The Indies 2020: Honouring the Best of Independent Music in India

While there are multiple award ceremonies for film and television that include nods to the music that are part of the releases of the year, there are no official award ceremonies for independent music where a qualified jury sifts through releases and decides winners. To change that and recognise talent within the indie music industry, The Indies was created.

“For the past few years, I have been trying to organise an award for the indie scene. But it did not happen. Finally, the lockdown presented an opportunity. It was a depressing time, but it seemed like the right moment to celebrate all the good work that happened the previous year,” says Arpito Gope, one of the organisers.

The seed of the idea came to Gope when he was working with Rolling Stone India, which used to host Jack Daniels Rock Awards that acknowledged the best rock acts in the country. He connected with his former team, consisting of Ashwin Sharma and music journalists Lalitha Suhasini and Anurag Tagat, to kickstart this initiative.

The purpose of the awards is to put the spotlight on the artists. “In India, Bollywood is part of popular culture. And indie music doesn’t get the support of radio unlike other countries. So people who are not into this sort of music seldom get a chance to listen to it,” says Gope. “If you look at some of the winners, not a lot of them are established. So, when you read about it, you discover new artists who are making good music.”

Spread across 18 different categories, the first edition covers music released by independent artists in 2019. The genres range from the usual pop, rock, metal, hip-hop and electronica to niche forms such as folk rock and fusion. Traditional folk and classical music, however, is exempted.

The contenders for the ‘Artist of the Year’ were established acts such as Blackstratblues, Lifafa, Thaikkudam Bridge etc., with Mumbai’s influential hip-hop crew Swadesi bagging the title, while Lifafa aka Suryakant Sawhney won the best album award for his stellar record ‘Jaago’.

Swadesi also edged out India’s rising hip-hop talent to win ‘Best Rap/Hip Hop Artist’, while their album ‘Khulle Naagde’ with Indian composer Mayur Narvekar aka Bandish Projekt brought in the ‘Producer of the Year’ award for the latter.

“We hadn’t thought we would get this award. Because of this, our compositions will get boosted and more people will listen to our songs,” says rapper MC Mawali of Swadesi.

Kashmiri band Parvaaz bagged the ‘Best Rock Artist’ award while their song ‘Soye Ja’ from the album ‘Kun’ was selected as the best song. Another artist who bagged two awards – ‘Best Male Vocalist’ and ‘Best Pop Artist’ – is playback singer Sid Sriram, who has made a name for himself in the South Indian film industries.

An important part of albums are the artworks that accompany it – something that is oft overlooked. The Indies thought to make it a separate category, and the ‘Best Album Art’ award went to Karsh Kale’s album ‘Disappear’.

Another critical category was ‘Emerging Artist of the Year’ which recognises talents who have yet to establish themselves. Bengaluru-based rapper Hanumankind, who won it, says, “Such an award makes us feel like what we’re doing isn’t entirely wrong. 2020 was pretty rough for the indie scene but for me, this is fuel for the fire.”

The nomination process was open and simple. A call for submissions was put out on social media. In some cases, record labels were contacted directly. After that, a jury listened to every album and track and then shortlisted it for the nominations. This list was then sent to a separate jury which decided on the winners.

Indus Creed frontman Uday Benegal, who judged the singing talents, feels the team has done a good job in their debut attempt. He also believes that the award has to be language agnostic and accessible to everyone across the country. As for his judging, he gave priority to quality over technique.

“I judged based on feel – a wider assessment taking into account all factors. Singer should sing in key; then tone, modulation and range. What cuts to core is the truth and honesty of the performance. Even if you are technically not as sound, if you’re singing with honesty, it cuts to me,” he says.

In the music industry, sometimes networking and whom one knows determines getting gigs, work and payments. But such an open screening process ensured that whoever sent in submissions got a fair chance.

“The person who won ‘Music Video of the Year’ (‘Hit by Gravity’ by Marshall Sachin) is a debutante. He got a chance to get his name out there with more established artists such as Parvaaz,” says Gope, adding how they minimised partiality. “When we sent out the songs for voting, we didn’t even write the names. The jury got the tracks without any ID. They heard the track, rated it and sent it back.”

Also read: Music as a Form of Protest: 11 Songs From Across India That Stand for Justice

However, a lot of marginal musicians slipped through the cracks. If one looks at the nominees, the bulk of the names come from top tier cities – Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi, barring a few exceptions such as Samar Mehdi from Bhopal and Takar Nabam from Arunachal Pradesh.

The absence of regional music is glaring, especially from the East and the Northeast. Kolkata has only one representative through the prosperous Parekh & Singh while the entire Bengali rock industry is notably absent. On the contrary, South Indian language bands have a significant presence.

Obviously, the team of four, within the constraint of limited resources, had to work with the bands which sent in entries, but this raises the question whether the network is really as pan-Indian as one might think, or is it bound in these few cities?

“You have to look at the density of music releases from these markets. These cities have more infrastructural support and activity, and hence have more releases,” says Gope. “There are a lot of Kannad, Malayalam rock bands in the nominees, but we have not been able to crack it with the other languages. Also, we’re limited by how we’re putting out the word.”

Tagat reasons that one should look at representation in terms of languages, sonic style, versatility and not places. “Everyone from Tamil-language singer-songwriter Vaisakh Somanath to Thaikkudam Bridge to Prabh Deep to Ahmer were nominated. These artists sang in as many as ten languages, so it doesn’t matter where they’re from as they put forward a different culture regardless of where they live. Parvaaz (based in Bangalore) and Ahmer (based in Delhi/Srinagar) sing in Kashmiri, Samar Mehdi sings in Urdu, Gauley Bhai (also based in Bangalore) sing in Nepali. That’s a lot of representation,” he says.

Owing to the pandemic, this edition was conducted virtually. With no sponsors coming forward, no prizes were given out either. It was simply an acknowledgement of the good music made in 2019. But going forward, they want to make this award bigger and better. “The plan is to take it on the ground and host it at some venue where artists can perform. We’re hoping to get some brands and sponsors to come in so that we can give out some prizes,” says Gope.

They also plan to add more layers by introducing a category for instrumental music as there has been an increasing number of such releases. With more funding, they want to hire more people in order to expand the scope and make it easier to reach out to more artists.

Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a features journalist based in Kolkata with an unhealthy interest in music.

Featured image: The Indies