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Aspiring polymath since 1982

Indie Inglish/English Music

My playlist over the past two years has steadily been dominated by indie & former indie bands from Canada, the States and the UK. Bands such as The Arcade Fire, The Killers, The Shins, Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie, British Sea Power to name a few, and lots, lots more. To hear the directions that these bands have taken sonically and musically especially compared to Top 10/20/30/40/50 bands that used to be part of my listening schedule, was both an auditory experience as well as an emotional one.

My first brush with indie music was with that of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. I really can’t recall how I came across them (might have been from The OC), but from then on it was flitting from one band to the other (thanks Amazon) as I compiled a larger and larger playlist and devoted more and more time into my listening. Thankfully, I have not made Pitchfork or the other great Indie music blogs out there a staple, or my time and hard disk would have given up on me a long time ago.

Meanwhile, over the same period, my exposure to Indian music dipped further and further away till I reached a point where I could (would) not even place the latest Indipop out there. And when it came to Indian music in English (i’d like to call it Inglish) , what ever little that came across my way through the numerous college festivals out there was all that I cared to be aware of.

There was a point in the past where I did follow the main Indian rock bands out there, though not through a regular forum such as the Rock Street Journal. Mainly from recommendations from school friends, flitting through my elder cousins collections and far removed reviews of Indian rock albums in the mainstream media. Even now, there are a few names that stick through from that time. Names such as Agni, Rock Machine, Orange Street, Mother Jane and obviously Parikrama.

Except for a small coterie of people, I wonder how many people out there actually remember these bands any more. And for the bands out there right now, I wonder how many of them will still be remembered outside their own circles several years from now?

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Why is Inglish music still a cottage industry?

Now, I’m definitely not a person who will be qualified enough to pass a summary judgement on this question but I do have my theories that I will present. My first theory is that the Inglish music scene is still dominated by bands who play covers. A lot of this also has to do with the fact that in India, most bands still make their money out of playing college festivals where it is difficult to avoid the barely-washed screaming out “Playing fucking Megadeth man, yeah!!” or “Machan, Maiden play punna da!!” and the like.

The second theory I have is that in India, people are still getting used to English music. Most people are still diving their linguistic loyalties from situation to situation and role to role without being firmly ensconced in one language. After all, our generation might be the first generation in India that was/is being schooled from toddlerhood in English (and this theory obviously ignores rural India totally).

Therefore I think for a lot of people, their exposure to English music is fairly limited to what is available on the TV and to what is available in the local music store (which obviously are not the places where you will get to pick up Indian English music at all). Which is why most people listening to English music follow what I like to call the Bryan Adams Curve™ or the Now Music Curve™ (patents pending).

If you’re into the rock sound you are on the Bryan Adams Curve™, where you start your progression with Bryan Adams, move on to Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Nirvana at which point you choose your stream and decide to either matriculate in Iron Maiden and Megadeth or in Nickelback and Limp Bizkit.

If you’re into the pop sound you are on the Now Music Curve™, where you start your progression with Britney Spears or Shakira, progress to either the Black Eyed Peas or Christina Aguilera, at which point you choose your stream and decide to either matriculate in Nelly Furtado and Paris Hilton or in Nelly and 50 Cent.

This is the reason why people like Bryan Adams can come to India every 2-3 years to be greeted with stadia bursting at the seams, replenish his retirement account and head off back to Canada. Where if I might tell you, if he were to die of asphyxiation because an elephant sat on him, it would not even make the headlines (I concede that it might make the day for some Canadian cartoonist though). I can imagine Bryan Adams shaking his head and wondering if it were some great cosmic joke that his greatest and maybe only fan following, is Indian.

Of course, I realize that this theory is a gross generalization but I’d like to invoke my patron saint for arguments such as these, Pareto, and invoke his great generalization that 80% of the people are drivel-listening sheep and the remaining 20% are the sheepdogs who bravely venture forth into musical territories where no sheep or dog has been before. Okay, I made the last part up but you get my drift.

My third and (thankfully) final theory is that in India, even the Inglish bands are getting used to English music and playing Inglish music. And this fact can be confirmed by listening to the inanity which passes as lyrics for most of the original compositions being made by bands out there and the utter lack of experimentation in most of the sound out there. Seriously, who wants to listen to lyrics and music that rhyme?

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So, what should Inglish bands do?

There seems to be some signs of change out there in the Inglish scene. Bands like Thermal and a Quarter, Orange Street, Them Clones, focusing purely on original compositions, putting out professionally produced albums, getting record company contracts and in some cases coming out with music videos also to push CD sales.

There are a few internet sites such as Gigpad, Muziboo and Radio VeRVe have come out which though not having a focus on Inglish music alone, have made it easier for bands to spread word far and wide. Also, there is an emergence of informal spaces for performance now. Opus in Bangalore is one that comes to mind, Turquoise Cottage in Delhi is another. Spaces where bands are given the freedom to come and perform their best in front of a well-intentioned, knowledgeable and usually appreciative audience.

And then there is the emergence of a band like the Raghu Dixit Project. Which through great music created a word of mouth demand, got opportunities to play at big events and is now not only into the mainstream but making great progress there too. A little window into what viral marketing can really do for a great band and what other great bands can also aspire to reach.

I think the main thrust has to come from the bands themselves. They need to innovate, in terms of their music and their lyrics till they arrive at a voice or a sound that is uniquely their own. And unique not just for India but across the world. With innovation will come the creation of their own niche, and along with that will listeners and patrons who are truly involved in the success of the band. Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick of Wired Magazine puts it best in his post about the creation of “1000 True Users“. I think its a must-read not just for bands, but for everyone interested in exploring new trends in business models. (remember to read his follow-up posts also).

The second suggestion would be to look at new ways of distribution. An Inglish band looking at making a mark should not get caught into the mindset that a record company contract is the meal ticket. Look at bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails who are experimenting with new forms of distribution and pricing for music. Distribute music yourself in the beginning, either through CDs or paid MP3 downloads. Make sure that your pricing is right so that listeners out there will be tempted into an impulse purchase.

The third suggestion would be to create a community around the band and its music. Use the power of social networks such as Orkut, Ning, and Facebook to spread the word about the band’s music, about gigs that you are playing (be careful not to spam).

Use them to create member-only gigs where people who are really interested and passionate about the music attend and give their feedback and encouragement. Solicit marketing and revenue generation suggestions from your community. If they really care, they want you to be commercially successful so that the band will be around making more music for them. Make these people feel special and exclusive! They need to be, they were around when there was no one else.

The fourth and final suggestion is that if you’re in the business of music, then you need to treat it as seriously as you would any other business. If you just want to let your music do the talking, then you need to have the patience to wait around till it reaches the right ears. But, if you are looking at music as a career which pays the bills and some more, then you need to get acquainted with all the subjects that any proper entrepreneur would cover.

Marketing the band, sales and promotional activities for your album, designing the album cover and CD, forecasting sales of the album, estimating expenses and breakeven sales, creating and managing a relationship with your customers and your community, public relations are all activities that you will have to get familiar with. Read some basic books to provide you with a direction.

In the end, the direction for the Inglish music industry will have to come from the bands themselves. Listeners like me can at the most be early adopters. Here’s hoping the next big sound comes out from India.

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