When the few indie music scenesters who attended the All About Music conference this year were leaving, they didn’t say goodbye, but “See you on November 5th”. It was a given that if not earlier, they’d meet on the day the legendary Independence Rock (I-Rock) festival will return, after a nine-year break.
For Indian independent music fans of a certain vintage, and especially those based in Mumbai, Independence Rock wasn’t just the biggest indie music festival, it was pretty much the only one. And it remained so from its launch in 1986 until the early 2010s when events such as the Bacardi NH7 Weekender debuted.
Being of that certain vintage, for me, the return of I-Rock has been one of the most exciting developments in the Indian music scene this year. When the tickets were announced and released, I signed up and snapped up one of the early bird passes. Then, after I saw that I had paid nearly Rs2,000 for them, I realised that this wasn’t quite going to be the same dust and grime-filled experience one might remember attending at Rang Bhavan or Chitrakoot Grounds. This is going to be I-Rock, the posh version, which will be staged at the Bayview Lawns, the location of the last iteration of the decidedly fancier Mahindra Blues Festival.
This may not be such a bad thing. Everything should eventually scale up. But then I thought about how I-Rock was also one of the most inclusive events in the country, a place where rock and metal fans could congregate and literally let their hair down and headbang without censure or judgement.
The organisers have been riding on the wave of nostalgia that has been sweeping through past attendees by posting on social media both video clips from previous editions as well as photographs of ticket stubs. The images show that until the 1990s, the entry fee remained below Rs100. For many years in the aughties, you didn’t even need a ticket – you just had to buy a copy of the festival sponsoring newspaper, such as Mid-Day or Mumbai Mirror, and that served as your pass.
Of course, we’re going to get a much slicker version of I-Rock and given the average ticket prices for music festivals these days, the phase 2 tag of Rs2,000 per day is in line with current market rates for similar experiences. Yet, the old-school indie fan in me can’t help but scoff that I-Rock, of all events, is selling a “lounge” access ticket, inclusive of a “premium seated zone”, for Rs10,000. Who sits at a rock festival? It’s telling that while two phases of the season pass are sold out, the “early bird” offer for these VIP spots remains available five weeks after tickets went live.
Then again, I realised that the target audience for I-Rock is no longer the youth. For evidence, we need only look at the title sponsor’s name. In the early years, these included cola brands such as Pepsi and Thums Up. From this year on, I-Rock will be known as Mahindra Independence Rock for the vehicle maker has added it to its list of music-centric IPs that includes the Mahindra Blues Festival, Mahindra Kabira Festival and Mahindra Open Drive.
Perhaps the idea is that the majority of the folks who will come for I-Rock will be an audience segment that now belongs to a different demographic, higher in age and disposable income. The long-haired, black T-shirt-wearing, wall-jumping ne’er do wells of yesterday who have become upwardly mobile corporate honchos of today.
But looking at the list of acts playing this edition of Independence Rock adds heft to the notion that rock is no longer a young person’s genre. And that it’s a style that doesn’t quite have the same vibrancy it had even a decade ago. As crowd-pleasing as the line-up is, not one of the bands on the bill for 2022 is less than five years old. Here they are with the year of formation in brackets.
- Indus Creed (1984)
- Parikrama (1991)
- Pentagram (1994)
- Zero (1998)
- Avial (2003)
- Parvaaz (2010)
- The F16s (2012)
- Aswekeepsearching (2013)
- Thaikkudam Bridge (2013)
- Bloodywood (2016)
When I pointed this out on social media, I somewhat expectedly got some mildly offended responses from musicians who shared the names of rock and metal bands who are flying the flag for the genres. Except that all but one of the acts mentioned were formed more than five years ago.
- Antariksh (2012)
- Diarchy (2015)
- Girish and the Chronicles (2009)
- Grey Shack (2007)
- Gutslit (2007)
- Last Minute (2013)
- Mocaine (2018)
- Pacifist (2017)
- Peter Cat Recording Co. (2010)
- Skrat (2006)
- Soulmate (2003)
- The Lightyears Explode
- The Local Train (2008)
- Thermal and a Quarter (1996)
- Zygnema (2006)
It’s notable that the youngest band on the list, Mocaine, is four years old, and started out as a solo project. That’s not to say rock is dying. Far from it. I maintain a regularly updated list of Indian independent music albums and EPs released every year and so far in 2022, more than 30 rock collections have been put out. However that’s compared to over 60 hip-hop, 40 pop/singer-songwriter and 40 electronic music efforts. Within those rock releases, there are plenty of new acts.
The lack of new rock stars, as opposed to rock acts, isn’t exactly a recent issue. Journalist Lalitha Suhasini documented the scarcity of headline-worthy artists in a cover story for Rolling Stone in 2015. Back then, her article provoked angry responses from a few rock musicians. In the intervening period, the Indian independent music scene has birthed several headliners, most of whom are rappers, singer-songwriters and electronic musicians.
If we are to look beyond releases and at live shows, once again you’d find that electronic, pop and hip-hop acts dominate gig calendars far more than rock bands, which was not the case say 10 years ago.
I do agree with some of the comments made in response to my post – that the programmers need to widen their horizons and expand their definition of “rock”, which was extended to metal a long while ago. To me, it seems like their definition equals “Acts that can elicit a mosh pit”. That’s true for most of the bands playing this year, so maybe we’ll see the likes of Skrat and The Lightyears Explode at an I-Rock soon. But to leave out such veterans as Indian Ocean, Soulmate, Swarathma and Thermal and a Quarter is doing the genre an injustice.
Maybe the band competition, a segment that served as a springboard for many future Indian rock idols, will offer attendees, as it did in the past, an opportunity to hear sub-genres that don’t fit the limited soundscape of the groups programmed year after year.
Hopefully when I-Rock returns next year, the organisers, co-founder Farhad Wadia and the company Hyperlink Brand Solutions, will be encouraged to experiment a little. I know the festival is still a month away but I’m already looking forward to the milestone 30th edition of I-Rock. May it be bigger and better in more than one way.