The Rules of Engagement

There has been a lot of talk about the Indian “indie explosion” lately. Seeing as this is the small-scale arts and entertainment sector that’s doing most of the talking, I’m going to come at this one with a barrowful of salt. The “indie scene”, as it were, is still far too new and fragmented to have its own institutions or its own voice: anything you hear is as likely as not simply a small group of enthusiasts hyperventilating on the internet. And, compelling though their excitement may be, it doesn’t mean a thing when faced with sordid, everyday questions like livelihood, permanence, and real-world impact.

Not that there isn’t real reason to be excited: the best records made recently in this country have been very, very good. Two decades of the world wide web, globalisation and open borders have allowed artists and audiences to dip their toes in a global pool of noise and ideas without being bullied into obedience by the outpost sentries of the major labels: in short, for once, people can listen to what they want, share opinions with whom they want wherever they may be, and create what they want however they want it. The narrow, oppressive ideas of music and performance that have always been peddled here – to the ruination of thousands – are finally being given the up-yours by smart, inquisitive kids in front of computers. In its daily realities, India may be the other end of nowhere still, but, in your head, you needn’t be stuck here any more: and this can only ever be a good thing because it means less cliché, less settling-for-less, more inputs, more mash-ups fired by more powerful currents, and, ultimately, more life. And about time too.

All pretty great, but before everyone lets their imagination run away with them: what does the scene really have going for it right now, in plain, absolute terms? Put up against everything else from all around the world, maybe half-a-dozen good-to-great LPs – those cool little anti-arse-rock records of last year – a handful of decently done festivals which nonetheless aren’t big enough or famous enough to be particularly noticeable outside of the bubble-world of the scene illuminati, and few enough writers and photographers taking notes of all this to count on your fingers.

Even a rabid optimist would be hard-pressed to think of this as anything more significant than a small, good start. Most of the artists who really bode well, the ones who promise something larger in scope and imagination than your average head-in-arse-black-tee-and-goatee-urban-Indian-niche-conceit, have only got as far as their first or second record. None of the magazines, however well done, have a readership outside of a particular pub-going, college-going, arts-and-culture circuit. Nobody really looks at gig photographs except band members’ girlfriends. And they’re probably lying about that to keep the boys happy.

Most noticeably, the mainstream media aren’t anywhere in sight. Aside from the occasional fumbling, patronising attempt to stay hip from a metro supplement here, or a babbling centrepiece from a niche glossy there, you wouldn’t know there was such a thing as Indian pop from looking at the papers. Of the majors, only Tehelka run a regular series on “local” music; being Tehelka, it’s an effort built on the best of intentions, but, as with everyone else who tries this sort of thing here, the whole enterprise is let down by naive, uncritical acceptance, by not knowing good from bad, by lack of experience.

And there’s an opportunity.

The scene needs the mainstream media for their reach, their coherence, and their ability to command trust in a much larger group of people than indie blogs and home-made magazines could possibly muster. And the media as they stand, in their rare attempts to touch pop music as a subject, show a consistent lack of understanding, background, and, most crucially, a vocabulary for dealing with this. India does great mainstream writing on current affairs, on literature, on social issues, in fact, on practically everything except pop culture: this beast is still too new and too poorly known and, as big companies always will, the press can only react in slow-motion.

A “scene” isn’t a single, solid thing; it is a loosely connected network of artists, managers, promoters, recording engineers, writers, photographers and fans, all of whom range from the genuine visionaries to the total charlatans, with every shade of well-meaning incompetence, opportunism, and delusion in between. On top of this, just to make everything messier, we live in the age of the internet, in which every voice is amplified, and every grunt and whisper sounds like a pressing, urgent development, and small looks like big and big looks like small.

With any luck, this country will continue to spawn cool little groups, who, in turn, will not sink into obscurity after two records or three. But, to keep this spark of hope fed and watered, it’ll take the goodwill of a much larger body of people than a few loyal followers on Facebook. To borrow from Dick Clark, who knew a thing or two in his time, “to survive, you need order.” It is exactly that order that the unorganised sector of the independent arts needs most.

Until all of this can be beamed outwards, beyond the boundaries of a small group of initiates, it will all wither away, like big plans made with complete strangers at parties, the ones which disappear as soon as the harsh glare of morning rolls around. The mainstream media are exactly the great, big jackhammer the scene could do with most right now. If the papers ever get their chops together and take a genuine, informed interest in all of this, then we’re in for good times.

Else, we’re fucked.

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