Why private FM stations don’t find merit in playing local favorites alongside international hits
If it wasn’t for a chance discovery by Donna Halper, a Cleveland-based radio jockey, Canadian progressive rock band Rush may have remained obscure for a little while longer. While working at WMMS radio station in Cleveland, Halper played Rush’s “Working Man” regularly. Rush had released the track on their own label, Moon Record, but its repeated play caught the attention of Mercury Records, who then signed on the band. Rush dedicated their first two albums to Halper, and are said to reserve tickets for her every time they play in her home state.
You’ll probably never hear such a story in India where artists struggle to get their music heard on radio or TV. With radio stations favoring playlists comprising current Hindi film chartbusters, international pop, retro and classic rock, Indian musicians have little choice but to settle for low traffic hours. Most channels play international pop in the mornings, current chartbusters in the evenings and reserve the afternoon or late night spot for emerging Indian artists.
While some stations have begun catering to English music listeners, it’s still a shame that in a country with at least 245 private radio stations, only fi ve [Mumbai has Radio One; Delhi has HIT 95; Bengaluru and Goa have Indigo 91.9; Chennai has Chennai Live] support homegrown talent.
Delhi band Advaita were in for a shock in 2009 when they launched their debut album Grounded In Space and partnered with Hit 95 FM, a radio station based in Delhi. “Their policy didn’t allow them to air our songs since they weren’t English,” says Abhishek Mathur, vocalist and guitarist of Advaita, adding that the channel could only announce the news of the launch at regular intervals.
Indian bands that write in English don’t have it easy either. Rather than programing local artists alongside international musicians, stations have come up with separate slots for Indian rock. “Radio caters to a certain audience at every time of the day and people demand familiarity in certain parts of the day,” says veteran radio jock Brian Tellis from Radio One adding that his views are personal. Mumbai’s Radio One has a weekly show called Indie Thursdays at 8pm, while Chennai Live has a 5pm weekend show called Hangout. Like Bengaluru and Goa’s Indigo 91.9, which plays some Indian alternative music between international rock during Rock Show, Delhi’s HIT 95 plays a few Indian bands during the week between 7am- 12pm on a show called Hit Mornings With Sarthak and dedicates an hour to a local artist on their weekend show Breakfast Jam.
Hit 95 FM is probably one of the few channels that actually mixes regional rock music with international hits. “I’ve heard artists like Menwhopause and Sidd Coutto quite a few times, and even a Malayalee band (Avial) in Delhi, but a majority of music is still Rihanna on loop. Also there are too many marketing gimmicks like contests and callers to put one o ,” says avid radio listener Jenny Jose, 30, who works at hi-fi equipment centre, Bass ’N’ Treble in Delhi. Radio stations such as Radio City in Bengaluru have also pushed Hindi rock bands in the past and helped Bengaluru folk rock band Swarathma land its first record deal with EMI in 2008. Chennai Live has also been organizing band hunts in the South and helped artists sign on to a label.
But most radio listeners agree that unlike the West where radio is a platform to “discover” new talent, most local radio channels have a set playlist featuring international pop music. The common complaints are that RJs are ill-informed, the content is not up to the mark and the material on air is run-of-the-mill. “I have never stumbled upon new music on the radio. For that I look up the internet or attend concerts,” adds Jose.
Indigo 91.9 in Goa also claims to have programmed bands such as Thermal And A Quarter from Bangalore and Chennai’s Jack, Johnnie and the Ol’ Monk along with international music, but there’s a hitch here too. Few listeners in Goa have caught local acts on the channel. “Most RJs don’t even introduce songs. It’s as if they are in a hurry to play anything they get their hands on. I’ve never heard an India artist on the radio, it’s mostly retro music that is popular here,” says Lesanne D’Souza, a college student from Goa and an ardent listener of Indigo 91.9. The channel offers a rather flimsy counter argument: “We play a lot of local artists in Goa too. It’s just that we don’t have a jock for the rock show there, so it’s possible that listeners don’t realize what we are playing,” says Kiran Sreedhar, programing director at Bengaluru’s Indigo 91.9, who also handles the programming in Goa.
