Monday, April 05, 2010

Death of Indian Rock

Rock music in India is finally dead. Three weeks ago, Rock in India, an annual music festival held in Bangalore, which is known to invite some of the biggest heavy metal acts of our times, actually killed it for me. This year the festival decided to bring in a has-been pop sensation boy band of the late 90s, the Backstreet Boys, to headline and mainstream its act in New Delhi. A city that doesn't get acknowledges to be the home of where the first movement of contemporary music scene took place in India.

The festival, of course, not only proved sad by the dismal numbers it brought in, despite two emerging Indian bands, Indigo Children and Swarathma, opening the show. But the festival proved to be ominous of sorts for the murder it or I or someone had to commit.

Independent Indian music bands – and when I say this, I don’t mean Bollywood music, or even remotely close to it – have finally come of age. Today Indian bands spend a lot more of their time tucked away in small rehearsing studios, called jam pads, across metropolitan Indian cities to find their own sound before they come out to play.

What you consider rock music today, the Hotel California and Roadhouse Blues kind of songs, which you hear in dingy bars where beer is relatively cheap and women are most-definitely not to be seen, is a far cry from what they are doing. (I don’t know how to tell my father this.)

Any band worth mentioning today is either working on an album or has cut one and is onto working on the next one. The Rock Street Journal estimates more than 400 bands on its website, but there are probably twice as more on MySpace. Last year alone saw the release of some 40 albums by independent bands which wasn’t even the case the year before that. You wouldn’t have even heard of some of the bands and yet they have an easy following that runs into a few thousands on the web.

This has happened despite the fact that CDs in India, like in the rest of the world, have stopped to sell. At best what a Delhi-based band like the Them Clones sell is not more than 2,000 copies of its debut album, , released by Counter Culture/EMI Music last year in October.

The promoters of the band, Only Much Louder, were only too aware of the fact that if the band has to live by the mere album sales, which costs Rs 195, they will make pittance.

Anyone who listens to the band, even a hardcore fan like my colleague who sits across me at work in a darkish corner, would go on the net, fish the album online and download it. So in order to fight piracy, they came up with an idea that along with every album that they sell, they will package a blank CD along with it. Their idea was for every one CD they sell of the band, some bloke like me will happily make a copy of it on the blank CD and distribute it to one of my friends.

But recording an album, with professional studio sound worth shelling out money for, is definitely not cheap. The band is gradually recovering its due by the 40 to 50 shows they performed last year.

At the moment, Them Clones maybe ‘basking in the glory’, as the vocalist proudly put it. They bagged the JD Rock Awards for as the best song of the year, among a few others. But their fees for a performance, set by their promoters, can vary from Rs 60,0000 to a lakh to even more. It all depends on whether they are performing a corporate gig, a pub rock show or a college festival. These are, unfortunately, the only few viable spaces left for a band to testify its worth against that 15-minutes-of-fame curse set by pop artist Andy Warhol.

For Them Clones, as for many bands of its kind today, their only jet engine of hope is the web to reach their music across to a sea of unreachable listeners. Today you can find their music on websites like,, Facebook, MySpace and CDBaby.

Most of its band-members have diligent nine-to-five jobs to keep. They live with their mummy and daddy and practice from ten at night to the wee hours of the morning. Their parents, who are on the cover of their album, are naturally proud.

But not everyone’s folks are. Mine weren’t and I didn’t even play in a band. Three years ago, when I reviewed pub rocks shows and heard a cult indie band like Menwhopause, or Parikrama that could actually pull off some decent covers or the blues-rock band Half Step Down do some trivial injustice to my sanity, there were still very few shows to hear. Today there are some 50 shows that take place in a week and it’s not just in Delhi, but Mumbai and Bangalore, and it has rolled into cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, and even Chandigarh.

For a relatively younger band, Indigo Children, formerly known as Superfuzz, the stigma of an irregular income still creeps in. This is despite the fact that they have won a few competitions; performed internationally, have promoters to look after their shows and an album to work on.

