Why Indian Metal Gets A Bad Rap
The metal scene is as disorganized as ever. Who is to blame â€“ indifferent venues, free-loading fans or artists themselves?
Back in 2008, metal acts had a lotÂ going their way, from bands springing upÂ across the country, playing to thousands andÂ even selling albums. There weren’t very manyÂ releases yet and notorious gig organizersÂ who’d go AWOL without paying bands. FastÂ forward to eight years later, and you’d recall anÂ old saying ”“ the more things change, the moreÂ they stay the same. Mumbai extreme metallersÂ Demonic Resurrection frontman SahilÂ Makhija aka Demonstealer says, “All the problemsÂ are always money.”
More metal bands have emerged from acrossÂ the country, but the formal infrastructure isÂ yet to catch up. In between all the social mediaÂ rants and counter-rants, the looming truth existsÂ ”“ on a formal, organized level, metal musicÂ in India hasn’t got very far. Especially whenÂ compared to the rising number of bands whoÂ play non-metal music, who at least manage toÂ organize a tour every once in a while, regardlessÂ of whether they are new or established.
Poor fans, passive venues andÂ elusive sponsors
The idea that metalheads won’t be spendingÂ on food and beverage [F&B] is what affectsÂ the current model of club venues thatÂ host gigs. Online music retailers Bajaao, whoÂ organized metal festival BIG69 in JanuaryÂ 2015, gained a wave of support for pickingÂ up the metal scene in Mumbai from whenÂ it had been in flux ever since the closure ofÂ metal mainstay venues such as RazzberryÂ Rhinoceros in 2007 and B69 in 2012. Bajaao’sÂ marketing and events manager HimanshuÂ Vaswani says, “At a smaller scale, weÂ don’t need sponsorship, we just need venues.Â The thing is, venues do shows with so manyÂ other genres. If they started treating metalÂ exactly the same, then there would have beenÂ no problem.” Apart from young gig organizersÂ giving it a go [gig series such as ThunderstormÂ and Insurgence have taken place inÂ the past two years] by paying through theirÂ own pocket, Vaswani feels organizing metalÂ gigs at a formal level is difficult, especially becauseÂ it would involve coaxing sponsors. Guwahati-based gig organizer David Koch adds,Â “Venues get close to no bar sales. They getÂ about Rs 5,000 in bar sales. The metal guys,Â they don’t eat or drink or anything.”
Nitin Rajan, who hosted one of the city andÂ country’s first metal festivals ”“ Domination:The Deathfest ”“ in 2000, says not much hasÂ changed. “The quantum of audience hasn’t reallyÂ changed. Today, fewer people venture outÂ far and wide, so it’s confusing as an organizer,Â a band and a fan,” he says.
“Venues get close to no bar sales. They getÂ about Rs 5,000 in bar sales. The metal guys,Â they don’t eat or drink or anything.”
However, while the emphasis is more onÂ gigs in every other country, Indian metalÂ bands seem to be more confident selling theirÂ music and merchandize when the gigs don’tÂ come through. Indian metal record label TranscendingÂ Obscurity’s founder Kunal ChoksiÂ says, “Shows are on and off, you could say it’sÂ seasonal, it just takes someone to take the initiative.Â I have people from small towns ordering,Â in places like Uttaranchal, Aurangabad,Â Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. It is getting better,Â the reach is widening despite everything.”
Metal brings low footfalls
The do-it-yourself ethic continues among metalheads,Â though, with Pune’s 6th Element IncÂ kicking off a new metal gig series last monthÂ called Reverse Scenario at the 500-800 capacityÂ Classic Rock Coffee Co. Founder VarunÂ Babbar says, “Venues only care about footfallsÂ and what kind of money they’re making offÂ it [a gig].” Babbar seems to have made headwayÂ in convincing a big venue to host metalÂ gigs, but it remains to be seen whether self-fundedÂ gigs can sustain to provide regularÂ shows for both bands and fans. And businessÂ has been tough in Mumbai ”“ with Blue Frog’sÂ once raucous monthly metal nights on a SundayÂ fading away with a change in programmingÂ and even Bajaao’s metal event seriesÂ Urban Assault fizzling out within a quarter ofÂ a year in 2015. Vaswani says, “As a programmerÂ and promoter who sells so many genres,Â I think metal is easily the toughest one toÂ sell, without a doubt.” Apparently, the onlyÂ venue taking a chance on metal freely is Delhi’sÂ Antisocial, a performance-only branch ofÂ the Social Offline chain of pubs/workspaces.
