The People Forging A Brave New Future For India’s Alternative Music Landscape - Homegrown

The People Forging A Brave New Future For India’s Alternative Music Landscape

[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.]

Less than a month into my move to Mumbai, I was already amazed at the city’s ‘going out’ culture as I found myself at a Baba Stiltz gig at Lower Parel’s Summer House Cafe. Bless my soul and my limited playlists, I knew very little about the genre-fluid Swedish artist but the tasteful laser lights, nuanced beats, and the fact that hundreds of bodies were swaying in sync to the same musical experience around me, had me hooked. You see, back in Delhi, on nights I could hustle myself into going out at all, a low-key house party, a few drinks at Khan Market’s latest offering or (when I was feeling truly adventurous) dancing at a club were my limited poisons of choice. And the latter was only courtesy a few friends who knew where to go for music that was not a jazzy remix of Honey Singh’s ‘Blue Eyes’ or the extremely over-played mainstream EDM. Over time, I found myself slowly building an appreciation for newer, fresher sounds I had never been exposed to before. The truth is I wouldn’t have even known where to look.

Looking back on that November night in Mumbai, it’s no wonder it felt like a defining moment, a reminder that I was missing out on a whole new world of music discovery. It occurred to me that many people at that Baba Stiltz show were at their own points on this journey having found their own way(s) in. In the two months since, I followed a breadcrumb trail of name-drops outside gigs, a few strategic ‘page’ follows, and suggestions from new friends from new cities to see, do and hear more within the alternative (and in my case, mostly electronic) music scene. What I quickly discovered was a serious sense of community.

It also became clear to me that it’s somewhat unfair to refer to our independent music landscape as ‘nascent’ anymore. We’re living in a post NH7 Weekender country now, which in many ways implies that the time has been ripe for a second coming for some time now. In the last year alone, between Magnetic Fields’ world-class lineup, SoFar Sounds’ exemplary performance in both Delhi and Mumbai, announcements of R&B livewire Anderson .Paak touring India, and virtually no off-season to speak of, it feels like we’re finally on par with the rest of the world, at the same time as the rest of the world. A single weekend in my new home, Mumbai, saw two techno heavyweights play at two different clubs, even while a bass music festival in its 5th year filled up two floors of a Mumbai venue. Too many options was not a problem we’d ever faced before, and it’s a welcome one. No longer keen to wait for trickle-downs three years too late (a prime example was Pretty Lights’ 2015 Indian debut years after his truest Indian fans had matured beyond that sound) this next wave of thinking in the industry is marked by a particularly special parameter–respect for their audience. Nobody thinks they’re ‘not ready’ for any kind of music, no matter how subversive or unusual. At the heart of this countrywide movement? Six movers and shakers who have worked tirelessly over the past year to fill new gaps, keep things fresh, and celebrate collectivism as they forge a new future.

Many of these names have paid their dues alongside many others, gruelling it out to build the industry’s foundation in its earlier years whether focussing on building a particular genre’s audience from scratch, raising important questions via their music journalism or charting previously unthinkable trajectories for local artists. But over the last year, they’ve taken on new avatars as labels, collectives, community radio platforms, venues and artist management companies to break new ground with very specific visions in mind. Some are hell-bent on creating more egalitarian opportunities for listeners and artists alike, others on aiding alternative music discovery, while one in particular hopes to redefine the limits (or lack thereof) of artist management in the country. We’re gunning for the realisation of their dreams because it means a more mature alternative music landscape for all of us.

Get to know these names as they work towards becoming household ones.

[Note: The collectives have been listed alphabetically and in no particular order of preference.]

I. Azadi Records

Co-founders of Azadi Records, Uday Kapur and Mo Joshi take risks with the artists they sign on, but that’s instrumental to the realisation of their dream.The idea behind Azadi Records (born from Uday’s final year thesis project at college in Delhi) fit in nicely with Mo’s vision of a label for homegrown hip-hop artists. Its core foundational belief, that India is home to politically and socially relevant folk and regional music, was shaped to some extent by Kapur’s time at Irom Sharmila’s support group in Delhi University, he told us. The sounds of rock band Indian Ocean, a TedX talk on Contemporary Protest Music by Rahul Ram and Swarathma’s Topiwalleh were some of the other influences that led to the ultimate fruition of Azadi, he tells us. Both Uday and Mo describe their label as a sort of “support structure” that they felt was especially lacking for Indian hip-hop performers and producers. By working almost selectively with musicians who otherwise might not get the opportunity to reach large audiences or release an album, the duo’s label is championing “regional, socially-conscious music” from all over the country.The release of their first single from Delhi-based artist Prabh Deep’s debut album Class-Sikh last year is testament to just that. Signed about six months ago, Prabh Deep uses hip-hop to shine light on his unique experiences growing up in Tilak Nagar that was scarred by the 1984 riots as a Sikh man. A dramatic shift from mainstream hip-hop or electronic music that venues and promoters put their money behind, Azadi offers both support and management to artists who make music that is politically charged; a term often synonymous with controversy in this country.

