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  Industry Profile




Industry Profile: Mandar Thakur

— By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess)



This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Mandar Thakur, COO, Times Music.

Indiaís music industry has not only had to contend with the full impact of the Internet, and technology-empowered consumers like other territories, but it fastened itself at the top of the barricades as the countryís mobile operators began to build a digital music society.

Today, India has more than 800 million cell phone subscribers and data penetration is an estimated 10%. A market of about 300 million music consumers embrace an eclectic repertoire of Bollywood film songs, bhangra, ghazals, remix songs, fusion, EDM, devotional, tribal, folk, qawwalis and Western pop and rock music.

At the forefront of Indianís music industry is Mandar Thakur, COO of Times Music, a division of South Asiaís largest media conglomerate, The Times Of India Group.

The Times Of India Group is South Asiaís largest media conglomerate with annual revenue exceeding $1.5 billion, and the employer of 11,000 people. A family-owned business, it owns interests in magazines and newspapers, radio and TV networks, online services, music publishing, a record label, and so on.

Times Music manages a large and diverse domestic and international music catalog, and also administers its own music publishing catalog in all major international markets. The company is also the exclusive India sub-publisher to Warner Chappell and Peer Music.

Prior to joining Times Music in 2010, Thakur operated a digital music and media consultancy business. He had been consulting for The Times Of India Group for 18 months after Motorola shut down Soundbuzz, India's largest online and mobile music distribution business, where he had been GM.

Prior to a 9 year stint at Soundbuzz, Thakur was a part of the startup team that launched the pioneering 24 hour Asian music television station Channel V, part of the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp's Star TV operation. In the early í90s, Thakur managed bands, and worked in concert promotion.

What is the biggest music label in India?

T-Series is the #1 Indian company by turn over.

They do primarily Bollywood?

Just Bollywood by and large. They do other repertoire but they are the unquestioned dominating force in Bollywood music. I think that the second position by revenue would be Saregama which has been focusing on catalog. They have been unfortunate that in the past couple of decades that they have had 4 to 5 different CEOs. Sony Music Entertainment India is the biggest 360 degree player in India. They are the largest in terms of international music. They are also very large Bollywood players. I suspect that Sony and Saregama will go neck-to-neck in terms of revenues, with Sony being just a little bit less.

Sony Music Entertainment India has entered into some interesting partnerships of late, including a deal last month with migme, the Singapore-based social media and entertainment company.

Sony is probably one of the most progressive players in the country. As a multinational they have taken a very long-term view. They have been here for the past 16 years, and they have been building up their business by establishing local music. They went after Bollywood music. Today, they are a very serious competitor in the entire Bollywood space. I would say that T-Series, followed by Saragama by size and revenue, and then Sony by size and activity.

[Migme hopes to use the Sony Music Entertainment partnership to expand its artist engagement program in India. The program involves Sony artists using the migme platform to build and interact with their fan base. Migme and the artists will then share in the revenue generated from the sale of virtual goods and gifts. Earlier last month, migme announced an initial move to expand its artist engagement program into India through a partnership with CAA Kwan, one of Indiaís largest celebrity and sports management agencies.]

The second tier of leading music players would include companies like Times Music, and Universal Music Group?

Yes.

Times Music offers sub-publishing services which may be attractive to those international publishers fazed by Indiaís complex music market.

It makes sense for a lot of the global majors to work with us. We bring in facilities. We bring in offices. We bring in the strength of the entire Times of India Group. Access to the advertisers, access to the (radio and TV) networks, and everything. It is a situation where we really are not in a position to correct their IP (intellectual property) but, being entrenched in this business here, we have the ability to help their repertoire grow with the rest of industry. I think that is very important as opposed to coming in and trying to do this all themselves

You work in Mumbai?

I simply refuse to toe the line and call it Mumbai. I hate that the government renamed it back to its original name. I grew up with the name Bombay. So I live in Bombay, and I also work out of the Bombay office that is Times Music's headquarters

Did you have a hesitation in 2010 in deciding to work for such a massive company as The Times Of India Group?

