With the advent of new sounds and sensibilities, easy availability of technology and the lure of Bollywood commercialism, the concept of indie music has changed over the years.
With the advent of new sounds and sensibilities, easy availability of technology and the lure of Bollywood commercialism, the concept of indie music has changed over the years. We trace the trend through the journeys of some home-grown bands.
TILL ABOUT a couple of decades ago, listening to live western music meant queuing up outside college festival venues, where home-grown rock idols would play countless covers of popular music bands. That was also the time when several youngsters left their traditional career calls to live the dream of a rock star. Although gigs were limited in number and financial support few and far between, these bands were a rage and acquired almost a demigod-like stature, thanks to the popularity of exclusive music channels like MTV and Channel V, which aired their videos frequently.
But, of course, only a handful of them made it big. While some went on to pursue alternative careers in Bollywood and elsewhere, others bit the dust.
Born to doctor parents, Palash Sen—a trained medical practitioner himself—made no bones about his love for the seven notes when he founded his band Euphoria while still in medical college in 1988. Euphoria’s first release, Dhoom Pichak Dhoom, was a major commercial hit and received rave reviews from listeners and critics worldwide. Euphoria went on to become one of the biggest Indian bands, with five successful studio albums, one compilation and 17 music videos till date.
Similarly, in 1990, Asheem Chakravarty quit a career in advertising to form Indian Ocean—a fusion rock band—in which he played the tabla, tarang and other percussion instruments, while also being the band’s vocalist. Although Chakravarty’s career was cut short when he died of a cardiac arrest in New Delhi in 2009, Indian Ocean is still going strong—even after the departure of a few of the band’s most important members like Sushmit Sen. In fact, the New Delhi-based band celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.
But not all bands have been lucky to have survived the lure of mainstream commercialism and the onslaught of the digital era. Before emerging as a popular playback singer, Mohit Chauhan had tasted success with the band Silk Route, which he founded with Atul Mittal, Kem Trivedi and Kenny Puri in 1996. Even before the band could enjoy the success of its first hit song, Dooba Dooba, from the album Boondein, it disbanded in the early 2000s after Chauhan decided to venture into Bollywood. Today, Chauhan is an accomplished playback singer, with several chartbusters like Pee loon, Sadda haq, Tum se hi and Masakali under his belt.
Similar is the story of Pentagram, a four-piece rock/electronica band started in 1993 in Mumbai and regarded as one of the pioneers of original Indian indie music. Pentagram is fronted by Vishal Dadlani (one half of the film music-producing duo Vishal-Shekhar) with Randolph Correia on guitar, Papal Mane on bass and Shiraz Bhattacharya on drums. All of them are now actively involved in the Bollywood music business.
Three members of Delhi-based band Parikrama—Sonam Sherpa, Nitin Malik and Subir Malik—are also set to make their Bollywood debut as music composers for the upcoming film Manjunath.
Although experts believe that indie music should not be seen as a competitor to the filmi variety, considered an alternative genre, the lure of the Bollywood bandwagon is hard to miss. “The line between non-film and film music has been blurring over the past few years. There’s a lot more acceptance within films of various genres of music,” says K Mohan of Agnee, which was founded in 2007. The Pune-based rock band is ready for its Bollywood debut with Deepak Tijori’s next project, titled Rockin Love. Not only is the band composing songs for the film, its lead vocalist Mohan, lead guitarist Koco and keyboard player Aditya Pushkarna will be acting in the film as well.
“We definitely have transformed our work, but it’s more about us growing as musicians and interacting with our fellow musicians within the band and outside. Films have helped widen our scope of composition and so have our own projects,” explains Mohan.
Several other rock bands/artistes have also composed music for Bollywood. In the recent Dibakar Banerjee whodunit Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, viewers got a taste of heavy metal in Delhi-based alternative band Joint Family’s track, Life’s a bitch, and Bengaluru band mode.AKA’s Chase in Chinatown. Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan (2011) used Mumbai band Bhayanak Maut’s Habemus Papam in the soundtrack to define the tension in the plot. Vishal Dadlani delicately balanced the sound of jazz and Usha Uthup’s joie de vivre with a growled one-line heavy metal chorus, courtesy another Mumbai band Scribe’s Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, in Aami Shotti Bolchi from Kahaani (2012).
