The Awkward Poor Parties Question, Again

I’ve gone on before about why we need poor parties. India’s gig scene, such as it exists, lives in under ten clubs in half as many cities. Small bands hoping to pay the bills with their music don’t have a hope: shows are far too expensive for normal people to frequent, thus instantly excluding a huge potential audience, yet none of the takings seem to trickle down to the musicians themselves, who, unless they’ve sucked their way up into being scene insiders, have to make do with loose change, bad advice, and rejection.

A very lucky very few might score an arts grant, or have one of the dinosaur festivals condescend to give them an afternoon slot on the corner stage. But grants, however charitable, do not take away the need for a regular, robust source of income, and the attention garnered through a festival set rarely translates to a career: in this business, publicity does not amount to a living. And a scene in which people cannot make a living is not a healthy scene at all.

And this remains the hard truth, even though nobody will admit to it publicly. The clueless, unimaginative, self-aggrandising cartel of venues, booking agents, and organisers who profess to be the pillars of the live music business have the little bands by their balls: the myth runs that there can be no rock ‘n’ roll outside of the NH7 Weekenders, and the Blue Frogs, the TLRs*, and the B-Flats of the country; intentionally or not, it’s this myth which keeps the clubs in profit, and everyone else in despair.

This idea is directly responsible for most of the trouble that small groups face, from the lack of opportunities to perform, to the lack of access to audiences outside of India’s clubbing classes. It plays to the scene fantasies of a tiny urban minority. It exists because of an unstated, and unchallenged, assumption that pop music will never work in a more regular Indian setting: being a cultural import, it must also come packaged in an imported context. This is not only outright illogical, it also succeeds in being both snobbish and defeatist at the same time.

Because it’s the imported context – the pub circuit, the festivals, the cocktail olives – that keeps indie music from getting anywhere further than the Twitter accounts of a handful of initiates. To build any kind of sizeable, loyal, permanent following, the music has to be taken to the tens of thousands of people who dwell outside the four walls of hallowed scenedom, who might love a Peter Cat record, but wouldn’t normally consider the Blue Frog as a Friday evening option.

I have never once seen a wholehearted effort made by anyone who claims to want to “build the scene” to make indie music more accessible to schoolkids or the sort of university layabout who makes for the best kind of fan. Bands almost never play campus towns like Pilani and Kharagpur, places in the middle of nowhere, with thousands of undergraduates perpetually starved for entertainment, who’d be happy to show up in the thousands, so even a fifty rupee charge at the gate would cover all the costs and leave plenty left over afterwards. No group ever tries to book a show at a school hall. No one has tried distributing their album through a students’ union.

And yet, these are the people bands should target. These are the people whose tastes can be shaped, who, if the cards are played right, will grow up to support the scene in far larger numbers than the club circuit can ever muster.

Pubs and bars aren’t India’s hangouts of choice. You won’t reach anybody by locking yourself inside that bubble, and don’t believe anyone who says anything else.

* Since this post, TLR have tweeted that their gigs are free. Suhrid Manchanda has also weighed in (see comments below) explaining TLR’s policies and side of the story in detail. Point taken; my post wasn’t a name-and-shame exercise. Rather, my argument is that the whole F&B context for live music is something which results in costs and hassles without adding very much value. Many thanks to the guys at TLR for writing in.

11 thoughts on “The Awkward Poor Parties Question, Again

  1. Hi, as I\’ve been both an artist and a promoter for 15 years, I feel your pain.

    But i must point out that all shows at TLR are FREE OF CHARGE and generally all-ages shows (except saturday night club nights) – so i really wish you wouldn\’t lump us in with Blue Frog.

    However, I will acknowledge that F&B at some live venues is not affordable to most. But you might not be aware of what the finances of a venue looks like – we have a lot of expenses that pile up, not to mention taxes and \”police welfare\”. Still, in the last 3 months, TLR has revised its payment policies upwards. IN FACT, far from actually fueling sales, at TLR gigs are increasingly supported from sales not on gigs night, in other words customers who don\’t attend gigs are actually subsidizing the music scene! So i wish you would get your facts straight before offering criticism.

    I was young and starting out in a band once too – but that doesn\’t mean that every band deserves to be heard. And if bands are expecting to be paid, providing a professional service, a professional product, they have to be ready for a fair market-driven assessment of their true worth. Definitely, many scene veterans are GROSSLY OVERPAID and many young bands are grossly underpaid. But there are reasons for that that extend far beyond quality of music (e.g. draw, press, $$$, etc.) – not to mention that India is still a 3rd world country that barely has enough electricity forget about electric rock bands and electronic music…

