Whither Independent Music?

So I am wandering down a deep, dark alleyway on Pocketbroke Lane. Beyond the curtain, I see a man trying to sell the idea of an album to me. He asks me if I will deliver the product to him, and he will not pay me, but he will publicize me well and hopefully, if we sell a few CDs, I can make some of my money back. Interesting, this. My intellectual product, no money, and some of it to be paid to someone else who claims to market your product. In reality, it’s the concerts that bring demand, not the man behind this greasy curtain. And before you think I am referring to a suspicious drug cartel or dealing with the pirated music mafia, let me assure you that this seems to be the status of all independent music producers and musicians. A bunch of talented people (and sometimes, the not-so-talented-but-moneyed) get together and make some music that is not popular (read as “non-film), and does not contain even one track that will go on to be picturized as an “item number”. If you sell a thousand of these discs, you can declare yourself a success. Five hundred, a moderate success. Less than that, you can call yourself a talented musician.

Norah JonesIs there a future to independent music or are we deluding ourselves? In many conversations I have had recently with friends, on Facebook, in real time, in concert halls, the issue keeps cropping up. With film music flooding the market, and the remaining space taken up by pirated music of all forms, the future for “independent music” looks bleak. By independent music, I refer to all musicians who do not play on film music sessions, or are a part of a larger organization contractually or in terms of affiliation. Like what Norah Jones was before she became a superstar. Or what self-styled fusion groups or indigenous rock bands are. In recent times, I have given Norah Jones and her story a great deal of thought. When her sound flooded the American airwaves a few years ago, with “Don’t Know Why”, there was a return to an independent sound. Here was an artist who was not “well known”, who had not been contracted out to a big label (Blue Note was a small label at the time), and her soulful and yet intimate music felt like an old friend, warm and sensitive. This was against the grain of popular music thought at the while. No heavy instrumentation and high-powered bass guitaring. Further, this was neither the “blues” nor was it “jazz”, but something in between, a sort of healthy marriage of several influences. And the Grammys smiled on her.

Raghu Dixit projectI wonder if we are ready for such an independent sound now in India. Having heard the Raghu Dixit Project in recent times and of course, the hugely popular Indian Ocean, I think we are. Rather than give in to popular sentiment and gloom over the music industry’s transitional state, I think we need to encourage these musicians who march to the rhythm of their own drums. I don’t think that a clutch of film playback singers is all it takes to ensure an evening’s entertainment. Great music in India comes cheap, and is surprisingly fresh and original and uses all our indigenous traditional influences in innovative ways and to great effect. 

To all my friends who are “independent” musicians, I think this quote from Virgil Thomson says it best – “I’ve never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music itself is not going to let you down.”

Published on the New Sunday Express, Mar 8, 2009

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