Independent artistes and label owners are transforming the discerning Indian’s musical appetite by taking the DIY route.
Prayag Mehta and Rishab Joshi were two relatively unknown bedroom producers from Mumbai in 2009. That is, until one of their tracks, False Promises, was played by renowned DJ Armin Van Buuren—on one of the most popular radioshows on the planet, A State Of Trance—catapulting them into the limelight. Today, the electronic music duo is headlining stages under the moniker Lost Stories at events like Sunburn Festival, across the nation and abroad. This is not an isolated incident. There’s a new wave of young, independent musicians who are empowered by the Internet and fuelled by their passion for self-expression, to cut records that are hard to define, but easy to connect with. These independent (read indie) artistes—who embody the do-it-yourself ethos—hone their skills for years before cutting full-length albums. They promote their sounds on social media and sites like Soundcloud, in the hopes that it will catch the eye of club managers or festival directors. The talented ones get bookings (think bands like Parvaaz). “Besides choosing from regular artiste enquiries, my team looks for non-mainstream musicians, whose sounds strike us as unique but can entice audiences across metros,” shares Nitish Chachra, head of music programming at Bengaluru’s BlueFrog, one of the most popular venues for indie artistes to perform at. Artistes generally reinvest revenue from shows with online aggregators sites like CDBaby, which legally spread their music across various portals like iTunes and Spotify. We find out why these artistes and record label owners who pride themselves on nonconformity, take the time to understand their fans, embrace social media tools and keep shuffling formats, till it clicks.
Blazing a trail
Sometimes musicians and bands born out of an indie environment become massively popular. Mumbai-based songwriter-actor, Monica Dogra—who shot to popularity as one half of the alternative electronica act, Shaa’ir and Func—tells me she’s sick of the word indie. “I’m on TV, I’m on the radio, my work is legitimately popular,” states Dogra, adding that DIY musicians (like herself who’ve invested their own time and money into honing every aspect of their craft) have been on the rise for a while and now it’s time for them to dominate. When asked why she chose to release her solo debut album, Spit, on a major label like Universal, despite her large independent fanbase, the American-Indian vocalist explains, “I had built a relationship with Devraj Sanyal and, through him, Universal Music, because of the show we are co-judges on together, The Stage. It was a very personal decision and one every artiste needs to make for themselves, weighing pros and cons with a realistic mind.”
Imagine you’ve completed the hard part: recognising your signature sound, garnering a network of devoted online followers and self-producing an album. Now you want to officially launch it. With the advent of netlabels (online record labels), digitally releasing an album is just a few clicks away. “All you need is a PayPal account and a free account on Bandcamp, which will take a cut of 10 per cent from your record sales. You can also choose online aggregators like OKListen, as they provide royalties for each time your tunes get played on portals like YouTube,” explains 34-year-old Rahul Giri, who owns Consolidate, a Facebook community-turned-record label that promotes a niche mix of experimental electronic and hip-hop. This homegrown label, like most indie labels, helps the musicians signed on it with technical production aid (be it mixing or mastering) and also provides guidance in marketing and sales facets as well. Details: consolidate.bandcamp.com
Matter of vision
Label owner Praveen Achary tells me he was beaming when he heard Hernan Cattaneo, one of the most respected DJs on the planet, drop a tune signed to his label, at the Woodstock Bloemendaal festival. “Content is King,” states the Bengaluru-based 28-year-old, whose successful electronic music record label, Juicebox Music, has signed over 30 world-class artistes since 2012. He tells me that nowadays, some people start their own music label because they can’t get signed anywhere. That’s ill-advised. Do it because you’ve developed good content and deserve control over it, rather than letting a suit make decisions for you. “At Juicebox, I make time to discover others who create great content that fits my original vision, provide pointers to perfect their sound and sign them. We also try to chart a long-term marketing plan with them. Growing together not just as a brand, but as musicians,” shares Achary. In terms of distributing the music from his label to the world, he opts for Soundsystem by Proton, a hassle-free service which ensures that published music reaches almost all popular digital platforms, including Beatport, Juno and Traxsource, and even sends quarterly accounting statements of track sales and royalties (based on streams). Details: juiceboxmusic.in
