around you,

and then in the distance you see you know, sights of this person you love coming closer and closer to you, and then they come and they disappear. And so it's a very, it's a, it's a wistful love song, you know?

[00:12:25] Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's beautiful. It's beautiful, and how did you even learn the intonation and pronunciation of these words? Did you have someone actually talk you through them? 

[00:12:36] Vivek: Yeah. I mean, I have had a lot of help. Like one of my friends, he's a Hindi coach, so he's helpful. My lyricist Raheem has been helping me with pronunciation guides, my mixing and mastering engineers have just been constantly telling me, Hey, you pronounce this wrong.

Try again and try again. So, and there's certain intonations and even like, like diphthongs in terms of like the way that words or letters are pronounced, especially H's that I have a particularly hard time with, and that just comes from being so comfortable with the language that they have. And so I'm very grateful that people are looking out for me to make sure I don't embarrass myself, and the other part is just like making sure that the music itself is how I communicate. I selected Hindi as the language, just because I think truthfully Hindi just sounds beautiful. I think it's very poetic. If, you know, try to translate those lyrics into English as I just did, it sounds fine.

But when the folks who know Hindi who like hearing the true poetry and, you know, the metaphors are coming in. Hindi, the lyrics are very visual, like very stimulating in that way. Right. So you can really get transported just by hearing those things.

[00:13:47] Jeff: That's amazing. That's amazing. Now shifting gears a little bit with kind of the tech spin, you know, there's been a lot of discussion around NFTs and art, but NFTs and music specifically. What is an NFT? Are you using it?

[00:14:04] Vivek: Yeah, I'm going to say some controversial things about this because 

[00:14:08] Jeff: We like that.

[00:14:08] Vivek: And this is just having spent so many months in this space and it was one of my friends from undergrad who really, got me plugged into what is happening in the crypto space and digital currency and an NFT is a non fungible token, that's what it stands for. And it represents a limited edition digital asset that folks can own and trade. So it's backed by digital currency and it allows folks to experience content and unlock access to more content and community represented by ownership of one of these tokens. There's a lot of misnomers that NFTs are a bunch of hype. This is just about investments or moving Ethereum and such. I actually think that the value of the NFT is that for the first time ever, you can introduce a digital asset that has a limited number of additions.

 If you think about it before I had an MP3, if I wanted to give it to you, if I wanted to give it to one of my other friends, it's the same thing. And we can take one MP3 and make millions or billions of them. Right. then DRM and all that stuff started coming in to try to track where all these files are going.

The concept of an NFT is actually this, that, Hey, access to content, maybe one piece, but it's really about showcasing and proving and so that's what the blockchain as this ledger does this and that like, Hey, there are, for example, a thousand versions of chip jai. One of my singles, like on the internet.

Anyone can listen to it, but only X number of people can own it. And ownership of the song means a certain set of privileges that you wouldn't have before. So in an example, before something like iTunes, right, where owning a song or purchasing a song made it very easy for you to put it on your iPad, right.

In the case of NFT maybe an artist can offer a chat room as a result of owning one of their songs or, you know, because you own one of my songs, they might introduce you to like a sneak peek of a live stream and things like that. And it's really just kind of rewarding people for actually owning your content, but doing it in a way that shifts the relationship towards you.

So you can work with multiple platforms. 

[00:16:20] Jeff: Well, how does the artist make money?

[00:16:22] Vivek: So. What I've seen from projects so far is that there's kind of like two or three ways. I think the most successful one which isn't a music one was Beeple where he sold like a piece of art for, you know, $69 million and Ethereum. And that was like, publicized, but Blau he had like 33 versions of like one of his albums that he released in 2018 that he was releasing as an NFT.

Right. And again, saying NFT doesn't necessarily mean much, but what he's really doing is saying I'm going to use the NFT as a vehicle to sell, like access to my vinyl, to sell, access to chat with me and all that sort of stuff. And I'm going to reward 33 fans with that. And there's a price to pay for that, you know, because he has such a strong following and you know, his super fans are very excited to participate in that ecosystem.