I had no hesitation. The reason is that I have spent almost all my life as an entrepreneur. As a corporate entrepreneur as in the case of Channel V when we started it here and it was still owned by News Corp (News Corporation). It was this raggedy start-up team that was starting it. We were pretty much kick-starting the music television business in India. We started off the terrace of a hotel.

Prior to Times Music you had worked at Soundbuzz, Asia/India's largest online and mobile music distribution company, which was acquired by Motorola in 2008. Motorola then shut it down a year later.

Motorola got basically a turnaround itself (split into two separate entities, Motorola Mobility and Motorola Solutions), and I had to figure out ďWhat am I going to do with service companies?Ē But I worked for Motorola for a year.

You had worked at Soundbuzz for a long time.

I was at Soundbuzz for 9 years, and then at Motorola for another year. That again was a corporate.

Then you were working as an entertainment consultant for almost 18 months after leaving Motorola.

The Times was a client. So I had the opportunity to look at the organization from the outside in. So I was comfortable with it when I was offered the position. So no, there was no hesitation.

Apple Music is available in India with an ultra-cheap rate, but it will likely still face stiff competition.

Well, yes and no in a way. At this stage Appleís entry has created a massive wave of sorts. There are local competitors, and streaming has been a business that has been here for the last, maybe, three or four years or more. Appleís competitors are very well entrenched. Gaana or Saavn all have publicly-declared users in the tens of millions. There is also Rdio, which bought up a local company (Dhingana) here (in 2014).

[Apple Music is now available in 100 countries, including India where the streaming service has among the cheapest rates globally. At 120 rupees ($1.89) for a monthís-worth of music streaming, Apple has opened its online music library to Indians at a price considerably lower than the entrance fee elsewhere. Appleís other products, however, are more expensive in India than in North America due in part to an import tax on phones.]

Australian music streaming service Guvera also opened up in India in 2014.

Yes. Guvera is doing great as well. These are all free to market services, free to consumers, but backed by advertising. The big difference is that before Apple launched, Airtel (Bharti Airtel headquartered in New Delhi, India), the countryís largest telecom operator, and also the worldís fifth largest operator in volume, launched its own online streaming service. It is called Wynk. It was the first paid music subscription streaming service, Airtel, being a telco, already had a transactional relationship with their consumers due to their voice and data plans. They didnít have an uphill task of having to convert free streaming consumers into paid subscription consumers as these same consumers were already paying them for other core services. They immediately ramped up (with dedicated marketing and promotions across media channels, including television) creating the first ever subscription service. So for Apple to come in, and start off another similar service, well there already is an established player. But I think that with Appleís massive scale, and with that news (of its launch) that resonated, and a fairly engaged user base, it has created a bit of a race.

Appleís iTunes has had an estimated market share in India of 26% mainly due to focusing on international repertoire. How much domestic repertoire did Apple Music launch with?

They pretty much have everything. All services are all pretty much all repertoire. Itís just that the consumption of international music on iTunes is slightly higher than most services.

Saavn, one of the handful of streaming services dedicated to India, recently raised $100 million for investment. A bit scared?

Yeah. Look hereís how itís all going to play out, Larry. These are all businesses that are just over, maybe, eight to ten years old. Look at Spotify, even, if they are turning over $1 billion in revenue, itís a little hard for them because they have to keep the costs of the business, and keep raising money. Now Apple, Google, YouTube, and Airtel are players with deep pockets. Whichever streaming market they get into in a market like India at the rates that we discussed in rupees these are just little droplets that come in. These businesses will probably invest even more than that in 10, and even 12 years. So unless an independent player like a Saavn or others have that kind of cash capital to be able to play the game for a longer time, itís going to be difficult. So I donít blame Saavn for (raising) $100 million. They probably should have raised a little more money. But what is important is the fact that international investors are putting in that kind of money into a streaming business in India. I think that is really positive

[Founded in 2007, Saavn is headquartered in New York City with offices in India. It claims to now have 14 million monthly active users.]