It’s a reoccurring a dream that haunts many bands today, much like how drinking alone in a bar that only plays hip-hop is for me. The Indigo Children is, after all, only a bunch of kids who live at home. They have barely finished college and have not played longer than four years. It is another reason why their band line-up has seen just about as many changes as fashion trends for girls on Delhi streets, but another why their music constantly reinvents itself and is unclassifiable, yet very punk.

As of now they have done what every young band does in India: cut several copies of a demo at a studio that charges nothing more Rs 1,000 per hour, put their music on MySpace, float the links on Facebook, and distribute free copies of their demo at gigs where they perform.

“Piracy is here to stay. There are no two ways about it. Playing music is our only source of income and we’ve only played a couple of good shows,” says Nikhil Rufus Raj, 23, bassist of Indigo Children. “But if you ask me what happens after we cut our debut album, I don’t know. At the moment, we’re trying not think about all that, but just the music for our album.”

There are so few independent bands in India who have actually made it that you can’t actually think beyond one. For me to have met Dhruv Jagasia, manager of Indian Ocean and the successful electronic duo Midival Punditz, was uncompromisable.

The Indian Ocean started in 1993 but went practically nowhere till 1998. They were one of the earliest bands to breakaway from the standard verse-chorus song format, their songs ran an average length of six minutes and they refused to play covers.

In better times they have managed to sell close to 2 lakh copies for each of their five albums. Their second album Desert Rain – one of India’s first live record albums – was the seventh best album to download under World Music on iTunes in 2008. They are the first band to have sold over 5,000 copies of their DVD. An outcome of a ‘golden deal’ they struck with EMI, to distribute their self-produced DVD. A deal now a lot of bands follow with their independently released albums.

“Once the band produced the soundtrack of independent filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s (2004), physical CD sales were still a norm,” says Jagasia, after coaxing me twice to drink beer on a late February afternoon at his bungalow in New Friends Colony. “Till then the net hadn’t gone crazy on us,” he adds, twirling his moustache.

“We’ve seen the industry switch from CDs to Napster to the web. We have learnt to move with the times,” he says, as I sip a dodgy lemon tea, looking mildly disappointed with me. “Which is why we have something planned for Indian Ocean’s next album, <16/330 Khajoor Road>, out later this year. Since we don’t want people to download the entire album in one go, we plan to release a new song at the end of every month on the website till the album is finally released on the whole.” The album will be monumental for the band, as it will feature some of the last recordings of its founding member, percussionist and vocalist, Asheem Chakravarty.

No musician, Indian or otherwise, can deny the overwhelming role and effect the net has had to play on the record industry in the last decade. Music piracy leapt upon from nowhere at the record industry and spread more virally than swine flu. Today this 125 year-old industry in the west, whose etymology races back to the late 19th century to the cash-driven invention of the gramophone by Thomas Edison, has crumbled.

This may have caused the industry some hard times, with all the suits cut loose from their commissions, but it’s been one swell time for musicians who are now free to do whatever the hell they want with the net and the social media to promote them.

Three years ago, the English alternative band, Radiohead, set the paradigm shift by independently putting their seventh album, , as a digital download on their website. Anyone and everyone could go on to their website and download their songs for whatever price they felt like paying, or nothing. Their website simply stated, ‘it’s upto you’. Nine Inch Nails did the same thing. They put their entire album, , on MySpace, to cheese their label off and, of course, to reach out to more fans.

All this struck me a few of moons ago, while I was on a desperate hunt for the new White Stripes album, , to impress a pale-green-eyed girl I had then just met. I went to a music store so many times to check that even the guard at the gate knew what I was looking for. When I was about to give up, a Mumbai-based music blogger, Dead Flowers, whose obsession for Keith Richards’ guitar riffs and indie cult leaders Velvet Underground was pretty self-evident, offered to mail me the entire album. Two weeks later, I read somewhere that even Jack White didn’t know how his album was leaked out of his studio.

