UNDERRATED, UNDERPAID. HUNGRY & NOWHERE TO GO! What went wrong? What can be done right?

Updated: Mar 4, 2020


Discussion with a friend about your international music playlist will have you throwing names vast and varied as birds in the sky. Swing this conversation 180 degrees back to India and the list is replaced with names of playback singers and Music Directors from Bollywood. We replace mainline music industry music with Bollywood Industry Music in India.

Taking a leaf from digital music consumption survey, which is pretty much indicative of the overall music consumption pattern in India, around 81% is Bollywood Music. Regional Movies account for another around 9% of digital music being consumed, and the remaining 10% International Music (source: FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2015).

Mainline music is lost in percentages too minuscule to even consider. Why?

Well, this is the precise question we sought getting a conclusive answer for when we started this story, speaking to some of the best known names within the surviving remnant of Indian mainline music industry, and some independent artists and bands doing their own thing. While we found views that were both resonating and conflicting to our own prior beliefs, they surprisingly converged unanimously on one thing - the need for a robust vibrant live performance scene in India.

Read on to know what some of your favourite stars had to say on the matter in their personal interview with Half Step Rock.

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Q - Rock Machine was a rage. In the northeast of India everyone who grew up in the 80's and 90's swear by the band and virtually know every song (Top of the Rock, Rock & Roll Renegade, Karen, Polyvinyl Lady, Pretty Child and the list goes on). Your cassettes (as they were sold that time) were inevitably a part of every car that had a music system. Much has changed since then. We do not have that kind of fan following for any band or artist anymore (unless the artist is connected with movies). What were factors responsible for the demise of the then (relatively) vibrant mainline music industry in India?

Ans - The death of the scene at the time was hastened by the flood of extremely poorly written, performed and produced Hindi pop, which took over music television and pushed out the growing English-language rock and pop scene. The deluge of sludge turned off a lot of music fans who began to tune off from the music TV they'd watched so devotedly. Music TV became reality TV and the downward spiral accelerated, killing a burgeoning movement of Indian rock and pop.

The scene today is different—better in many ways, harder in others. But it's also a far more vibrant period now in terms of the number of artists popping up every day, many of them really good. And the best part about the current scene, which was absent in the late '80s and early '90s apart from a few bands, is that every band is expected now to play their own music. Nothing beats originality.

Q - Can you give us real life accounts of challenges you faced as a Rock Band in India?

Ans - I can't list them out as they are far too many to get into. But the main obstacles we faced prior to MTV's arrival on Indian airwaves was getting past the bias against Indians performing their own songs (which we managed to overcome), marketing ourselves and getting exposure in an age when social media didn't exist and convincing record companies to fund our album recordings (technology today has put the power in the hands of the musician, who can now do it all at home).

Q - How can we reinvigorate a music industry that is independent of movies in India (like in the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany etc.)?

Ans - Let me first say that there is a big misconception about the industry in the west. While rock, pop, hiphop, R&B and other forms of popular music are indeed part of a large industry, we have to understand that this is their mainstream form of musical entertainment. India's is film music. Additionally, the music business in the west isn't thriving in the way it's perceived to be. It is insanely competitive, with staggeringly talented musicians struggling to make any kind of living and having to do all kinds of musically unrelated work just to survive. Moreover, the internet has changed things in ways that have been quite detrimental to the output of quality music. Streaming subscription services like Spotify and Pandora are said to be making it even harder for musicians, even the biggest ones, to make any money at all. And the output of mainstream commercial music has become so commodified that standards have dropped to abysmal levels.

So to address this highly marginal form of music in India, the indie scene, is something that will evolve with time. What I mean by that is that it's impossible to make any kind of conclusive judgment in terms of what's needed to build this little seed into a mighty tree. Needless to say, if there was a thriving local scene in every large metropolis as well as second tier city in this country, it would be less hard to develop a more widespread industry. That would mean a booming live scene in those towns, which would require performance spaces ranging from small clubs to large stadiums to accommodate acts of relevant followings. It would also need continual coverage from various media outlets—radio, TV and online portals. But most importantly, it needs the interest of a local populace to give it the sustenance to keep going. The sad truth is that people are becoming less and less interested in going out to watch a live act unless it's part of a hyped-up event. But I remain optimistic.

