When it comes to supporting the scene, we mostly think of supporting bands and artists. But what about the individuals who give us the music we love and the threads we wear? Those who go above and beyond to import and supply the best International CDs, vinyls, and merchandise? This feature is dedicated the cottage industry within the cottage industry of Indian metal — the Distro’s!
Centuries of Sin caught up with the owners of three of the most prolific and respected Distributors in the country — Ulf Bankemper of Metal Masala, Brijraj Agarwal of Slaytanic Distro, and Farzand Ali Bawa of The Hellion Distro — to talk about all things related to the business. Read on as these three “Metal entrepreneurs” talk about their journey so far, the perks and difficulties of running a distro, interacting with record labels and suppliers, the prevalence of bootlegged merchandise, and much more!
Greetings from Centuries of Sin, and thanks for talking to us! How’re you doing?
Ulf: Thank you for the interview! I am doing well; hope everything is fine on your end as well.
Brijraj: Hello, Sairaj! I am doing very good, thank you for asking. Hope you are doing better! Thanks for thinking of listening to me blabber on!
Farzand: Hi Sairaj, I am doing well. Thanks for the interview, and interest in The Hellion Distro!
First off, tell us about how you started your distro, and your journey so far!
Ulf: I started preparing for Metal Masala in February 2014, and managed to be online on February 15. The time in between was spent discussing the idea of starting a distro. Incidentally, Vikram (Bhat) of Mahatobar Distribution was the guy I wanted to get an OK from, as he is one of the guys (along with Sandesh (Shenoy) of Cyclopean Eye Productions, and Kryptos among others) who I have respected for the hard work he has put into the music for a long time. He and the other guys were my inspiration in wanting to contribute to the Indian metal scene.
The most difficult part was organizing all the required government permits and registrations. It’s amazing how much time those can take! Getting the logo designed and the web site running took some effort too, but I thought that if I want to start this venture, I might as well do it properly.
Making contacts for MM was relatively easy; a lot of labels, especially the smaller ones, have been very supportive. I made a lot of new contacts and friends among the metalheads, bands, labels, etc.
Brijraj: I belong to your normal Indian bourgeois. When I started my distro back in 2013, I had just passed my ICSE exams and my mother had increased my pocket money from 500 to 750 rupees, haha! The cheapest CD of any Indian band would cost at least 150-200 rupees, and that used to take a huge chunk out of my funds. Since I have always wanted to own all the music I like, I had to find a way out, and that is when Slaytanic Distro started! For the first 1.5-2 years, things were painfully slow and I was barely even breaking even. But since March 2015, when I borrowed some money from my dad to invest in the business, things have picked up pace! As of today, I don’t owe a single penny to anyone and have a humble collection of my own. So I’m pretty happy about it.
Farzand: I started The Hellion Distro sometime in late 2013. To be honest, the only drive back then was the pain I felt when I wanted to give something back to the bands who did so much for me in life, but couldn’t as there weren’t many outlets to do so. There weren’t many distros back then, and the existing ones were really underground, unlike today. But then, I used to see people like Vikram Bhat, Sandesh Shenoy, Kunal Choksi, and Osustho Mogoj of Old Distro, who used to risk their earnings for us to enjoy real music. That, and friends like Desecrator from Necrodeity, inspired me to give something back, and also help others support physical music rather than TB’s of MP3’s. Moreover, I had to be involved in metal, and since I don’t play an instrument, I found this to be a good option. Hellion also enabled me to do gigs like Pictavian Necromancy with Manzer (the French black metal masters), which would otherwise have never been possible.
Was it hard in any way to debut a distro with premium, higher-priced products in a metal culture that was — and still is — very much based on cheaper, bootlegged merchandise?
Ulf: I was lucky to find a lot of true metalheads who want to hold an original, physical title in their hands. I realize that the current culture of illegal downloads and bootleg merchandise is not ideal for such a venture, but I believe there will always be people who appreciate owning the real thing and listening to it the right way.
Brijraj: The best part about the “metal culture” is the fact that there are always those handful of fuckers who buy the original merch and music no matter what. As far as reaching out to the newer and younger audience is concerned, the problem lies with the funds. Since I am 19, and have friends around that age who want to buy original music but can’t afford it, I am very flexible in that regard. Most of them request me to hold their favorite albums for some weeks, and I oblige. It gives them time, and some credit doesn’t hurt my distro much. And the number of people who buy this original shit rises at the end of the day, too!