You made an intriguing comment in 2013 that ďinternet piracy was actually a good thing to happen.Ē I agree with your argument that piracy woke up the music industry. Can you imagine if there wasnít piracy and that the music industry had kept its head in the sand?

This industry would have been decimated big time. I was reading an interview the other day with (American manager) Scooter Braun and I liked what he mentioned that this is not a challenged industry. It is not an industry that is dying. It is an industry that is changing. Only a very few people are able to comprehend that, and will decide to change or act on that. It was kind of a big thing in the music industry here when I came from the live music sector, from music broadcasting, and from the first digital company created here, everybody asked, ďWhy the hell do you want to join a record label? Whatís wrong with you? Do you want free CDs?Ē I was like, ďNo no no I donít want the free CDs, but I really feel that different perspectives will help this industry, and certainly will help the company that is Times Music.Ē

Iíve always felt that we as an industry do not understand our faults or comprehend them to say that, ďI was wrong. Here is what somebody else has started.Ē If you look at internet creativity on distribution, it has only come from the pirates.

The music pirates were the canaries down in the internet mine.

Yes. Absolutely.

They made mistakes, and the music industry was able to watch them make their mistakes, and correct some of them. Meanwhile, the technology, recording, and film industries grew closer together.

Completely. I think that it was all about control, Larry. Where one industry (the recording industry) controlled a lot. Today that same control has passed onto five players. At one point, the record industry would be the main state of the music business creating the art. Thatís fine. That doesnít matter. The pie is just bigger, and we play a different role. Occasionally, we can take a lead from people who may have the wrong intentions. We have the right product. Thatís all that I meant to say with my comment. That the product was right, which was digital distribution, peer-to-peer. It was just that the players had the wrong intentions, and they have since been dealt with.

As a connected Indian teenager how should I get my music? At one point, content was king. Then portability became pivotal. I think itís going to shift to accessibility. If something is available, can a service give it to me quickly, and with ease? Exclusives, I donít care about.

I agree. Exclusives are a thing of the Ď80s. I donít think anybody cares about anything, anymore. Itís a question of if I like something I just need to get it fast with the least possible cost, and the least headache. A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with someone who was asking again about piracy. I said, ďWhy are we are looking at piracy sites to where teenagers would have gone earlier from our view point, from our age?Ē Iím 42. Itís been a long time since I pirated something. My point is that you canít look at the last two decades of images. You have to look at someone who is a teenager today. Think about it. Why would anyone want to go to a piracy site today when there are close to 8 or 10 legit music sites giving away music for free? You can go to Saavn. You can go to Guvera. To Spotify. You donít have to go to a piracy site anymore. In my view, the streaming business has very slowly eradicated piracy. Not completely, but for a teenager like you mentioned, itís pretty much streaming today. I wouldnít think that it was anything else.

Streaming will win out, and it will be a subscriber model.

It will be. Itís a question of whether you want to pay $9 or 120 rupees a month. The medium is not a big deal. Itís a question of people recognizing that there is value that Apple streaming brings to the table. The value that Spotify brings. And, if itís the cost for a package of cigarettes or a beer, why not?

A friend of mine asked me a few years ago if every music track in my record collection was available online did I need a record collection? I had to answer no.

You donít need to.

It is certainly evident in India that the music industry is making money for mobile operators and others. India has roughly 800 million cell phone subscribers, and data penetration is an estimated 10%.

Thatís a favorite topic of mine. Mobile operators are sort of the modern day pirates when it comes to taking revenue (from music distribution). Iím very happy to say that quote on record because at the end of the day if you look at mobile value added services revenue that comes with those downloads at least in India you are talking about 6-8% or more of their top line at one point came from this. For people not to pay creators, to not pay the people who are putting it out is such a shame. As an industry we should be worried about stuff like that rather than being bothered by a boring thing like piracy.

As a friend pointed out, digital services now want to pay to distribute music. Itís just that they are seeking to see how little they have to pay to do so.

What a quote.

They want to pay the least amount.

