Niru Pratapgiri Interview
1. What is your name and your profession(s)?
My name is Nirupam Pratapgiri but I go by ‘Niru’. I work as an artist manager at Red Light Management and I’m based in Los Angeles, California.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship?
I am southern Indian, Telugu specifically, and I hold Indian citizenship.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry?
My family have always been musically inclined. My uncle is a composer and has directed music for a few films and TV shows in Tollywood, which is the southern Indian version of Bollywood. Though my parents are chartered accountants by trade, my dad is an avid bass guitarist and plays in a Bollywood cover band and actually plays more shows than most professional musicians being an investment banker. My mom is also a singer and is very passionate about Carnatic classical music.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies.
My experience as an AAPI was quite complex. I grew up in India so racially, it was pretty homogenous but culturally, it was very different.
My lifestyle, interests, and tastes gravitated towards western culture so that made it difficult to make friends since I didn’t typically like what kids of my age were into. Most of my classmates, growing up, were into Bollywood and movies in local languages, etc, whilst I was interested in Bach’s fugues, or the sweet sound of an electric guitar solo, or esoteric Renaissance art. Therefore, it was a little hard to find others who shared the same interests as me. I was fortunate enough to have a very sincere and humble mentor who was a western classical pianist himself who taught me everything I needed to know about music theory, styles, genres, and history, so he and I would geek out about everything from Monteverdi to Schoenberg. Therefore, whilst it took a little time, I eventually found people I could get along with. I also played guitar in my high school band so it gave me the opportunity to play a lot of the songs I had grown up listening to. I did feel like I needed to be among the best and further expand my musical knowledge and repertoire.
So, I emigrated to the US in 2017 for college and I was in St Paul, Minnesota. I immediately found that I blended very well into American society and culture, it felt like home the minute I got off the plane, and I never really thought about my ethnicity or heritage here.
I seldom faced any problems. Most of my closest friends are all multiple nationalities and I’ve never had trouble making friends with people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. I did hear some really insensitive remarks from people occasionally, but I realised that most of them were genuinely clueless. I actually feel like I have my own and unique identity which says a lot about what America actually stands for, a true melting pot of ideas, cultures, people, and lifestyles. As an AAPI, my experience in America has been a very positive one. I never felt like I had to belong to a certain box or be attached to a label. People in general are very respectful of other cultures here and the ones that are not knowledgeable take the time to enquire and learn about things they don’t know.
What that did is that it gave me freedom to express myself in whichever way I pleased and expanded my horizons and sensitised me to cultures I personally had never been exposed to. Therefore, it was a major learning experience.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)?
Overall, I do feel quite connected even though it wasn’t that way to start with. Growing up, I was a rebel. I was raised as a brahmin and that life comes with it a set of extremely strict principles, moral conduct, and behaviour. It was something I was never quite into.
I always wanted to be different from the rest. I had my own opinions and feelings regarding most of the religious views so that led me to seek out my own path and discover life as I go, but all of that changed after I moved abroad since I felt more connected to my heritage and culture than I have my whole life.
As I moved to the US and after having lived here for a number of years and meeting and interacting with other AAPI, I find myself to be more connected to my culture. I am aware of my roots and my heritage and I appreciate and respect the societal norms that they adhere to. I recognise now that most of what I was against was just teenage angst and the need to be different but I found God in my life and that led me to have a newfound love and respect for my culture. I like to inculcate the positives and challenge the areas where I feel like my faith and culture needs improvement. Having moved to the US, I did have a really big identity crisis for a little while. I didn’t feel American enough but I also was too American for India, so I found myself in no man’s land where it was nebulous for a little while, but time unravelled what I truly felt and identified with and that opened doors to me exploring cultures outside of just my own, and in the process, it made me closer to my own roots and heritage. From afar, I tend to appreciate my heritage and all the enormous strides my country has made over the past few years.
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)?
