The difficulty of being NH7 Weekender: Damned if it does, damned if it doesn't

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

Aug,09 2018 10:48:46 IST

In the nine years since its inception, the Only Much Louder-helmed Bacardi NH7 Weekender festival has many firsts to its credit. A music festival conceptualised with Indian talent at the core of its programming, consistently trying to balance the sure-shot crowd-puller headliners with the obscure-to-Indians-but-huge-in-their-own-way artists, constantly learning from its organisational mistakes and thoughtfully giving concertgoers ample parking space and bus shuttle services, allowing pets to attend while keeping trained professionals on hand to help them cope, the list of firsts is exhaustive! Most often, these details haven’t even figured in the radar of NH7 Weekender’s industry colleagues as a concert-going necessity.

Why then has NH7 steadily been losing the excitement of the very audience who championed its cause back in 2010? The announcement of the lineup of its ninth edition has seen some polar opposite reactions. Some love it, some others have spent much time Googling the names announced. Is it because increasingly the audience is losing patience over being unable to recognise more than half the artists in the lineup? Are the headliners not fitting into one’s Coachella-meets-Download notion of bigwigs? Is the organisers’ constant penchant for rejecting mainstream as being anti-cool alienating it from its earliest fans? Or is NH7 getting caught in a mindset clash between the early Xennial supporters and its subsequent millennial target audience?

Mumbai paved the way, kinda

Nine years ago, when the Bacardi NH7 Weekender Festival was launched, it was one of the most unique musical experiences to have been organised in India. A rare, slickly curated multi-genre music festival, it came at a time when the short-lived One Tree Festival was long gone, and the unorganised Indian indie scene was starting to grow without much direction.

AT the Bacardi NH7 Weekender. Photo credit: Prashin Jagger

At the Bacardi NH7 Weekender. Photo credit: Prashin Jagger

There were one-day multi-genre festivals that had much fewer artists, in venues where post-gig transport for Mumbaikars was a nightmare, toilets at the venue were bile-churning and tickets were ridiculously priced. Mumbai’s role or the lack of in the journey of the NH7 Weekender Festival is inadvertently pertinent. After all, it has been conceptualised and organised by people who knew the Mumbai indie scene at the back of their hands; ones who made it their business to keep an ear out for talent; ones who had the drive to create a Glastonbury-like experience in India, ones who managed major Indian artists and knew what a financial nightmare it is to be in the non-Bollywood music business in Mumbai — the heart of Bollywood.

Quite correctly, the city was a dreadful place to host a festival of this scale due to space constraints that puncture the vibe of a music festival, complex taxation issues that drive concert promoters to various shades of misery, and the sheer vulgarity of costs with prohibitively expensive media buys and more. Pune, its quieter, economically-poorer cousin, gained what Mumbai lost. And with it, the rest of the country discovered the erstwhile NH7 highway that connected the North to the South of India. That’s not to say that organising the festival in Pune has been a walk in the park. Labyrinthine licensing procedures are designed to make concert promoters lose any interest in bringing new talent to the fore.

The indie identity of artists and audiences

Inspired to create a festival experience of international standards, NH7 Weekender was the product of organisers who cut their teeth in the Indian indie music industry quite accidentally. Vijay Nair just happened to be booking bands and took the gamble to drop out of college to see what this industry had in store for him. It wasn’t some raging passion for music but the uncharted path ahead of him that inspired his decision to form OML with Bobby Talwar, bassist of Mumbai-based band Zero. By the time the NH7 Weekender festival made its debut, Nair and Talwar had had almost a decade’s worth of contacts in the indie scene and suitable backing from international professionals who have worked with major global festivals. Since 2010, the festival has never shied away from ensuring that it sees its fair share of artists making their debut.

This is of particular significance given that the average Indian music fan is predisposed to being a freeloader. The ones who brought great passion and energy to the festival were often the rock and metal fans — ones who weren’t really known for spending much on bands they were unfamiliar with. The culture to pay for music was frequently balked at by audiences who mostly scored sponsor passes or pulled strings to get on guest-lists. And this was for artists they knew, heard ad nauseam and loved immensely. So clearly, a fledgling indie artist who played originals and not covers, and who had limited experience with the gig circuit, was not going to get a paying audience.

In this climate, the NH7 Weekender took the gamble and the beverage sponsorship with it, to create unique identities for each stage. While the rock, easy-listening, EDM or hip-hop genres have a template to follow that was created internationally, the NH7 Weekender flagship creation was The Dewarists stage umbrella: bringing together artists with distinct Indian soul and aesthetics, while being completely fluid with the limitations of genres. Indian indie artists singing in regional languages were given as much space as a top-billed Indian rock band singing in English. In what seemed like such a Western experience of being in a music festival, language no longer mattered.