Look, they may be right. Hereís my analogy, and bear with me for a second. If you look at some of the emerging markets, and Iím no expert on the United States, but if you look at modernization. You now have high speed data lines, and hyperloops. In emerging markets, thereís a burst of consumer activity like retail malls, coming in with big shopping brands, mobile phones and all of that, the $1 that would have gone toward music or a film, itís now a fight for that dollar. That dollar is stretched into new shoes, into the newest version of whatever is being put out. Into a fancy new car, and for credit cards and things. So consumer payment culture is so high that music fundamentally is...well, itís a matter of valuing that music.

Itís also a matter of selling music more directly to consumers. That fight has already been lost by the music labels.

Thatís what I said about control a little while back with the labels. That the day that you figured out that you couldnít do it anymore, it was a question of, ďOh my gawd, am I going to be able to walk again?Ē Itís very destabilizing. But it is what it is. Change is here to stay and if we donít deal with it proactively, change will deal with us. Thatís obviously a good thing.

Itís interesting how the download market imploded globally so quickly. Downloads were never going to be a stable distribution configuration.

No it wasnít. It was soft. Back in the mobile or telephone days you would have a true tone or a master tone (on mobile). All of these things were stepping stones into a larger reach of a media format which was a download, and that was a stepping stone into streaming. I think that the death of downloads has had nothing much to do with taste as much as it has to do with the medium itself. In my case, I had iPod with close to 6,500 songs. When iTunes streaming started, it basically had all of those (music tracks) in my ITunes library in streaming. So I began thinking, ďWhy do I need my iPod anymore?Ē

India is a unique marketplace in that music is less centered on the artist and more on the song.

It completely is. You are bang on. For us the music industry was always traditionally a sub-set of the film industry. So music companies in India started off as traders buying film soundtracks, all inclusive, and then selling them at retail.

The Indian music market is roughly a $270 million (US) business with domestic repertoire representing the bulk of the market. About 70 % is Bollywood music. The rest is split between non-Bollywood music, including local pop, rock and traditional genres.

Yes. Itís not a massive sized business. Itís a business that has been in a conundrum for a long period of time. India was always about a song. We were sort of ready for the YouTubes of the world pretty much ď100 years agoĒ when every single Bollywood film had a song and dance video. They only made musicals of films. So over a period of time the song became the main identifier. The actor became the face of the song, and playback (the backing track) was obviously somebody behind. It is only now that things are changing around with finding independent artists. But if you ask, ďWhat are your Top 10 artists?Ē It wonít matter because itís the same artists shared between Sony, Universal and T-Series and any other of the peers that we have.

Will India ever produce another golden period of independent music as it did in the Ď90s with acts like Alisha Chinai, Indian Ocean, and Euphoria? A great period for independent Indian music.

I totally agree. Indian Ocean have signed on to us. We have released almost all of their albums. If you take a step back, Larry to the Ď90s which was the years music television channels launchedói was part of them while at Channel V (the pioneering 24-hour Asian music television station), and their competitor at that point was MTV that had just launched. At that point, the mid to the end Ď90s was the first defining golden age of Indian pop. It was when Indian pop came into the mainstream with artists like Alisha Chinai, Daler Mehdi, and the Colonial Cousins. A lot of these guys were the faces of Indian music. Each had their own following. Nothing to do with Bollywood. A lot of companies served it (non-Bollywood pop music) up like Magnasound, and Crescendo which are licensees of Warners and BMG. That was a very big golden period.

What happened was that the Indian consumer pop culture that was evolving got taken over by this large multi-media extravaganza that is Bollywood. From traditional Bollywood, it turned into a very consumer friendly, very young approach. The sound of music changed. Hip hop influences came into Bollywood. And that became our pop culture.

Also the Bollywood films became more sophisticated with film stars becoming like rock stars.

Absolutely. Bollywood got more in touch with modern times, in touch with the evolving music consumer marketplace, and moved more toward a lower demographic than an older demographic. And the sound changed. If you look at Bollywoodís Top 10 music composers today, they are all ex-rock and ex-pop musicians.

