"That's always been my thing – to bring something new": An interview with Zaran Vachha of Collective Minds

"That's always been my thing – to bring something new": An interview with Zaran Vachha of Collective Minds

If you don’t know the name, you might know the beard, and even if you don’t know the beard, you’ve most definitely felt the impact. Zaran Vachha is the brains behind Collective Minds, a collaborative agency that has reliably booked some of the world’s best musicians and DJs to perform in Singapore. With a trend-scorning, flair-celebrating outlook, Vaccha and his team have facilitated many a bucket list-blasting live experience. Kamasi Washington,Talib Kweli, Daniel Caesar, Gilles Peterson, KYLE and Craig David are all fine, disparate names – and they’ve all played here under the Collective Minds banner.

If you think of a city as an ever-expanding canvas, Vachha has seen to it that Collective Minds has added some of the most outstandingly dashing and awe-inspiring colours to the contemporary landscape in Singapore. What’s a brand to a thriving, loyal community? Go to a Collective Minds show.

Below, Vachha speaks to Bandwagon about the ascent of Collective Minds and offers a sneak peek into its future plans.

Tell the people who you are.

I'm Zaran Vaccha; 32 years old and I’ve been in Singapore for two years, now. Before that, I was in London and then I moved Hong Kong for about six years. I had my first job right after I graduated and I realised I made more money in university doing events than at my actual job. That led me to start my own company after I got my bonus from my first job and I've been at it ever since. 

How did you get into doing events?

When I first got into university, I spent my allowance very quickly. So I started working in a bar but it didn't help me cover much of my expenses. I decided to help the manager bring in a crowd on the slower nights and I succeeded in packing the place on Tuesdays. It became the busiest night out of the whole week for them. I basically organised a party by booking friends who were musicians and working with promoters. When that took off, the venue beside the bar, called The Lizard Lounge, where most of the acts perform at in Nottingham, hired me to organise Wednesday nights for them. 

Eventually, I got a gig with a West Indian Charity venue and they gave me a budget to book acts and the first one I booked was Justice. From that point, I realised this was what I wanted to do. I was making money out of it and I was making a lot of friends, too. I was bringing a community together. Everyone who went to my events would know each other. I studied neuroscience in university and that's just sadistic (laughs). It's a completely different thing. 

I was earning more money than anyone who were in proper jobs. On the other hand, they're on a career path and I was just throwing parties. That got to me so what I did was to take over pubs and venues and turned them into nightclubs, which was more than just the usual musician bookings. 

And when did you come to be involved with Collective Minds?

Alfred and I decided to start it together. It’s all collaborations between promoters in each country, hence the name. When I first started it in Hong Kong, the people who knew me in London would contact me and asked me if I wanted to bring a certain artist to Asia. If I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't. The fact that I was the only contact for them in Asia led me to not tell my competitor about it. Like so many bottlenecks in the industry, if they can't do it, they didn't want anyone else to do it. Everyone was looking for everyone else to fail and I disliked that. 

My company's philosophy is all about collaboration. I don't want to compete with anyone but I can't do this by myself. I don't go to any country and tell them that I can do a better job than you. If you're already doing a job there, my approach will be, "How can I help you"? All the competition does is it messes up the market, gives the fans a bad experience and destroys the career of the artist in the region. All we want is to ensure that the audience gets to see good music, that the artist has a good experience and that the promoter makes money.

What's the point of doing it? Is it for the love? Of course, there's a love element to it but the music industry is tough already. Let us develop your artist in this region. These artists are massive and they can sell 10,000 tickets anywhere else in the world but they can't do that here. The Kamasi Washington show was a moment because it led me to think if 50% of the audience knows the artist, the other 50% are there because they trust us. I've spent so long trying to get to that level of trust. DJs are easy because people want to party. But throwing down a $100 to see an artist play six songs over two hours, it's a completely different level of trust. 

As long as we are doing things like that, I'm happy. 

How would you say that you've managed to earn that trust?

Throwing events at people and doing it as much as possible. We don't want to be known for one thing. Next year, we’ll be embarking on lots of other ventures such as art exhibitions and food festivals. We're building venues in different countries and trying to collaborate as much as possible. Especially, in music genres, we don't want to be tied down to just one. If the music is good and people want to see it, we'll try to bring them in.

But we also don't want to appeal to the masses. We're not looking to do a stadium concert. I'm not interested in ever running a festival. It's cool to see 30,000 people come to an event but it's about building a community; getting the same people to keep coming to your events.

From a booking perspective, how do you decide which artists to take a risk on?

I will never book an artist whom I feel audiences won't get. Most promoters will base their decision on how well the artist did in another country. If a manager comes up to me and tells me that the artist sold 10,000 tickets in Paris and asked me why he's only worth 3000 tickets here, I would tell them that it's not the case. It's different everywhere. Even between Singapore and Malaysia.

The problem we have in Asia is that managers and agencies see it as a cohesive thing. It's not. Asia is not a monolith. Most agencies have their head office for the region in Australia, which makes no sense. I'm trying to set a foundation for other people to do this without getting scammed.

They mark things up and it leads to trust issues. That was in my mind when I first moved here since I was an exclusive contact. But I realised that if I did that, I'll be one of the reasons why this market isn't working. My number one thing now is to be transparent with everyone on each side. People are still doing it now for the love of it. It's definitely a grind.

What about the Singaporean market keeps you optimistic about the future? What do we get right and what do we need to work on?

Compared to the rest of Asia, there is decent media. In Hong Kong, I needed to force media to pick my stuff up. Here, people will post it even before I post it up, which is excellent.

What I love about Singapore is that it is so ordered and straight. If I go to the government for approval, it'll either be yes or no. There's no maybe. Another thing is that I can pretty much guess how many tickets I want to sell within a 20% margin. I've never been in a market like that. There's also an appetite for the kind of music that we're doing. Access to venues, government support and the media makes it easy.

The thing is, there are obviously a lot of people who'll complain. As with any event, if it sells out, people are going to be pissed off. I don't think Singapore needs to change that because it will happen in any society. The audience is super-educated about music here. When I moved here, it was life-changing and it was the best decision I ever made in my life. 

Let’s end with your personal favourite of all the shows you’ve booked here.

Kamasi Washington was a proud point in my life because I've always wanted to bring that music to Asia. That's always been my thing – to bring something new. I want to seize an act that I will buy a ticket to see if I was still in London and not just based on ticket sales. The friends that I've brought in, from Gilles Peterson to Yasmin, did very well here and that warms me so much. I get to work with the people I love and I bring them to a country that I'm enjoying. It's the best thing.