How People Are Innovating To Keep Live Music In India Alive

How People Are Innovating To Keep Live Music In India Alive
Sofar Sounds

[On 16th-19th January, 2019, Homegrown is throwing a first-of-its-kind music festival in Mumbai designed to celebrate the city’s vast and diverse music culture. Dive deep into a wide variety of dynamic workshops, exhibitions, curated tours, panels, pop-ups, performances and parties that promise to be inclusive of all kinds of tastes and people.

There’s something for everyone, click here to find what’s perfect for you.]

Leading up to the India Nightlife Convention & Awards, we take a look at the innovations within the nightlife and music movements across the nation. Join us as we take these conversations offline at the INCA on the 30th of September and 1st October at the Four Seasons Hotel, Mumbai. Register here. Buy tickets here.

“Didi kya ho raha hai - koi filum actor aaya kya?” a tiny voice asked, perhaps shocked to see people actually sticking to a line winding halfway down Linking Road. She seemed disgruntled when I told her it was for a girl and her guitar. To be honest, I could understand the sentiment. Even as I looked down a long line of familiar faces I had become accustomed to seeing at a particular kind of music event, it wasn’t often so many congregated for a live music event. If an outsider had witnessed it, they might have even said live music in India was...thriving. But most industry veterans or venue programmers worth their salt in the country is likely to disagree. “Today, in the indie circuit, there’s a lot of resentment and much scaremongering about the future of live rock ‘n’ roll,” Akhil Sood encapsulates acutely in an article about Aswekeepsearching’s stellar attitude and strategic approach to their live touring. It’s an industry landscape he attributes to a combination of “the absence of good money, dwindling audiences, and few-to-zero venues.”

Even as his statements ring undeniably true, there’s also no denying the huge influx of live music properties that stretch the imagination a little. Living room shows played to tightly curated audiences, crowdsourced festivals, event properties willing to make a loss to keep live music...alive. So which is it, anyway? And are these saviours running on empty?

I. Of Venues...Or A Lack Thereof

“No matter how much I love a band, it’s a bit exhausting to go between antisocial and bonobo six times a month.”

Audience fatigue is real. Even the most loyal fans struggle to motivate themselves to visit the same venues again and again.The sheer monotony has caused a dip in interest and economics win every time. When demand becomes less than supply, what do the handful of venues that actually want to push the music stand to gain from programming events people don’t show up to in the required numbers they need? Potential solutions to this issue have begun rearing their heads in interesting places.

Sofar Sounds, a global movement that allows for secret gigs in intimate spaces with a limited number of people, is one of the most interesting examples of an innovation that’s acting as a ventilator to the live music scene in India. Panning across 8 cities in the country, Sofar has consistently helped create a space for attentive, patient and understanding listeners for artists to perform to.

Image Source: Sofar Sounds

“It’s somewhere they can learn how to be performers, learn how to engage and learn how to deal with anxiety and fear without hiding behind parlour magic” says Arul Kacker, city leader of Sofar Sounds Bombay. Everyone who works to create a Sofar gig does so voluntarily - no one stands to make any money off of it. This is also possibly the most egalitarian form of listening where in genre biases don’t impede the audience’s attendance. With a gig on the cards for every month at a different venue each time, audiences are encouraged to be proactive about their attendance and apply in advance as it is free of all cost. And they have been. In July alone, the demand for the Sofar anniversary gig was more than 17 times the supply.

II. The Outcasts

Even within this multifaceted, seemingly eager audience that independent live music caters to, there are segments that are larger outliers than the others. Metal heads are possibly the most vulnerable audience today, says Roycin D’Souza from Antisocial, Mumbai. “This is an audience that doesn’t have a lot of money to spend since they’re mostly in college and they get to see one or two gigs at the most in a month, if they’re lucky” he explains. This audience is also one that changes every 2-3 years. Unfortunately for them, there is no venue in particular other than Antisocial that is dedicated to their cause.

Innovation came to their rescue in the form of Control Alt Delete, a crowdfunded gig founded by Nikhil Udupa and Himanshu Vaswani that allows people to pay what they can to see artists they love. With a whole stage out of 5 dedicated to metal bands, there were over 1500 people who had access to live music without burning holes in their pockets. Control Alt Delete reported that although they raised Rs.16,12,885, they still incurred a loss of Rs. 22,883 at the end of the show. On the bright side, only 2 out of their 10 editions incurred a loss. The incidence of success is what kept them going with a belief that this model works, Nikhil added.

Image Source: Control Alt Delete

What Control Alt Delete has shown us is that there is a community willing to pay to listen to music they like, and so much more. “We saw a community who could contribute not just by money and ticketing but also with skill and time. Losses have been covered by us but thankfully they haven’t been tremendous or crippling (you can check the accounts section, all costs are shared publicly). It’s always delivered a great experience and we still hope to take it to newer cities soon,” Nikhil tells us. But where does that leave the sustainability of live music in India in the case of people who choose not to incur the losses–will it ever be able to stand on its own two legs?

III. Do Artists Hold The Key?

While venues, audiences, or a lack thereof, are someof the key elements of a much larger musical ecosystem, the artists have more power to wield influence in this space than they care to realise or admit, most often. It is extremely important for live artists to be good performers to have a successful career. “Concerts accounted for 55.5% of the music business review (according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study in 2010), more than digital and physical music sales combined. Since venues are limited and understandably reluctant to re-book the same musicians frequently, musicians often go a while between shows in front of a feedback loop that an audience provides. No one starts good, and if no one gets good, no one stays good” Arul explains, highlighting a key issue within the loop that is the live music scene in India.