Their contribution has had an evident impact already. The rise of indie or gully hip-hop that took place in 2017 is in large part due to the team’s gunning for (and promoting) music that tells stories, empowers communities and brings more and more people together. “The artists’ drive to create projects of relevance, set against the world we live in, and the evolution of sub-cultures and nuanced sub-genres” will be the backdrop of the boom of Indian hip-hop, Mo believes.

“A hip-hop festival, clothing line, the debut of four new artists and sharing the interesting stories from across the country, told via the powerful medium of music” have been chalked into the calendar for 2018, a year that looks promising for the label and hip-hop in the country. We’re also rooting for Azadi Records for systematically calling out the elitism that exists within the industry. Uday Kapur detailed it with surprising honesty in this Buzzfeed article and questions the obvious irony–even as gully hip-hop grows in popularity with Indian audiences, we still look down at its origins with disdain. Everyone from bouncers, managers and even gig-goers is quick to make the distinction between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ distancing the makers of indie hip hop from its most loyal listeners. Uday reminds readers (and practices the same with the label every single day) that we’d all be far better for it if we checked our privilege at the doors of these venues and let music level the dance floor.

Prabh Deep in performance. Image Courtesy - Facebook/Azadi Records
Prabh Deep in performance. Image Courtesy - Facebook/Azadi Records

II. Boxout.fm

A Rolling Stone India article was on the money when it asked the industry - ‘When Will Indian Radio Root For Alternative Music?’ more than two years ago. The piece lamented the lack of a radio channel dedicated solely to independent, alternative music despite the presence of 245 channels across 86 cities. So, when Sahej Bakshi (Dualist Inquiry) and Mohammad Abood (DJ MoCity) decided to start a community radio station for independent music, they were filling a glaring void in the country’s music landscape. Sahej recounts that when boxout.fm launched, less than a year ago, someone asked the duo how long this was in the making. “I said about 8-9 months but Mo added that he’d been working towards this all his life.”

Sahej feels that the timing was absolutely right, almost serendipitous, for boxout.fm. “Five or six years ago, all non-commercial music was put under one umbrella - rock, EDM, indie, house - everything was played at the same festival.” The rise in popularity of festivals like Magnetic Fields or Echoes Of Earth, that curate a certain kind of lineup, as well as more patient, open-minded audiences has meant that artists with non-commercial sounds can slowly carve a niche for themselves. “A core part of boxout’s vision is to expand the circle of listeners, so individual artists can grow their audiences. Whether someone likes to play esoteric African music or is a techno don, what we hope to achieve with boxout is they can grow their own circle of listeners and our collective audience will discover new artists through the archive,” explains Sahej who exploded on the independent music scene as producer Dualist Inquiry in 2011.

The radio station is broadcast from a basement in New Delhi’s Gulmohar Park and draws inspiration from platforms like UK-based Worldwide FM and NTS Radio. boxout.fm is a patchwork of music programming, a collection of sounds that doesn’t lie within the constraints of a genre. Their curation of music is entirely representative of the eclectic, diverse sounds of India, allowing the listeners to consciously gravitate towards certain programs, styles, performers or producers instinctively. Boxout.fm also takes the experience of discovering indie musicians offline with its events - boxout Wednesdays and boxout social - held every week at Delhi’s Summer House Cafe and co-working space Social respectively. Focussed on establishing Not only is the community radio station changing the way Indian audiences consume independent music (a shift from popular music festivals and gigs) by running programs for 12 hours, Sahej Bakshi and Mohammad Abood’s boxout.fm is slowly creating a vibrant discovery and listening experience.

In 2018, you can look forward to an increase in the scheduled programming with the goal of being on air for 24 hours, new talks and podcasts, and shows by local DJs.

