Where Has All The Live Music Gone?
24 October 2014
I attended my first live music performance when I was 14. The right attire was crucial - I wore black, studded boots and a soot coloured t-shirt with ‘CRADLE OF FILTH’ emblazoned in a gruesome, blood red print on the front. Metal was huge back then, particularly in the mountain town where I resided during my early teenage years. Some guys from the church where I was learning to play guitar were having a ‘concert’. The venue was a hole in the wall café that served moreish chicken thupka to monkey-cap clad families during tourist season and let the church’s students practice their instruments whenever they felt like it.
The music began at 6pm and went on for almost 4 hours. The band covered Metallica, Alice In Chains and the Rasmus – hugely popular at the time. Technically, in hindsight, it was awful. The lead singer/ guitarist’s chalkboard scraping vocals tried in vain to follow hasty, off beat percussion and the bassist looked too high to care, even deciding at one point to pause mid song for a hot bowl of sweet corn (veg.) soup.
But despite the many flaws, my first taste of live music was unforgettable and left me absolutely, incredibly elated.
Fast forward to 2014; digital media has transformed the way we look at and consume music. The biggest upside, of course, is the variety of tastes that now exist simply because listeners have access to platforms like SoundCloud, 8tracks and the boundless music blogs and websites that exist online. We can listen to anything, anywhere at any given moment in time.
The last few years in particular have witnessed a pronounced change in the live music scene and with the increasing popularity of dance and electronic music, it’s unsurprising that DJs and producers are now dominating venues. Bands all over the country have been branching out to form one-man offshoots (Your Chin, Lifafa, Sandunes and Curtain Blue being the immediate examples that come to mind – read more about it on Tony Guinard’s article for Border Movement). Barely a handful of venues in Delhi still provide an arena for live music.
It’s not for me to debate whether the shift is good or bad, it just is, although curiously so. Maybe 5 or 6 established venues in Delhi properly support live music, which can otherwise only be experienced at festivals. Who’s to blame – if anyone at all? Audiences and their changing tastes? Venues, promoters and booking agents? Artists?
I wanted to find out whether my assumptions were shared and to try an access a larger opinion, I got in touch with as many members of Delhi’s musical community as I could. The one's who got back to me had some interesting insights to share.
Abhishek Bhatia has been a member of the city’s hugely popular alt rock band – The Circus for years, recently performing as a live producer under his experimental electronic alias – Curtain Blue. “It's this new digital wave that's hit our underground music society. Band gigs have definitely taken a slight step back as the trend shifts towards electronic music and DJs.” He adds that it’s tricky for him to “crack into the scene”, being a live (and very alternative) electronica act as opposed to a dance centric DJ.
However, manager of prolific Indian rock band Pentagram and booking agent for OML, Anirudh Voleti offers an alternate perspective – he says that the live scene is thriving like never before. “Recording music has never been easier with the advent of technology, and with the umpteen number of outreach digital channels, they are able to find an audience for themselves not only in their home cities but all over the country.”
However, not everyone is as assured, Rahul Das, of Sundogproject doesn’t think the scene has changed as much as the audience it relies on. “People’s attention spans are shortening and their sensitivity is decreasing (in general). So I think it's natural that enthusiasm for music is declining, though people do seem to be listening to more obscure genres.”
Yes, the crowds are now exploring new sides to music – it’s indisputable, but it’s a bit of a stretch to say the enthusiasm for music, in general, is diminishing. When it comes to the use of the Internet and sharing platforms, one could argue the contrary. While contemporary music culture lacks the fanaticism of the mob like fans of yester year (unless you’re a Belieber), it has found engaged audiences for every single genre of sound – an undeniable fact with sharing platforms taking off the way they have.
“The obscure is now celebrated and there is a sense of pride in discovering and playing newer, hitherto unheard forms of music.” Says Nikhil Udupa - MTV Indies’ marketing manager and one of the faces behind New Wave Festival and Control ALT Delete – a property dedicated to bringing back the energy of live gigs, cleverly utilising fan based crowdfunding to fund their extensive, multi band gigs.
Venues book acts based on the audience it wants. DJs are unquestionably less complicated (and less expensive) when it comes to technical requirements and space needed to perform, and they bring in the crowds – “Yes venues lean towards DJs. It’s cost effective for them. One guy can come and play other people’s music… the audience has fun and the venue makes money – it’s a win-win situation”, adds Rahul.
But while it's true that venues want to book DJs, there’s also a huge upside, which Nikhil Udupa (once again) brings to attention - “If you really look back a decade or so – live music was a covers driven space. Original music has definitely started getting more appreciation now”. He has a point – crooning, exhaustive classic rock covers of the 60s and early 70s dominated venues till just 5 years ago. Now, apart from the odd Coldplay tribute here and there, cover bands have, thankfully, all but disappeared.
Nikhil also adds this edifying little line, “The biggest change I can definitely see is that it’s moving from a “scene” to an actual industry which supports musicians, promoters, venues and independent content creators.”
Talking to members of our burgeoning industry and attempting to delve into Delhi’s musical psyche did something close to astonishing – it made me change my mind (a feat especially commendable in a generation ruled by irony and cynicism). Venues that support live music do seem to be at an unhappy low but in terms of variety, enthusiasm and even quality of music, we have nowhere to go but up. The ‘loss’ (or dry spell) of live music might really be a symptom of an industry at a cusp and sooner or later, if this unholy optimism is anything to go by, the theatrics, ecstasy, energy and raw human connection associated with a band thrashing out sound will always, undoubtedly, suck people right back in.
Words: Diya Gupta
Image credit (main): Sachin Soni
Image credit (Scribe): Prashansa Gurung