Music

The Making of an Audience

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Can playing great music on the radio or the internet tempt people into buying songs they’ve never heard before?

College radio, which traditionally operates along the line of demarcation separating amateur and professional, is well established in the United States, but still very new to India. Anna University obtained a licence to set up the country’s first community FM channel in 2004. Since then, several others have sprung up. The country’s first 24x7, on-demand, online campus radio station was set up in 2010 by Ruia College. The concept was largely unheard of at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, in the late 1990s when I was working towards my undergraduate degree.

Social media has since changed the way people access music. I use my Facebook account almost exclusively as a journal to record and share the evolution of my musical taste, and to keep up with the recommendations of my friends. I don’t do downloads. I simply surf videos on YouTube and explore music content on Grooveshark, which, in my opinion, counts among the coolest entertainment websites. Between those two, I can access practically everything.

It had never previously struck me, however, to apply for a DJ gig and legitimise my role as cultural arbiter. I was content to keep an open ear and make little discoveries. I slipped into my current position as a disc jockey (DJ) with KVRX, the local college radio station in Austin, Texas, through a fortuitous sequence of events that spanned a year. It was not something I had planned. A week after turning in my application, I received an email asking me to show up for training in the studio. I found myself in a roomy space with a couch. To my right, a narrow corridor opened up into another room; I saw CDs, thousands of them, stacked up in rows on racks lined up against the wall. Remember Frasier? You enter a sacrosanct soundproof space behind a solid door before you can lay your paws on the DJ equipment—microphones, a computer, an audio control panel. I’d expected to step into a computer den; instead, it felt like entering a greenhouse.

The environment is warm and congenial, smooth as a Steely Dan cut. The more experienced DJs are always willing to help. The humbling realisation that I know so little is offset by the thrill of standing at the cutting edge of auditory experience, feeling that the next thing I hear could displace my favourite melody.

Besides the obvious kick a DJ gets out of playing to an audience, the job offers a way to participate from the sidelines in the shaping of an intriguing moment. Hip-hop and electronica defined the 2000s, so what’s next? The recording industry finds itself at a crossroads. Since the advent of peer-to-peer file sharing systems, the music industry has struggled to make a dent on youth populations, more so in countries like India where copyright laws are flouted with impunity. Big bands, the kind that fill arenas, stand to lose revenue that they might have gained through CD sales at stores like Crossword and Planet M. The internet has messed with traditional modes of operation. CD technology itself may prove a blip that died out, staggeringly, within just 40 years. Can playing great music on the radio and the Web tempt people into buying songs they’ve never heard before?

There’s a lot of good stuff out there even if little of that is mainstream. In the age of auto-tune, indie bands are stepping up to reclaim intellectual purity. (‘Indie’ is a term generally used to denote relatively obscure bands signed up with independent record labels.) As far as Western indie bands are concerned, there’s barely any money to be made anyway beyond the Anglophone market. In the case of desi indie bands, any awareness of their work would probably be limited to the Indian cognoscenti whose number is restricted to a few thousand and who till recently were inclined to pass up locally produced music in favour of classic American and British bands.

This is a condition that the fledgling Indian college radio scene can rectify. Ruia College Radio does some interesting things. The RJs speak to their guests and audience in a mix of English, Hindi and Marathi. There is even a show that promotes Urdu culture. I’ve heard them play ghazals in languages like Marathi. (I didn’t know they were performed in anything other than Urdu.) They don’t play material that might be considered commercial. It is no coincidence that Indian bands can now dream of sustaining themselves without playing a single Metallica cover. The intent is great, but they really ought to work on hitting international standards of quality.

Notwithstanding the rising popularity of gifted musicians like Raghu Dixit, debates in India on taste invariably end when you cite some obscure Bob Dylan lyric. Too few of us are acquainted with the work of the magnificent Carnatic saxophonist, Kadri Gopalnath, or at the other end of the spectrum, the Californian band The Mountain Goats, whose frontman John Darnielle was anointed by The New Yorker’s music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, as the finest American lyricist outside of hip-hop. Our circumscribed knowledge blinkers our taste.

Austin presents a very different scenario. Pretty urban spaces are tucked away in rolling hills; broad, roller-coaster roads are interspersed with running trails. The downtown area offers an undistorted reflection of the indie ethos. But in its worst manifestation, cultural savvy is elevated here to a whole new level of liberal conceit.

Since the early 1990s, the city has branded itself — some say self-consciously, others, cynically—as the Live Music Capital of the World. From Sixth Street to the Warehouse district, Austin is steeped in a culture of popular music, which is hardly surprising given that this is a thriving college town with a transient multicultural population of over 50,000 students. Threadgill’s opened in the early 1930s. Bars and such establishments, some classier than others, have featured acts such as Janis Joplin and BB King. Willie Nelson grew up in the state and performed for the pilot episode of Austin City Limits, America’s longest running concert programme that airs on the PBS network. Well-known and newbie bands play side-by-side at the two major music festivals that the city hosts every year: South by South West and Austin City Limits (which derives its name from the TV show).

