Where's our next generation of headlining bands?
My immediate, flippant response to that question — posed to a colleague by Rolling Stone editor Lalitha Suhasini — was that they're probably on Quikr trading in their guitars for DJ consoles. But having given the question some more thought this past week, I realised that Suhasini is right to be concerned. Just take a look at any festival line-up this year and you'll see what I mean. The only rock bands that are headlining material these days are old-timers who have been around for 10 years or more, and there's nobody waiting in the wings to take over when they're gone. The last wave of exciting new rock bands is already a few years old, and none of them have really lived up to their potential. When perennial headliners Pentagram broke up a year ago, I thought we'd finally see someone step up to the plate and take their place. Instead, the situation has become so dire that NH7 Weekender has had to resort to programming dinosaurs like Parikrama and Indus Creed to bring in the rock crowd this year.
It's not like we've suddenly run out of good bands. In fact, I think there's quite a few bands across the country making better music than any of our ageing headliners. So what's holding them back? To answer Suhasini's question with a counter-question, what does a band need to become headlining quality?
In my opinion, it's gigs — lots and lots and lots of gigs. It doesn't matter how good you are in the studio or in rehearsals, there's nothing that can help you hone your craft and build a dedicated fanbase better than getting up on that stage and playing your hearts out. And I'm not talking about a pub gig every few months. I'm talking about playing anywhere and everywhere you can — whether it's in front of 10 people or a 1000, on a third-rate PA or a state of the art sound system. Bands like Pentagram or Zero (or even, as much as I hate to admit it, Parikrama) weren't born natural headliners. They got there by playing hundreds of shows all over the country, for little to no money, trying to win over audiences that were indifferent or even hated them. And they were able to do this thanks to a nationwide D-I-Y network — colleges, pubs, venues that allowed bands to put up their own shows by pooling in resources.
Today, that's all changed. The college gigs have all but disappeared, as have the — dingy and mostly illegal — venues like Razz and B69 where bands could just hire sound for Rs. 10,000, print up some posters and put on a show. They've been replaced by a shiny new music industry, with posh venues and big music festivals. This is mostly a good thing — audiences have grown bigger, bands actually get paid now, and the gigs have much better sound and production quality. But the flipside is that venues and promoters are now less willing to give a chance to new, untested bands that won't bring in a guaranteed crowd. Profit margins in indie music are still wafer thin, so it's too risky to give slots to bands that might be too inexperienced to put on a good set, or even worse, might alienate a paying audience with their sound or lyrics. The rise of electronica hasn't helped. Why would a venue take a risk on a new band when a DJ can pack the house for half the money?
To me, it seems that the way forward is for these bands to get together and resurrect some of that old D-I-Y spirit. It’s not enough, and it never has been, to just put your music out there and then wait for someone to hand you gigs. You’ve got to go out there and find them, or put them on yourselves.
So even as the professional indie industry has exploded, we have fewer and fewer opportunities for new bands. And without the space for amateur bands to play and learn, is it a surprise that none of them are ready to make the jump to the big stage?
To me, it seems that the way forward is for these bands to get together and resurrect some of that old D-I-Y spirit. It's not enough, and it never has been, to just put your music out there and then wait for someone to hand you gigs. You've got to go out there and find them, or put them on yourselves. And I see that happening more and more. In Delhi, Peter Cat Recording Co have turned their barsaati into not just an underground venue but their own creative ecosystem. I know of at least two different sets of bands investing their own time and money into setting up multi-city tours. And in Mumbai, this month has seen the return of the house party/jam room gig, with bands opening up their homes and jam rooms to small groups of dedicated fans.
Last Sunday, I saw two local hardcore punk bands tear it up at an invite-only house party in Malad. It was exactly the sort of no-frills, intimate and high intensity live experience that I've been missing for the past few years. They're already planning another one in December. On the same day, five young metal bands got together and played at a packed little jam room in Goregaon. A different lineup of mostly unknown metal bands is scheduled to play there on the 30th. I hope this little trend continues and picks up steam. Because it's shows like these — small, cramped and sweaty though they might be — where young bands can learn and grow into the headliners of tomorrow.
Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance music journalist who likes noise, punk rock and mutton biryani.