Dualist Inquiry's Sahej Bakshi & DJ MoCity. Photograph by Zacharie Rabehi
Dualist Inquiry's Sahej Bakshi & DJ MoCity. Photograph by Zacharie Rabehi

III. Jwala

“The idea was (and still is) to provide a platform for upcoming talent in the electronic music spectrum,” Brij Dalvi (Three Oscillators and zzz) says. One of the eight young producers of this Mumbai-based collective that also includes artist Palash Kothari (Sparkle & Fade), sound engineer and producer Apurv Agrawal (Cowboy and Sailor Man), Ayush Jajoria (who goes by the artist name Ayush), Nikunj Patel (Moebius), Veer Kowli (who goes as chrms), Karan Kanchan and Rohan Sinha (Dolorblind), Brij traces the beginning of Jwala to a REProduce Listening Room session in Bandra in April last year. Shortly after, Palash Kothari aka Sparkle & Fade, and member of that serendipitous jam session, floated the idea of starting a collective. A Facebook group, a WhatsApp group and fervent planning later, Jwala released their first compilation. What they weren’t prepared for was the response to it.

The compilation was picked up by Indian music blogs and websites and producers from across the country sent in their demos to Jwala, hoping to find place on their next compilation. Since then, the collective has evolved into a platform that celebrates the diversity of “underground alternative” music. The curation of each compilation, Brij explains, is based on that fact that “We’re suckers for originality.” Driven by the rise of bedroom producers in India and the fact that so much of their music slips under the radar, Jwala hopes to become the go-to source for the country’s freshest music. Each of the members harboured a ‘collective frustration’ for the monotonous music that was being played at venues and gigs between 2014 and 2016 and Jwala is a response to that. “The ultimate vision is to have a much larger community emerge from within the scene that cares about the music more than the alcohol,” Brij explains.

The producers of Jwala.
The producers of Jwala.

IV. Milkman

Jai Anand’s music property/label Milkman was born from the all-too-relatable idea of what a good party should be, while he was in Valencia. Founded in 2016, Milkman is driven by throwing fantastic parties (four months since the Baba Stiltz experience, I still remember the evening for being ridiculously fun) with a strong, emphatic focus on the music. Milkman kicked things off in 2018 by bringing Dutch electronic artist and producer, Interstellar Funk down to India for a three-city tour. After my conversation with Jai, suffice to say that there’s plenty to look forward to. Driven by the aim of bringing “high quality musical experiences”, the young entrepreneur says that the label will continue to focus on bookings. The year will also be one of firsts, Jai says, as the Milkman team gets ready to share Milkman’s first release.

Looking to the future, expect some top-notch acts, milky tunes and maybe even a festival. Jai is confident that this new wave of indie music that’s sweeping the country will only gain more momentum the coming years.

A Milkman Records gig. Image courtesy - Jai Anand/Milkman Records
A Milkman Records gig. Image courtesy - Jai Anand/Milkman Records

V. Nrtya

Independent music label and artist management company, Nrtya is cultivating a new kind of listening culture, driven by the vision of its founders - Parth Taco, Sharan Punjabi and Raghu Vamshi. The Mumbai-based start-up currently manages 10 artists, each with fresh, distinct identities. Parth, in a conversation with Homegrown, explained that the reason Nrtya came into being was to drive audiences to discover independent musicians that couldn’t automatically guarantee a packed venue, via inventive, innovative marketing strategies, in addition to traditional forms of promotion such as gigs and the power of publications. Of the opinion that the musical talent emerging from all parts of the country is at par with international standards, the artists on Nrtya’s roster are a testament to the founders’ conviction. With talents like Tansane’s vibrant fusion of hip-hop and electronica or lawyer-turned-powerhouse-jazz-performer Aditi Ramesh, Parth explains that the curation of artists rests on a single criteria - timelessness. As I listen to the same Chet Faker song I have had on loop for a week and a half while I write this, I could not agree more wholeheartedly with this parameter.

Peeling back the layers of Nrtya, they are also committed to creating unique experiences for newer audiences - “ to generate social impact via art.” Nrtya Showcase 001, organised in May last year at the newly-opened, iconic venue Razz Rhino, was an important part of this larger vision. Set to the diverse sounds of the artists on Nrtya’s roster (Laminus’ unconventional sound that fuses jazz with hip-hop or ‘vibe veteran’ Saral’s melodic deep house), illustrators, photographers and graphic designers lit up the venue with their artworks. “There really seems to be a demand for events that drive social impact via various art forms,” Taco says in a separate interview with Radio And Music. Set to expand to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities and, slowly reaching even the remotest parts of the country, Nrtya is one to keep an eye on.

