Looking back at a decade of Indian indie music: Hip-hop replaces rock as the biggest genre, Hindi acts rise to the top
Among the most significant developments in the Indian indie music scene over the last decade have been the growth of legit music festivals, and the democratisation of music distribution and marketing through digital platforms and social media. The artists riding the current wave are electronic music producers Nucleya and Ritviz, singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad and Hindi rock band The Local Train.
As we near the end of the decade, the Indian independent music scene appears to be grappling with the same issues it faced ten years ago, mainly the paucity of quality gig venues across the country and the lack of support from mainstream media, such as radio, TV and print. On the bright side, among the most significant developments in Indian indie over the same time period have been the growth of legit music festivals, and the democratisation of music distribution and marketing through digital platforms and social media.
If we include events that will be staged during the rest of the 2019-20 gig season, which will run until April next year, we now have eight multi-genre festivals that have been around for at least five years: SulaFest in Nashik (started in 2008), Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Pune (2010) and Meghalaya (2015), Ziro Festival of Music in Ziro Valley (2012) and Orange Festival of Adventure and Music in Dambuk (2015) in Arunachal Pradesh, Magnetic Fields in Alsisar (2013) in Rajasthan, VH1 Supersonic in Pune (2013), and Echoes of Earth in Bengaluru (2016).
There are single-day events that have been around for as long but I’m using a stricter definition of the term “festival” to only include those that run across at least two days and feature a fair number of Indian indie acts in their line-ups. For this reason, I’m excluding both the EDM-focused Sunburn in Goa (2007) and Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai (2011) but feel honourable mentions should go to the crowd-funded Control Alt Delete (2011) and reggae-specialising Goa Sunsplash (2016), both of which were expanded into weekend-long affairs in 2017.
The majority of these festivals are marketed on the strength of the roster of their international headliners, but increasingly, they’re programming local artists to top the bill, a major change from the middle of the decade. In 2015, Rolling Stone India ran a controversial cover story about “the crisis in Indian rock”. The crisis, according to the magazine, was the scarcity of new headliners for music fests.
The publication was using “rock” as a broad term to refer to all of the indie scene, but in 2009, if you had asked me who the most popular acts in India were, I would have rattled off a list that included folk-fusion bands Indian Ocean and The Raghu Dixit Project, electro-folk-fusion duo Midival Punditz, alternative rock groups Pentagram, Thermal and a Quarter and Zero, electro-pop pair Shaa’ir + Func and blues-rock two-piece Soulmate. Notably, five of them are English-singing outfits.
Today, rock is arguably no longer Indian independent music’s biggest genre. Mirroring a trend that has played out globally, it has been taken over by hip-hop whose most famous names in the country today are rappers Divine, Emiway and Naezy, each of whom have frequently played to audiences of thousands. In other words, they’re headliner material, along with a handful of artists riding the crest of the current wave of Indian indie, namely electronic music producers Nucleya and Ritviz, singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad and Hindi rock band The Local Train.
Incidentally, these seven acts were the most streamed independent musicians on Spotify India this year. Granted the service is only eight months old, but its audience base seems to include a fair number of indie music listeners. A big difference between this septet and my unscientifically put together list from 2009: apart from the bi-lingual Kuhad, who also sings in English, they’re all Hindi artists (I’m clubbing Nucleya into this group because he primarily works with guest vocalists who sing in the language). This, coupled with the adoption of streaming services such as YouTube thanks to increased smartphone usage, internet penetration and low data costs, has helped their music reach and appeal to a nationwide audience that spans far beyond the metros.
As music DSPs continue to expand throughout the country, I believe the listenership for acts performing in both English and regional languages should reach that critical mass that enables them to play to crowds of a similar size as the hip-hop stars mentioned above. Kuhad has already done it. This past week, he performed outdoor shows for between four thousand and six-and-a-half thousand people in Pune and Mumbai. And tickets for the gigs, starting at Rs 1,999 per person, weren’t exactly cheap.
On the other hand, it’s become harder to define an independent artist. Divine, Nucleya, Kuhad and The Local Train have all composed songs or had tracks synced in Hindi films, but only occasionally. Also now that Divine is signed to Mass Appeal, a division of Universal Music, some might debate he isn’t technically indie anymore.
Nevertheless, these acts no longer need to lead a double life like say, singer and composer Vishal Dadlani who is better known as being one-half of the Bollywood music director duo Vishal-Shekhar than as the frontman of Pentagram. A substantial number of indie musicians have enough work to make substantial money through live gigs, brand partnerships, recording sessions and jingle commissions. The Local Train’s vocalist Raman Negi once told me that they’re able to make rent with their monthly income from streaming services. It’s another matter that they were all living in the same house at the time.
Then again, seven acts among thousands is just too small a percentage, especially when more and more artists are releasing music. Based on my own tracking, an average of at least 200-250 Indian indie albums and EPs are released every year, which is almost as much if not more than the number of Hindi film soundtracks put out annually. Another long-term concern is the absence of women among the list of the most streamed artists and headliners, something I believe will change over the next few years as more festivals realise the importance of a balanced gender ratio. The indie scene will have truly developed if by the end of the next decade there will be as many Indian headliners as there are Indian music festivals.
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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