When Will Indian Radio Root For Alternative Music?
With 245 FM stations across 86 cities, there is great potential for Indian alternative artists to get airplay, yet there isn’t a single channel dedicated to them
Online radio stations seem to be doing the job of private FM channels. Radio City launched Radio City Freedom, an online radio station in 2012 dedicated to alternative music. The station also hosts an annual music awards, Radio City Freedom Awards. Watch Bengaluru folk rock band The Raghu Dixit Project perform at the award show in 2014.
Radio is a medium for music discovery. However, how conducive is the current radio environment to new independent local Indian artists? In Mumbai for instance, if you tune in to any radio station, whether Hindi, or English during prime time ie. 8am-1pm or 4pm-10pm, it is rare to hear any indie or alternative music. You are more likely to hear American pop and rock artists including Katy Perry, Usher or Bruce Springsteen, and Bollywood music by the likes of Sajid-Wajid, Ankit Tiwari, Sachin-Jigar, or Salim-Sulaiman. But there is no chance that a station will play the music of Chennai indie rockers The F16’s, or even the more popular Delhi band Indian Ocean, who have been making music and performing across the country for over two decades now.
“There have been great experiments that have failed, like Sartak’s on Hit 95FM in Delhi. He used to play and promote indie bands a hell of a lot. Suddenly, the channel said, ”˜Sorry, we’re going Bollywood. We’re not making any money’.” – Rahul Ram, Indian Ocean.
India’s largest radio network, Red FM who have 50 channels across the country have a strict music policy of only Bollywood, and no indie music. With 245 FM stations across 86 cities, there is great potential for independent artists to get airplay but most radio stations try and play what listeners want to hear, which is popular music ”“ Hindi or English. When asked about Bollywood stations’ ”˜no indie’ policy, Rahul Ram, founding member & bassist for Indian Ocean says, “Nobody advertises for indie. There is a guy on radio that does blues for three hours [ie. Brian Tellis] and that’s sponsored by Mahindra. It’s not like they [radio stations] have a problem playing indie. But I don’t see sponsors interested in it . There have been great experiments that have failed, like Sartak’s show on Hit 95FM in Delhi. He used to play and promote indie bands a hell of a lot. Suddenly, the channel said, ”˜Sorry, we’re going Bollywood. We’re not making any money.’ So gone. Off the air. Finished. The same thing happened to this radio channel called Meow, 104.8FM. It was a women-focused channel. Again, two or two and a half years later, poof, it went Bollywood.”
Bands like Delhi folk-fusion act Indian Ocean and Mumbai alternative rock band Colour Compound have received RJ talktime or airplay by paying for it (in 2014 for their albums ”“ Indian Ocean’s Tandanu and Colour Compound’s Turn Back Time). Companies such as Rayban or Blue Frog have paid to promote alternative musicians. National Music Manager for Radio One, Kobad Mobedjina elaborates that there are independent artists that get airplay, for instance rock act Indus Creed & pop rock quintet Duncun Rufus have received airplay based on the merit of their sound. Currently, Singapore-based singer-songwriter Druv Kent and Bangalore rockers Thermal And A Quarter are getting daytime coverage from 8am to 10pm. But several bands, which have found a place on the music festival circuit and campus festivals annually, still lose out on one of the most powerful mediums to promote music.
“I doubt that huge radio stations [94.3 Radio One being one of the very few exceptions] that only play commercial music will start supporting the indie scene anytime soon.” – David Abraham, The Koniac Net
The culture of introducing audiences to alternative music is far more prevalent outside India. The BBC have a show on their most popular station, Radio 1, hosted by Huw Stevens called In New Music We Trust, which also give undiscovered and unsigned musicians airplay with their platform BBC Introducing. Also, every year music industry experts come together to pick a bunch of relatively unknown artists who they feel are rising stars called BBC’s Sound of [The Year]. Radio One for instance is one of the radio stations in the country that have a national radio show on FM that goes out to 7 cities (Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Ahmedabad & Delhi), where they have dedicated 3 hours (10pm-1am) of their programming to playing only independent Indian artists. Additionally, when albums and EPs are out, these artists are interviewed and perform acoustic sets on the show as well.
Founder and vocalist of Mumbai-based rock band, The Koniac Net, David Abraham, worked hard to get his music heard on international radio. He wrote to bloggers, contacted radio stations and his debut album One Last Monsoon received airplay from radio stations [online mainly] in Australia UK [Amazing Radio,Â Reach OnAir], US [Back Street Radio,Â Alternative Addiction], Australia [Butterflies Radio], Germany [Radio im Internet] and Sweden (Pite FM). He says of Indian radio, “Considering that up until four years ago, all we had was Bollywood and a few hours of commercial English or pop music per day, things have gotten significantly better. I doubt that huge radio stations [94.3 Radio One being one of the very few exceptions] that only play commercial music will start supporting the indie scene anytime soon.”