VI. Third Culture

After working with Only Much Louder (OML) as Head of Artist Management, Tej Brar took some time off and started looking for opportunities overseas in 2017. However, the man who masterminded bass producer Nucleya’s remarkable rise, would find himself back in India sooner than he expected to continue to help his friend (Nucleya), since this is a journey they both started on together. “I don’t think either of us anticipated how far this was going to reach. I really want to take this to its fruition,” says Tej. This led to the launch of Third Culture, a high-end boutique artist management company. With Nucleya and Delhi-based producer BLOT! on the company’s roster, Third Culture is carving a niche for itself with the vision of putting Indian music on the world map.

Currently a one-man-show, ‘Third Culture’ seemed to be the appropriate term for Tej’s independent venture – one that rings true of his melting-pot cultural identity while also being the company’s mission statement. “We’re trying to take elements from the west (like electronic music) and marry those with what are essentially sounds from the cultural landscape of India, and this marriage of Indian culture and western culture has become its own third culture,” he explains. In fact, both Nucleya and BLOT!’s sounds fit in nicely with the idea of this musical third culture.

Tej doesn’t believe that the industry is going through a seismic shift right now; in fact he tells me that ever since he moved back to India in 2011, the sweeping declaration that ‘indie music has finally arrived’ has been made quite frequently. “According to me, the real reason is that we’re experiencing an exponential growth across the entire entertainment industry - not just music.” Tej believes that this is due, in some part, to the fact that almost 60-65% of the country’s population is young. In addition, cheap data prices, the fact that everyone is now ‘plugged in’ to global trends, and the emergence of a new spending pattern that focuses on enriching experiences have led to overall growth, including in the music industry. The real question, he believes is, where is this going to stop? “Five years ago, there were a handful of producers who you could point at, but now if you look at every city from Shillong to Chennai, there are pockets of people who are doing interesting work and really pushing the envelope.”

Looking to the future, Tej talks about hip-hop hitting India’s streets in a big way “because it can be adapted to so many different regional languages.” As artists like MC Divine (Vivian Fernandes} make it to multiple ‘Artists To Watch’ lists and hip-hop gigs see longer and longer queues outside popular Indian venues, this is a space Tej will be watching closely. “Another glaring hole in the Indian ecosystem”, he feels, is a lack of venues that are inclined to booking independent artists. Instead of a “restaurant that turns the lights off at night and adds a DJ booth in the corner” Tej dreams of a network of true-blue venues with a stage, a bar and a sound system because “that’s all you really need.” He’s also excited about the future of artist management companies in India as managers like Dev Bhatia (who works with powerhouse electronica artist Arjun Vagale) and Dhruv Singh (who has orchestrated singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad’s impressive upward career trajectory) will pave the way for younger, fresher talent in the industry. “That’s what it’s going to take to kick the door a little,” he signs off.

Tej Brar with Nucleya. Image courtesy: Twitter
Tej Brar with Nucleya. Image courtesy: Twitter

VII. The Quarter

Moving to Mumbai meant penning down long lists of things to do and places to see, and it was almost serendipitous that a brand new jazz bar opened at the iconic Royal Opera House the very same week I got here. For someone like me, catching a gig at The Quarter is high up on these lists. For locals, however, this is an important addition to the cultural landscape of the city. Hard Rock Cafe, Blue Frog, antiSocial or Fire ‘N’ Ice pushed the boundaries of what a viable gig could be by giving newer artists with unconventional sounds a stage and a mic. The Quarter is an important addition to this list of iconic venues that are really gunning for independent music.

I remember when The Piano Man Jazz Bar opened up in Delhi’s Safdarjung area, the city sat up and took notice. Week after week, the charming venue would see lines of people turn off their phones, settle down with an Opium (a delightful and heady mix of Bourbon, hazelnut syrup and apple juice) and acquaint themselves with the nuances of jazz music. In much the same way, The Quarter (envisioned as a cultural hub) will host performances curated by veterans of the industry as well as co-founders Ranjit Barot (with many feathers in his hat, including jazz musician extraordinaire and composer) and Ashutosh Phatak (musician and co-founder of True School of Music and the legendary Mumbai venue blueFROG) Not just jazz, this three-month-old venue is set to host acts from across the country (and globe), spanning genres but with the intent of bringing varied music to Indian audiences, under one roof.

The kind of venue the city has deserved for a very long time, The Quarter has Mumbai swaying along to the sounds of smooth jazz and I’m excited for what’s to come.

Parekh & Singh In Performance At The Quarter. Image Source - Facebook/TheQuarter
Parekh & Singh In Performance At The Quarter. Image Source - Facebook/TheQuarter

If you enjoyed this article, we suggest you read:

Gully Hip-Hop - The Underground Movement Is Rising Up

How Parekh & Singh Became India’s Biggest Indie Export

Sandunes’ Guide To Ableton Live 10 For Indian Producers


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