Meet Prateek Kuhad. This new-age songsmith has had quite the journey from NYU to DIY. In fact, this Delhi-based singer-songwriter (who has a degree in maths and economics from New York University), quit a high paying job in economic consultancy in the US, to pursue a full-time career in music. Though his English/Hindi song book is best described as indie folk/pop, his heart-warming sounds are fluid and difficult to pigeonhole. “I think the most important thing for any musician are the songs. You just have to put all your blood and sweat into that and make sure they are perfect or keep trying till they are,” shares Kuhad. This 26-year-old achieved just that, via the success of his minimal, feel-good debut album In Tokens & Charms. Not only did it go on to become iTunes’ ‘Indian Indie Album of the Year’, but it also resulted in a performance at the 2016 edition of one of the world’s most popular independent music festivals, South by Southwest (SXSW), in Austin. This was closely followed by a gig at the Canadian Music Week. “If you’re functioning in the alternative music space in India, it is better to be independent at this point. Big brands and companies will restrict your creative freedom and the payoff is not really that much, especially in the long run,” opines Kuhad, who has multiple performances lined up in Mumbai and Pune for July and August, followed by a performance at Australia’s Big Sound Festival in September. Details: prateekkuhad.com
The Indie vibe isn’t flourishing just across metropolitan cities. From a small town in Nagaland, called Thuvopisu, hails an internationally-renowned indie-folk quartet, the Tetseo Sisters. Comprising sisters Alune, Azi, Kuvelu and Mercy Tetseo, the act has not only performed at events like NH7 Weekender, but also at various festivals in Bangkok and Myanmar. “Our traditional sounds are light-hearted due to its harmonies. We sing Li (folk songs) —about happy things or sad love stories—in Chokri (a dialect spoken by the Chakhesangs of Nagaland). But the songs remain contemporary as anyone can relate to their spirit and emotions,” shares Mercy. Upon questioning, the sisters reveal that the success of marketing their self-produced debut album, Li Chapter One: The Beginning, was their strong social media presence (over 14.5 k followers on Instagram and 1.7 lakh fans on Facebook), which eventually led to shows in China and the UK. “Now we’ve made the natural transition to YouTube to promote our love for indie pop and our new single, Cepho Celho Lizo,” explains Mercy, adding that besides performing in South Korea in August, the band will tour various venues in Delhi, Kohima, Bengaluru and Chennai (July-October). Details: facebook.com/Tetseosisters
Devraj Sanyal is at the tip of the ever-evolving entertainment industry’s spearhead. The 41-year-old—who heads Universal Music India—agrees that there’s been a recent explosion in the number of indie record labels starting up (primarily by artistes who are cutting their own albums), but very few succeed. He believes that an artiste should stick to creating great music and leave the rest to the specialists. “Be it an independent or a major record label, the skill sets required (to run one successfully) go beyond just signing artistes. How does one market, promote and sell in the current environment? How good are your relationships with the partners? How well can you adapt to the industry’s ever-changing dynamics? And, of course, financial feasibility,” Sanyal concludes. Details: umusicindia.com
There are no credible charts (like Billboard) for Indian indie music. So artistic prowess aside, how can a musician’s viability be highlighted on paper? “Via record sales or streams (think platforms including iTunes, Gaana, Saavn and Soundcloud),” explains Dhruv Singh, founder of Pagal Haina Records, explaining, “Primarily because both those circle back to how many people your music is reaching and how adept you are at spreading the word. Not everybody has to like it, but the fact that you’re knocking on as many doors as possible counts a great deal.”
Ready for takeoff
Watch out, these indie artistes will soon be on every festival bill or playing at clubs near you:
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