There are two things we consider mainstream: Bollywood and cricket,” says Arjun Ravi, co-founder of the multi-city music festival NH7 Weekender and director at entertainment company Only Much Louder (OML). It’s true. A 2014 report by Hungama indicates that Bollywood accounts for 81 percent of India’s digital music consumption. But despite film music’s preponderant influence on India’s popular music, in the last decade the country has seen significant growth in independent music of all stripes. Live bands, DJs and producers, and solo artistes are appearing in unprecedented numbers on stages across the country. Their audiences may comprise only a small portion of the overall population, but in absolute terms, they have the ears and attention of many Indians.
Bobin James, former editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone India, emphasises that it hasn’t always been like this. In terms of the growing number of Indian bands, the past three years in particular “have been massive,” he says.
To be sure, this is hardly the first time that the country has had a significant independent music scene. Varieties of non-film popular music—essentially a Western import, distinct from folk, classical, and devotional genres—have had a devoted following in previous eras: Bombay and Calcutta were the twin epicentres of the Indian jazz scene that began in the late 1920s. Later, the ’60s bore witness to the birth of a vibrant Indian rock scene, often called ‘beat music’ by its practitioners.
But there is something undeniably distinct about the country’s current incarnation of indie music. The premium on original songs, instead of covers of Western hits, marks a change. Bands such as Indus Creed (formerly Rock Machine), Pentagram and Indian Ocean were pioneers in this regard, recording and performing their own songs through the late 1980s and ’90s. But acts of this kind had never existed in large enough numbers to truly constitute a scene.
Now they do. Uday Benegal, lead singer of Indus Creed, calls the present a “very fecund period… in terms of the number of bands that are born every day”. In recent years, a diversity of great new acts has emerged: The Raghu Dixit Project, Spud In The Box, The F16’s, The Ganesh Talkies and Papon & The East India Company to name only a few.
The questions arising are: Why is all of this happening now? Why not earlier? What changes have fostered the dizzying growth of this scene?
For one, musicians now have greater access to equipment than ever before. Until the economic liberalisation of the ’90s, foreign-made equipment (both musical instruments and recording equipment) could only find its way into the hands of musicians through tremendous effort. Benegal recalls the lengths to which bandmates would have to go: “If you wanted to buy a good guitar, you couldn’t buy it here. If somebody was visiting or returning from the US or Singapore or Hong Kong, you asked them to buy you a particular guitar. It would cost a lot of money, and the duty was incredibly high. Now you can pretty much just go down the road and buy yourself a reasonably good guitar.”
So now, Indian musicians have been somewhat freed up to play their own music. But their album sales fall well short of generating significant income. Dhruv Visvanath, a guitarist from Delhi, typifies the way many musicians cobble together a life in the arts: Apart from taking on gigs, Visvanath writes music for advertisements and has tried his hand at some minor film scoring, including for a short entitled QX2026, which premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
Sitting in on studio sessions also presents a way for indie musicians to support themselves, as does touring with playback singers who want the benefit of a live band for their shows.
Shazneen Acharia—who works with Oranjuice Entertainment and manages Mumbai-based alt-rock, punk outfit The Lightyears Explode—pegs the year 2007 as the time when the country’s indie music scene really came into its present form. Facebook had just begun to catch on around this period, and it would prove important to the cohesion of a scene that existed mainly in the geographically disparate corners of the country’s major cities.
This was also the beginning of a period that saw the opening of live-act venues that would go a long way in providing a physical platform for performances. In December 2007, blueFROG opened in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area. The club opened just over a year after Hard Rock Cafe launched its first India location (also in Mumbai), and it was one of the forerunners in a group of venues devoted to live music. Later, there were venues such as Bonobo in Mumbai, The Humming Tree in Bangalore and TLR Cafe in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village. December 2007 was also the inaugural Sunburn Festival in Goa, which has now become an internationally-acclaimed Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festival.
Rolling Stone India launched in early 2008, signalling optimism about the sustainability of the scene that would constitute the lifeblood of its written content. And in late 2008 there was Soundpad, an initiative organised by the British Council that brought legendary UK-based producer John Leckie to work with Indian bands. After an audition process, Leckie selected Medusa (now Sky Rabbit), Indigo Children, Advaita, and Swarathma to record an album with him, which was followed by a brief UK tour. Acharia says that Leckie’s work with Indian bands did something to legitimise the broader indie music scene—it was a gesture of assurance that music made in the subcontinent could measure up with the best anywhere.
While 2008 constituted something of a ‘Great Convergence’ for India’s indie scene, probably the single most important factor was the growth in the number of music festivals, heralded by Sunburn. Festivals are important for the entire indie music scene—fans, musicians, and promoters alike. And the rate of growth is astounding. Naveen Deshpande, founder of Mixtape (a Mumbai-based, artist- and event-management company) estimates that there were about 34 festivals in the past festival season of September 2014-March 2015; it’s a sharp increase from the four to 10 that took place in 2010. VFest, India Bike Week and Enchanted Valley Carnival are among them.
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(This story appears in the 05 February, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)