Amid Radio City Freedom Awards 2018, a look at what impact such honours have on careers of indie acts
Awards can serve as much-needed validation for acts that rarely get mainstream attention in a country where being a full-time musician continues to be considered an unusual career choice | #FirstCulture
I’ve spent the last week scoring the nominees for the fifth edition of the annual Radio City Freedom Awards, which are among the few awards for the Indian independent music industry. The process got me wondering about the kind of impact awards have on the careers of Indian indie acts.
Personally, I’ve always loved award shows, specifically the idea behind them rather than the actual ceremonies, which can often be poorly executed branding exercises. Maybe it’s to do with my penchant for useless trivia. Like music charts, awards mean stats for geeks like me. (Which act has won the most RCFAs so far? It’s a tie between Mumbai-based rapper Divine and LA-residing Indian pop singer-songwriter Natania Lalwani, each of whom has three.)
I feel awards are especially beneficial for the Indian indie scene. They can serve as much-needed validation for acts that rarely get mainstream attention in a country where being a full-time musician continues to be considered an unusual career choice. Winning a trophy for being the best in your field across the nation can be a good way of proving to your disapproving parents you’re on the right path.
However given that awards shows are sponsor-driven enterprises, we’ve seen a few come and go. The Radio City Freedom Awards, which began in 2013, are somewhat of a successor to the Jack Daniel's Annual Rock Awards, which were organised by the Indian edition of Rolling Stone magazine, and held for the last time in 2014. When JD’s sponsorship stopped, so did the awards. Although they were called ‘rock’ awards, nominees included musicians from associated genres such as electro-pop and metal. The RCFAs, on the other hand, are categorised by genre, which is why no single act has ever swept the awards.
Also in the list is the Global Indian Music Academy Awards or GIMA Awards, which has a number of non-film categories that have been won by indie artists and bands such as Raghu Dixit and Thermal and a Quarter over the years. Because they throw in more commercial Indian pop under the same categories and the jury tends to lean towards more mainstream non-film music — if an act appears on Coke Studio @ MTV, there’s a good chance they will win — the GIMAs seem to fall under the radar of most indie scene-sters.
Many acts list the awards they’ve received in their bios and About Us page on Facebook. But how much of an actual difference do they make to artists’ careers? I asked Jishnu Dasgupta, bassist and de facto spokesperson of Bengaluru's folk-fusion group Swarathma and he said that while awards don’t really matter to fans, they do help in landing gigs, especially when the person booking the acts is somebody with a limited knowledge of the indie scene. The fact that Swarathma has multiple awards might lead him or her to believe they’re a safe bet, said Dasgupta. Having one in the bag can also justify a hike in performance fees, he added.
There are other benefits as well. Ashwin Sharma, who manages Mumbai-based Hindi progressive rock band Coshish, said that member Hamza Kazi’s Best Drummer win at the JD Rock Awards in 2014 enabled him to procure a number of endorsement deals. But nothing counts as much as cold hard cash, which is perhaps why the JD Rock Awards enjoyed a higher participation after the prize for the Best Band was changed to a cheque for Rs 5 lakh.
Understandably, indie acts pay far more attention to competitions through which they can win money, gear, studio time or a combination of all three. Dasgupta said that their triumph at the Radio City Live Band Hunt in 2008, which got them an album deal with record label EMI had a far greater effect on their career than any subsequent award they’ve received. Indeed, like competitions, awards can occasionally be pointers to future stars. Divine was first named Best Hip-Hop Artist at the RCFAs in 2014, a few months before he blew up with ‘Mere Gully Mein’. He can be seen brandishing the award, which he got for ‘Yeh Mera Bombay’ that marked his switch from English to Hindi and his breakthrough within the country’s rap circuit, in the video for ‘Mere Gully Mein’.
Then again, you can’t win an award unless you submit your song, EP or album. It’s strange that The Last Analog Generation by blues-rock guitarist and composer Blackstratblues, one of the most acclaimed and bestselling indie releases of last year, did not figure among the nominations at the RCFAs. The album was released within the eligibility period and the only possible explanation for its absence is that Blackstratblues aka Warren Mendonsa did not enter it. Mendonsa has been in the business for two decades, has a loyal fan base and probably does not need an award for either the exposure or the encouragement. On the other hand, maybe he just got lazy. Besides, there’s always next year.
Indian indie artists are so notoriously lackadaisical that the RCFAs give acts two chances to enter. While most awards cover a year, the RCFAs celebrate releases over an 18- month period. This year’s awards were for those that came out between April 2016 and September 2017; the 2019 installment will be for works released between April 2017 and September 2018.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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