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Bijoy Venugopal makes a  spirited rejoinder to Tehelka’s assessment of India’s Rock Scene

Illustration: Samia Singh

RECENTLY, THE mainstream media took contrasting positions in analysing the counterculture of Indian rock. Mint Lounge (March 26) announced to our astonishment that indie bands are earning “more than their bread and butter” with homegrown financial models. TEHELKA (Don’t Believe Everything You Hear, April 17) trashed the media’s “hysterical coverage” of the rock scene which, it declared, did not even “register on India’s music landscape.”

As a biographer for one of the country’s better-known bands, I am compelled to ask: What is Indian rock as the media understands it? Is it about the explosion of televised competitions, quaintly named music conventions, and big-brand-backed rock festivals and performance venues? Is it about the legitimacy that Bollywood accords it? Or is it just a vehicle to sell jeans, bikes and alcohol? Why pile it in one store shelf labelled ‘rock’? What about Carnatic blues, Malayalam metal, Hindi folk-rock, or Kannada funk? And why ignore the Northeast, where indigenous rock has thrived for 40 years?

TEHELKA ranted that the “vocabulary and context for rock criticism does not exist in India”. When was the last time an editor commissioned an investigation into this counterculture? And when did a reporter do some legwork to unearth India’s underground music scene? MTV and Channel [V] don’t care for indie acts. Rolling Stone India, which has never devoted a cover to an Indian band, promotes tribute concerts to Dire Straits.Mint interpreted a stray success as the resurgence of rock. TEHELKA got it half right — the Indian rock scene barely exists. But the jeremiad fell foul of the real reasons.

As an insider I vouch for this: Indian bands are making prolific music (of variable quality) but they aren’t making money. But even the best music, by indie bands across the world, is produced under considerable financial strain and doesn’t fetch returns from online sales. So it’s important for bands to tour to break even.

Tehelka got it half right — the Indian rock scene barely exists. But it fell foul of the real reasons

There’s the rub. Brand managers and flaky promoters are tucking in while bands go penniless. Great Indian Rock and IRock,  India’s oldest rock festivals, launch amateur bands every year. Enterprises like Mumbai’s Only Much Louder, the artist management concern behind Counter Culture Records, have been living off bands for eight years — nothing indie about their revenue model. They sign desperate bands to draw crowds for restaurateurs and event organisers. The hosts profit on food and beverage sales. In 15 years the paltry concert fee has hardly improved. Serious artists prefer to remain independent and unsigned. Sadly, bands, by undercutting each other, have only fattened the sharks.

The real counterculture thrives online. Irrespective of whether bands play concerts, the endorsement of 5,000 Facebook fans for original music is more comforting than 20,000 screaming for Metallica. A senior musician told me in jest that an ageing hippie goes from acid to antacid. If our bands went professional they’d starve.

Not all rock musicians are bankrolled by indulgent parents. The ones I work with are in their 30s and send kids to school. We’ve quit secure jobs to make careers in music. We’ve sold four albums in 15 years without benefactors in the media or the absent “industry”. We play for love. And we won’t stop

(Venugopal is a biographer for the Bengaluru rock band Thermal And A Quarter)

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