Media Talks Back – Anirban Chakraborty
It was a bleak time for independent music in India. Cover music was triumphing over the lonely voice of the independent artist, and the ‘indie’ music scene – if it could be called as such – was painted a rather monochrome shade of grey. A streak of colour emerged in 1995 under the pseudonym Orange Street, proclaiming to the world on MTV that they would never again play another cover track. They didn’t get a gig for about a year to follow.
However, the band stuck to their guns, and this proclamation would soon pave the way for the future of indie, original music in India. Today, Anirban Chakraborty – lead singer of Orange Street – heads the popular music magazine Rock Street Journal, after taking over the reigns from its founder Amit Saigal. Anirban is also the director of India Music Week, a renowned music conference-come-festival. IndiEarth caught up with him about his views on Indian media, its role in promoting indie music in the country, and his own personal journey to the top.
IndiEarth: What is the scope of responsibility according to you, for Indian media and their role in India’s independent music scene?
Anirban: I think one has to go beyond just talking about it – just saying we are promoting indie music – it goes beyond that fact. People need to evolve according to the times. I feel a lot more effort is required in terms of understanding the music, doing research, and thus helping the scene by pushing the right elements.
Now clearly however, the underground has come overground and is shining like a diamond in the sky, and everyone wants a piece of that. Media however can take this more seriously, and not just make [getting involved with music] a business venture. We should also not run the risk of saturating the entire scene, which I see happening.
IndiEarth: How so?
Anirban: Well it’s good that we have so many people organizing so many festivals and events – but I also see events not happening – because organizers are getting into things without a particular vision in mind, so that puts things off, and creates a bad name. Artists then start thinking three times before even venturing into India. People should kind of realize where and how to do things, and not just jump into it.
IndiEarth: You’ve been around for such a long time, almost a decade now since Orange street made it into the scene, and have seen the evolution of various trends in Indian independent music – can you tell me about how you’ve seen it change from when you first started making original music with Orange Street, to today’s scene? How does it compare?
Anirban: There has been a huge – huge – change – in fact I remember writing letters to Amit about it (which he would later make fun of me for) – I was a kid then, 20, 21 years old – and I’d write letters complaining about how bands would play cover music. And it just didn’t give me any kind of satisfaction – I used to write these very emotional letters to him. So there was a time when we were playing together for about a year or so, when MTV had come down to shoot a show – and we [Orange Street] went on TV, saying that from now on Orange Street will never play cover music. Unfortunately, for the next year, we never got any shows. It was only later when we won the IIT competition – when we played a song called Candywalk – that pretty much started the trend.
Soon, everyone started writing their own music – times changed, times have changed – and fortunately, no one expects people to play covers today. That’s changed – and I’m happy about it. What artists have to say for themselves – I’m very happy about that.
In our time too, we didn’t have internet, we didn’t have cell phones – (now I sound like an 80 year old man when I’m saying this) – but our only source of good music was people who went abroad, and got good music. It was like, ‘Aunty is going to London, she will get me some CD’ – that kinda shit would happen. We also didn’t have a lot of gear in our day – we used to play on locally made guitars, which was ok but not the greatest. Our evolution in terms of maturing as musicians was limited.
But at the same time, when you have too much at your disposal – you become lazy – so I see a lot of kids like that today, who have everything at their disposal, but just sit back. However, things are so much better now in terms of access – you can access any music from anywhere in the world, so half of your problems as an independent musician are taken care of. I remember watching a video of Paul Mccartney, who said he had to travel 2kms to learn a Bflat chord! Times have changed.
IndiEarth: RSJ was the only music magazine on the block at the time when Orange Street emerged onto the Indian music scene in 1995 – what prompted its conception in that musical climate?
Amit Saigal and his wife started it way back in 1993 – they wanted to create a place where people could come showcase their own talent, that was not Bollywood, and they wanted to do something ‘cool’. No one ever gave musicians a platform to showcase their music in that time – they wanted to do this.
The first RSJ came in the form of a newsletter, and I remember going through it and there was a photo of Saibal Basu – standing there with his Ibanez – looking like Van Halen, and that freaked me out! Because this was one guy I didn’t know about in my own neighbourhood! That started the entire revolution, where people started seeing so many musicians coming up, getting into festivals, it was inevitable – it was something I think Amit was born to do. And he did it so well. The best part was his idea was to include everyone – it was just about creating a platform for musicians who wanted to do something different – it was all inclusive.
IndiEarth: What are some key trends you notice in today’s independent scene, specific to India?
Anirban: A lot of musicians are now making a living out of what they’re actually doing here – it’s already quite a good scene! I would say the first bridge has been crossed. It’s a good time for independent music in India – Amit Saigal started this scene years ago, and people saw it as a foreign invasion – and now people are seeing there are artists other than Bollywood that can be enjoyable.
In our case, since we are such a diverse nation – and I’m using textbook terms here – we are actually quite a rich country in terms of culture and various aspects of music, which is a big advantage, which is why you’ll have a Raghu Dixit from the South, a Papon from the North, Pentagram from cosmopolitan Bombay, Avial also from the South – so there is so much to consume.
IndiEarth: In your time – when you ventured into making original music – did you have the media supporting what you did?
Anirban: Not in the beginning. However, and it may sound a little wrong – now that I’m heading RSJ – but I have to say that part of the reason I am now heading RSJ is because this place has given so much to so many musicians like me, it has shaped my career as a musician, and 95 percent of my friends in life are because of RSJ, because 95 percent of them are musicians who I got to hang out with because RSJ was promoting music that like minded people gathered around for. If there was not a media entity like RSJ, people would not know about my band. And it’s not just me – it’s many musicians who I know, anyone would tell you.
The Great Indian Rock compilations/festivals also brought people together, it was something we looked forward to every year. That’s where we got together with the people we vibed with, but we were also competing with each other as musicians. It was a group of people whose agenda was purely music, and that group of people only got to know each other because of a place like RSJ. RSJ pretty much paved the way for everyone else to come. Everything else happened 18 – 19 years down the line.
IndiEarth: Can you share a few tips for upcoming independent musicians on how to engage the media/garner media attention for their work?
Anirban: One thing they must keep in mind, is they must stick around. See sometimes you have bands who play five shows, ten shows, and then one kid’s dad is like “ok go get a job” and they all give it up. The people who stuck around are doing well, people who didn’t – aren’t. As a band they have to stick around and go through everything a band goes through. Once you’re around, you’ll be in the minds of people – if you’re visible, you’ll be in our minds.
Also as artists, we need to be prolific. John Lennon died at the age of 40 and he wrote the number of songs I couldn’t write in a lifetime! Rabindranath Tagore – the amount of work he created – I could be born 7 times and couldn’t write as much. The more you write, the more people will want to keep you in their hearts and minds – and the media will always want to follow those who evolve with the times. If you get stuck in time, you won’t be noticed. So be aware of your times.
I also don’t think there’s a conscious effort that needs to made on part of the artist to engage the media – an artist should create, and leave the rest up to the others. An artist makes music, a painter paints, a carpenter makes tables – that’s the way it should be.