Three weeks ago, Rock in India, the annual music festival usually held in Bangalore, actually killed Indian rock music for me. This year, the fest known to attract some of the heaviest hand-banging bands this side of the Suez, decided to have the Backstreet Boys as its headline act in its ‘new’ venue, Delhi. Two emerging bands, Indigo Children and Swarathma, opened the show. But with a resurrected ’90s boy band providing the climax of the gig, you can pretty much guess where it all headed.
Which is all very strange because never before have independent
bands come out of the woodwork in such numbers. They’re spending much more time in their jam pads (read: rehearsal studios) across cities to find their own sound before they come out and play. And there are more rock bands touring up, down and across the country than ever before. And yet, the timing couldn’t be worse.
Where’s the money?
Any band worth its guitar pedals and drum kit is either working on an album or has cut a disc and is working on the next one. Music mag
Rock Street Journal
lists more than 400 bands on its website. There are probably twice as many on
. Last year alone saw the release of some 40 albums by independent bands, a figure that was in the lowest range of double digits a year before. You wouldn’t have heard of many of these bands – how could you, with record companies either sleeping or dozing with the fishes – and yet, these groups have fan bases that run into a couple of thousands on the Internet. So how do they cope when it comes to making the moolah? With the album model crumbling under the sheer weight of the downloadable mp3 that’s cutting the record companies out of the distribution system, are Indian bands bypassing the middlemen and going straight for the internet-cum-concerts model here?
A successful band that’s done its rounds on the circuit, Delhi-based Them Clones have sold not more than 2,000 copies of their debut album, Love Hate Heroes, which was released by Counter Culture/EMI Music last October. The band’s promoters were only too aware that if Them Clones were to survive, they would have to find a model other than selling CDs at Rs 195 a pop.
The fact of the matter is that anyone who’s interested in listening to Love Hate Heroes will probably go on the Net, fish out the album online and download the tracks. So to fight piracy, Them Clones came up with the cracking idea of packing a blank CD with every album they sell. The idea: every happy listener of the album, enthusiastic to spread the sound, will make a copy and distribute it – free – to one of his of her friends.
But recording an album isn’t cheap. And for ‘younger’ bands like Indigo Children (formerly known as Superfuzz), the problem of an irregular income is a serious headbangers’ ball-breaker. Till date, they’ve done what other new bands on the block have been doing in India: (1) cut several copies of a demo album at a studio that charges not more than Rs 1,000 per hour, (2) put up their music on
and floated the links on Facebook, and (3) distributed free copies of their demo album at gigs when they perform.
, their music will light a fire.
But how do they get the shekels when they’re giving out their songs free? “Piracy is here to stay. There are no two ways about it,” says 23-year-old Nikhil Rufus Raj, bassist of Indigo Children. “Playing music is our only source of income and we’ve only played a couple of good shows. 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.” Talk about gloom rock.
There are such few independent bands in this country who’ve actually made it that you can’t actually think beyond one: Indian Ocean. The by-now iconic band started playing in 1993. They were pretty much nowhere on the scene, being one of the earliest bands to break away from the standard verse-chorus-verse format, and with their songs running an average length of six minutes and a ‘no-covers’ policy. That was till 1998.
Since 1998, they have managed to sell close to two lakh copies of each of their five albums. Their second album Desert Rain, one of the first live albums in the country, was the seventh most-downloaded album under the World Music category on iTunes in 2008. Indian Ocean is also the first Indian band to have sold over 5,000 copies of their self-produced DVD, an outcome of the ‘golden deal’ they struck with EMI, which distributed the film.
“When the band produced the soundtrack of Anurag Kashyap’s
in 2004, physical CD sales were still the norm,” says Dhruv Jagasia, manager of Indian Ocean (and the electronic duo Midival Punditz). “The Net hadn’t gone crazy on us yet. We’ve seen the industry switch from CDs to Napster to the web. We have learnt to move with the times. Which is why we have something planned for Indian Ocean’s next album, 16/330 Khajoor Road, scheduled for release later this year. Since we don’t want people to download the entire album at one go, we plan to release a new song at the end of every month on the website till the album is finally released whole.”