Farzand: To be honest, it was as hard as anything I have ever done. Firstly, the mindset of people had to change — what’s the need to get physical copies when MP3’s are there? What’s the need to get an official shirt when there are so many cheaper bootlegs of the same available at less than half the price? It took time, but people eventually understood.
How receptive are record labels and suppliers these days to distributors such as yourself? Especially the bigger International labels with the more popular bands and merch?
Ulf: Most of the labels have been very receptive and supportive so far. The difference between big and small labels is more pronounced in their processes rather than willingness. The big labels obviously have more people and divisions involved in the order process, which can cause some small problems, but never anything serious.
Of course, there also have been a number of labels that haven’t replied to my requests, perhaps due to technical reasons. Some of them have only replied after a couple of months because they didn’t see my mail until then. And as for the labels who don’t respond because they are not interested, who cares? I am very happy with the ones I am working with!
Brijraj: Any record label, big or small, wants sales, and that is what we are giving them. So, no problem there! They are usually amicable, but some of them play hardball, and I personally prefer to stay away from them.
Farzand: The labels need to grow trust, and since India is a relatively new market for Metal in general, they need a bit more incentive. But now, almost all the distro’s today have some tie-up with a big label, and the whole practice has picked up speed quite a bit!
I’ve noticed that your supply of merch is mostly populated by that of European and UK bands, and not as much by American ones. Is there any reason behind this phenomenon, or am I just seeing things the wrong way?
Ulf: I am from the land of Sodom and Kreator; European Metal rules! I have also built good contacts with American labels, but the only problem here is that the shipping costs with their merch are usually more expensive. But I am planning more orders with my American partners; some are in the pipeline right now!
Brijraj: I wouldn’t completely agree with that. Yes, you can say that we mostly import stuff from the European/UK labels, and not so much from the US ones because of the exorbitant postage rates. Fortunately, most big labels have a European division, which makes things easier.
Farzand: I for one, only stock the bands I personally enjoy and want to support in my small, humble way. It’s all for support in the end, so why would you sell stuff from bands you don’t want to support? Of course, there are others who do that, but that’s their way of running a distro. I want to keep it very straightforward and simple: distribute what you love. So, to answer your question, my repertoire covers every corner of the globe where I feel a band needs support.
Give us an idea about how difficult — financially and logistically — it is to source metal merch; especially with regard to India’s laws on imports, customs and licenses.
Ulf: Well, sourcing items is not a problem, but it has to make financial sense as well. There are so many costs involved besides the item itself, so I only try to import stuff which doesn’t become too expensive at the end, so that I can offer them at affordable prices.
India’s imports laws could be more supportive, but they are a reality we have to deal with. I just wish that things would be a little more professional. I’ve had packages lost after reaching India, and at other times, deliveries have been stuck in customs for many weeks despite the paperwork being correct. And sometimes, those packages reach me looking like they have been through a war zone! Changing a jewel case box isn’t a problem, but what do you do with a damaged LP cover?
Brijraj: I live in Cuttack — a very small town. Most of you probably haven’t even heard of the state of Odisha. The nearest customs office is in Kolkata; I will leave it to you to reckon my situation. The transit times are ridiculous, and I have had tens of packages being lost or held up at customs! It is very difficult to cope with these things.
Farzand: Customs screw you in all ways possible. You run into financial loss at times, but nowhere is it written that underground Metal made anyone a big shot, is it? Also, there’s nothing much you can do in a place like India, can you?
Do you think Indian distros such as yourselves have successfully combated the sale of bootleg t-shirts and merchandise in India?
Ulf: Honestly speaking, no. We have hopefully managed to make life a little easier for people who want to get the originals, but that’s about it.
Bootlegging is not a new phenomenon; it has always been there. There were tapes in the early days, and now, there are downloads. The difference here is in scale. Where in the old days you actually had to know someone who had the stuff you wanted, today, anyone can get anything from anywhere without moving a muscle. Unfortunately, this has led to a devaluation of music in my opinion. If people download hundreds of albums, when do they listen to all of them? When you can basically download any song you want, and delete the ones you don’t like right after the first listen, can you actually invest time in really experiencing an album the way it was meant to be? There are a lot of brilliant albums still coming out, but it takes time to discover them, and that time and the willingness to spend it seems to have gotten lost.
