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Do Indian musicians make a mark abroad?


Bangalore-based band The Raghu Dixit Project worked hard to make their music heard at concerts in Spain and Britain

Independent Indian musicians have to face many hurdles on the way to making themselves heard internationally.

What comes first? Music sales, packed tour dates, or critical acclaim? For a bunch of guys making their own music and trying to sell it, success would mean all these and more. Music has no boundaries - except when you want to cross the border. Indian musicians who want to go international hit roadblocks the moment they make the decision to take their sound abroad, whether it's finding an audience or sponsors.

Bollywood is flexing its marketing muscle and making merry on the international circuit. A R Rahman's concert schedules are packed since he broke barriers with his multiple Oscars and Grammys. The international edition of his 'Jai Ho' tour started in New York on June 11 and will travel across most of the US.

For independent bands, whether they are belting out rock numbers or mixing folk with rap, it's still a tough act. Newbies on the independent music scene find themselves dealing with everything from finding sponsors to accommodation. The five-year-old folk-fusion band, The Raghu Dixit (RD) Project's UK tour in May began with a plumbing break down at their temporary pad in London. "We had to run out and find alternative accommodation. Once we got there, there was no option but to handle the problems and put on the best show we could, " says bass guitarist Gaurav Vaz. Despite the problems, the band is happy with the progress it has made, the preparations for which would beat any MBA grad plotting his way to Wall Street.

"Once our tour was confirmed, we got cracking. We tried to get sponsors for our London stay and arrange logistics as visa rules were modified. Now that we are earning, we figured out how taxation works. It's as good as going abroad for a full-time job, " says Vaz. In fact, the Bangalore-based band has just finished performing at music festivals like WOMAD in Spain and Great Escape in Brighton, UK. It has, so far, performed more than 300 live shows, and its self-titleddebut album was the highest selling non-filmi record of 2008-2009 in India. The next logical step for them was to make it abroad.

For most Indian musicians, an international contract is the stuff of dreams. It is rare to see even seasoned performers manage to land a packed six-month itinerary of concert dates at international venues.

Later this month, industry veterans Indian Ocean will quietly release their latest album online in an effort to bypass the music companies. "We will make our songs available on our web site, staggering it to release one song every month. We're okay with free downloads as we will make money through ads, " says Rahul Ram, bass guitarist and vocalist of Indian Ocean.

"They will pull it off as they are one of the few successful independent acts, " says Bijoy Venugopal, Bangalore-based writer and biographer for the rock band Thermal And A Quarter. "Indian Ocean has got its sound right. They have succeeded in taking their music internationally, and tour more widely than any other Indian band, " he says.

The rest of the crowd from the Indian independent music stable - whether it's folksy Raghu Dixit or rock band Junkyard Groove - is still waiting for an international audience, since the indie music industry can at best be called unorganised. Since there is nobody to market the music, most tapes sent to big studios are ignored. "After the digital revolution, anybody can cut an album.
The studios are flooded with them. Who has the time and energy to listen to each and every one?" asks Ram.

Invariably, it helps if somebody is there to push your tape. The alternative: either pay for the airfare, per diem and the rest of it through your nose or sing only Bollywood numbers for the NRI audience. Even if you land a contract, only the very young and restless would be able to do a routine of 28 cities in 30 days, says Ram.

It's not enough to have the energy. You need to plan, plan, plan, like RD Project did. Vaz and co say they had their task cut out once they figured that they wanted to appeal to music lovers across the world and not just play at glitzy Bollywood-themed parties for NRIs.

Travelling abroad to perform cannot be left to chance. "It's not like a movie where someday someone spots your talent and decides to take you abroad. You have to plan. . . just like you plan your IT career, " says Vaz. So RD Project empanelled themselves with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which has offices in various countries. "It was a calculated move and helped us do groundwork for later shows, " he says.

With a basic plan in place, the group, which thrives on a mixture of Kannada folk, rock and other elements, put in their money and did a two-week tour of London. "We did five to six shows and also performed exclusively in front of music industry people, " says Vaz. The gamble paid off. Though the band lost a couple of lakhs, they bagged an international contract from music management company Jenral Group. "Raghu Dixit has fused traditional Indian folk music with elements of Western Rock, Arabic, Latino and Reggae textures and rhythms. His music transcends borders, " says Paul Knowles of Jenral Group, the firm that manages The RD Project.

Once the contract is in the bag, it isn't time to pack up. To broad base their appeal, bands have to continuously prospect for new audiences, engage with them in meaningful ways through their music and only then attempt to sell to them, says Venugopal. But bands in India have nowhere to go to secure international touring contracts. "In the absence of a formal industry, they have to rely on informal contacts and massive strokes of luck. It's not a professional way to work, " he says.

The only options are to stay together and retain originality. "If bands stick together and work consistently and cleverly at what they do, success follows, " he adds.

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