Vocalists such as Mumbai-based Nikhil D’Souza or Siddharth Basrur, have sung on Hindi film soundtracks which have received radio play, however there is zero likelihood of say, Basrur’s music with his band Last Remaining Light, getting any air time on a mainstream Bollywood radio station. And yet, Rahul Ram makes a valid point when he asks, “Do you consider Honey Singh to be indie? Because he is. He’s making non-film music. What is independent music really? If you’re calling it non-film, then there is a lot of music that comes under that. It’s not just people singing in English. Once you open that door, then musicians like Rabbi Shergill still gets played. “Bulla Ki Jaana” gets played every now and then on mainstream Bollywood radio, so does Silk Route’s ”˜Dooba Dooba’, our [Indian Ocean’s] songs whenever people die [laughs]. Euphoria’s “Maaeri” still gets played. Some of these songs manage to breakthrough. But by and large, nobody is wiling to pay for this. Maybe it’s not the fault of the channel, but they don’t even push it. I think that indie listeners probably go to internet radio more.”
“A majority of the indie music that is created is in English (at least the ones who are popular and play at festivals). That could be the reason why the Hindi channels have stayed away. However, I think the bigger reason could probably be around the fact that advertising monies are attracted to mainstream content.” – Vijay Basrur, founder, OK!Listen
Private FM channel Radio City launched Radio City Freedom, an online radio station in 2012 dedicated to playing alternative local artists 24×7. Radio City Freedom have also created their own annual indie music awards, Radio City Freedom Awards and air a show called Freedom Hour every Saturday on their FM channel. More recently, they have started genre-specific indie radio stations online ”“ Radio City Electronica and Radio City Metal. However, they don’t have a Freedom Hour equivalent on 91.1FM. Yet, Rachna Kanwar, Head of Digital Media & New Business for Radio City 91.1FM is optimistic. Kanwar says, “Crossover projects and artists are ensuring that the notion of Indie being niche doesn’t hold true anymore. Increased exposure in mainstream media is definitely helping the cause. The process has started and the Internet is a huge catalyst in this change.”
Online stations have provided a platform for indie artists since the early 2000s, with one of the first being RadioVeRVe in 2006 [now defunct], started by Gaurav Vaz of The Raghu Dixit Project with FOSS developer Shreyas Srinivasan, now working for NH7. Others since then include BC Radio launched by students of IIT Bombay, and alternative music company, Audio Ashram started Radio 79 in Delhi. However, unlike Radio City Freedom, these online portals don’t have an FM counterpart. Vijay Basrur, founder of online independent music discovery & purchasing platform, OK Listen! says,“A majority of the indie music that is created is in English (at least the ones who are popular and play at festivals). That could be the reason why the Hindi channels have stayed away. However, I think the bigger reason could probably be around the fact that advertising monies are attracted to mainstream content.” Bengaluru rock band Swarathma has been supported by radio stations since the start of their career. Says the band’s bassist Jishnu Dasgupta, “We took off after we were discovered via Radio City’s national hunt for the Best Hindi Rock band. Radio was a big part of the Restless Tour we did as part of the launch of Topiwalleh [their second album]. We did appearances at stations across the country as part of it.” While Dasgupta agrees that their music has been received favorably by several music channels including Radio One, Radio City and even Radio Mirchi, because most of their songs are in Hindi, he adds that the onus is upon bands to make themselves heard. He says, “We continue to have a great relationship with all the radio stations and just like we would approach any other media, we update radio stations when we have gigs or launches coming up.”
Indian Ocean’s Ram emphasizes that radio is just following the path that music television has paved in India. He says, “Everyone started doing English music with MTV and Channel [V]. Now they are all channels that play Bollywood songs. Bollywood is the big monster. It keeps everyone up. It’s money, it’s advertising. What I’m trying to say is that radio is reflecting what’s happening on TV, because interestingly enough, commercial and private radio came about after TV.” Although more recently, cola company Pepsi co-branded MTV Indies [a TV channel solelyÂ to promote alternatative music) has sponsored a show dedicated to alternative music on Radio One.Â Nikhil Udupa, who is part of the Marketing & Alliances for MTV Indies, and was key to this partnership says, “I believe the indie scene has enough sounds to cover all spectrums of programming – from Sufi/melancholy singer-songwriter stuff/EDM/rock. So it isn’t like there is no opportunity for radio to programme. Indie music can very well be integrated in the present day ethos of radio programming without having to reinvent the wheel or losing listeners.” For instance, incorporating indie artists in segments such as a ‘Song of the Day’, or an ‘Artist of the Week’ can bolster the burgeoning alternative music scene.
While alternative artists can garner exposure on English radio channels, Hindi FM stations have shut the doors. Unless, indie musicians can convince the bouncers that they’re with Bollywood, there seem to be few options for their own music on radio. However, hope springs with the advent of Phase III in the distant horizon, to enable setting up of private FM radio channels in all cities with a population of more than 1 lakh,radio stations can expand into new cities and operate multiple channels within existing markets with a second and third frequency. For example, Radio Mirchi can have more than one station in Mumbai and the sub-station could even cater to genre-specific music. With a bigger canvas, it could mean that alternative music in India could get more space in this on air tapestry. Besides, if there can exist a TV channel dedicated solely to indie, then radio isn’t too far.
Mae Mariyam Thomas has been a Â radio presenter & Â journalist for the last eight years. She has worked as a news editor for a community radio station in the UK as well as for radio stations in India – Chennai & Mumbai. More recently, she was working at 94.3 Radio One hosting their afternoon request show, Mumbai On Demand.