 Another NFT project that I thought was interesting, it's called EularBeats. It's actually computer generated music and it's, you know, like a longstanding, like four minute tracker loop that they use algorithms to create literally I think 10,000 versions. Tracks that people can own. And right now what they're owning is that four minute song, but, you know, eventually maybe there's like a live stream that's created based on that algorithm or, you know, access to other people who are interested in that content and things like that.

So what I'm seeing as a pattern amongst NFTs is folks are both listening to music as well as unlocking community. 

[00:17:49] Jeff: Sure. Sure. Okay. So let's talk about you and your performances, your virtual performances during the pandemic. I know that you've been trying out some new things, but tell us about some of your recent shows and how has that gone and what did you do?

[00:18:06] Vivek: Well, what's interesting is that I used to do live streams on a regular basis. And what I would actually do is a live stream, compose music from my laptop and plug it into my phone on Instagram and then allow people to interact and the thing that I found though, I found that like video chat actually be very unfulfilling. Cause you just feel like someone's close, but actually so far away. Whereas whenever I'm on the phone with someone, it doesn't feel like they're far away 

and so I felt that with live streams, and so I started to experiment with improved ways to create co-presence during performance.

And that's how I started looking at augmented reality. So the idea being that, is there a way that I could perform in your home, even though, like I'm basically in my parents basement.

[00:18:55] Jeff: Like a true musician. 

[00:18:57] Vivek: Like a true musician exactly. And so I've been building a lot of technology out there and right now I have one of my augmented reality experiences as an Instagram filter. So if folks check out my username, which is @viagrawal 

[00:19:10] Jeff: they can see 

[00:19:13] Vivek: And,

[00:19:15] Jeff: I love it. 

[00:19:15] Vivek: So they can check out my music and more interestingly, there's an AR effect.

They can just hit try it and then using the camera and, an AR experience they may have, they'll see an avatar version of me performing in the living room. So that sort of stuff for me, it's sort of changing the equation around, like what performance really could be, because suddenly I could be anywhere in the world and then still stream a concert to millions of people.

 It's particularly powerful for the sort of music I do, because one it's Hindi music, which certainly India is a big target market. But the diaspora globally, you look at London, you look at Toronto and Vancouver, you look at like all the top metros in the US like that's at least 15 or 16 cities that would be interested in this content and to try to reach them, five to 10,000 fans at a time, at scale, it felt rather inefficient to me. Right. But if I could just create a performance such that everyone feels like I'm performing for them, even though I'm not there physically, that gets to be very powerful.

Let me tell you about a cover that I did of Aerosmith's Dream On. So I wanted to bring some traditional Indian classical Sufi influences to this iconic rock song. I had a friend from undergrad who has an excellent tenor voice and can both sing like classic rock as well as Indian classical music very well. I was able to sequence most of the music.

You know, using my computer and my keyboard, I put together a track and a few friends that I'd met through COVID we're like, yeah, we can do a video with you. And so everyone was a part, I just did the MP3 and then one of them recorded him singing, another one recorded playing like a harmonium and the other one recorded playing at dubline.

Like we managed to put together a video and release it. And Aerosmith ended up sharing the track and

[00:21:13] Jeff: No way. 

[00:21:13] Vivek: I had a chance to talk with some of them. And I was very grateful for that experience because, you know, I think it also shifted what validation really means, right.

 We often think we are chasing traction, like how much money are we making and how many fans do we have? How engaged are they? How famous are we or how influential are we?

What I have found the most satisfaction in is working with people who are excellent at their craft who are the masters of their craft and having mutual respect and love for the work that we do. And that Aerosmith example is one of those where its just like the fact that they enjoyed the content that they were willing to share it like that,

That's amazing. Right? Like what, else could you really ask for? 

[00:22:03] Jeff: Yeah that's amazing, that is truly, truly amazing. So let me do a couple of rapid fire questions in the last few minutes. So what was your first album?