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Q - You had everything. The voice. The talent. The band. The adulation from fans. What went wrong? What were, in your opinion, factors that played detrimental role in Phoenix/Phynyx not becoming an international rage, which it had the potential to, and we believe still has.

Ans - Apparently, besides the competency level of the band, other equally important, vital and key missing link was the "business" proposition. Moreover, absence of 'top-of-the-line' technical team and label support system in the entire subcontinent to match international standard setup was another critical criteria.

I believe we were a little ahead of our times then.Today however, things have changed.

Having said that, I must confess, whatever the then prevalent circumstances, we are so profoundly fortunate to have had the opportunity to foretaste a little bit of the "Rock Stars" tag from friends and fans alike, touring all over the country during the late 80's & 90's era.

Still remembered till date? Fantastic! We remain grateful and are very fortunately blessed indeed!

Q - Ironically, despite a huge talent pool, most independent artists/bands in India are finding it difficult to make any impact or have a fan following anymore (unless the artist is connected with movies). In your opinion, what are factors responsible for the stagnancy/fading out of the once (relatively) vibrant mainline music industry in India?

Ans - It is general knowledge that success of any Music Industry (globally or locally) is dependent on high quality artists which inextricably relates to mutual commitments for sustenance and earning opportunities. Absence of this relation will obviously cause major upheavals.

Besides, other related factors may be summarized as under; i.e.; As a general observation, India for the last two decades has witnessed a systematic consistent bombarding of mediocre level musical promotions, lack of promotional transparency, blatant ignorance or lack of seriousness in search for young "talents". Even mega business houses/corporates fail to recognize and grasp true potential or the 'big picture' and therefore do not provide the right launching opportunity.

Either way, all these issues are closely interconnected and the need for development of an appropriate infrastructure to support artists and industry fraternity needs to be worked out!

The "favoritism" practice is another acutely problematic issue as we end up with "so & so's kid or relation or contacts" syndrome, but never the right deserving artist who can sell records as it ought to be. Clash of interests therefore ultimately arise between the investors and the artist and this unwittingly becomes the most detrimental reason for our current situation, eventually leading to exodus of good artists to other lucrative revenue earning profession or alternative avenues as it robs them of a legitimate livelihood.

Having said that, "Indie pop" has hugely benefited while "Indian Rock Music" has greatly lost out! With it, the value of specific independent entity as an artist/group/band seems to have vanished. Even so, the best times may yet be on the horizon. Keep the faith!

Q - Can you give us real life accounts of challenges you faced as a vocalist and band member in India?

Ans - It would be an endless tale of cherished nostalgia. However, the worst two words to describe challenges for Indian artists are favoritism, (mixed with) discrimination. Irony is, both these two meaningful words can neither market nor sell the artist or the song anywhere. Period!

Life's journey itself is a challenge but without it, no fun!

Q - In your opinion, how can we reinvigorate a music industry that is independent of movies in India (like in the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany etc.)?

Ans - The Industry must formulate a Selection Committee with crystal clear set goals and targets. The executive group with a planning team must ensure that artists are selected solely on merit with marketable evaluations and open category options to all genres.

One pertinent and important question every selector must keep in mind is, "Would I buy the selected artist's album or single?"

For every deserving candidate they must provide every available professional resource and assistance with proper business proposition in place to vigorously promote it.

Rest, as it is said, shall be history!

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Q - Touted one of the most famous Blues Rock Band from Northeast, India has seen, Soulmate incepted in 2003 and has made a niche for itself and gained immense popularity with the International Blues Challenge, USA, 2007. You ventured into the music scene pretty young yourself and traveled this far. Much has changed since then. Most independent artists/bands are finding it difficult to make that kind of impact or have that kind of fan following anymore (unless the artist is connected with movies). In your opinion, what were factors responsible for the stagnancy/fading out of the once (relatively) vibrant mainline music industry in India?

