It was a social experiment, rather an online activism experiment. In the wake of student agitation caused by the anti-reservation bill in 2005, Pentagram released a single, Voice. Since the Internet was the war-zone, Vishal Dadlani made sure he got heard on the webspace. He got fans to send in videos for the free song. “Legitimate piracy,” he called it.
Sure thing, Dadlani scored through thousands of reels to clock in his final three minute short. Fan activism yes, but as Vijay Nair of Only Much Louder, who manages Pentagram, has a different take.
“The fact that we let people know it’s okay to download, gave it an almost legal signature saying we are all for your rip-burn-share procedure.”
Half a decade since, the ever-growing tribe of Indian indie (independant) artistes, is finding its voice through the free download option available on social networking sites.
This, in spite of fledgling independent record labels shutting shop, CD sales hitting an all-time low, and the global music industry looking for novel ways to sustain artiste rosters.
In all this, mainstream artistes, while fighting licensing and royalty wars, now have to deal with the unconventional, self-pimped, independent rockers. And it all started with a portal called Myspace.
Sample three-year-old metal act from Mumbai, Scribe. The I-Rock 2007 winners released their debut album, Confect, for free on Myspace.com. Within months, their downloads (which pretty much equals CD shelf sales) amounted to about 16,000 hits in total.
Post that, they got gigs worldwide, including their last headbang at the 10th anniversary of the Inferno Music Festival in Norway in the beginning of April. Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, lead singer and growler, calls it the con of the underdog.
“I’m all for piracy. The fact is that the free download button gave us the uninhibited power of reaching out worldwide without going through a local distribution channel.
“Plus, we didn’t expect money. That’s the best thing. We are true indie artistes. Non-sponsored, free and unconventional.”
But Scribe is releasing its second album, Mark of Teja, through Grey and Saurian records, simply because, “this time we didn’t have the money to produce our album. All the money we won at I-Rock, we spent on travelling or beer,” confesses Krishnamoorthy.
Similarly, Rohit Periera, frontman and bassist of Khiladi, is all for free EP release.
“I don’t know about the whole album, simply because I don’t earn that much, but free downloads are a major boon for us,” says Periera, who was formerly part of popular Mumbai metal act Pin Drop Violence, with whom he successfully released two albums and sold around 2,000 copies. CDs still sold, though the reach was much lesser in those days of limited downloading.
“We didn’t make any money on it, but yeah, we did cut production costs. The record label definitely didn’t make money. But that’s the thing. Indie artistes don’t make music to be sold. We play to be heard and if free music is helping us, why not?,” says Periera, whose song This isn’t Sparta, has already clocked in multiple downloads and also featured on an indie compilation, Stupid Ditties.
While indie labels like Counter Culture that previously released Zero, PDV and Pentagram have folded, the scope for free online popularity is still strong.
Explains Neysa Mendes, who ran Counter Culture, “People don’t buy music, not because they don’t want to, but because they aren’t aware. We faced distribution problems because there aren’t many stores that would sell indie albums.”
Precisely what Warren Mendonsa and Sidd Coutto did with their respective albums. The former’s blues outfit, Blackstratblues and the latter’s Tough on Tobacco, in all, were ripped 3,000 times online. And their reason for happiness?
“As cliché as it is, the fact is that we don’t care about sales, and we aren’t doing this for money. We just want to be heard. We make money through gigs,” explains Mendonsa, who confesses that the free download tab just ensured greater gigs and wider arenas to perform.
Even though pro-bono, what really does work is the donation factor. “We put up a donate to the band tab on our website and that, in turn, had people who liked our music send in money. Even if fans don’t want to buy, if they liked the music, they still do send in money,” Mendonsa says.
It seems that digital revolution is ‘it’ for the Indie artiste, and those formerly selling music through “souvenir jackets called CDs,” as Coutto puts it, are open to the idea of putting their music online for free pre-CD launch as well.
Ankur Tewari, for example, whose album Jannat sold 3000 copies in the first week of its release, had the music floating online for a little over a year, and he still sold his albums.
Shaair + Func’s new album, Mantis, will be put online for free before it hits the stands. “We’re contemplating a trial run before the album hits stores. Why not?” Randolph Correia aka Func shrugs.
So there you have it, the bug has bit our corner of the world. In the past five years, many an Indian artist was born on the Internet, before he ever went on stage, with barely one tune to his name, before his first fan was born. The circus is now headbanging live and buying merchandise, which sells more.
“People love buying t-shirts and collectibles. Fine, we’ll sell those then,” grimaces Khrishnamoorthy.