India now has a legit music festival scene, but events' programming must be as innovative as packaging

Amit Gurbaxani

Feb 10, 2019 18:44:52 IST

It’s possible to attend a different Indian music festival every weekend in February. SulaFest was held at Sula Vineyards in Nashik last week, the Mahindra Blues Festival is being staged in Mumbai this weekend, Vh1 Supersonic will take place in Pune next week, and the World Sacred Spirit Festival, which focuses on Sufi and folk music from across the world, will unfold in Jodhpur during the last weekend of the month.

According to industry estimates, there are almost 25 such festivals in the country. If we count only multi-day events (a single-day gig is not a festival in my opinion) featuring popular international and Indian independent acts (as opposed to folk and classical artists) that have been around for at least five years (because some festivals turn out to be one-time affairs), then the figure is six. That’s not bad for a nation where music festivals are just a little over a decade old.

In other words, we now have a legit music festival scene. They’re so popular that even the Jaipur Literature Festival has a music stage. Never mind that it featured all the usual folk-fusion suspects, such as Indian Ocean, Kutle Khan and Midival Punditz this year.

The majority of festivals, however, are dependent on brand sponsorships. At a panel discussion at the All About Music conference in Mumbai in August last year, we heard that ticket, F&B and merchandise sales make back only 20 to 30 percent of the costs for the Bacardi NH7 Weekender — arguably the country’s most popular multi-genre festival — the Pune edition of which was attended by over 50,000 people across three days this past December.

 India now has a legit music festival scene, but events programming must be as innovative as packaging

Glimpses from NH7 Weekender, Magnetic Fields Festival and Mahindra Blues Festival

At Vh1 Supersonic, ticket sales recover about 40 percent of the costs, said festival director Sameet Sharma at All About Music. Maybe it’s because most festivals are brand-building exercises, they all seem to follow a template. We know that the headliners at Weekender will include a post-rock band, a guitar god and a Bollywood musician. We’ve also come to expect that SulaFest will feature assorted dance-friendly ‘world music’ ensembles and at least one international indie favourite, and that Supersonic will have one commercial EDM star along with one alternative electronic artist.

There’s comfort in this predictability, I suppose, and to an extent, it also helps maintain a loyal fan base because there are essentially two types of festival attendees: those that buy tickets as soon as they’re out, and those that wait for the line-up to be announced. I confess to being in the second category.

I’m at that age where I’ll only the make effort if there’s an act I really want to see, and that’s usually an international artist because it appears as though festival programmers in the country have only a limited pool of Indian talent to choose from. This is why it feels like a similar roster performs at almost every festival, every year.

Like many of my friends, I’m waiting for an Indian festival that gets all the elements right. Weekender and SulaFest have some of the best bills, at least as far the international contingents are considered, but they’re uncomfortably crowded. Magnetic Fields, which is hosted in a palace, the Alsisar Mahal in Rajasthan, and the Ziro Festival of Music, which is set in the gorgeously picturesque Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, have the best vibe. In fact, Magnetic Fields is so much about the vibe that they don’t even bother putting up the schedule anywhere. But it’s too expensive, while Ziro is too far.

Perhaps the next stage of evolution will be genre-specific festivals. We have daylong events for fans of sub-genres like bass music and hip-hop, but none have scaled up to full-fledged annual festivals yet. The Mahindra Blues Festival, which is now in its ninth year, is a good example of a genre-specific get-together, but even there, they play it safe. Less than dozen Indian groups have played its two main stages, which are reserved for international acts, some of who are more obscure than the local bands they eschew.

That said, the organisers of each of the aforementioned festivals do a pretty impressive job. They all aim to make you feel part of a community, but to me the only festival that truly achieves this is Control Alt Delete, a crowd-funded two-day event by 4/4 Experiences that evolved out of a DIY gig series at which fans paid what they want to enter. If you’re looking to check out some of the brightest young stars of the Indian indie scene, then make your way to the second edition of Control Alt Delete in Mumbai in March. Sadly, it does not always recoup costs.

Currently, promoters are being far more innovative with their packaging than they are with their programming, so I hope that Indian festivals grow to the point where having something for everyone doesn’t mean catering to the least common denominator. Because I can’t but help wonder, where are the festivals targeted at those in their mid-30s and 40s? Ones that are child-friendly, where you don’t risk being elbowed in the eye by a drunk millennial, and whose programmers know that there was more to the 80s and 90s than trashy Europop and cheesy soft rock.

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2019 17:27:00 IST