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June 27, 2016

Is India Finally On The Music Map?

Text by Simone Louis

Though India is no stranger to international musicians, a sudden, exciting line-up of concerts and festivals with big names is electrifying the music scene here

Sunday, March 1, 2015. A colossal crowd of singing 20- and 30-somethings is swaying, hands in the air, to the distinctive voice and expert guitar stylings of a blue-kurta-clad British folk-soul artist named Ed Sheeran. While reactions throughout the concert at the Mahalaxmi Race Course range from full-blown joy and unbridled sentiment to even hushed awe when the darkened venue is lit up solely by twinkling cell-phone lights, the most common expression on the people’s faces is that of shock. The incredulous murmur of ‘Is this really happening?’ only changes, as the show ends, to ‘Did we really just watch one of the world’s biggest artistes in Mumbai?’

Visits and videos
Unbelievable as that evening was, it wasn’t the first or last of many such events that took place in the year gone by. The red-headed crooner hit the stage just months after global supergroup Major Lazer who, a few days after Sheeran’s show, released a music video for a single called Lean On. Shot in Karjat in Maharashtra and at Kaul Heritage City at Vasai in Mumbai, the song went on to break countless records, the most recent one for being Spotify’s most streamed song of all time, with the video receiving more than a billion views online and enjoying pride of place at prestigious award shows. “The video definitely had an impact on Major Lazer, so much so that India now holds a special place in their hearts,” Mikhail Mehra, the man behind the production company Oji who handles all of the group’s affairs for India, tells us. “Diplo (one-third of the group) has long had a connection with India; he came here as a teenager during the Gujarat earthquake and drove around on a bike with no money.” Of the iconic music video, he fondly recalls, “They would just message me things like ‘Can we get an elephant’, ‘Can we get a palace’, and I did my best to make it happen!”

A while later, the country’s music lovers collectively lost all chill when Coldplay’s Chris Martin turned up absolutely out of the blue and played the most random set ever, at a cafe in the capital. Music producer and performer Vishal Dadlani, who played alongside him and was present with Freida Pinto, Raghu Dixit and All India Bakchod (again, so random), later tweeted: ‘It wasn’t an event. We were at a dinner together, and he just went ‘Let’s go play somewhere!’ And boom!’ Martin didn’t stop there — while Indian fans were still drying their eyes over a missed opportunity, he returned to the country a bit later with the entire Grammy-winning band to film the music video for Hymn For The Weekend, in Mumbai. Featuring megastar Beyonce in Indian attire by Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla and a four-second cameo by Sonam Kapoor, it garnered mixed reactions but ultimately was appreciated for its pure cinematic splendour. So it comes as no surprise, then, that the lead singer once again threw fans into a tizzy when he tweeted: ‘I see Hymn for the Weekend is at No.1 on iTunes India — unbelievable!! Thank you to the people of India for making us feel so welcome and especially the residents of Worli Village, Mumbai for making our video possible. We had so much fun…My new mission: bring Coldplay back to India asap.’

Humble beginnings
Even if you didn’t get caught in the year’s music whirlwind, just these few examples hint at the unprecedented surge in international concerts that the country has been witnessing across genres like EDM, rock, blues, and pop. Skrillex, The Wailers, Buddy Guy (a regular at the Mahindra Blues Festival), David Guetta, Slash, Alt+J and Fatboy Slim were amongst the many artistes in 2015’s live performance round-up. “The boom had to happen sooner or later,” admits Hermit Sethi, director and co-founder of Submerge Entertainment, which has been booking international talent for over a decade now. “I remember a time when a DJ like Armin Van Buuren was playing at tiny nightclubs here. The electronic burst already happened a few years ago, and now I see the scene becoming more genre-specific. The best time to enjoy live music in India is now; though I feel the market still has the potential to open up more.”

It’s important to remember, though, that India is no stranger to international musicians — they’ve been visiting since as far back as the 1930s. So what has changed? Why the sudden barrage of concerts and festivals, with bigger and bigger names? According to Arjun S. Ravi, co-founder of online music magazine NH7, one can credit the shift largely to an improvement in production quality, promotion and event organisation. “For the longest time, we got ‘Third World rock’ as I used to call it — bands that were big marquee acts but whose moment of glory had passed and who were big in Japan, so to speak. Those at the height of their career never really came here because India wasn’t considered a part of the regular international touring circuit,” he says, explaining that in the early 2000s, many more promoters popped up on the scene and in turn started booking more acts…albeit in the same category. “This is when a lot of really cool, niche indie musicians started testing the waters, followed by artistes in the electronic music genre which, of course, grew in popularity and took over the live concert scene. Pretty much every number-one DJ in the world has played in India, and even returned time and time again,” Ravi elaborates.

In December 2015, Indian electronic music brand Sunburn executed the World’s Biggest Guest List party with DJ Hardwell. With almost 1,00,000 fans on Hardwell’s personal guest list — for free — the proceeds of the event went towards the education of 18,200 children in the Magic Bus programme. “The trend for the future is a shift from economics to emotions; using music to unite fans around the world, for the social good,” claims Shailendra Singh, the founder of Sunburn. Karan Singh — CEO, Sunburn Global — points out, “India is definitely the next big thing and that’s why, this April, we brought Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), the world’s leading electronic music conference, to the country.”

Going up
Now, EDM isn’t the only star on the growing scene. Festivals like Rock ’n India and Jazz Yatra paved the way for Bangalore Open Air, Bacardi NH7 Weekender, Johnnie Walker — The Journey, Hornbill, Ziro, Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF), Indian Metal Fest, Harley Rock Riders, Ragasthan and more. There is room now for major rock acts, and alternative indie, hip-hop, grunge, metal and folk artistes to play in tandem with major pop stars and singer-songwriters. Festival curators play a big role in a time when the growth of the audience’s spending power is giving rise to a new class of ‘experience junkies’. “We have 600 million people under the age of 25 who are working hard and playing harder,” Shailendra Singh reiterates, while Mehra acknowledges, “There are so many new artistes coming up and kids want to listen to good music, so we will keep bringing block parties to India and introducing new sounds with fresh Indian supporting talent.”

In the first two months of 2016 itself we’ve seen sold-out events including a tour by indie pop band Boyce Avenue, a return visit from Major Lazer (with their global music property called the Mad Decent Block Party), the Indian debut of Sensation — one of the world’s biggest dance events — as well as Joss Stone and three-time Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’ headlining another power-packed edition of the annual Mahindra Blues Festival. MBF host and radio jockey Brian Tellis credits this to the rise of music festivals. “Sponsors and investors are more likely to support multi-artiste music festivals rather than a one-off gig. Another one of the reasons we have more international talent warming to the idea of coming to India is word of mouth,” he elucidates. “Artistes who come here for the first time often don’t expect the kind of reception that they get, and they love finding out about the wide listenership here. Also, we take care of them…Indian hospitality is world-renowned.”

All in all, the live music scene in the country is at its most fertile right now. The fact that it isn’t limited to its borders creates not only more competition, but also incalculable prospects for augmented creativity and exclusive consumer experiences. India is steadfastly making its mark on the global music map, both in terms of local talent making waves around the world and international music stars not skipping over us anymore. Tellis echoes our thoughts when he professes: “India is the flavour of the season”.

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