On Chennai-based band, Junkyard Groove’s blog, ‘the fate of middle class musician’ is a running didactic theme. On their posts you can sense a delirium many independent bands face today when pressed upon the problems of how they can promote their music online.

Junkyard Groove is at the moment working on their second album. If you write to them, as I did, they will send their entire first album for free as they have done so for a database of about 10,000 people. The band is also working on starting an independent label, Mongoose Clan, to help other bands to release their albums.

“I don’t want to go to any label because the net assures me a creative license that no one can promise,” says Ameeth Thomas, vocalist, Junkyard Groove. “The future for us, musicians, is to go online. For my next album I plan to hire a cyber PR that will manage all my music content. We don’t make money because anything we make is spent back on either instruments or equipment.”

Thermal and a Quarter, a cult progressive jazz-rock outfit from Bangalore, which set out in 1997, too went independent and released their fourth album: , last year. They mixed their album at A.R. Rehman’s AM Studios in Chennai. Their music is up for free to stream on their website, although they sell on iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon. For a performance at a college festival they earn upto Rs 2 lakh, though they make most of their money touring around the world. They sound incredibly bitter if you talk to them about piracy because they say they feel too old to relate with a generation born with an email account but know better to sift along with the times than fade away.

TAAQ for their last album were keen to increase the production value of their album so they got multiple Grammy award-winning producer/engineer Jeff Peters to mix their music. Similarly, Kolkata-based The Supersonics, formed in 2006, got the help of music producer Miti Adhikari – who in the past has worked with some of the biggest international music acts including the Pixies, Nirvana and the White Stripes – to produce their album , released last year by SaReGaMa, for Rs 125. Their album sold close to 2,000 CDs and has 9,000 downloads as of now. The band claims that they are not any richer but they are a happier lot.

In the case of Shillong-based band Soulmate, one of the most electric blues acts of India, a complete opposite has worked for them. Their league among the Indian bands today is entirely different and not web-related. They have for the second time taken their blues to play in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge. For an international blues band to play in the challenge it has to be registered under a blues club. A registered blues club has to have 3,000 members.

Founder of the Blues Club India, Kiran Sant, first heard the band four years ago and brought them to play at his Haze Blues and Jazz Bar in New Delhi and hasn’t ceased to pursue them since. Today Soulmate comes three to four times a month to play in the city and earns up to Rs 70,000 a night.

Younger bands were for long recording at home at cheap systems with a basic sound card to distribute their demos that cost them nothing more than Rs 35 (the cost of a CD-R). Today as more bands are coming about, and dying to sound better can get competitive, they have graduated to independent studios that charge by the hour and more if you want your music professionally mixed.

“Few years ago bands would shy away from studios. Today bands know that they get only one shot to making it big when they record an album,” says Gaurav Chinatamani of Quarter Notes Studio. “The albums are important for bands because they get taken more seriously and paid more. Bands are slowly realising this and coming out to look for producer.

Rock music and its culture are dead in India but if you still see someone who denies it than you are allowed to smack them once on the head (politely) And because I develop superpowers when I listen to music, and I don’t need to gaze into a hazy crystal ball for this, I can even tell that the future of the Indian music scene is undeniably metal and electronic music. Their growth has been spectacular in the last five years.

Grey and Saurian records, an independent label run by Anupam Roy and Shashwat Gupta, manages, records and promotes eight metals bands including Bhayanak Maut, Scribe and Third Sovereign. They make sure everyone has a blog and a Twitter account to update as homework. Here’s the twist: most of the band members are bunch of clean-cut corporates. Much to yours and my dismay, they don’t spew aggression – they leave all that for hard rock outfits such as Bajrang Dal and the VHP to handle it. (I never said that.) So what next? No one can tell, not even the avuncular figure of modern Indian music, Amit Saigal.
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