There’s also the matter of artists committing to deliver to audiences. Aswekeepsearching is one of the bands that both understands and perpetuates the importance of touring live. Given that the indie music community is the size of a thumb nail, it was all about reaching into that community and staying there. The timing of their second EP release couldn’t have been better - it was at a time when post-rock was actually being spoken about in India, what with Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky coming to India. That, along with their conviction to constantly be on tour deemed them the next big thing - something that only happens when gigs are revered.

Image Source: aswekeepsearching

As Akhil Sood writes, “A great deal of attention is placed on the art of performing live, from how they look and behave onstage to the entire presentation of the set. A core team travels with them, handling videos, live sound, social media outreach, the works.” Not to mention, they went all out on creating promotional merch - the importance of which this four piece band realised early on in the game. “Merchandising is branding. Nothing is more important than branding,” Uddipan Sarmah recounts. When asked about the responsibility a band holds to get their music heard, Uddipan succinctly explains that the first step is to write new music. “When done, produce it to make best sounding record. Top it up with some amazing merchandise. Finally travel to play the music. Music is all about travel, the experiences” he sums up easily.

Sahil Vasudeva is another interesting live performer to take note of in this department. For one thing, he’s pushing the classical piano, a difficult sound to create space for in India’s Indie landscape, yet he is determined to do so. He’s even achieved some success with it. By combining other elements with his original compositionshe’s been finding ways to place his instrument in unconventional spaces. Sahil is testament to the fact that experimentation and conceptual elements are almost a necessity to engage with newer audiences.

Image Source: Sahil Vasudeva

His most recent production is highly conceptual, using elements of theatre, film, photography and light design. “I’ve made a concerted choice to make classical piano more accessible, relatable, and personal in my presentation to the listener. Yes, I have had to take the performance beyond just solo piano performance. It’s only when you’re pushed can you create something fresh and original” he explains. At the end of the day, it’s all about creating an authentic ‘act’ that promises to deliver a great experience. Then excite the audience and let your abilities do the rest. Each successive show will be a learning to take something new away from. Keep going, keep improving, don’t give up when the going gets tough. The payoff exists. Just ask Aswekeepsearching.

IV. The More, The Merrier

None of the above are sole players in this space. Cities, individuals and people all over the country are coming up with their own innovations to bridge the gap. Bring Your Own Headphones (BYOH) is an example of a format that is geared more towards the artist and their performance on the whole. Based in Pune, BYOH allows for artists to perform to an audience while recording inside a studio. “It’s simple: we give new, deserving and upcoming artists in India a state-of-the-art studio to record and showcase their music at. We also use the opportunity to turn the performance into a video series which further helps promote the music” they tell us. At a BYOH session, the audience is in a studio where one watches the band perform through your own headphones, you get to listen to what the mix would sound like live. It’s getting the best of both a live and studio performance. This is audience engagement on a different level as one can actually see all that goes into making the music one listens to.

Image Source: BYOH

The new kid on the block is Songwriters in the Round, a concept inspired by The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. This cafe’s aim was to create a space to host a listening room wherein artists who were part of different bands creating their own “hits” got a chance to showcase their own music to a more intimate audience. And so it was in Mumbai, where we saw singer-songwriters performing and engaging with a small but present audience. It was a chance for the artist to share the stories that paved the way to their music, and their journey in writing their songs.

The REProduce Listening Room is another ‘innovation’ (organic as its journey has been) that is helping bridge the gap across all of India. Founded by Rana Ghose, the concept was born to “fill a gap in the ever iterating and increasingly varied community of live music in India by showcasing talent that might not get heard in the more mainstream oriented venues”. This is a space where you can focus on the sound without the added noise that comes with listening to music in a club property, as read in this article by Wild City. The concept is multifaceted, with importance to sound and visual journey that the audience is taken on. The Listening Room Session at TIFA in Pune is one that goes down well with the books - as Rana explains in this interview with Red Bull, the show consisted of “eight acts in eight spaces across three floors, all sequentially programmed seamlessly, and there was no real indication of where the next set would happen, so you’d have to find it.” With the popularity this event gained, it’s a sure shot tell that people are yearning for novel experiences that are finally out there for the taking.

Image Source: REProduce Listening Room

All’s Well That Ends Well?

To say that the Indian indie music scene is being propped up in a sickly hospital bed attached to a ventilator is far too dire an image for where we really are. Despite the prevalent difficulties in monetising and self-sustainability issues, the sheer number of people creating avenues for live music, challenging mainstream models and successfully pulling off experiential innovations is cause for hope. The entire ecosystem, from The Humming Trees to The Antisocials and the Listening Rooms hidden under alcoves at street corners are testament to the passion that exists within this microcosm - there will always be room for this, despite not attracting massive scale.

Looking forward, all these efforts cumulatively are to build a new and evolving audience base - this is the only way for the community to grow and thrive. It of essence that younger audiences are appealed to, and granted access to experiences largely unavailable to an under-21 bracket. Whether it’s through programming at college festivals, creating more listening room experiences for a younger audience, or simply breaking the large hypnotic shield cast upon most of today’s youth - we must remember that this is the lifeline that carries a whole ecosystem forward to greener pastures.

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