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Desolation Row

Where are the people? This is a question I often ask myself at concerts and gigs. When the Israeli psy guru DJ Astrix played in Delhi, the organisers were hoping to pack a football field. As it happened, a handful of people turned up. That didn’t stop the volunteers at the gate from emptying out […]

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Where are the people? This is a question I often ask myself at concerts and gigs.

When the Israeli psy guru DJ Astrix played in Delhi, the organisers were hoping to pack a football field. As it happened, a handful of people turned up. That didn’t stop the volunteers at the gate from emptying out our wallets and looking for dubious chemicals. This was supposed to be a big clean rave (an oxymoron); it was little more than a birthday party. Just a few mavericks doing their solipsistic, eccentric raver’s dance. A few eager boyfriends who had dragged unwilling girlfriends to watch one of the world’s more popular DJs play in India for the first time. Astrix himself didn’t show up till late and then too for a short half-hour set. Those of us who had paid 1750 rupees each for tickets were left wondering where the moolah went.

It’s something I’ve noticed in cities across the country. Indigo Children are playing a gig at Opus/TC in Basant Lok Complex in New Delhi. It’s a band that has built up a following in college festivals. But at the TC gig there are not more than twenty kids. The story’s repeated when Menwhopause play Blue Frog in Bombay: there’s hardly anyone in the house apart from the band’s friends and family.

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Maybe this is not such a mysterious phenomenon. Popular music is an essentially young format that all over the world has grown out of adolescent growth pangs and college rebellion. India is probably the only society which is trying to delink rock from its roots. Here, it is little more than an elitist pastime.

Younger fans can rarely afford the entry fee. Inside the drinks are prohibitively expensive.  Often kids can’t even enter. Manre is a snobbish nightclub in Saket, Delhi, which attracts a KPO crowd. When BLOT played there recently you could only enter if your name was on the guestlist.

It’s something to think about. By cutting rock off from its target audience, you’re killing a scene. By making the evening expensive, you are attracting the wrong sort of yuppie for whom going out is more important than the band playing on stage. Empty bars stand testament to the fact that even yuppies are not turning up for these gigs. They are simply not the target audience. The target audience has been shut out by prohibitive pricing and restrictive door policies.

So rock evolves (or regresses) in India in expensive, synthetic places inside malls and five star hotels. Cut off from its fan base, the band plays in empty rooms. There is a downside to this. The small size of the audience, often little more than a sprinkling, can lead bands to arrogantly attribute poor attendance to their difficult, ”˜underground’ sound. This is an exaggerated notion of the underground that borders on self-delusion. The underground is subversive, cutting edge, fresh. It is not born in fancy downtown Thai restaurants. Much of what these bands are playing is mainstream blues or American grunge. Hardly underground.

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Free the doors. Make the beers cheap. Let the kids come in. Or else, instead of a real rock scene you’ll have a pretend one. With the kind of talent we have, that would be such an effing tragedy.

*****

The writer is working on a book on contemporary India called The Butterfly Generation

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