The Note Deficit
Why are so many Indian independent musicians disgruntled?
Earlier this month, Mumbai electronica artist LoboCop posted a status update to his Facebook page that intended to shame the owner of the venue that had booked him for a DJ night and not paid his dues. While the social media outrage was enough for the owner to pay the artist the fees he owed him, compounding the problem of being a performing band or artist in the country is the fact that they are often not paid enough.
Drummer Jai Row Kavi from Mumbai, one of the most sought after drummers in the country, playing with as many as five bands, tells us that he may want to move out of India after a couple of years. Says the 28-year-old drummer, “Bands are getting paid shit here. There may be more festivals but bands aren’t really getting paid. Bollywood gigs [sessions] are the only ones that pay.” Most bands are paid anywhere between Rs 10,000-40,000 for festival slots and shows, with A-listers being paid Rs 75,000 for a gig. Do the math for a four-member band and you’ll realize that the biggest reason bands play at festivals and gigs is for the love of music.
The money comes from Hindi film sessions, corporate shows and in singer Suman Sridhar’s case: weddings. One of the finest vocalists in the country, Sridhar tells us that playing at destination weddings have been paying all her bills, and even funding her solo album in the making. Says Nirmika Singh, a freelance writer based in Mumbai who also fronts her band, Nirmika & The Few Good Men, “It’s easier to get a gig at a car opening than a Blue Frog, and they’re completely different ball games.” Singh, who moved from New Delhi to Mumbai in 2011, plays a mix of originals and covers at her shows. The covers, of course, are a game changer when it comes to being booked for more gigs, she adds. “If you manage your indie credentials with cover bands, nothing like it. If I do music full time, I’d be very happy, but I like to manage my writing with my singing. I like to be a little miserable.” While Singh says it was “extremely difficult” for her to manage a full time job of a journalist at daily newspaper Hindustan Times and the band, she eventually found a balance and is now recording her first EP, due later this year.
The economic logic of being a full-time musician is completely skewed. Delhi-based singer and songwriter Prateek Kuhad, who is the buzzed-about artist of 2015 agrees. Kuhad worked as a research associate at an economic consulting firm in New York for six months, soon after he finished college in 2012. After he released his first EP, Raat Raazi in 2013, he survived on savings from his NYC job. Kuhad adds, “Once those reserves got over, it’s been a combination of what I earn through gigs and financial help from my parents when I need it. Being privileged helps, there’s no two ways about that. That I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from or about rent, gives me the opportunity to spend more time to work on my craft.”
Unfortunately, a lot of Indian musicians struggle to strike that balance between financial independence and a career in music. Mumbai-based Arjun Tandon, 24, was a part of Mumbai alt rock band Spud In The Box, but gave up music to pursue a full time job as a research analyst in a hedge fund firm. Although there was parental support – something Tandon says all band members in Spud have received – being a musician meant forsaking financial freedom. Tandon, who was a guitarist with Spud In The Box during their early years, adds, “Fortunately or unfortunately, there aren’t enough people that understand the kind of music they [Spud in The Box] are making out there. It still is difficult for them, I’d say.”
“The economic logic of being a full-time musician is completely skewed.”
There have been several others such as Tandon who have given up on a full time career in music. In 2006, vocalist and songwriter Sujit Kumar was broke for the umpteenth time and living in his car. It was more than a decade ago, in 1994 that a 16-year-old Kumar dreamt of setting up his own band. Kumar formed Tantrix, a rock band based in Mumbai, and lived upto the “struggling artist” stereotype. Shunned by his family for preferring music over studies, Kumar went through several jobs ranging from event manager to roadside book seller. He says, “Getting into music instead of concentrating on my studies was the last straw for my family. They threw me out of the house.” Kumar moved to Virginia in 2013.
The lack of an audience inclined to buy music or tickets to a show and a shortage of venues across the country that support bands or venues that actually pay well also make it tough for alternative musicians to sustain themselves. Of course, there are exceptions. Bengaluru venue The Humming Tree has maintained a free entry policy for its guests since it was set up in 2013, but has ensured that the bands who perform are well compensated. The Humming Tree founder Nikhil Barua said in a previous interview, “Unfortunately in India, people don’t appreciate live music. So it’s almost like a social cause right now, where we say “Ok, we’ll take a hit. You come and you understand what good live music is.” Ideally artists should be paid. We pay them regardless of whether we charge an entry or not.”
Meanwhile, Kumar continues to record with Mumbai hard rock band Overhung from Virginia, where he is part of several bands since 2013 – from hard rock band The Derty Basterds to his alt-metal/rock group Sabkimaaki. Even out in the U.S.’s crowded alternative scene, it’s tougher, but the avenues are easier, according to Kumar. Says the vocalist, “I was really scared at first when I moved. My wife has a job here, but I wondered if I would get into a band – the levels [for musicians] are so high here.” It’s never as glamorous and rewarding as Bollywood has made it out to be in films like Rockstar, but Kumar says, “My policy is to just be honest and stick to my guns. You’ll probably never ‘make it’, but you’ll be happy.”