From Independence Rock To Lollapalooza: Music Fests & The Burden Of Expectations

From Independence Rock To Lollapalooza: Music Fests & The Burden Of Expectations
L: Pentagram, R: I-Rock — All Image Rights Reserved by the bands and their respective photographers

The granddaddy of all Indian music festivals; Independence Rock, has returned at a time when the Indian music scene finds itself at a bit of a peculiar crossroads. On one hand, over the last decade, you’ve had massive artists like Incubus, Periphery, Cigarettes After Sex, Two Door Cinema Club, Diplo, Machine Gun Kelly, Alt-J & more headline festivals across the country. Indeed, music festivals as a whole have become somewhat ubiquitous; with each one developing its own signature style and curated line-ups that have crossed arbitrary boundaries of genre.

On the other hand, audiences and artists have reached a point where they’re beginning to demand more and more from festivals and line-ups. Years of historic highs coupled with the artistic wilderness of the last couple of years have meant that festivals can no longer coast on their legacy alone. We’ve already seen both the NH7 Weekender and Lollapalooza’s lineup announcements being met with mixed to lukewarm reactions; particularly from those within the rock and metal communities.  

So the question is, do Indian music festivals still have the same drawing power or have they fallen short of meeting people's expectations? 

The answer, as you’d probably imagine, is rather complicated. When I-Rock announced its return, there was a palpable air of excitement. There was an inkling that the original rock and metal festival would put together a line-up that would shake the scene out of its stupor and inject new life and inspiration into both up-and-coming musicians and fans alike.

Newer festivals like the NH7 Weekender started out by wholeheartedly embracing the rock and metal communities; even going so far as to have their own dedicated rock and metal stage, featuring an eclectic combination of local and international heaviness (s/o to everyone who remembers the Bacardi Black Metal Stage) and while they all too quickly transitioned to more popular genres, on the whole, they still managed to bring in global behemoths like Textures, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Steven Wilson, and The Contortionist, to name a few.

Still, there was a sense that festivals and promotors could do more; that they could do even better in terms of creating a global concert experience that placed the best of local talent behind a vanguard of international powerhouses across genres.

A two-year halt to the music scene has made organizers and promotors understandably wary and while the scene has restarted, it is doing so at a pace that is far slower and more deliberate than most music fans in India are comfortable with. They’re expecting an immediate return to the sheer scale of the line-ups of the past while not really taking into account the logistics as well as the touring schedules of the artists in question. Nor do they really think about how damn-near-impossible it is to curate a music festival line-up that pleases everyone.

We’re now seeing festivals put out line-ups that are for the most part relatively low-risk and comfortable, with a sprinkling of global talent to headline the mainstages. As a fan, this approach does sting a little. The years before the halt saw the festival circuit on an upward trajectory that looked very much like it was heading for the moon. We saw performances from artists that not only matched global standards but in many cases rivalled them. In many ways, seeing very similar lineups return with a lack of diversity or freshness, particularly in terms of local bands, seems like a dramatic step backwards.

Having said that, I do think the fan backlash is a little unfair to the festivals themselves. I don’t believe anyone goes out of their way to programme a bad line-up and it’s a near-impossible task to please everyone. The Lollapalooza announcement debacle is a perfect example of this.

I’m not pretending that based on the hype and the buildup, the line-up isn’t nearly as impressive as most people thought it was going to be. This is a global music festival that has both the pull and budget to arguably do something revolutionary in the Indian music festival circuit.

Instead, they’ve been somewhat conservative; calling on a tried and tested combination of local artists including Tejas, Kayan & The F16s. Don’t get me wrong, they’re musicians who are incredible at their craft, but I think people have every right to demand that festivals change things up every so often.

What is unfair is the extent that people are taking their criticism of the line-up. The majority seem oblivious to the fact that Lollapalooza has introduced a not-insignificant handful of heavy hitters in the form of The Strokes, The Wombats, Japanese Breakfast & Madeon among others; all of whom are playing for the very first time in India. 

The Strokes, at one point in time, were the biggest band in the world and revolutionized the sound and landscape of the global indie music scene. As someone whose been fundamentally influenced by their music, it’d be a dream come true to be able to see them live. I also never really thought I’d ever get to see The Strokes live in my own country.

The herculean effort it must’ve taken, both financially and logistically to get a band of this profile to come down and play a fest in India cannot be understated. While the majority might not even have heard of The Strokes, for thousands of indie-alt kids like me, it’s the biggest band any homegrown festival could ever have announced.

There’s nothing underwhelming about The Strokes & The Wombats playing on the same bill in India. The same goes for Madeon, Japanese Breakfast, Cigarettes After Sex, Greta Van Fleet, Alec Benjamin and every other artist that’s been booked. 

You may not have listened to their music or even have known they existed before 6:00 AM, Thursday morning, but there’s no denying the fact that they are all incredibly talented in their own right and have earned their right to headline India’s first edition of Lollapalooza. Imagine spending years honing your craft; sacrificing time, money and effort, only to have someone shit on you because you’re not RHCP or Tool.

It’s against this backdrop that we’re seeing I-Rock come back this weekend. They’ve largely played it safe with their line-up, calling on the powers of old favourites such as Zero, Avial and Pentagram. Admittedly there is a paradoxical nostalgic freshness to this line-up. Indeed, many of these bands haven’t really played together on the same bill since the early days of the Weekender. They’ve also got some relative newness in the form of Bloodywood but nonetheless, it very much is a festival that’s sticking to what they know and taking little to no risks from a programming perspective.

Despite my own personal opinion, I also know that I have little to no understanding of the logistics behind programming a festival. There’s a lot of risk involved and a myriad of moving parts that most people wouldn’t even be able to fathom. So while I think it’s important to keep holding festivals to high standards, I think a little bit of empathy would also go a long way. It’s good to have high expectations from the art that we’re presented with but it’s equally important to also find a way to be kind and keep an open mind.

Before you head to the comments section of the next festival line-up announcement with your virtual pitchfork in hand, take some time to listen to the artists you’re inadvertently dismissing. You might actually like what you hear. 

Independence Rock is set to take place on Saturday, November 5 & Sunday, November 6 at Bayview Lawns, Mumbai. You can book your tickets here.

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