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Making a Career out of Rock & Roll

Radhakrishnan Nair, Editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone Magazine India talks about the changing outlook for contemporary musicians in India. He is a keen student of the history and evolution of Indian rock & roll and jazz.

Not long ago, Bengaluru folk-rocker Raghu Dixit was doing the music label rounds in Mumbai. He approached almost every label to release his first album, but all turned him down. Among the replies he got was that he didn’t look good enough to make it as a musician. A disappointed Dixit was on the verge of giving up on his plan of making a career in music when composers Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani offered him a contract, through their new music label in 2007.

The Raghu Dixit story had a happy ending. Not just because he was able to get an album deal, but also the fact that his band, The Raghu Dixit Project, has gone on to become one of the most successful ones around, playing as many as 200 live gigs every year, including famous UK festivals like Glastonbury and Larmer Tree. Dixit also arrived at a time when huge opportunities opened up for rock & roll-oriented musicians in the country, in contrast to the experience of many of his illustrious predecessors.

Indian rock & roll has had a reasonably large following among the urban youth, since the 1960s. Biddu and his pioneering band The Trojans were a rage at Mumbai’s clubs like Venice, where he did afternoon concerts in the mid 1960s, before migrating to England in 1967. The All-India Simla Beat Contest, a national battle of the bands which ran from 1968 to the mid 1970s, used to attract hundreds of bands from across the country, with the finals at a packed Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai. The songs composed for the contest were deemed good enough for HMV (then known as Gramophone Company of India) to launch an annual series of compilations on vinyl – many of which are still being sold by collectors on eBay.

Rock bands like Savage Encounter, Human Bondage, Atomic Forest and others from the 1970s, and Waterfront, 13 AD, Exodus, Shiva, Sabre Tooth, The Great Society, Rock Machine, etc. from the 1980s were not only hugely talented, but also extremely popular. But, all of them disbanded at the peak of their fame because the members, who were then still in their early 20s, were forced to sacrifice their passion at the altar of having to `make a living’. Even Bollywood, which in the 1950s and 60s provided a steady livelihood for musicians from India’s jazz age, was not particularly enamoured by local rock & roll musicians (and vice versa), until the likes of A. R. Rahman, Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy, Vishal and Shekhar broke through in the late 1990s.

Things have however changed dramatically in the last five years, a period that has run parallel to Rolling Stone’s arrival in India. We have been witness to the seismic shifts that have come about on the rock & roll scene: the opening of more and more live venues, the birth of the music festivals industry, sustained support from a variety of financial sponsors and increased opportunities for composers and singers in Bollywood, television, and advertising. Not just veterans like Parikrama, Indian Ocean and Indus Creed, but many of the newer and younger bands have discovered that they can finally make a living out of doing the thing they love the most – taking their music to stage. And if interested, make good money on the side through many of the other avenues listed above. At long last, it is now possible to make a career out of music, even if you are only into rock & roll.

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