Music has always been an indelible part of my life. I was first exposed to some 80s Disco bands like Boney M and Bee Gees by my dad since he was a big fan of them. I began playing the drums when I was 8 years old and later picked up the guitar when my dad brought out his old acoustic to sing me “happy birthday” on my 11th birthday.
I then started to really like music so I enrolled in the Trinity Guildhall International examinations for music theory and classical guitar. I aced all of my exams and that’s when I started to get really serious about music. During grade 9 and 10, I studied under the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) board where I took music and studied a lot about musical analysis, ethnomusicology, music history, music performance, theory, harmony, etc. I scored an A+ which is a distinction in all components of the final exam, which was an unforgettable experience for me.
In grade 11 and 12, I studied under the IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) curriculum where I took music at a high level. I studied all elements of music, including world music and jazz theory, and even had to do an in-depth analysis of famous composers’ works such as An American in Paris by George Gershwin and Petite Messe Solennelle by Gioachino Rossini. I scored another distinction and that’s when I knew I’d be really good at this. It was at this time that I began looking for universities abroad that had good music programmes, I considered all of the best ones, including Berklee, Julliard, Eastman, The New School, Royal College London, Monash University in Australia, and more. After graduating high school, I attended a workshop at a music school in Chennai called Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music where I met the head of the vocal department at a music college in Minnesota called Mcnally Smith College of Music. Hearing more about it made me realise that that’s the college I wanted to go to. So, I decided to prepare for it by taking a gap year after high school. I spent that time really honing in on my chops. I got a Professional Certificate in Jazz Guitar from Berklee Online and also got an associate’s in classical guitar from Trinity Guildhall London. I was finally accepted to Mcnally with a platinum scholarship and I began my studies there in the fall of 2017. Shortly thereafter, the college closed down and I was left with no place to go. To add to my dismay, I received an email saying that I had 30 days to find a new school or be deported. We had some other music schools come to Minnesota and offer a pathway to some of the students, especially the international ones, so that they could transfer and finish their degrees. I spoke to a representative from Berklee and was quite intrigued. Given how competitive and expensive Berklee was, I had never considered it but now I decided to give it all and apply. So, I remember sitting in front of my laptop and recording my audition tapes. Given that I was on the verge of being kicked out of the dorms, I didn’t have much time to do it, so I sat there for 16 hours straight and recorded 3 videos of me playing and sent it out to Berklee, hoping for the best. 3 days later, I got an acceptance letter and I finally had a fresh tank of oxygen. I graduated from Berklee with a Bachelor of Music in Professional Music with Honours in 2020, and began a Master of Science in Music Industry programme at USC in Los Angeles. I graduated from USC in 2022.
6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now?
I decided to pursue music professionally the minute I picked up the guitar when I was 11. I always knew I wanted to be in music, the rest was just a gradual evolution in the field.
My parents have been my biggest fans. They have been the backbone of everything that I have ever done in music. Whether it was guitar classes or college, they have always encouraged me and given me unconditional love and support. I couldn’t have even dreamt of coming close to where I am now without them, and for that I am eternally grateful. They’ve grown with me and are now so educated in the field that they can tell you exactly which colleges to apply to or which company to avoid, or what a modal interchange is. They’ve lived vicariously through me and I am the luckiest person in the world to have been born to them.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a lot of projects both during my time as a student and as a working professional in the industry.