Net or gigs?
So it’s the Internet that plays the giant concert grounds. Today you can find music of various Indian bands on websites like
But what about live gigs? Performing fees for Them Clones, set by its promoters, can vary from Rs 60,000 to a lakh and more. It all depends on whether the band is performing a corporate gig, a pub rock show or in a college festival. These are, unfortunately, the only few viable spaces available for bands in India where months-long tours are still a glimmer in the eye of both performers and audiences.
Today some 50 shows take place every month, not just in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, but also in Chennai, Hyderabad and Chandigarh.
Chennai-based Junkyard Groove is working on its second album. If you write to them on their blog, they will send their first album free – something that some 10,000 people hooked on to their website have already utilised. The band is also working on starting an independent label, Mongoose Clan, to help other bands release their albums.
“I don’t want to go to any label because the Internet assures me a creative licence that no one can promise,” says Ameeth Thomas, vocalist of Junkyard Groove. “The future for us musicians is online. For my next album I plan to hire a cyber PR company that will manage all our music content.”
The progressive jazz-rock outfit from Bangalore, Thermal and a Quarter, also took the independent route with their latest album This is it. They mixed their album at AR Rahman’s AM Studios in Chennai and it’s up for a free listen on their website. They sell their music on iTunes,
. Plan B, the band’s previous album, saw as many as 400,000 downloads in less than four months. For a performance at a college festival, they earn up to Rs 2 lakh, though they make most of their money touring around the world.
In the meantime, more care – and money – is being put into production and quality. Thermal…were keen to improve the production value of their album in This is it. So they got multiple Grammy award-winning producer/engineer Jeff Peters to mix their music. Kolkata-based The Supersonics also got producer Miti Adhikari (who’s worked with giants like the Pixies, Nirvana and the White Stripes) to produce their album Maybe Baking that was released last year by SaReGaMa, priced at Rs 125. The album sold close to 2,000 CDs and had 9,000 downloads at the last count.
But then there’s Shillong-based blues band Soulmate. They’ve taken exactly the opposite route: traditional concert tours that don’t bother at all with the web. They’ve played at the prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis, not once, but twice. 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. You do the math.
Kiran Sant, founder of the Blues Club India, first heard Soulmate four years ago and brought them to play at his Haze Blues and Jazz Bar in Delhi. Today, Soulmate plays three-four gigs a month in Delhi, earning up to Rs 70,000 a night. No need for the Net and the long wait for some sort of remuneration. Also doing it the old-school way is Delhi band Menwhopause. These guys found themselves, by sheer dint of their reputation as a live act, at the Mash Festival in 2008, going on to work with R.E.M. producer David Barbe. The band’s forthcoming album was recorded in true ‘classic rock’ style: at a makeshift studio in a Uttaranchal village.
For bands starting up and wanting to be noticed, the technology of recording is cheap. Home recording on cheap systems with a basic sound card to distribute their demos cost them not more than Rs 35 – the cost of a CD-Recorder. But it’s the next step that divides the boys-with-guitars from the musicians. With a mushrooming of bands, sounding better is critical to make the right noise. So more and more bands have graduated to independent studios that charge by the hour and more if the music is to be ‘professionally mixed.’
“A few years ago, bands would shy away from studios. Today, bands know that they get only one shot at 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 producers.
Grey and Saurian records, an independent label run by Anupam Roy and Shashwat Gupta, manages, records and promotes eight metal bands that include Bhayanak Maut, Scribe and Third Sovereign. Their job is to ensure everyone has a blog and a Twitter account. And here’s the twist: most of the band members banging their heads to power basslines and growls are clean-cut corporate-types. So the Indian rock story isn’t really one tale at all. It’s many strategies of putting music across to listeners working at the same time. May the best delivery system win.