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When Indie gets the blues

December 7, 2009

I was delighted to receive an intelligent and well-worded comment in reaction to my post Why MTV can never befriend Indian indie rock. Here’s how it went:

What is your definition of ‘Indie’, Bijoy? Does a band necessarily need to attempt to earn a living off music, to qualify? Where would you place the Sarjapur Blues Band, for instance? Have you heard of them? They’re an underground band that’s been around in Bangalore for more than 20 years and have never played a note that isn’t their own. 18 years ago they already had a repertoire that extended well over 3 hours; and 3-4 hour concerts were the norm till they turned 50.

Secondly, are you suggesting that Steely Dan and Pat Metheny are musically superior influences? Is there an intellectual hierarchy in music?

Surely, your one-liners about the music scene in Bombay (bollywood-besotted), Delhi (Hindi-mein-gao) and Calcutta are as unfair to the faithful in these cities as their dismissal of Bangalore as a source of meaningful music?

These are just some examples: One gets the distinct impression that, having got your opening disclaimer off your chest, you feel completely free to carry your biases towards TAAQ into the article. Are your readers entitled to a bit more phrenic rigour?

Those are very sharp observations and I had to stop and think them over.

This is what I had to say:

Indie band… I’m not a fan of the phrase myself because I think it is a label for styles of music that you can’t/ don’t want to stick a label on. I mulled over that blog title before I posted it but I kept the word in for a reason — to catch the eye of those who debate over what indie is.

Now, to answer your question, I don’t think an indie band need make money at all. But it must make original music even if it appeals to an audience of one. And it does not even have to publish or promote this music.

But then again, indie also refers to the endeavour to create music independently and make it available and accessible to an audience whether through performance or distribution. Derivatively, indie also refers to the infrastructure that must exist for indie musicians who want to make a living doing what they love and believe in.

Most important, I feel that indie needn’t be seen as some low-on-frills, preachy fringe movement but a sort of cooperative society for independent musicians that helps them feel confident about the worth and validity of their music. Of course, this feeling of self-worth and achievement should also put money in their pockets because they too need to feed their dogs, send their kids to college, and splurge on a vacation at Bora Bora.

Arguably, the word has substantial currency and can be used to draw a rough boundary around the murky puddle of true musical activity and suspiciously insincere entrepreneurship that aims to promote “independent music” in India. In fact, indie has become another genre upon which the mainstream music industry hopes to capitalise. But right now, as a cash cow it is short by at least three teats. So the industry, with help from Bollywood and all the rocking that has ensued in the wake of Rock On and London Dreams, will milk it hard and dry.

Fact: truly indie artists are never going to benefit from this so-called revolution because it plays by the same rules as the mainstream.

In response to the question about Metheny et al, please allow me to clarify. I meant that few bands attempt to look for influences in relatively unconventional artists. I’d be more interested in listening to a band that is inspired by a relatively unconventional sound that one that is inspired by, say, Metallica or Bon Jovi. I’m not sure I would call it intellectual hierarchy but I certainly find music that is composed and arranged with intelligence and creativity — both lyrically and musically — more appealing than music characterised by little more than unwavering volume, energy and histrionic performance.

My comments on Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta are a direct response to the article on MTV Iggy that celebrated bands from those cities without a word about contemporary independent bands that came from Bangalore. Perhaps, that is also the reason why my blog post appears to be biased towards TAAQ.

The article in question covered the music scene starting from the early nineties to the present. Also, it focused on bands that had attempted to distribute their music. In response, I limited my response to bands that were born during that time.

I used to love the Sarjapur Blues Band though I haven’t watched a performance in a really long while. I’ve watched them at Freedom Jams and as far back as the Night of the Long Guitar someplace in Bannerghatta (I was too stoned to remember where). I used to love Lady Nicotine.

It’s time I watched them again — I have been very negligent.

While we are on the subject of early Bangalore bands, here is some deserved reading that survived the newspaper morgues. And “phrenic rigour” — wow, that sounded like it came from the late Sunbeam Motha!

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