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They are just a year old and seem to have it all figured out: a jam pad of their own, an album in the works, a fan base that has spilled over from live gigs to a Facebook page with over 1,400 likes, and a manager who envisions an unconventional business model a la Nine Inch Nails. They are Solder, 20-somethings whose fresh, cliché-free, "feel-good pop rock" outshone the screeches, growls and technical acts at the Bangalore leg of the Yamaha Asian Beat contest last Sunday, where nine amateur city bands competed for a place in the national finals to be held in Mumbai in September — one band from India will go to Bangkok for the Asia-wide finale, to be judged by Def Leppard.
"One of the first things we did together as a band, besides playing music and drinking whisky, was soldering a guitar cable," says drummer Joel Rozarid, a search quality analyst for a web-search engine. Lead singer Siddarth Abraham and rhythm guitarist Akhilesh Kumar are kickboxers, bassist Samson Philip is a sound engineer, and lead guitarist Mark Escottee—well, he is married, the others joke—is into quality control at a digital studio. All of them want to make music full-time. "We are doing a lot of shows and working on merchandising. We are just about breaking even, and what money we make from our shows we plough back into buying instruments and equipment," says Akshath Jithendranath, the 21-year-old manager.
For young musicians in Bangalore, discussions on making a living from music often end in uncomfortable silence. Few have nailed it. Many don't try. Four years ago, the government clamped down on live music in bars and restaurants — under the Licensing & Controlling of Places of Public Entertainment (Bangalore City) Order, 2005 — and nearly choked the musical pulse of the city. But, on a Thursday evening, step into one of its many restaurants and bars and you can hear a different story. The riffs are louder, the audience swinging and the gig is surely on.
Carlton Braganza, whose Goan restaurant Opus has long been a favourite stage for Bangalore musicians, says, "The law did not allow live music at places where alcohol was served. Most of us waited it out. The administration has taken a more lenient stance now." Which means, though it's not official, the raids have stopped. Naveen Joseph, guitarist for Galeej Gurus, an established rock band, says they did not get a single pub gig for one-and-a-half years. "But in the last eight or nine months, the live music scene has picked up again," he says. The listeners are warming to the spurt in choice. Ranjan MG, a 25-year-old techie with Intel, says he heads to Take Five, a restaurant in Indiranagar, for jazz concerts. "There is a lot of live music in Bangalore now, not just rock but also jazz, blues and alternative music," he says. A good band can expect to make about Rs 8,000- Rs 15,000 per gig, and for those who choose, there's always money to be made from ad jingles and film music.
Bruce Lee Mani, lead guitarist and vocalist for Thermal and a Quarter, one of Bangalore's most successful bands, says, "It is definitely easier now than a few years ago to make money from music. Today, young bands can sustain themselves, if not their families, by playing enough gigs. Music needs an ecosystem to thrive—venues and platforms, access to quality instruments, places to learn and practice music. This ecosystem is slowly being set up in Bangalore."
Restaurants and bars like Opus, Hard Rock Café, B-Flat, Tavern and Kyra host live shows every Thursday evening, besides Sunday jams, karaoke, open-mic and special shows. There are more venues to play at, as also a new tally of quality pay-per-hour practice pads for bands in need of space and instruments. Accessible and affordable spaces have made all the difference, says Saroop Matthew of Unwind Centre, which has jam pads and music academies in Bangalore and Chennai, and is organising a 'Battle of the Bands' in September to promote college and high school bands.
Gerard Roy's Jam Hut was one of the first public jam rooms to come up in Bangalore in 2006. At least half a dozen bands rent his place every weekend for Rs 250 an hour. New bands like Distortion Culture, which won the Yamaha Asian Beat prize for best keyboard, swear by the sound quality and ambience at "Gerry's", and don't mind travelling 35 km, all the way from Sarjapur to Hennur, for a two-hour practice session. Taaqademy, Thermal and a Quarter's rehearsal studio and music school, is just as popular.
Interest among young musicians is translating into higher instrument sales: Joshua Lance, marketing manager, Thomsun Music House, distributors of Yamaha instruments in Bangalore, says they are looking at a sales volume of Rs 30 lakh per month this year, as compared to Rs 12 lakh a month last year. Jason Zachariah, of Nathaniel School of Music, which also lets out its rehearsal room on request, credits the sales to the availability of better entry-level instruments. "For Rs 4,000, you can buy guitars that sound good; so they are flying off the shelves," he says. The fourth batch of students from the academy graduated recently, with a three-hour gig at Kyra to show off their skills. "With more avenues to earn money, there is more professionalism among bands now. But live acts still have to wind up by 11.30 pm and are largely restricted to closed venues with small audiences," Zachariah says.
Vasundhara Das, singer, actor and vocalist for Arya, a fusion band that has performed internationally, says the vagaries of the law haven't dampened the spirit of music in Bangalore. "It's nice to see new bands merging genres and bending boundaries," she says. Sure enough, in rock-and-metal-loving Bangalore, bands with alternative and classical influences are making themselves heard. Agam, a Carnatic Tamil rock band riding on the trained vocals of Harish Sivaramakrishnan, was a favourite at Asian Beat. Emphasis on original acts has helped, says Karthik Basker, vocalist for The Bicycle Days, a full-time alternative and psychedelic rock band that has taken the city's music circuit by storm. "There is a revolution musically. The days of cover bands are over," he says.
Bruce Lee Mani will go a step further: "If things continue to improve, in four or five years, music will be a viable career in Bangalore."