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High Notes Bands on the run

music Updated: Mar 09, 2009 19:54 IST
Neha Abraham
Neha Abraham
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

It’s a fact that western music in India isn’t even a quarter as popular as film music. So why do so many youngsters
persist in trying to break the sound barrier, writes Neha Abraham.

Way back in 1976, seven boys from Dublin met for their first practice session as a band in their drummer’s kitchen. They decided to call themselves Feedback and they played covers of their favourite songs. Two years later, they won their first competition. Feedback had made some changes since it first got together. The band was down to four members and also had a new name – U2. The rest is history.

Early last year, four boys got together in a tiny room in a tiny Mumbai flat for their first practice session as a band. They gave themselves a name, decided to play covers of their favourite songs and also write some originals. But the band never got out of that tiny room in the tiny flat. After a year of trying and failing to get a gig, they broke up.

You can’t say the scene for non-film music in India is even remotely comparable to that in the west. But that doesn’t stop young men and women, with tastes that are radically different from those of the majority, from trying. Some bands, like Indian Ocean and Parikrama, have persisted and succeeded. Other bands, like Men Who Pause and Soulmate are talked about, but not actually heard a lot. Still others haven’t even got that far. And still others are in the process of being formed. What drives these people to take on the tremendous challenges of their hopes and dreams?

The beaten path
It’s a fact that the average Indian’s idea of good music is what one might call a jhatak matak Bollywood tune. It’s catchy, it has a good beat and it is in Hindi; it caters to the masses.

Which means that bands that try and break away from the film music tradition have it tough. The majority of the janta does not relate to English music.

“Only in India are the film and music industries so closely connected,” says movie director Mohit Suri. “In the west, they are two distinct businesses. Here, if the music videos feature popular stars, the songs tend to sell well.”

That said, a few bands do manage to break the sound barrier and acquire a limited but active and loyal fan base. Bands that have been around for a while tend to have more followers. But depending on the kind of music they play, their audience is more (or less) niche.

“We play mostly blues and our songs incorporate certain aspects of jazz as well which is why we have a niche audience,” says Ashish Sarma, vocalist for The English Wine Shop which has been around for a little over a year. “People aren’t very used to this sort of music.”

Yes, people aren’t used to – and don’t even like to try – new sounds, as our columnist Sanjoy Narayan frequently points out in Download Central. So bands must take a huge leap to get the audience to even listen to them.

Still, as Gaurav Chintamani, who plays for the bands Advaita and Blue Breakfast, says: “When you believe in your music and you play with confidence, that comes through to the audience.” Blue Breakfast recently played Chandigarh, a town that rather likes its film music, but Gaurav insists that the audience enjoyed the music.

It would have been a huge risk though, says Surojit Dev, drummer for Them Clones. Because towns and cities have some very distinct preferences, it’s wise to know what sound works where. “Tastes do vary from place to place so we always try and play stuff that we think people will enjoy but they obviously always like some songs more than others,” says Surojit.

Scenic route
Bands that play ‘western’ music tend to be popular on the college circuits, but if they want to really succeed, they have to break out of that scene. Them Clones is a good example – they stormed into the music scene after winning college level competitions and later came up with originals like Zephyretta and The Bomb Song which became popular.

It’s one thing to be big on the college circuit. Younger people are usually more experimental than others. But to succeed in the big bad world, you need to get the big bad world interested in you, and just word of mouth will not accomplish that.

“We can’t afford to hire a PR person so we have to promote ourselves,” says Surojit. “We have a website and a myspace page; we also depend on journalists who sometimes write about us.”

That aside, bands often look for opportunities to play at restaurants and parties, and in order to be hired they need to prepare demos which cost about Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 per song. Quite expensive for people who don’t exactly earn a lot of money just yet. Which is why contacts become so important. “Knowing someone who’s into event management or music production is extremely helpful. We managed to get a job at Intercontinental The Grand because our guitarist knew someone there,” says Ashish.

Money, money, money
Money is always an issue. “When you start out you spend most of your life chasing after people to get paid,” says Anindo Bose, keyboardist for Advaita.

It is not uncommon to receive payments months later, says Rohan Solomon from Cyanide. “We did a gig at a college and they agreed to pay us Rs 35,000. When we went back to collect the money, they asked us to come the following week. Soon they were talking in terms of months. When I eventually got my cheque 10 months later, there were more complications. By then I had already spent Rs 17,000 to compensate other band members.”

Nikhil Vasudevan from Empro Minge has more than a few harsh words to add on the subject of reneged contracts. “We were to be paid a certain amount for the Pubrock Fest organised by RSJ. The money doesn’t really matter but I don’t get why they just don’t pay us. I play for three different bands and none of them has got the money yet.”

At the end of the day, making music is a business. Not only to the musicians themselves but also for the people who hire them. Companies and corporates worry more about what will sell than what might sell. “We met a representative from a music label but they wanted an Indian sound to our music which is not our style at all,” says Ashish.

Anindo’s been there too. “We have often been asked if we would play popular Bollywood numbers because the organisers worried that people might not like our sound,” he says. “But eventually, things worked out. The same company has called us back twice now.”

Still, successful gigs are few and far between, which is why most musicians support themselves with regular jobs. Surojit is an account manager with an ad agency. He’s happy with his job, but would have preferred to make his living from music.

Some people compose jingles or run recording studios, both closely related to their musical interests. “I run a studio and because it’s connected to my music, it’s never a problem,” says Gaurav. “But if one of my band members is caught up with work and isn’t able to come for a gig we don’t play. We don’t take substitutes; that is not my definition of a band.”

There is talent. But it’s talent that has to struggle to even survive, let alone succeed. Still, there’s hope. For instance, Advaita and Them Clones have just released their debut albums. “The scene has improved a lot over the past decade,” says Surojit.

Adds Mohit Chauhan, former member of Silk Route, “There’s a lot of experimentation happening, which is good. Anything done well will always be appreciated.”

Which is why, one day, we may just get our own U2.

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