Gender disparity to genre diversity: Breaking down this year's Indian independent music scene so far
How diverse is the Indian independent music scene? And how concentrated is the scene in certain cities and which specific genres are generating the majority of the music?
How diverse is the Indian independent music scene? We’ve long established that the industry is skewed in favour of men especially in terms of festival line-ups. The situation is even more dismal if you go by the number of releases (see below), even though there are plenty of women composers. But beyond gender disparity, just how concentrated is the scene in certain cities and which specific genres are generating the majority of the music?
To get the answers, I used as the basis of my research my database of this year's Indian independent music albums and EPs, covering the period from 1 January to 17 April, 2020. In the list, I’ve allowed a rather generous definition of an EP as any set with between two and six songs.
I’ve only considered independent artists so I’ve left out, for example, popular film composer Sandeep Chowta’s albums from my tally because even though he runs an indie label, Namma Music, he’s a well-recognised mainstream name. (On the other hand, I’ve included the rest of Namma Music’s 2020 catalogue so far.)
Further, I’ve only included releases by India-based acts and not counted different avatars of the same artist separately (for instance, techno producer Arjun Vagale’s experimental project AsymetriK). I’ve also excluded compilations because they feature acts from different cities and on occasion, multiple countries. After this procession of elimination, I got a total of 107 different acts. Here’s what I discovered.
Slotting music into genres is becoming increasingly tricky as musicians across the board are incorporating a range of styles into their compositions. As far as possible, I’ve relied on their own classifications of their albums or EPs on Apple Music, for which they have to pick a genre when uploading a release. In some cases, I’ve had to use my own discretion and use a more suitable genre than the one shown on the streaming service.
Like when an act has chosen just a language as a genre as in the case of Vishal-Aditya’s EP Two, which is listed under “Tamil” on the platform (I’ve included it under Pop). Or when the artist was clearly having a laugh, like singer-songwriter Fall St. aka Aaron Sequeira who tagged his album as metal. I’ve also chosen to gather a few solo releases that traverse a range of related genres such as pop, rock and folk under the umbrella term of singer-songwriter.
Going by the number of album and EP releases, electronic music is by far the most popular genre in the Indian indie scene with 31 acts putting out material that falls into the style. A major reason for this is that it’s relatively easier for producers to share new music because of their ability to do so singlehandedly, without the help of other instrumentalists or beat providers. Electronic is also a very broad term and the works of 2020 cover a range of sub-genres such as ambient, bass, downtempo, house and techno and hybrid sounds that could best be described as “experimental” (all of Haved Jabib’s stuff).
Hip-hop, “singer-songwriter” (a genre as nebulous as pop) and rock are more or less tied for second place and it’s notable that individually, the genres’ releases are about half of those of electronic music. To be fair to good old’ pop, its share might have been larger than eight with some of the releases I’ve clubbed under singer-songwriter.
Collectively, the related genres of jazz (three), R&B (three) and funk (two) match up to pop. Metal, which has always had a niche but dedicated following, is repped by four releases, which is surprisingly the same number of albums and EPs in the folk/fusion category that about a decade ago was Indian indie’s fastest-growing genre.
Punk rears its head just once thanks to The Riot Peddlers while one release proved so unclassifiable that the act decided to tag it “Alternative” for lack of a better term. The album in question: Charlie Dreams Of Escape by Ape Echoes, which has elements of electronic, jazz, pop and rock to name just a few.
Mumbai, the entertainment capital of the country, and Bengaluru, which boasted some of its largest live venues, are India’s indie music hubs, both accounting for about a quarter of all releases. Along with New Delhi and the national capital region, they are the sources of nearly 70 percent of all this year’s records. Though 17 other cities are represented, they each contributed less than ten albums or EPs with metros Chennai and Pune a distant joint fourth place with six.
There are some obvious reasons for the dominance of Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi. They are our three most populous cities, make up the nation’s touring circuit and it’s more feasible to have a career as a musician in these places. It could also be that there’s a certain media bias at play.
I get to know of new releases from artists directly, through their social media channels or those of their labels and management companies, by browsing digital music e-tailer OK Listen’s website and by reading music publications such as Rock Street Journal, Rolling Stone, The Indian Music Diaries and The Wild City, each of which are headquartered in and have writers based out of Mumbai, New Delhi or Bengaluru. Surely there are indie musicians releasing music across India but perhaps we mostly get to know of those from the metros.
The 11 cities that make up the “Others” slice are Bhopal, Chandigarh, Darjeeling, Dehradun, Imphal, Jaipur, Ranchi, Shillong, Vadodara and somewhat surprisingly Dharamsala (home to the first half of hip-hop duo Warboy X DEVM) and Amravati (the base of rapper Darpan.) Note: The reason why the cities add up to 109 when there are 107 acts is because two duos have members from different cities.
Only six of the 107 releases were by solo female or female-fronted acts (in which a woman is either the lead singer or composer or one-half of a duo). Perhaps coincidentally four of them are from Bengaluru: jazz vocalist Radha Thomas, electronic music duo Sulk Station’s Tanvi Rao, post-rock pair Treble Puns’ Sohini Bhattacharya and Sanoli Chowdhury, one of three singer-songwriters on the list. Surprisingly, no female artists from either Mumbai or New Delhi have albums or EPs to their name so far this year. The other two girls with guitars are Andrea Tariang and Krameri, who are from Shillong and Vadodara respectively. A glance at the list of the music videos released by Indian indie acts over the past few months shows that even when it comes to singles, the ratio is as bad.
April’s been a busy month for new Indian independent music, which you might know if you’ve been checking my aforementioned log of the albums and EPs released in 2020. Long-running rock acts Junkyard Groove and menwhopause unveiled new collections, and a collective of electronic producers put out two Social Isolation compilations comprising tracks created during the quarantine. Among the sets that I’ve been streaming are Heartbreak Paradise, singer-songwriter Dhruv Kapoor’s debut EP on which he displays the potential to be the next Prateek Kuhad; The Commons by bassist-composer Gaurav Balani’s electronica ensemble Inalab, which smartly meshes multiple genres without wavering into self-indulgence, and Dheere/Deewarein, the sublime twin offering by Sulk Station on which they make a welcome return after an eight-year break.
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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