Against this backdrop, the KVRX website proudly claims that we only play music tangential to the American ‘mainstream indie’ scene. That’s the station’s niche. Translated, that means DJs are forbidden from channelling the pantheon of indie gods: The Smiths, Radiohead, Joy Division or, heaven forbid, the brilliant but “overly popular” Jeff Buckley. Van Morrison is clean off our radar. And if you played Lady Gaga as a prank, they’d probably fire you.

Little-known bands that reverentially copy bass lines or load their songs with inter-textual references, however, are presumably par for the course. The logic goes: so what if Beach Fossils sound like Joy Division or every Joy Division rip-off since Interpol? Have you heard of Beach Fossils?

By extension, the station (and its audience) loves world music, a poorly defined, imperialist genre full of unpronounceable names and sounds. Western nations with colonial pasts love to appropriate foreign cultures. America does this with a curious mix of fawning respect and a general lack of concern for ‘authenticity’, in whatever way you choose to define that word. Daler Mehndi sounds just as strange to the American ear as Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdean morna legend.

Perhaps KVRX takes its role as the guardian of our souls a little too seriously. I have half a mind to spring MS Subbulakshmi on my unsuspecting listeners some day.

All things considered, in my world, music is a terminal affliction. Growing up in the semi-cosmopolitan India of the mid-1990s, long before the internet, Wikipedia and Pitchfork media corrupted the joy of listening without judging, I would hold music quizzes at my birthday parties. I would play a swatch of Kurai Onrum Illai, a Carnatic song, and ask, “Who composed this piece?” (Answer: CR Rajagopalachari, the first Indian Governor General). At the risk of appearing insufferable, I enjoyed tricking my guests; I’d play Frank Sinatra on my cassette deck, except it was an 80-year-old Sinatra singing a duet with a virtually unrecognisable Bono, and I’d say, “Who’s the man singing ‘I’ve got you under my skin’ alongside Sinatra?”

I like Bono, by the way. I’m a sucker for melody. But post-Achtung Baby, U2 have created little that is worth hearing. I’ve heard it said often, taste is a relative thing. This is particularly true if you have bad taste. When I was 15, I took a significant liking to boy-bands. I thought Boyzone inflicted less violence on my ears than the Rolling Stones. My father once compared Mick Jagger to beggars who sing for a living on Mumbai’s suburban trains: “The fellow sings like those oru paisa pichakarans.” I believed him.

A few years later, I became a journalist because I badly wanted to tell the Dave Matthews Band how much I loved them. I am yet to live that one down in my head. The problem with Dave Matthews is not that he makes terrible music. Carter Beauford is an outstanding drummer whose sense of groove nearly matches Steve Gadd’s. No, that band’s problem is that they lack genuine emotion. They could have been contenders, but instead are content to make self-indulgent pop with intellectual pretensions.

But the bands you grow up with stick with you. Any attempt to gain critical distance will fail; they will retain sentimental value. I will never get over Dave Matthews Band’s third album, Before These Crowded Streets.

Hindi film music, meanwhile, kept slipping in and out of my life like a procession of lovers.

I discovered my favourite band—the 1970s jazz rock outfit, Steely Dan—fairly early, when I was 19. The name (a reference to a dildo in the William Burroughs novel, Naked Lunch) had me hooked; the mix of jazzy riffs and sarcastic one-liners reeled me in. It was like nothing I had heard before, yet I could never have grown to appreciate it had I not already been sufficiently exposed to a multiplicity of genres.

My mother introduced me to Cliff Richard when I was four. A much older cousin, on her way to the United States, left behind a Simon & Garfunkel Greatest Hits tape for me. My father liked Fleetwood Mac and bought me my first Sinatra album. I secretly found Miles Davis tough going, but that was also a time when I used to think listening to jazz made me cooler than everybody else. If you think about it, hipsters are the same everywhere.

I see one or two of those every day in Austin, with their trashy tattoos and Ray Ban shades. Sometimes I run into them at parties where they ask me with a smug smile, “So you like Passion Pit?” I’ll say, “Yes, wasn’t Sleepyhead an amazing track?” To which they will invariably respond, “That’s so 2009!”

Which is silly, really—new genres may come into existence, technologies may get updated, but in order to be deemed culturally worthy, a piece of art must stand the test of time. Newness is no measure of quality, freshness is. It’s worth keeping an open mind, but the more you listen, the more certain you grow of your judgment.

Now, seriously, who’s up for some MS Subbulakshmi?