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Being Indie in India

Written by Mae Mariyam Thomas

This is a musician’s life. Everybody tells you not to do it and get a real job.”

– Hans Zimmer, film composer & record producer.

I once interviewed a band that told me that, “Musicians don’t have a retirement plan”. Though this isn’t a particularly shocking statement, it’s a reality that, when said out loud seems all the more apparent. The story of the struggling musician is a story of most independent artists in India. The struggle is real for numerous reasons,

  1. Orthodox views
  2. Inconsistency of income
  3. Being a lone wolf
  4. Lack of support
  5. Logistical restrictions
  6. I could go on but you don’t have all day to read these woes

Stability & Security

Let’s start with the typical traditional Indian mindset of prioritising security above all else. Which means having a stable job that provides you a salary, and being able to plan for your future is an essential part of most Indian upbringings. Some might be the breadwinner in their household. Exceptions do exist on the rare occasion that either your parents are in the arts, or that your family is financially stable and supports you in some way.

Depending on your situation, you could take up a job that fits within your creative wheelhouse – music production, session musician, playback singer, graphic designer, social media consultant, marketing manager, radio jockey, music teacher, etc. You could work in an area of interest outside of music that fuels your passion, e.g. blues singer Kanchan Daniel is a clinical psychologist, vocalist Kavya Trehan is a model, drummer Devanshu Sampat is an equity research analyst, Sunit Zadav teaches medicine, etc. Or consider working on your music part time. These are all options if you don’t want to consider music as your sole full time occupation.

There are of course brilliant success stories of musicians who’ve made music their life’s work and made a successful career of it. You have the rags to riches story of Naved Shaikh aka Naezy (the movie Gully Boy is partly based on his story), Producer/DJ Udyan Sagar aka Nucleya who worked for years before he got his big break, Vishal Dadlani who’s not only got his own rock band but has made a name for himself in the Bollywood industry as a music director, or singer/actress/model Monica Dogra.

Feelings of Isolation

Another aspect to being the purveyor of your own art is that it can get lonely. You have to have some level of self-motivation, be enterprising, social to some extent, persistent to get your music the exposure it requires – it’s a lot of pressure on one person who’s also trying to make a musical masterpiece.

Having management of course would be ideal, but that might take time. Create a network of friendly faces around you who’ll support you in whatever ways you need. Whether it’s helping you with your taxes, attending your gigs, helping you word emails well, taking promotional photos of you, etc. This will help you feel accountable to your own art and help push you to get things done.

Depending on where you live in this mighty big country determines the opportunities you have as a musician. A lot of artists from Guwahati, Lucknow, Chandigarh, Srinagar, for example move to bigger cities like Mumbai, or Delhi because it opens them up to a media hub that includes the film, music, advertising industries as well as the arts, more performance venues, event agencies and brands. Being in South Indian metros like Bangalore, Chennai, or Kochi lends itself to similar fortunes.

Finding Your Online Community

This may seem contradictory to my previous statement, however, I’d like to add that you’re not limited by geography either. Being in India doesn’t mean that someone in Vietnam won’t love your music, or that a radio station in New Zealand won’t want to play your songs on their airwaves, or that a music festival in Slovenia might feature you as part of their lineup. When you put your music out into the universe, watch your statistics – your popularity in different regions of the world might present you with a prospect to tour there.

With all the opportunities, creative endeavours along with the hard work it takes, being an artist is also a very personal journey. Take a step back and mull over what you feel is best for you. What will give you the most “job satisfaction” to put it bluntly. If you like making music, releasing it but you hate performing, that’s alright – keep to your bedroom and let your music speak for you. If you hate recording and being confined to a studio but love the adrenaline of a live gig, then decide for yourself that’s where you want to be. Many people will dictate what is best for you, or give you lots of advice but it’s YOU who needs to take in a deep breath, then let it out and as cheesy as it sounds, “let your heart decide.” Also, if you haven’t been able to figure it out, then trial and error. Just walk through a door and see what comes out the other side. You won’t know what you like and don’t like till you try it.

The internet is the great equaliser and will allow you to build your community. Whether you’re a progressive rock band from Ahmedabad, thrash metal act from Visakhapatnam, rapper from Kashmir, vocal folk quartet from Kohima, Tamil indie pop act from Madurai, give yourself the chance to make your music and put it out into the world.