Some people even claim that, since they download everything, they know more music and it thus makes them better metalheads. What bullshit! Then, there are people who feel that they are for some reason entitled to free music. I don’t think you can battle these mentalities; all we distros can do is to offer an alternative, and be happy about anyone who wants to invest into the music to actually get something out of it.
Brijraj: Not to a substantial extent. It is the same 100 people buying original music from me who used to earlier fetch it through other sources from abroad (mostly family or friends), or through the labels directly. Buying from us gives them the assurance of not losing their orders to the ever unreliable Indian post and customs. Although, since I mostly deal in music media and not merchandise, I can speak for CDs and vinyls only.
Farzand: Why only merchandise? Buying original music has also picked up! Think about this: illegally downloading a song doesn’t cost one paisa, but you still have to pay for a bootleg shirt. When people get ready to pay for something which earlier they thought getting for free was the most legit option, isn’t that the bigger win?
Let’s get a little light-hearted here. Tell us a story about a piece of merch, or kind of merch, that you had the hardest time importing or selling!
Ulf: I can’t think of a title which created such difficulties. I just remember the awesome feeling I had when labels which were so important in my youth — Relapse, Peaceville, etc. — suddenly replied to my emails. I was star-struck since, after all, I am just a fan myself. One reply I received was from a musician whose work I had admired for a long time, and suddenly, this guy was writing to me! What a feeling.
It was also very cool when a Bulgarian band called Serpentine Creation contacted me out of the blue, asking me if I wanted to distribute their titles. And now, after one year, Metal Masala has released their EP (a big thanks to Satanath Records for being the driving force behind this!).
There were quite a few moments like this which made me happy, proud, and proved to me that it was all worth it.
Brijraj: THESE PIECE-OF-SHIT VINYLS! Such a pain in the ass! They’re so fragile and delicate, but our postal departments treat them like elephant fodder. The vinyl sleeves are sometimes damaged in the process, making them very hard to sell. Unfortunately, not all labels pack them with the delicate precision of a chemist, and that just translates to more losses, haha!
Farzand: I have buyers not only from India, but from the sub-continents outside the country, too. So for me, the biggest issue at times is to send stuff to those places, as their customs are even more fucked up and difficult to deal with than ours.
What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to a person who wants to start distributing merchandise?
Ulf: The most important thing is to be genuine and reasonable. You’ve got to respect the labels and distributors you are dealing with, as well as the people buying from you. Try to do it your own way; don’t copy what the others are doing. Running a distro takes a lot of work, and one should be prepared to invest that time and effort.
Brijraj: Don’t! HAHA! On a serious note, although it is tough, you can have a go if you have the time, money and reputation, and if you think you can understand the eccentric Indian metal market.
Farzand: I would like to quote one of my great friends, who told me this when I was starting out: “Good things come to those who are patient.” So always be ready to be patient. And of course, before doing this, love the bands you sell. Don’t do it just for the money, like a rat.
Inversely, what do you think is the biggest mistake to avoid while running a distro?
Ulf: Doing it just for the money. This way, you will end up selling out. I know that there are people who don’t have a problem with that, and maybe I am too old-fashioned in my view, but I will only stock what I respect.
Brijraj: Not charging for postage! Postage charges eat up a huge chunk of your profits, so I have only recently stopped this free postage shit.
Farzand: There are some out-and-out retards in our “scene”. I hope I could have avoided them, but you only learn from your mistakes, don’t you?
Thanks again for talking to us at Centuries of Sin! We wish you the best of luck with your distro, and are definitely going to buy some stuff from you guys in the future!
Ulf: Thank you for the interview. Keep up the great work, and remember: we are all in it for the music!
Brijraj: Thank you very much for letting me speak. Looking forward to your order(s)!
Farzand: Sure, thanks for your time, Sairaj! The doors of the Hellion are always open for the true lovers of Metal music! Cheers!
Get your fix of Metal Merchandise from these Distro’s here!
Metal Masala: http://metal-masala.com
Slaytanic Distro: https://www.facebook.com/groups/428268480671887/
Hellion Distro: https://www.facebook.com/thehelliondistro/