Ans - When I first decided to take up music as a career, there was no ‘music scene’ in India… I’m talking about 1980/81 … Gigs were few and far between. What kept us going was our love and dedication for the music we played… there were no TV Channels… no music festivals, just local gigs in and around Shillong. Once or twice a year we would travel to Kolkata or Delhi for the college festivals.

My personal opinion is that, right now, there are a lot of bands and artistes, some really good, some ok and the rest just wannabe’s, who have easy and quick access to “fame”, forget about the fortune and the hard work that goes along with it!

With the internet, its easy for one song wonders to happen… and that, I feel is the problem. No one is dedicated enough to their music and art. They all want that one hit song… if not in English, then in Hindi or whatever language they think might crack it even changing musical styles …There’s nothing wrong with that but I don’t see it as being sustaining for the music ‘industry’ We have been around for 15 years now, still writing, working , learning and honing our craft….. For a band to have a dedicated fan following, it has to be consistent.

One has to be around for a while, rooted, for people to really appreciate him or her otherwise it’s like fast food… a new flavor everyday and we are spoilt for choice! And ‘fans’ have become fickle too because of the choices.

Q - Can you give us real life accounts of challenges you faced as a Blues Rock Band in India?

Ans - I feel that Soulmate came around at a time when there was nothing really happening in India… except for cover bands which were the in thing and of course, Bollywood. There wasn’t a Blues scene at all. When I decided that Soulmate would be dedicated to playing the Blues some people tried to dissuade me from doing so saying that there was no chance of us surviving … well, our dedication, perseverance and hard work proved them all wrong. Also, thanks to people like Kiran Sant who owned The Haze (now closed) in Delhi and our late brother, Amit Saigal, and Vijay Nair who initially supported us and gave us the opportunity to play to different crowds all across the country! I guess if we had wavered, we wouldn’t be here today. I believe that nothing in life comes easy… especially for the younger musicians and artistes… there’s no hurry… hone your craft, play as much as you can and you will find your niche and your fans will find you.

I also feel that when we started, we were playing our own material at the gigs and the people who came, young and old, really liked the songs… it was a time when the Indian audience was opening up to Indian bands doing their own stuff… It didn’t really bother us at all that people would not appreciate our music. I was with The Great Society and Mojo before Soulmate and we were writing and performing our own material even then! So it was a natural progression I guess… and the fact that we had something to say through our songs.

Our only challenge at the time was waking up at 3am in the morning, travelling to Guwahati airport and catching the earliest flight to New Delhi … arriving at the venue, doing a soundcheck then playing the gig the same night… then resting for an hour before heading to the airport and catching the 5.30 flight back to Guwahati…. We had to deal with sleepless nights once a month every month for around 6 years!! Thank God for that ☺ It was all worth it and we are in a better place now!

Q - How can we reinvigorate a music industry that is independent of movies in India (like in the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany etc.)?

Ans - It has to work both ways.. There has to be a support system where venues support bands/artistes and vice versa. Musicians need to get paid to sustain themselves and their craft. Venues need to get a crowd so that they can pay the musician and sustain their businesses … most smaller clubs and pubs don’t get sponsors for gigs that they host.

There’s no comparison between India and all these countries mentioned above… Here in India, we don’t have a close knit network of venues wherein a band can travel in a touring bus and play at different venues every day or every second day… The venues are all in the metros! In the US, most bands, big and small travel by road… that’s why they call it ‘being on the road’. There are literally thousands of small and big venues where bands can go and play…

Here, for us to travel by bus from Shillong to Kolkata would take us almost two days… then another two days to Delhi… imagine the time and energy wasted! Although I would love to travel and sleep on the bus ☺

Here, we have to fly all around the place... This is expensive. So instead of playing 8-10 gigs a month, we play 5-6 gigs every 2-3 months nowadays. Even trains take forever. Right now, we all live on the edge… June and July are completely ‘dry’ months for most musicians.