“A lot of the sounds you hear in independent music are essentially ‘foreign’ in nature to the vast majority of the Bollywood audience,” says Aditya Swamy, EVP and business head, MTV and MTV Indies, a TV channel that focuses on independent music, arts and comedy shows. “What films like Shaitan and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! do is introduce these sounds to an audience that has probably never heard it before. So, while I don’t expect everyone walking out of a screening of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! to become an instant fan of Joint Family or Madboy/Mink, at least a few of them will be intrigued enough to explore it.”
But can incorporating such music in films push the popularity of the genres? “Each film has its own reason for existing and the music is there to support the film. If the film needs a specific kind of sound, then it makes sense. If people like RD Burman used cha-cha-cha or pop music way back then, it was something that went with the script and the feel, and not with pushing a certain kind of music,” says Dhruv Jagasia, manager of band Indian Ocean.
Adds Mohan of Agnee: “Film music is now no longer limited to genres—it’s about the song itself, and not the genre. While a rock/pop/jazz song will find its place in a Hindi film and maybe do really well, it’s up to the audience that hears the song to figure out what genre the song belongs to.”
Sound of technology
Recently, Indian Ocean was invited to play at a music festival in South Korea only because the organisers happened to see the band on the Internet and found its music interesting. “That is how we got that show, which is quite amazing and wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. With the Internet, publishing and taking one’s music out have definitely become a lot easier. The scope has increased on a global level, and not just in India,” says Rahul Ram, a founding member of the band.
Think of it like this: there used to be an impenetrable wall between the artiste and the listener—jealously guarded by music labels, which charged a fee every time music passed between the two. While the earliest gatekeepers were genuine music lovers, there came a time when all that mattered to the gatekeeper was how much money would change hands. “They charged both the artiste and the listener for the privilege of making and listening to music,” explains Jishnu Dasgupta, bass guitarist of the Bengaluru-based Indian folk and fusion band Swarathma.
Then, along came the Internet—it blasted a gaping hole in the wall. It began with Kazaa and Napster: suddenly, the gatekeeper wasn’t needed any more. They rushed to plug the holes, penalising the artiste and the listener alike. But the force of the change was too strong. “Today, the music label is almost redundant in the life of a young band. If you can create great music, there are enough avenues for you to break out, find your audience and make a name for yourself,” Dasgupta adds.
Internet and the easy availability of technology have created a wider scope for artistes, especially upcoming ones. Nobody will agree with this more than The Vinyl Records, a New Delhi-based all-girl band. Some of the band’s music videos have been crowd-funded and featured in online international magazines and radio stations. “Only last year, we got to perform on three stages in Sweden. All this has been possible due to the advent of technology,” says Cheyrrian Bark, the band’s vocalist.
“Less than 15 years ago, one would discover a new band only when one’s friend gave one a cassette or a CD with the band’s songs in it. Now, all it takes is for one to log on to YouTube, Soundcloud or Bandcamp and, boom, one can sample music from all over the world,” says Swamy of MTV, adding, “From a musician’s point of view, all one needs to do is put up one’s music online and spread the word through social media. Basically, the pain factor has been taken out from the process of music discovery.”
Business of music
Twenty-four years after it played its first gig at Father Agnel’s School in New Delhi, Parikrama today commands a fee that would make any white-collar executive wonder if their steady 9-to-5 job is really worth the effort. Formed in 1991, Parikrama has about 10 songs that they have put up online for free download. The band doesn’t have a single album release to their name, yet it survives on one thing: live performances. On an average, the Delhi band gets to play about four-five concerts every month in different parts of the country, besides headlining every other major band event.
But can any indie artiste make a living purely out of music, particularly live shows? Perhaps not. Unless you’re an Indian Ocean, Parikrama, Raghu Dixit or Swarathma, most likely you’re going to have to hold on to a day job to bring in the bread and butter. But the upside is that the number of artistes who are able to do this is slowly but surely rising.