How quick in the Bollywood sector is a track made available to consumers?

It actually is made available to the public before the film releases.

They use music to promote the film?

Yes. In many cases two to three months beforehand the videos are out.

How is the music promoted?

Largely though music videos, radio airplay, and television advertising. TV is the biggest driver for marketing and promotion in Bollywood simply because it is a multimedia thing. Itís just not the song, it also the actors and everything else.

India doesnít seem to have a true pop music culture outside of Bollywood.

Not really. Thereís Bollywood, and it still pretty much dominates our pop culture. If I can go a step back a bit. In the í90s the independent pop music scene sort of finished off, and Bollywood took its place. That dream still continues because it has everything to do with the budgets that Bollywood films have. The visual extravaganza, and the eye to glamor that is attached to the films and videos. So you didnít need anything beyond that until today, but the (the independent) scene is now growing.

On the main stage thereís Bollywood for sure, and each and every one is locking into that. But beyond that on a ground level, there is a niche, a very nice independent music scene growing up. Itís at a very early stage where there are very big festivals doing four cities. That entire scene is dominated by independent music, and independent bands. I wouldnít call it a business scene as yet because a lot of these artist have yet to reach a serious level of songwriting. But a lot of them have their own fans who like to see them and buy stuff from them. That is bubbling under.

As streaming evolves, it will likely popularize Western music more in India.

Completely. I agree. I think that is a large significance and if you go back and look at Appleís share (with iTunes) of an estimated 26% that shows that there is a clear demand for international music. With the live scene thereís tons and tons of international EDM stars here almost every weekend. So clearly, there is potential. Itís a question of how much can you play. It goes back to that. If you look at the major television companies, if you look at the music companies, if you look at either the streaming companies or the even the multinationals, itís a question of this market takes a decade or more than a decade and a half to digest. So itís a matter of risk capital. How long can you hold on?

Has radio deregulation of radio helped foster growth of new domestic independent music?

The only problem that I see with a lot of the private radio networks is they are all Bollywood obsessed. Beyond a point it is very hard to...it (the independent music scene) just isnít going to grow.

As you noted EDM is very popular in India.

We must be the strongest ambassador for EDM here. EDM today is what rock and pop were in the past two decades. It is simply one of the biggest genres. Not only in international, but you see traces of EDM today in Bollywood films, and local culture as well.

Goa has a big electronic scene that started two decades ago. EDM is also strong in such main Indian cities as Mumbai, and Delhi, followed by Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata, and Hyderabad.

It is. Look Iím a little old school when it comes to music listening. But EDM is like a monster juggernaut. It is just unstoppable. Every weekend there are DJs playing here, and there two or three top-tier festivals like Sunburn and Super Sonic (both in Goa). Times Music has a very large interest in EDM. Times Music recently released new albums by Above and Beyond, one of the world's largest EDM acts, and Paul Van Dyk. We play a lot in that EDM area but it is something that just boggles the mind right now. Just like India.

Indianís live music business is renowned for its mind-boggling restrictions, including enforced curfew hours, and entertainment taxation that varies from state to state. Have any of these issue been relaxed?

I think most states are like the home state which Bombay is. Bombay is a city, and the state is Maharashtra. So outside of the home state, it is actually far easier to have live shows because curfew times are pretty much longer than Bombay is. I think that Bombay shows have to shut down by 10 (PM).

The biggest problem in the country is licensing and taxation more than the curfew. The curfew is fine. People can manage it, and they can finish it (the show) on time. I would say that would be the lesser of the many evils, but the inability of anybody to comprehend the licensing system, and get 18 or 20 licenses and, secondly, the heavy taxation of the entertainment which I think is higher than 25%, that doesnít create a promoter or impresario culture.

[The entertainment tax structure in India varies across states. The tax is mostly levied on each and every financial transaction related to entertainment including: Major commercial shows, movie tickets, music concerts, and music festivals. The state government is the primary beneficiary of this revenue, and the local authorities will earn their share of the tax as well. Entertainment tax has to be paid upfront to the authorities concerned. An event organizer has to estimate the sale of tickets, and pay the tax. A tax refund on unsold tickets may be claimed with authorities return the money in 60 days from the date of the claim.]

