Originally published in the Hindu Sunday Magazine on February 17th
There are no hard and fast rules to making your band successful, regardless of what any existing, successful musician would be famously quoted saying. In India, artists have been trying hard to stay afloat in what had been a nascent scene up until the last five years. You can find an interesting mix of artists, fresh bands and veterans who have been around for the past twenty years, who found different ways to make their mark as musicians.
Sahil Makhija, who goes by the name of the Demonstealer as the leader of his extreme metal band Demonic Resurrection (DR) from Mumbai, is easily one of the most well-known figures in the Indian scene. In addition to playing guitar and handling vocals for DR, Makhija is a artist consultant, event organizer, producer and heads two other music projects. The first thing he does when DR has a gig to play – go over to the venue well ahead of time and set up his merchandise stall. Selling CDs, T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters and even bandanas, Makhija commands respect for going all in when it came to forming a band and playing music. But even then, his advice to newer bands is, “Keep your day job, and find a way around it to balance your day jobs with practice sessions and gigs. It’s gotten easier to balance both now.” DR, who have been around for nearly 13 years, share one of the respectable positions among metal bands. “Originally, there was just a cover scene, where bands whose members reached the age of 25 years just stopped after that,” says Makhija, adding that there are now venues, organizers and motivations for bands writing original music to stick around.
Rock, metal and electronica are three major umbrella genres of music emerging in metros, the North East and neighbouring towns as well. And yes, the main reason bands are formed is for the sake of living a ‘rock star’ life, and following passions straight from your school or college days. It’s not that easy, though. While the internet age has made starting a band much easier, staying on top of the game to survive requires more than just the skills, it requires exceptional songwriting, an evolved sound and plenty of live performances and music sales to go with it. Only two out of four of those boxes can be ticked, for both Indian and international bands. It gets a bit bleaker in the Indian context, especially because the number of sponsors willing to put a band on a four-city tour, or pitch in recording money is very few.
Take Chennai-based Kishore Krishna, who heads the alternative post-punk band Adam and The Fish Eyed Poets. In the four years that he has been writing music, he has already released three albums, with a fourth one titled More Songs From An Island due later this year. But he the amount of gigs the band has played are not only a reflection of the lack of venues in his own city, but the fact that marketing himself online, through what was originally a home studio project, has only got Krishna so far as a few thousand downloads, a lot of them free. He didn’t have very little to say about the state of the Indian independent music scene either, choosing to go on a bit of a long rant about youth culture and the commercial potential with music mostly existing with film songs. But he does see it in a way that Makhija has been seeing it for quite some time: “The market is big enough to sustain. We just have to get organised to crack it.” Krishna cites MTV’s TV show Bring On The Night, which follows the exploits of four city youths setting up a party hub in their own home. The fiction show is written and directed by Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, who is also the vocalist of Mumbai metal band Scribe. All songs used in the show are performed by Indian independent artists spanning all genres possible. Krishna explains: “A vodka brand is funding youth culture programming (the show is sponsored by Eristoff) to advertise a certain lifestyle that will in turn help sell their product. Cynical as that sounds, it’s the best thing that’s happened to Indian music culture in a long time, because now us kids, or rather some of us kids, have some semi-honest representation on national TV and that’s a big deal.”
For someone who started out around the same time as Adam and The Fish Eyed Poets (2008-09), Bangalore-based electronica trip hop duo Sulk Station are still finding their feet as well, only in a different city with a different sound. Electronica has been catching up massively with rock and metal in India, and Sulk Station are one of the examples of how acclaim can be quick, but commercial success can still be out of reach. The duo, consisting of synthesizer and vocals by Tanvi Rao and beats by Rahul Giri, released their first album Till You Appear in 2012. The decision to sell the album at a price as opposed to giving any songs away for free was crucial in the exposure the duo received. The same year, they received and made good on an offer to play at the World Event Young Artists global concert in Nottingham, UK. Still, Giri says “gigs are on and off, and very difficult to predict.” Sulk Station played three gigs in Bangalore in the month of December, which is considered the peak season for live music in the country. There are a few more venues in Bangalore compared to Chennai, but Giri says some wouldn’t suit the style of their electronic, digitised mellow-dramatic pop. “When we started out, it was just a bedroom project. It’s computer music, and we kind of got forced into performing live when Lounge Piranha (one of Bangalore’s now-defunct mellow, post-rock band) asked us to open for them.”
