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How Pavan Vasdev Turned a Final Project into a Music Startup

Q: Thinking about your life and experience even before undergraduate, when did you first develop an interest in sound or music?

A: I’ve been interested in music for as long as I can remember. I grew up playing piano, trumpet, and cello. In high school, I grew my hair out and joined a rock band, where I played drums and guitar.

My family is very musical – my mom is a singer and my dad plays tabla. My house was always filled with impromptu jam sessions on anything from Elvis to classical Indian music. I think that’s where it all stemmed from.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your educational history and what motivated you to pursue an advanced degree in sound?

A: My educational background is in anthropology and marketing, but I’ve been working in the music industry since leaving undergrad. I came to Northwestern because I was looking for a research institution that could support my research into South Asia’s digital music ecosystem.

Q: You mentioned you didn’t start working in the music industry until after undergrad, but where did that interest stem from?

A: I was always interested in the “business” of music – all the people bustling behind the scenes to make artists who they are. In undergrad, I started recording local musicians around the Eugene, Oregon area – I would try to help them get shows and put their demos out. That’s where I started to think about how fun it would be if that was my real job!

Q: Why did you want to enroll in Northwestern’s Sound Arts and Industries Program (SAI)?

A: SAI is (to my knowledge) the only program that provides a comprehensive overview of the world of all things sound. A lot of higher education programs that focus on music are explicitly technical or trade schools. I was hooked by NU’s approach of combining theoretical and technical information from ALL sound industries (film, music, ethnomusicology, etc.)

Q: What has been your favorite class so far?

A: NUVention Arts, by far. I love that it combines students from all disciplines (some sound, some Kellogg, etc.) and has us working on how to innovate in the music space. Within SAI specifically, Jake Smith’s History of the Recording Industry was exceptional because it grounded the current state of the record industry in rich historical context. A lot of aspects within the record industry that I have found challenging in my experience were contextualized in that class, so for me, that was invaluable. 

Q: Have you gotten involved in any extra-curriculars during your time at NU?

A: I (very infrequently) attended MAX club, a club run by SAI students and professor Stephan Moore, in which students basically learned MAX MSP and ate pizza. That was a lot of fun. Beyond that, it was more about attending events – we had a ton of speakers come to campus, and once every few weeks I would get out to those. 

Q: Are there speakers or programming that SAI has organized that have stuck with you or been particularly impactful?

A: Yes! My favorite guest was Alex Patsavas of Chop Shop Music. I’m not at all involved in sound for film or anything film related, and hearing her talk about her journey in that field was really comforting. She basically just started doing it and slowly built her brand within the music supervision world, to where now she’s the best of the best.

It was great to hear her reflect on figuring it out as she went and some of the uphill battles she faced. Her transparency and willingness to reflect like that was really refreshing and definitely has stuck with me as I try to do something similar (albeit in a slightly different industry).

Q: What has been the most valuable part of the program for you?

A: The support from our staff to tailor my education to make sure I’m getting the most out of this program is really amazing, and something that is probably unique to this program. They seem genuinely interested in my takeaways from this program.

Q: What do you hope to do after graduation?

A: I’m gunning for a spot at a music tech company – the more I learn, the more I realize music tech is definitely the space with the most potential for growth and innovation in the music industry.

I’ve also got a startup (an element of this is my “Study in Sound,” our graduating capstone project), which deals with partnering India’s Bollywood industry musicians with music producers from Western markets, so I’ll be pushing forward with that upon graduation.

Q: Are you able to elaborate a bit more about your startup and how you’ve balanced working on that and your studies?

A: Yes! Zindi was actually a project that stemmed from research in Neil Verma’s class. I was very interested in India’s music industry, and the way it was changing and integrating with the global music industry. For Neil’s final project, I created an annotated bibliography that would serve as a bank of sources for my Study in Sound (I didn’t exactly know how that would shape up – I just knew that I wanted it to be in this space and that doing the necessary research would be vital).

In winter quarter, I started fleshing the idea out – interviewing people in this space, reaching out to musicians, etc. In the spring, I was able to work on this in Gregg Latterman’s NUVention: Arts class, which focused on entrepreneurship in creative industries. I also worked on this in Stephan Moore’s seminar class, which was basically a 12-student focus group where we all supported each other’s Study in Sound. I did spend time on the project outside of class, but I was able to work a lot of the groundwork into my coursework, which I think is something unique to the SAI program.

Now I’m at Saavn, India’s largest music streaming service, and I’m getting to put this project to use as a day job, helping them create original content, which is nice!