How secret and intimate gigs are changing how we listen to live music
New concert venues are letting musicians test their tunes, collaborate, and experiment with the live gig format
Every singer-songwriter in the country—the world, even—will tell you how they’ve heard audible audience chatter while they’re on stage pouring their heart out through song. Plenty of DJs might be packing clubs, but there are several more who are unsure of having a crowd mill about as they spin something they’ve spent a lot of time constructing.
In a country that’s just started hosting more independent artists, every gig promoter knows that sponsorship or investors don’t come easier than alcohol brands. All the major clubs and festivals that host India’s alternative music scene have a tie-up with alcohol brands, so that means a bar and drinks are never out of reach for anyone who goes for a performance.
It’s not very different elsewhere in the world either, but let’s just say India has a long way to go before it can say it has an audience that truly cares only about the music. If you’ve been to any multi-day, multi-genre music festival in the country, you will see people who are there just for “the vibe". In festivals across the world and in India, there’s always food and drink involved in selling an experience. Often, audiences are drawn more to brand names than band names.
Even as the NH7 Weekender, Magnetic Fields Festival and VH1 Supersonic become must-attend experiences for Indians, there’s another kind of live music experience that’s getting a push. Over the last year and a half, global secret gig series Songs from a Room (Sofar) has established itself in a big way, hosting monthly shows in cities such as Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, New Delhi and Chennai.
Its London-based co-founder Rafe Offer says in an email interview: “The main things are the space is different—not your usual venue, and we try to avoid forcing people to buy drinks. That keeps the price down and allows for students and others with less money. But also it avoids the distraction of a bar open throughout the gig, which we feel takes away from the focus on the musicians."
For Prarthana Sen, currently in charge of expanding the gig series in India, it took a Sofar show in Leeds to convince her of its viability here. She started off in Bengaluru in October 2015 and got help from Sofar coordinator and gig organizer Arul Kacker, and his team of volunteers, in Mumbai in May 2016. Says Sen: “In the last few years, the indie scene has changed a lot. The market is ready for a new model." She adds, “It’s not often that you get a quiet room of listeners." Kacker adds, “We always tailor the line-up to the venue."
They’ve gone from living rooms in south Mumbai to garden balconies in skyscrapers to verdant backyards in Bengaluru and gallery spaces and more. There is always a room full of attentive listeners, who are advised to switch off their phones or put them on silent and not record or photograph the performances, so that they can take in the sounds in that moment.
On a similar wavelength are New Delhi’s REProduce Artists and their founder Rana Ghose, who host monthly Listening Room sessions featuring the newest and edgiest electronic music producers and collaborations between artists. Thus far, Ghose has held Listening Room gigs in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru in India, London and Los Angeles.
The shows have primarily been held in performance spaces and studio set-ups like TIFA’s Working Studios in Pune, The Mumbai Assembly and St Jude Bakery in Mumbai, and at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas. Of course, Ghose has also given club venues such as Bengaluru’s Koramangala Social and The Humming Tree and Mumbai’s antiSOCIAL a go for “Listening Venue" shows, but he tends to gravitate towards putting fresh from the bedroom-studio artists on stage to play to a small room, creating a unique aural experience for both listener and performer.
Listening Room shows have hosted everyone from noise artists like Jessop & Co. from Kolkata to New Delhi-based SISTER, to upcoming producers such as 16-year-old producer Veer Kowli aka Chrms, 20-year-old Palash Kothari aka sparkle & fade and 25-year-old Apurv Agrawal aka Cowboy and Sailor Man. What this shows, of course, is that there are artists out there, however hidden, who are making music without necessarily thinking of an avenue for performance. Ghose says, “I am astounded by the quality of a lot of the work that gets sent to me by, like, a 19-year-old. They possess this confidence that is totally inspiring—and they mean it, they are super keen to deliver."
As for Ghose, he seems to get a high out of crafting and executing a plan perfectly. He says: “I guess the biggest challenge is also a sort of pleasure—finding venue partners who get what we do. I’ve had people tell me they are all about supporting the arts and developing capacities who then ask for a rental fee that only allows those with capital or sponsor tie-ups. Others just want half of whatever we make, even though they know that will put us in the red and make the event impossible."
He adds: “But then the flip is the polar opposite—it’s meeting people who totally get it, and are just down to do whatever. They add so much to the event. Then it becomes a collective vision where we all get into it, and that’s when the best things happen. I’ve met some really amazing people that way."
Both REProduce and Sofar are giving artists what they need the most in any city in India—gigs to test their tunes at, possibly hit-up a friend for a weird new collaboration, and do it all live. Whether it’s ambient producer Riatsu or the noise of Hemant Sk and conscious rap of MC Kaur and Ravana, the people tuned in are hearing artists as directly as possible, without any distractions (despite these being BYOB, or bring-your-own-booze, shows). Ghose says, “I aim to engage with people’s senses, and if they find the context immersive/repulsive, my job is done."