Finger on the pulse

No wonder then that the lineup for no other multi-genre festival in the country is as hotly awaited. That may in part have to do with OML’s marketing strategy to drum up some drama around every development pertaining to the festival. Also, the indie-focused festival has cleverly positioned itself as a space that has something for every music lover. Quite ironically, even Bollywood.

Its annual roster includes a smattering of famous and “Ummm, who are these people?” artists across genres that range from major usual suspects like Steve Vai, Megadeth, Marky Ramone, Asian Dub Foundation, Anoushka Shankar, AR Rahman and Vishal Bhardwaj to Grammy winners like Mark Ronson and Imogen Heap, reggae major like The Wailers, or Seun Kuti, who are truly worthy of being a part of such festival even though they may barely ring a bell with an audience that is looking to buy the tickets.

Critics of the festival have often accused a sort of cliquey nature to OML’s programming of some editions of the festivals. Bands who they manage, friends and friends of friends would find repeat billing, sometimes in subsequent years, and worse, as part of some very contrived starry headlining ensembles. Bands like Indian Ocean have played six out of eight times, Blackstrat Blues and Dualist Inquiry have played seven out of eight editions, and The Raghu Dixit Project has played all eight times! That’s not to take any credit away from these prolific musicians but it does put into perspective a growing fatigue for an audience that wants to listen to new music but will not go looking for it. Worse, it would scoff at the contemporary majors that it hasn’t even heard of and crib about a small percentage of repetition. For OML, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Keeping up with trends

Not only are some of the best names in the indie scene around the world making it to the lineup year after year, the organisers have had their finger on the pulse as far as the audience experience expectation goes. What started in Pune has grown into a multi-city annual event with smaller satellite editions taking newer, fresher sounds to various corners of the country.

As is the case with science, light indeed travels faster than sound. So now we have the NH7 Weekender concert-chic look, which itself was a Monica-Dogra-inspired-by-Woodstock look. Lennon-tinted shades with loosely tossed hair, floral wreaths adorning their tresses, flowing dresses teamed with Roman strappy flats or worse, leather thigh-high boots sometimes in sweltering October Pune heat (yes, you read that right). What started as a kind of retro counter-culture inspired look is now the norm for the average concert-going girl. She’s the female counterpart of the black rock print t-shirt wearing male fan. She’s also rapidly replacing the goth-influenced black makeup sporting female fan.

The experience of the festival has trumped its content. The eyeliner is as important as the lineup. Today, it’s as much about being seen at the festival, as it is as about listening to the music. Even if you put the music aside for a moment, there’s the entire package of a shopping area, a Ferris wheel, and bean bags that create an ambience for every mood, every listener, and every palate. There’s a hippie-like social consciousness that runs parallel with the overall vibe of the festival. It wouldn’t be a surprise if an edition in the near future has a stall for organic vegetables and Keto-friendly snacks.

Disgruntled Gen Ex?

Today the multiple near-empty bars are a great indicator of the average age of the concertgoer. With the age limit for consumption of hard liquor being 25, three-fourths of the audience is scattered across the multiple stages, the food court and the shopping arena. This is a far cry from the earlier years when the bars would be packed to the rafters with eager tipplers.

Needless to say, the audience has been a very important part of the Weekender journey, supporting it when it had no precedent. In its early years, the fans who supported the festival came to listen to the music. Then in their late 20s, early 30s, this generation now called as Xennials apparently (ask comedian Rohan Joshi who convinces you that these are Gen X-ers born between 1978-83, who have had an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood) was lapping up a live experience that was as rich as it was varied. Social media hadn’t exploded in India yet and concert-goers weren’t bumping into imbeciles with selfie sticks.

The growth of the festival runs parallel with the coming of age of the widely derided Millennials. During the NH7 Weekender inaugural edition, a good part of this Millennial generation was still in school. As the festival grew, so did its audience. When an audience grows, so does its taste. Given that OML wasn’t working for a charitable cause and had a clear eye on profits and losses, it was important for the company to recognise a rapidly changing audience profile. Simultaneously, how we consume music went through a sea change and with it, how we consumed music festivals. It wasn’t just about listening, it was experiencing. If people are changing, wouldn’t it be natural for music creators too to experience some changes? Expecting the music to remain the same goes against the fundamental dynamic nature of the arts. Yet, it is natural for a ticket buyer to look for a few artists who make purchasing the ticket seem worth it. Not necessarily out of some nostalgic trip but out of a need for familiarity, a need for vasooli.

This makes the case of NH7 Weekender an incredibly unique one because in its praise and its scorn lies a mirror to who we are and what we’ve become — are we moving with the times and the industry or are we choosing to be stuck in a time-warp of musical stagnation?

Updated Date: Aug 11, 2018 12:29 PM