Musicians to blame too?
Delhi groove/tech metal band Undying Inc.’sÂ bassist Reuben Bhattacharya says that musicÂ is becoming a sort of luxury item. He says,Â “Kids today have the best gear and good musicÂ but it doesn’t really filter down to passion on aÂ ground-level. I’ve seen this in Shillong ”“ guysÂ who can outplay anyone who has an [toplineÂ guitar effects processor] AxeFX or a seven-stringÂ [guitar] because their dad decided toÂ buy it for them. They might work hard on playingÂ but what about those who cannot affordÂ the gear like that?”
As far as his hometown is concerned, heÂ laments that the biggest bands to come outÂ of Delhi play outside the city. “From a cityÂ that once hosted [Swedish prog metal band]Â Meshuggah, that had [rock and metal festival]Â Great Indian Rock, look at where youÂ are right now. You have nothing to be proud of.” Following the slowdown of Delhi’s topÂ scene catalysts Rock Street Journal ”“ which operatedÂ both as a media publication and promoterÂ of events such as Octoberfest and PubÂ Rock Fest ”“ Bhattacharya says there’s barely been any help. Save for the annual OutrageÂ metal festival In Delhi, Undying Inc. hasÂ spent the last two years playing outside DelhiÂ more often. In Delhi, the bassist feels theÂ bands are as much to blame as the audience.
Empty wallets in the North East
In October last year, when Aizawl death metalÂ veterans Third Sovereign announced a nine-cityÂ Blood and Roots tour to promote theirÂ new album Perversion Swallowing Sanity,Â they were met with cheers and kudos for takingÂ on a doubly herculean task ”“ first, organizingÂ a multi-city tour and second, gettingÂ out of the North East, the region thatÂ most metro city organizers won’t touch becauseÂ of the travel costs involved in bringingÂ them out of any of the Seven Sister states. ForÂ a band that has had their studio burn down,Â their bassist lose his fingers in an accident,Â bad luck just followed ”“ the Chennai floodsÂ late last year caused them to cancel majorityÂ of the tour, sticking to just shows in theÂ North East. Says Third Sovereign frontmanÂ Vedant Kaushik, “The major problem [forÂ Blood and Roots] was logistics, we had noÂ sponsors. If you approach someone for sponsorshipÂ they would straight away ask, ”˜Is it aÂ Bollywood show?’”
Despite producing some of the best performersÂ in the country ”“ from Shillong deathÂ metallers Plague Throat [who representedÂ India at German metal festival WackenÂ Open Air in 2014] to Third Sovereign inÂ Aizawl, the passion of the North East’s metalheadsÂ doesn’t convert into much of a revenueÂ stream. While Plague Throat got governmentÂ support to fund their Wacken trip,Â they’ve spent their early days borrowing gearÂ from friends to practice, perform and record,Â whereas Third Sovereign stuck it out longÂ enough to earn money from teaching instrumentsÂ to renting out their Vortex recordingÂ studio in Aizawl. Guwahati-based gig organizerÂ David Koch, who founded events companyÂ Rocka Rolla in 2008, says he’s hostedÂ about 200-300 metal gigs in Guwahati andÂ he knows why clubs don’t want to host metalÂ gigs. “People in the North East, they hate toÂ buy tickets. They all want free entry. TheyÂ hate to pay.”
Metals needs moneyed fans
The trend in Bengaluru is perhaps a good exampleÂ of what the country needs ”“ an older,Â moneyed crowd ready to shell out ticket pricesÂ ranging from Rs 300 to catch local bandsÂ to Rs 2,000 to catch extreme undergroundÂ metal. Old-school metal bands such asÂ Kryptos and underground metal still reignsÂ in Bengaluru ”“ arguably the hub of internationalÂ metal in India with past and currentÂ festivals such as Deccan Rock, Rock ”˜N India,Â CultFest and Bangalore Open Air.