Music programing on Indian television channels is parallel to that on radio stations. International music takes precedence over alternative Indian music even though shows such as Coke [email protected] and The Dewarists have begun spotlighting local artists. Delhi band Advaita for instance managed to make it to MTV last year and tell us that this appearance helped them win several new fans. But with only a few channels broadcasting their videos, most bands turn to avenues like YouTube and the social network for support and maximum hits.
Arfaaz Kagalwala of Mumbai band Slow Down Clown that recently released the music video of their single “Stupid Sea” says, “MTV said they’ll showcase the song on Roots, but that’s an hour long weekly slot, which makes no sense. VH1, on the other hand, offered us repeated play for the first 15 days. The best part is that our song can feature anywhere between a Coldplay track or Aerosmith single.”Â Some TV channels are even airing gigs and concerts such as Live From The Console (9XO) and Bacardi NH7 Weekender (UTV Bindass) to promote Indian music, but the bands only make a blink-and-miss appearance on the mainstream channels that play international hits or Bollywood chartbusters on repeat.
Luke Kenny, programing head for 9XO, explains that dedicated slots for Indian acts could work in their favor. “It brings special attention to homegrown talent and allows interested listeners to focus on the specific talent featured, but I don’t necessarily agree with it,” says Kenny, adding, “I do believe that it should be mixed up along with the other sounds that are there on the station.Â Also it gives an equal footing to the Indian artist, who gets featured with the best of international sounds.”
In their defence, radio industry experts explain that Indian bands get low airplay owing to the small audience base and low quality recordings. But bands such as Bengaluru’s Thermal And A Quarter dismiss these reasons.Â TAAQ’s frontman Bruce Mani Lee says, “Bad production quality could have been a concern five-six years ago. Now anyone can produce an album of reasonable quality. I’m sure of the 20 new albums released by Indian bands this year, all of them are broadcast-worthy.”
Describing the market for Indian English bands as “microniche” doesn’t cut it with fans either. “If there is no audience, then how did festivals like NH7 Weekender and Oktoberfest become such big hits? When a Raghu Dixit or Swarathma performs, why is it always packed?” argues Arpan Peter, co-owner of Overture India, a music events and artist management company based in Bengaluru. Radio veteran Tellis argues that even the English international music audience is niche. He says, “About 300-600 people attend gigs [in India] regularly. The number can go up to 1,500 for a big gig and that’s not much. You can’t base your programing upon introducing a new band every now and then.”
Both programing heads and musicians are yet to work out a counter productive format. While radio stations argue that they can play an artist on heavy rotation only if he’s popular, artists reason that regular rotation is the only means to gain popularity on radio. Slow Down Clown’s new track “Stupid Sea” has managed to crack that radio-friendly sound. “Thankfully our new song is getting good rotation on Mumbai radio. It played on the Thursday night indie slot [8pm] and a few other times late at night, but most artists go unheard because they are played once and forgotten,” feels Kagalwala.
Whether or not they play music by Indian bands, for now most industry insiders and listeners are glad that English radio stations exist. Mumbai college student Tejaswani Mittal says, “It’s a good start. I’m happy there’s a channel that refuses to play Bollywood numbers day in and out.” Jesse Julka of Freedom Radio, an online Indian indie radio channel that was launched in July this year, says that terrestrial radio that allows a channel to have multiple frequencies would boost Indian alternative music. He adds, “Once the third phase opens up, radio channels can have multiple channels for different genres like indie, jazz, pop etc.”
Before their time is up, local radio stations can only stand to gain if they begin taking the rapidly growing Indian alternative music scene seriously. The other choice is to be declared obsolete and remain completely ignored by an industry that is turning out to be profitable going by the number of festivals and music events that have been kicked off in the past two years alone.