Itís hard to find people who want to invest in concerts or festivals.

You heard about Jerry Seinfeldís two live shows here that got canceled? That was out of some stupid parking thing. That there wasnít (adequate) parking or parking permission was needed or something like that. The cops denied (licensing the show) at the last minute. Things like that. But I still maintain a fairly optimistic attitude. This is a growing business. Itís not only us in the music business but itís other the stake holders as well. The government, the cops, the agencies, and the brands. Everybody is going with it. In spite of these teething issues we still manage to pull off big gigs and these issues are all just that, teething problems

Over the years Live Nation Entertainment has done shows in India, but AEG Live hasnít, citing the lack of suitable venues.

Live Nation and AEG are looking to participate, and some of the big (booking) agencies like CAA have joint ventures here. But I think itís a question of, ďWhat do you want to do with the country?Ē Itís not like everyone is waiting for Live Nation to bring in tons of artists. Those costs are also unbearable. It is question whether Live Nation wants to participate in India in exporting these large-scale Bollywood shows, and bring them across the world where there is already an organized culture. There are already promoters and stadiums where these things are already happening. So itís a question of looking at that as an opportunity, and saying, ďIím going to make that happen.Ē Or is it the other way around? That they import in global superstars. Itís making a decision and moving on.

You grew up as a rocker.

Yes. Still proud of it (that identity). I wear it on my sleeve.

What rock did you drive you parents crazy with?

It was pretty much rock music between the late Ď70s and early Ď80s. My fascination of bands started waning in the late Ď90s. If you had me list my favorite artists, it would be everyone from Deep Purple to Scorpions to Motely Crue. Iím going to go to the last Motley Crue gig at the Staples Centre (on Dec. 31st, 2015). Then Iím going to follow them to the Whisky (for a special last show).

You have been public about your admiration of Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein. Heís been talking about India for decades.

More than that. There are probably corners of India that he knows more about than I do. Heís been to places in India that I havenít been, particularly in the past two years.

Two people stand out as my heroes who have been really inspirations. One is David Geffen, and the other is Seymour Stein. Geffen obviously for the business and Seymour Stein for his very simplistic take on music. I remember that line that Seymour mentioned that, ďThere are no genres in music. Thereís really only good music and bad music. Thatís it.Ē I always try to look at music that way.Ē

I knew David Geffen because he and Elliot Roberts began managing Canadians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in the late Ď60s.

Seymour took me to the 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards where Geffen received one of the lifetime awards (The Ahmet Ertegun Lifetime Achievement Award). I was like an excited school boy with all of my idols there. I was like, ďWow.Ē

How much time do you spend traveling?

Oh, maybe, close to half a month. I stay in the Bombay office a lot because we are always in the throes of change. I like to run a business with a structure that is flexible. We are doing so much. We are entering Bollywood in a big way now. The parent corporation has great faith is us. They support us wholeheartedly. Due to that thereís a lot going on at work. So Iím trying to cut down on travel. But I would say that 15 days a week Iím traveling.

You annually attend the MIDEM, Music Matters, and Musexpo industry conferences.

Those are the only three that we do, and for very specific reasons. We are one of the few labels in India that have a global mandate. We are an Indian label looking outward. A large part of our revenues come from overseas markets so those three are big for us. Music Matters is big for us because of the wider business. Musexpo for all of the sync opportunities it presents. MIDEM because of music publishing and digital. It is sort of a once a year creative time with our partners.

You are just looking for nicer weather in the south of France.

(Laughing) What a great idea to go to the French Riviera.

Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.

He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book ďMusic From Far And Wide.Ē

Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.

To learn more about Larry LeBlanc and to see some nifty historical photos check out:

http://www.nmc.ca/influential-music-journalist-larry-leblanc-rallies-support-for-nmc

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