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How Online Radio Channels Are Pushing Indian Alternative Music

Indian bands find an ally in channels such as Radio Flote and Radio 79 among others, that are doing the job of private FM channels

Megha Mahindru May 14, 2013
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Reggae Rajahs hosting their weekly show on Radio 79 in Delhi

Reggae Rajahs hosting their weekly show on Radio 79 in Delhi

Every Tuesday afternoon, Delhi group Reggae Rajahs’ Raghav ”˜Diggy’ Dang turns into a talk show host for online channel Radio79 New Delhi. For over 10 weeks now, Dang, who is frequently joined by his bandmates, has been hosting Pressure Drop With Reggae Rajahs, a two-hour online show that plays reggae and dancehall music from around the world. “A lot of our fans tune in. It’s like a showcase of new music by the Reggae Rajahs. For listeners across the world, it’s a show that lets them know what Indian DJs are playing and what their tastes are like,” says Dang, who also interviews artists performing in Delhi on his weekly show.

Online radio channels such as BC Radio, Radio Flote, Radio City Freedom, BoomBox Project, Monkey Radio India and Native Noise, all launched last year, are filling the void left behind by private FM channels that champion Hindi film music over other genres. After playing music by Indian bands since July 2012, Radio City Freedom, Radio City 91.1’s online radio station will now host an award show this month. The show will recognize Indian independent music with eight categories including Best Pop Artist, Best Rock, Best Metal, Best Hip-Hop Rap Artist, Best Folk Fusion Artist among others.

Set up by college students and staunch supporters of Indian bands, stations such as BC Radio, BoomBox Project and Native Noise are pushing alternative music. It’s easy to figure why ”“ Indian bands play some of their best shows on campuses and it’s relatively easy to set up an online radio station that requires nothing more than a basic music license from Phonographic Performance Ltd. – India (PPL India). Says Native Noise Radio’s Kunnal Shandilya, “For some, it might be the nonstop music without any break, ads and RJs; for others it might be the fact that almost none of the terrestrial radios in India feature so many independent musicians/bands.”

But it’s too early for artists to consider online radio to be a source of revenue even though they’re steadily gaining a new audience through the new medium. While internationally, sites such as Live 365, Pandora and Spotify pay royalties to artists, Indian online radio stations depend on free music from artists for their programming. The Raghu Dixit Project bassist Gaurav Vaz, who set up Radio VeRVe, one of the earliest online radio channels in 2006, is optimistic. Says Vaz, “For musicians, any avenue that promotes your music and makes it accessible to new listeners is welcome by musicians. That’s why bands sometimes even play free gigs”” to make their music heard.” Currently, online channels in India procure songs from artists on the promise of providing a newer audience and musicians, on their part, aren’t complaining. “Our marketing, since 1995, has been to give our music for free and earn from live gigs. If people like your stuff, they will surely call you for gigs and you can earn much more,” says Parikrama’s Subir Malik. Dang too shares Malik’s outlook when he reiterates: “For bands, it’s not about getting paid or making money from to royalties and audio sales these days; an artist makes money from gigs.”

Raghu Dixit plays for Freedom Radio

Raghu Dixit plays for Freedom Radio

Right now, it’s the common love for alternative music that drives these station. Tushar Debnath, who set up BoomBox Project, had his big eureka moment while watching Richard Curtis’s 2008 pirate radio tribute The Boat That Rocked. The film, set in the Sixties, features a pirate radio station in the UK that challenges the monopoly of BBC by playing music by bands such as the Rolling Stones instead of old school jazz. Says Debnath, who was in his second semester as an engineering student at Noida’s I.T.S Engineering College when he set up the channel, “I saw this movie and it got me thinking about the current state of commercialization and how it holds the same kind of barricade for independent bands and their music. So I thought, why not do what they did back then and start your own radio station?”

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BC Radio, short for Be The Change Radio, was launched by four IIT-B students, who are also part of a college band called Greenwood, in August last year. This month, as the founders graduate, they plan to offer a customized listening experience similar to existing music-based social networking sites such as Tune Patrol and Musicfellas that besides featuring radio streams, allows listeners to share music, customize playlists and even follow people with similar music tastes. BC Radio kicked off with a database of 40 Indian artists/bands, and now plays music by 600 Indian artists/bands (they claim to update it every week), with at least 1,000 listeners per day from seven countries including France, The U.S. and Sweden.

Besides tapping international audiences, internet radio channels such as NH7 Radio, which launched in 2010, has also caught the attention of international bands. Says OML Digital’s Shreyas Srinivasan, who co-founded the now-defunct Radio VeRVe with Vaz, “OML-signed artists are a small majority of the artists streaming on NH7 Radio. We have artists from around the world writing in to us to put up their music for streaming.” Across the five channels including Rock, Metal, Electronica, Strange Brew and Alt Rock available on NH7 Radio, their streams get 85,000 listeners a month.