[00:22:16] Vivek: It was some Stevie Wonder, like a twenty-five year collection of songs.

[00:22:19] Jeff: That's a good one.

[00:22:20] Vivek: Yeah. 

[00:22:20] Jeff: And then what was your favorite concert experience that you've attended? 

[00:22:26] Vivek: I would say the favorite, my favorite concert I attended was Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z's tour in 2013. Because , I love JT. I have a massive man crush on him, so I expect him to be amazing, but, Jay Z as a performer and a commander of the stage, that was something that I had never seen before.

And I was so impressed to see how, you know, two humans could just be, onstage and, you know, practicing their art and showing it off to the world and really commanding attention and presence. It was quite mesmerizing.

[00:23:01] Jeff: That's awesome. Well, on that note, what was the favorite concert that you have 

[00:23:06] Vivek: Well, I've been very lucky. Thanks to AR Rahman he's an amazing composer based out of south India. And he's known for some of the most iconic film soundtracks in Bollywood over the past, like 20 or 30 years. Outside of, you know, his work in India, he actually was the composer for Slum Dog Millionaire.

And so he won an Oscar for that work as well. He's also just an outstanding human and just, you know, I'm really grateful that I've gotten to know him. So, but you know, as part of that, he performed at the Hollywood bowl and he's invited me to perform with him, like, you know, once or twice.

And I was just like, I can't even believe this is happening, 

[00:23:41] Jeff: Awesome. And how did you discover him, you know, as an artist or how did he discover you?

[00:23:47] Vivek: He actually visited Stanford when I was there. I was hosting a South Asian music festival. He came to speak and there was a tribute concert done for him. And he heard some of our voices and liked our work so that's how we started really getting to know each other.

[00:24:01] Jeff: That's amazing. Tell me about any outrageous behind the scenes moments that have happened. 

[00:24:07] Vivek: One thing that I will say is that I have been so surprised by the power of remote recording. I think that there is a lot of belief that, oh, you need to be in person in order to be able to get a song done or in order to be able to get creative juices flowing. But what has been cool is that I'm recording at all odd hours of the day, cause I want to make sure that, if a musician or a singer or any collaborator wants to record like let's go on a schedule that works for them when they feel like their voice is ready, when they feel like they're in the mindset where they know they can record a song, as opposed to you, what traditionally is like high pressure. Like we're doing this right now. It's 1130 composers three, this person's free let's just get it done. And so I've seen people put out their best work, right. Just because they're putting in their hearts and they're in a different type of mindset. Sometimes I hear them and they're like I'm having trouble right now and I'm like, don't worry. We'll just chat again in like an hour or two, or like the next day. And that flexibility is something that usually wasn't possible before. 

[00:25:05] Jeff: That's really wild. I mean, you know, back in the good old days, you know, it was a thousand dollar a day music studio, and you had, a finite amount of time and, you know, particularly vocalists, right. You know, they get burnt out. They can't do a track over and over again.

But you know, with this new virtual studio per se, How do we learn more about your amazing music and the projects that you're working on?

[00:25:27] Vivek: I would say the best thing to do right now is follow me on Instagram. My username is @viagrawal and I also have a website that's in my Link in bio. And then you can see some of the experiments that I'm doing in the tech side as well. So that's the best place to start.

[00:25:53] Jeff: Well on that note Vivek so great to have you on the show today.

Once again, today we were here with the one and only Vivek Agrawal, musician, tech entrepreneur, just overall great, wonderful human being with some sick, sick pipes, which he demoed earlier today. Thanks again, bud. 

[00:26:15] Vivek: Thank you again, Jeff

[00:26:15] Jeff: Thanks for listening to Voices Behind The Music, a Growth Network Podcasts production presented by Feed Media Group. We're on a mission to make it easy, fast, and legal for businesses to use music to power the most engaging customer experiences. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast wherever you get yours and learn more about us at feedmediagroup.com.


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Topics: Joy of Music, Music History, Music Genres