In Indian music scene, indie acts become tougher to define as lines blur between mainstream and niche

Amit Gurbaxani

Jul 17, 2019 10:02:17 IST

How do you define an Indian independent artist? In 2019, when the lines are increasingly blurring between the mainstream and the niche, that’s getting harder and harder.

There was a time when, if asked to define independent music, many scenesters would simply say that it’s anything “that’s not Bollywood”. This is a simplistic, inadequate and frankly shortsighted definition. Because it excludes all kinds of other Indian regional film music, each with a substantial listenership.

On YouTube, the most viewed Indian music video of 2019 so far is not a Hindi film song but “Rowdy Baby” from the Tamil movie Maari 2. More recently, I’ve heard industry professionals make a distinction between “non-film” and “independent” music, the implication being that the former has far wider commercial appeal.

Universal Music India signs artists for two platforms, VYRLOriginals, for which they’ve enlisted Hindi pop vocalists and bands including Arjun Kanungo and the duo of twin sisters Sukriti and Prakriti Kakar; and the Sterling Reserve Project, through which they’ve worked with acts such as Anushqa and Arunaja, former contestants of the English reality TV singing talent competition The Stage.

VYRLOriginals, Universal states, is a “music property created to promote independent non-film music” in which “the sound will be in line with contemporary Bollywood music with great production values, albeit without the canvass of a film”. In other words, the aim is to create music that sounds as close to the sonic template of Hindi movie soundtracks as possible.

It’s worth also noting that many of the VYRLOriginals artists are also playback singers. The Sterling Reserve Music Project, on the other hand, was launched to “champion emerging talent in our independent music landscape” and “features multiple genres and is language agnostic”.

In Indian music scene, indie acts become tougher to define as lines blur between mainstream and niche

Indie acts (clockwise from above left) Dualist Inquiry; Indian Ocean; Thaikkudam Bridge. Images courtesy Facebook/@dualistinquiry, photo credit Zacharie Rabehi; Facebook/@indianoceanmusic; Wikimedia Commons

Universal, of course, is a major label and the very origin of the definition of an independent act was one who is not signed to a major. But in India the lines are not so clear and any descriptor of “indie” would necessitate considering the specifications and peculiarities of the workings of the domestic industry. There might only be three major music companies in the world but does that make T-Series, with the most-subscribed YouTube channel on the planet, an independent label?

Or for that matter Times Music and Zee Music Company, which are owned respectively by media conglomerates, the Times of India Group and Zee Entertainment Enterprises? Bollywood is a big part of what these three do, more so than Sony and Universal.

Should we then narrow the definition of indie to, as Artist Aloud’s Soumini Paul suggested at a recent conference, artists who aren’t singed to a label and choose to distribute their music through digital services? Even here there are complications.

Does occasionally working in Bollywood automatically disqualify an act as truly independent? From Indian Ocean to Raghu Dixit to Nucleya to Divine to Prateek Kuhad to The Local Train, they’ve all contributed songs to Hindi films and have now amassed enough mainstream popularity to put them on the top of the pile of the indie scene. Are they less indie than the likes of Thaikkudam Bridge, Swarathma, Dualist Inquiry, Emiway, Parekh + Singh and Parvaaz?

Does it then come down to language and by that I mean artists who perform in English and will therefore always enjoy a niche following in India? Yet, of the two biggest blues-rock bands in the country, I’ve seen Soulmate draw larger crowds in Mumbai than Blackstratblues, which plays instrumental compositions. Maybe it’s because Soulmate has been around for longer or that they don’t perform half as often as Blackstratblues in the city.

Then again, does an act stop being independent after they reach a certain level of popularity? Is Nucleya, whose blend of bass-heavy electronic beats and Indian folk music was so pioneering in the early part of the decade, no longer indie now that his sound has increasingly embraced a more populist vibe? The supposed disownment of an artist by the indie community happens to international acts all the time. Coldplay were considered an indie band at the beginning of their career but today are regarded as the diagonal opposite of everything for which the concept stands.

Maybe it’s a matter of aesthetics. You know it when you hear it. Lost Stories are far less indie than Sandunes, for instance. But even this is not as clear-cut as it seems. Does “Machayenge”, Emiway’s most blatantly commercial-sounding track (and consequently his biggest hit to date), sit apart from the rest of his catalogue?

I’ve posed far more questions than I have provided answers but the idea is to provoke a conversation about the changing dynamics of the Indian music industry. Personally though, I think indieness is more an approach, a modus operandi rather than a sound or an affiliation. It’s about putting artistic integrity above money, irrespective of how tempting the offer might be. It’s about making sure the brands are in the background, and don’t own your space. It’s about being brave enough to call things out over commercial considerations.

It’s about doing things that are far easier said than done. Maybe it isn’t the music that makes you indie, it’s you.

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

Updated Date: Jul 18, 2019 16:12:17 IST