Online radio scores over traditional radio in more than just its geographical reach. Unlike terrestrial radio, where RJs commonly fail to introduce the band and song, track details can be easily accessed by listeners online. Genre-specific sub-stations also allow fans to pick a station of their liking. Channels such as Flote, Opus, BC Radio and NH7 Radio all include genre-specific sub stations. For example, BC Radio offers genre-based playlists like Metal (features Bhayanak Maut, Dark Carnage, Inner Sactum, Exhumation, Scribe), Rock (Jeepers Creepers, Blakc, Frank’s Got The Funk, Indigo Children), Regional (The Raghu Dixit Project, Faridkot, Agnee), Experimental (BLEK, The F16’s, The Shakey Rays) and Electronica (Sandunes, Ox7gen, Sulk Station, Delhi Sultanate). NH7 Radio also allows listeners to tweet what they’re listening to while they’re tuned in and Bengaluru folk rockers Swarathma tells us that this has helped them track their fans on internet radio.

Like NH7’s Rock Radio (not to be confused with Radio Rock, the fictitious pirate radio station in Curtis’s film), which is the most popular of the five channels available on the music website, most online radio channels in the country simply stream songs by Indian bands according to genres. Says Sharmon Ibrahim of My Opus Radio, one of the first online radio channels to be set up in the country in 2008, “No broadcast or frequency license is required. This makes branching out into a number of channels/genres viable.” Currently, Opus Radio, which was started by Carlton and Gina Braganza of the popular Bengaluru nightspot, has 14 different channels for various genres, three of which are dedicated to music by Indian bands. “Overall our listenership has gone up by about 20 per cent over the past year, but interestingly the listenership for our Indian artists and bands channels has gone up by about 75 per cent over the last two years,” adds Ibrahim.

Some channels such as Native Noise and Radio79 New Delhi have come up with programming similar to mainstream radio, showcasing new music, band interviews as well as shows hosted by RJs and musicians. “Most radio channels here are just playlist-based or ones that play 20 songs on loop. We have a unique format put together by a programming team to make sure that the right music goes to the right people,” says Radio79’s founder Nikhel Mahajan. According to Delhi-based singer-songwriter Kunnal Shandilya, who started Native Noise radio after discovering the dearth of online platforms that feature music other than Bollywood, the appeal of online radio is far more: “The option of tuning in with a variety of devices (website, popup radio, via music players like Winamp, Windows Media Player and Real Player or iPad, computer, phone) in a variety of ways (you can pause, skip and forward songs) is great.” Native Noise has an average listenership of 75-200 listeners daily and gets about 3,000 to 6,000 tune-ins a month.

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The BC Radio team also has a novel programming plan in mind. Says one of the founders of BC Radio, Kaustub Pandey, “We are developing an automated recommendation engine, which will ensure that the radio will become the mirror image of a listeners’ music taste and will always function as per the listener likes or wants. It will keep track of all possible analytics of our listeners and then customize the radio as per that for every listener.”

All these efforts will pay off only if the number of listeners increase rapidly and this is solely dependent on internet connectivity. When we logged in, the initializing and buffering on most channels took up to three to four minutes, a big turn-off for any listener. “Internet connectivity is a key challenge as far as India is concerned, and we are constantly innovating to tackle the low bandwidth issue that is a persistent factor across Tier 2 and 3 cities and towns. On our part, we ensure that our web radio streams are accessible to low bandwidth areas too,” says Rachna Kanwar, SVP & Business Head, Digital & New Business, Radio City 91.1 FM. Kanwar’s online Indian alternative radio, Radio City Freedom has a majority of the listenership in metros, however, she adds, “We have noticed a significant increase in traffic from Tier 2 and 3 towns as well.”

As a solution, most channels now offer their radio channels in different formats on their connectivity to include slow, medium and fast bandwidths. “Songs are streamed at a bandwidth as low as 128kbps/64kbps, so almost any internet connection with an average speed is good enough. Also, many listeners like to tune in on-the-go, for which the radio is compatible and easy to access from various android, iPhone and windows devices which have a decent internet speed,” adds Shandilya. Opus too has kept their streaming bandwidth in mind so their channels can be accessed even on a 2G connection.

That none of the existing online channels have a business model could also be a reason why the industry is far from flourishing. Radio VeRVe, the Bengaluru-based channel, which started out with 10 listeners and grew to attract 4,000 listeners by the next year has been on a break for over a year now. The channel, which was run by Vaz and friends, was self-funded. “We invested about Rs 5,000 a month. You cannot survive as a radio channel with 4,000 listeners. For it to be a business model, the numbers should be beyond a lakh if you are looking at revenues from ads and subscriptions. Shreyas and I never thought of it as a business idea when we set up Radio Verve. Back then, it was one of the few places you could hear Indian independent music. Since we both got busy with other things, Radio Verve has been put on hold,” says Vaz.

Radio Flote plans to give 70 per cent of profits to artists once they begin making money and BC Radio plans to start paying royalties soon. “As per the PPL rules in India, an artist should get 6 paise per stream on any commercial platform. So it’s very reasonable and we would love to support our artists,” adds Pandey. For now, Scribe frontman Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy says he is happy with any rotation online which helps get additional listenership. “People get paid when there’s a lot of money in the business. Right now, internet radio is just picking up, but we will get there,” he adds.

Delhi band Them Clones reportedly earned fans from Texas to Darwin, Australia, when their material featured on New York-based online radio channel, Jango. With India’s ever-growing 150 million internet users and the support of some sponsors, internet radio could well be the space to discover the best Indian alternative music.]


This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Rolling Stone India 

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