Giri’s involvement with Lounge Piranha made it easier for him to understand the music business, and what it takes to survive as a band. “But we (Sulk Station) were just two people… The moment of realisation came when we had all these songs which became enough material for an album. That’s when we became self-conscious and more serious about what we had and decided to put out the album,” says Giri. Till You Appear exceeded the duo’s expectations, gaining acclaim from international and Indian quarters. “We had AR Rahman put up a status about it, and we were like, ‘what?’ So we’ve been very lucky that way.”
Luck and chance are very relative, of course. Not to say that self-made success did not equally count for Sulk Station; Take the instance of one of the oldest Indian rock bands still performing in heavy rotation, Delhi rock veterans Parikrama. You would be surprised to know that Parikrama, formed about 21 years ago in June 1991, have ten songs that they have put up online for free download. Not a single album release to their name, yet the Delhi band survive on one thing: live performances, and lots of them. The showmanship and India’s love for straight up classic rock n’ roll puts Parikrama in a position to headline almost every other band event, playing about four to five concerts every month in different parts of the country.
Keyboardist and founding member Subir Malik attributes the band’s survival to how they “just kept working hard and hard. I guess one of the biggest (reasons for survival) would be the pact we made to stay grounded and as humble as possible.” He jokes that the band has always believed in piracy, but only of their own music: “Practically speaking , no one makes money out of selling CDs , you make money by live shows. Think about it; We did and have been doing it since 1995, probably the first band in the world to do so and still do (rely only on live shows).”
With a whole lot of diverse stories from very diverse bands themselves, it’s important to return to the fact that there is no single solution to make it easier for bands to survive. Starting off is easy, when you have the time off from classes and the sort, but staying committed to writing music requires a different kind of determination. Independent bands and solo artists who want to eke out a living from music sit tight in the hope of fans buying their music, or at least coming to their shows to create enough demand for them. Sponsors, too, are expected to play a vital support role. Says Krishna: “From what I’ve experienced, I’ve noticed that the invisible target audience isn’t confident enough about the ‘music’ and how it involves them to invest in it. So until bands (me included) start communicating clear and strong cultural identity archetypes to give the kids some proper options that they can use to colour up their lives, nobody is going to buy anything.”
Makhija from Mumbai’s Demonic Resurrection feels that the scene – specifically the metal scene – has evolved in the right direction, but there may be a saturation point for some of the top bands, who unlike himself, balance day jobs with music. “There’s mostly a touring circuit and annual music festivals in place, but all the Indian bands have peaked. We’ve played all the big festivals, and it’ll be interesting to see where these bands will be in a few years’ time.” Makhija predicts that the bands will either now head off abroad for more international gigs (which is already happening, since DR made 3 international appearances in the span of two years in 2010-2012) or open up to a structured touring cycle similar to other countries, which would require sponsorship.
And while Krishna’s suggestion is more of an ultimatum, and Makhija predicts a fork in the road, Parikrama’s Malik is more confident, possibly by the virtue of being a veteran who has seen his share of dogged days. He enthuses, “The Indian scene is at its best , and the future will be bigger and brighter. Bands need to make rules and follow them, mark goals, work hard, stay off drugs, play loads of football and hand cricket together, have regular band parties on off days, have regular , open talks about everything , be humble , be grounded , get a good management, work very, very hard and drink gallons of beer (but only after the show , not before).”