My first foray into the music business was through an internship with a company named Gigabit in Boston. They are a booking agency that helps book a lot of shows for Boston-based musicians with a particular emphasis on Berklee artists. I got to learn a lot during that internship about how the booking industry works and how to liaise with venues and seek new opportunities for artists. I was also a student ambassador at Berklee College of Music and a core member of the Auditions & Interview team that travelled all around the country conducting auditions for prospective Berklee students. I am very proud to have represented my alma mater Berklee and everything it stands for as an institution when it comes to promoting music and music education. I was also a student mentor for the Mentor Collective which is a programme that was designed to make it easier for college students, mostly freshmen, to become accustomed to college life and settle in. I then landed a role working iVoted concerts, which is a music festival with a commendable purpose to increase voter turnout. I did graphic design and worked with the digital marketing team to come up with marketing campaigns, rollout plans, countdown posts, social media management, brand engagement, and also liaising with artists. It took place on November 3rd 2020 and turned out to be the largest digital concert in history with over 450+ artists performing, hence I’m very proud to have been associated with that initiative. After that, I landed a joint role working for BDM Media and Mad Bunny Records in the summer of 2021, where I did digital marketing and A&R, as well as music journalism. I got to work with a lot of prestigious artists such as Joe Walsh, Amjad Ali Khan, and Ringo Starr. I then went to work at Ringo’s Peace and Love Ambassador Programme for the year 2021 and got to be there as part of the crew in-person after reopening after covid which was a surreal experience.
That summer, I landed a role at Music Supervisor Inc. where I worked for prominent music supervisor Barry Coffing and his team. I learnt the ins and outs of music supervision and I am proud to say that I worked as a music editor on a documentary film called “Friday I’m in Love”. I am also the music coordinator for the upcoming film “Man in The White Van” for which I’m also working with Barry, and should be releasing soon.
I also worked in the creative synch department at BMG, where I’m proud to say I got to work on a lot of pitches for some of the biggest names in entertainment such as Amazon Studios, NFL, and MLB. I then moved on to artist management so I currently work as a day-to-day manager Revelation Management Group which is a division of Red Light Management in Los Angeles which manages Slash, Stone Temple Pilots, Evanescence, Billy Talent, The White Buffalo, Anna Akana, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
8. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry or in general?
My journey in music has definitely had its obstacles. As an AAPI, I think it was harder for me to be taken seriously given my expertise and favourite genres. Being a classical guitarist of Indian descent, playing European classical music can be a challenging experience since you tend to be more harshly judged than a European individual but that actually gave me more motivation to pursue it and become better at it. Another obstacle I found was having the need to constantly explain myself and who I was and how I got into the kind of music that I like, which perhaps wouldn’t be the case if I were non-AAPI, which also led to many people asking me if I knew how to play the tabla or sitar or if I knew Indian classical music, which wasn’t the case for me so it took a little bit of education to get people to understand that India as a country is very vast, and not every person is into the same thing.
My coming to the US was the biggest catalyst in terms of breaking free from those shackles. I made friends with people from all over the world, from unique musical cultures, and countries and that really inspired me to be more of a global citizen instead of being limited to one mode of thought or ideology. Hence, being an AAPI has actually worked to my advantage. People are genuinely curious about me and my heritage and express a great deal of interest in getting to know me and my culture more so that has led to many new relationships with people that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
9. 9a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why?
My most favourite AAPI musician is Kirk Hammett. I grew up listening to his stuff and I’ve spent countless hours trying to transcribe his solos. He’s very humble and plays with tremendous musicianship, both as a solo artist and with a band. I’m also a huge fan of John Myung. He’s a musical genius and a really big idol of mine. I also greatly admire Indian classical musicians such as Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Amjad Ali Khan, and Ravi Shankar.
9b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general?
My hopes for the AAPI community are that we grow and thrive as individuals and that we reach a place where we’re comfortable with who we are, in our own skin and embracing our culture without feeling like we need to explain ourselves. I do hope that AAPI’s of different nationalities aren’t in conflict with one another and that they can come together as a whole in order to learn, exchange ideas, collaborate, and make the AAPI community accepting and open to people from all walks of life.
10. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate.
I am an avid cricket fan. I played the sport for a very long time and it still remains to be my favourite pastime. Additionally, I also love working out, going hiking, reading, animal welfare, and travelling.
11. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community?
I’d like to end by saying that I’m extremely grateful to have been given this opportunity to talk about my life, career, and experiences as an AAPI in the music industry, I hope to work towards bettering the industry as a whole by keeping artists at the core of my ethos and purpose. Thank you so much for having me, Summer! :)
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Images courtesy of Niru Pratapgiri