  2. Interesting comment. as someone who was in the US music industry for 25+ years as an agent and promoter, here is what I see. the indie scene in India needs to follow the club model to really be indie. That means, clubs need to charge a cover, even if it is small. The door fee is split between club/promoter and band. Fair for everyone…if the band brings people in, they get their due….if not, then they need to work on their fan base….I’ve tried to bring many, many real indie bands here from Grizzly Bear, the Hold Steady, Sigur Ros, and Japandroids…I can’t get any big sponsors because the big promoters only want dinosaurs like Metallica and dance crap like David Guetta (not indie). I’ve been told they I can’t charge a fee at the door because people won’t pay. If the indie rockers don’t want to pay, then the band is not going to come. Japandroids are currently on tour in every country with the exception of the MENA region and I can’t get them here…..because people don’t want it….there is no way for people to hear these bands….no radio station, no CMJ, nothing…..the only thing I’ve seen about indie bands here is via Download Central in the Sunday Brunch of HT…….Indie bands want to come here and play, but they are not going to play their hearts out only to not be paid….before this can happen, there needs to be access to the music, so when they do come, people will attend. That’s how a scene is really started……..hopefully this will happen someday…..

  3. The problem here in India is, there aren’t enough clubs to begin with. This, coupled with the fact that the idea of popular entertainment in the country is not clubbing, but watching the latest Bollywood movie in a theater, spells disaster for the bands.
    The sheer shortage of clubs automatically ups their novelty value, and hence, costs – they get consequently patronized only by the upper crust of society, alienating students and younger working professionals, who are exactly the sort of crowd bands need to be playing to to expand their fanbases.
    AND also the clubs themselves, being spoiled for choice with too many bands do not allow the same band to play more than one show in three months.
    India being a policed, pseudo-liberal state, there are nonsense notions of them ‘being against the cultural grain’ and any loud gig in a garage is bound to get busted by the cops.

    For rock bands, India presents a different sort of challenge. The only way is to take the music to potential fans in spaces outside of the pubs and away from the cops. And be smart on the internet.

    Could you leave your email at please, Rachel ? Would love to talk more.

  4. I agree with Rachel, but disagree with Moop. There totally are clubs in India that people can pay a small cover (or none) at.

    Years ago, Calcutta’s Someplace Else used to charge no cover and you could discreetly hang out without buying beer or anything at the bar and watch bands (albeit mostly uninteresting cover bands) and same deal at Bangalore’s The Club (probably defunct now) where you could watch semi-original bands play on Sundays. The former used to be downtown so you could easily take the bus or the subway, but the latter was way out in the burbs, so if you were poor and didn’t have a car, taking the bus would be a bit of a hassle. I do agree with you on that Moop. Bangalore is totally fake liberal, they have few clubs within easily commutable distance, probably cause they’d get shut down if they hosted loud rock shows downtown.

    Yet, Rachel’s solution sounds perfect. Why aren’t their more Indian bands who simply tour? In the US, there are tons of clubs (essentially cash bars, the F&B industry whom you justifiably rail against) but you pay $5 to $10 at the door to watch 5 bands play. These are often all-ages shows, so you have a bunch of kids who can’t (and don’t) buy alcohol. Needless to say these are the best shows. And the club gets a hopefully, not too exploitive percentage of the door revenue.

    But even if you don’t want to go the club route, in the US, bands play in art spaces or lofts. The best (imo) and most interesting “western” (for lack of a better word) bands in the last three decades have pretty much entirely come out of experimental art/cinema/video, etc scenes. The more intelligent bands and the local experimental art community are usually pretty tight. This unfortunately is not the case in India, as far as I can tell. Maybe build solidarity between artists and musicians, if you want to build a scene? Just a thought.

    and hey! Rachel Tanzer of Taang! records? you are frequently on my suggested fb friends. I think we have friends in common and we both like the Kominas. 🙂

  5. Sapera,

    @Clubs with no cover: nevertheless, clubs – including Someplace Else – operate in a rarified part of the country. It’s not as if most of Calcutta shows up there. And even if it is doing something right, the fact of it is, you can always do better.

    What happens if you’re not in a big city, what then? What if you’re basically an undergrad waster with no particular interest in art, who wouldn’t mind watching a bit of fun on stage nevertheless?

    My point is, rock ‘n’ roll (or punk, or pop, or whatever you call it), is hobbled by enough cultural barriers already without making it even harder to access.

    Which is why I’m in favour of taking it to people’s doorsteps. And one place you find a lot of doorsteps is at colleges. Specially the ones outside of cities, where you have an audience who have nothing better to do most of the time.

    Most of India doesn’t hang out at clubs, we have the vada-pav shop for that, and, at some point, we have to come to terms with it.

  6. A billion plus people live in India. Compare that with a nation like Germany, with one tenth the population and one tenth the size ( or so ) . They produce and consume more music, more festivals, more clubs, more gigs and ( close to 700 gigs every summer ) – more of everything ! that defines their youth culture. We have no such definitive / growing structure or vision. India is a territorial and mostly trade mentality ( make the logo bigger ) mindset – eventually …

  7. Pingback: Barking up the Popscene’s Skirts | Moop City

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