As much as one might hate it or shy away from it, to be able to keep doing what one really loves, indie bands will have to get their heads around the business side of music too. You can be making the most beautiful music in the whole wide world, but if you are not able to make money off it, you wouldn’t be able to continue doing it. “I’m really glad that a lot of bands are learning to market themselves. A platform like MakeMyMerch.in, for instance, lets one create and sell one’s own merchandise. I see a lot of bands getting their T-shirts out there. In fact, I have bought more Indian band T-shirts in 2014 and 2015 than I have in my entire life,” says Swamy of MTV.
Malik of Parikrama adds: “Apart from live performances and shows, a band/artiste should diversify into other areas like merchandising, etc, to make oneself commercially viable. Though it is not very big in India yet, it helps.”
Although live performances continue to remain the mainstay of revenue generation, merchandising is a viable option. There are standalone companies coming up that focus mainly on indie music-based merchandise. “The key here is to be creative with one’s merchandise. Music label-related royalty revenues are virtually non-existent. However, there are some online music retailers who are now playing the role of music labels by allowing artistes to retail their music directly to fans, for example, OKListen.com. The other source of revenue is work-for-hire projects and sync deals,” offers Dasgupta of Swarathma.
However, Mohan of Agnee disagrees: “A musician’s primary job is to make and perform music. Shows and compositions are, therefore, his or her bread and butter. If one isn’t popular there, it’s unlikely that any other venture like merchandising will work, as that’s dependent on the artiste’s brand name.”
Mithy Tatak, drummer of The Vinyl Records, adds: “There are a few musicians doing really well in the scene, but this phenomenon creates an odd paradox. When indie labels become successful, they are rejected by their supporters and are called mainstream and commercial. The indie label is not fully accepted by the mass market either. Successful indie labels mostly get subsumed by a larger conglomeration or a major label. Hence, you either be rich or stay indie!”
Band name: Indian Ocean, Year of formation: 1990, Current line-up: Nikhil Rao, Amit Kilam, Rahul Ram, Himanshu Joshi and Tuheen Chakraborty, Hit numbers: Ma Rewa, Kandisa, Status now: Active
Band name: Euphoria, Year of formation: 1988, Current line-up: Palash Sen, Debajyoti Bhaduri, Rakesh Bhardwaj, Prashant Trivedi, Ashwani Verma, Vaishali Barua, Krutika Murlidharan, Vinayak Gupta, Amborish Saikia, Kamakshi Khanna and Kinshuk Sen, Hit numbers: Dhoom Pichak Dhoom, Maaeri, Status now: Active
Band name: Pentagram, Year of formation: 1993, Current line-up: Vishal Dadlani (one half of the film music-producing duo Vishal-Shekhar), Randolph Correia, Papal Mane and Shiraz Bhattacharya, Hit numbers: The price of bullets, Voice, Status now: Active
Band name: Silk Route, Year of formation: 1996, Original line-up: Mohit Chauhan, Atul Mittal, Kem Trivedi and Kenny Puri, Hit numbers: Dooba dooba, Status now: Disbanded; Mohit Chauhan is a successful playback singer in Bollywood now
Band name: Parikrama, Year of formation: 1991, Current line-up: Nitin Malik, Sonam Sherpa, Saurabh Choudhary, Subir Malik, Gaurav Balani, Srijan Mahajan, Shambu Nath and Imran Khan, Hit numbers: But it rained, Status now: Active
It is a great time to be an indie musician; there are a slew of music festivals hungry for new talent. Bollywood is looking towards indie music as a viable alternative to the run-of-the-mill music that we’ve seen over the years. Mainstream TV is looking at indie as a great source of content. In a nutshell, indie music is just at the cusp of becoming an ‘industry’ from the ‘scene’ it used to be.
Jishnu Dasgupta, Band member, Swarathma
Less than 15 years ago, one would discover a new band only when one’s friend gave one a cassette or a CD with the band’s songs in it. Now, all it takes is for one to log on to YouTube, Soundcloud or Bandcamp and, boom, one can sample music from all over the world. From a musician’s point of view, all one needs to do is put up one’s music online and spread the word through social media.
Aditya Swamy, EVP and business head, MTV and MTV Indies
The line between non-film (independent) and film music has been blurring over the past few years. There’s a lot more acceptance within films of various genres of music… We have transformed our work, but it’s more about us growing as musicians and interacting with our fellow musicians within the band and outside. Films have helped widen our scope of composition and so have our own projects.
K Mohan, Band member, Agnee