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.