Unlike other cities, Bengaluru’s best-knownÂ venues such as The Humming Tree,Â BFlat and Indigo Live Music Bar have all beenÂ hosting metal gigs without any hitches, onlyÂ depending on promoters and other gig organizersÂ to rent out the venue for shows ratherÂ than in-house programming of metal bands.Â The erstwhile venue CounterCulture, whichÂ closed last year and changed management,Â was the only one to host a specific event calledÂ Metal Factory every month for four monthsÂ between 2013 and 2014. Says Guru Somayaji,Â head of programming and production, “TheÂ five Metal Factory shows were all successful.Â The model with Metal Factory was prettyÂ much up the gate fare and distribute it amongÂ the artists. We were getting outstation artistsÂ and if we knew the night was doing well, weÂ were taking care of the flights and distributingÂ the fee among the artists.” So successfulÂ was Metal Factory that CounterCulture hostedÂ a metal New Year’s Eve gig in 2013. SomayajiÂ recalls, “In my life, I never thought it wouldÂ be as successful as it was.”
If you approach someone for sponsorshipÂ they would straight away ask, ”˜Is it aÂ Bollywood show?’”
Event organizing firm Sound Awake,Â which was co-founded by Bengaluru-basedÂ Sangeeth Ram in 2013, has been giving theÂ city a regular dose of metal with shows suchÂ as Insurrection. Ram says it’s been toughÂ doing shows with their own company fundsÂ when sponsors become difficult to convince.Â He says, “Most of the shows don’t work outÂ for us financially, but when we put a showÂ out there, it might just be to make a musicianÂ or a fan happy.” The talent is definitely outÂ there, but as Somayaji also says, “They’re yetÂ to get the economic balance right.” Ram addsÂ that even one sponsor for each metal gig canÂ change the game. “The marketing guys at bigÂ brands need to start listening to some goodÂ Indian music,” he says.
Meanwhile, Chennai continues to ebb andÂ flow with organizers such as Unseen UndergroundÂ disappearing and reappearing everyÂ now and then, while the Raw Power gig seriesÂ were going strong until the Chennai FloodsÂ late last year put their finances in the redÂ over the canceled Blood and Roots South IndianÂ leg. Hyderabad, on the other hand, hasÂ had Hard Rock CafÃ© hosting Metal ManiaÂ with Bajaao every month. Vaswani says thisÂ is because they have ascertained the followingÂ for metal. He adds, “Everyone [club venues]Â wants to do something different. It’s aÂ good experiment for Hard Rock, in my opinion.Â It’s also about the willingness of the venueÂ to change.
Writing the future
Bands such as Bhopal’s up-and-coming deathÂ metallers Elemental and Mumbai’s ProvidenceÂ have different ideas about what it canÂ take to keep metal alive. The band’s frontmanÂ Anchal Bhargava feels more bandsÂ should write and even sing in an Indian context,Â just like they’re taking to Sanskrit andÂ setting death metal to the Bhopal Gas TragedyÂ of 1984. Providence guitarist Shezan ShaikhÂ says struggle has always been in metal’s legacy.Â “Heavy metal has been around way longerÂ than this. Self-supported, self-sustained,Â totally independent,” he says.
From the gig organizers, there’s persistenceÂ in store. Says Vaswani, “Any time anyoneÂ has tried to crack a niche, it was neverÂ easy. From a business point of view, wheneverÂ someone says it cannot be done ”“ I’m onlyÂ saying it’s hard ”“ it’s not impossible.” WithÂ more and more bands such as DR, Gutslit,Â Kryptos and Skyharbor saving up enough toÂ head out for international tours on an annualÂ basis, Indian metal bands are looking atÂ the larger picture as well. Kryptos frontmanÂ Nolan Lewis says, “I think Indian bands needÂ to step out of their comfort zone…. they needÂ to get out to see what it’s actually like to beÂ a touring band, you know? How much hardÂ work goes into it.”
But until then, organizers such as SomayajiÂ are certain that metal will have its day in theÂ sun soon. He says, “In the next five years we’llÂ have one or two really massive scale metalÂ shows. There is an audience for it.”
This article appeared the February issue of ROLLING STONE INDIA. Additional reporting by NabeelaÂ Shaikh.