10 Apr 2017 17:12 IST

Westward the course

More and more Indian bands are embarking on multi-city tours of the US and the UK

The 2016-17 music festival season has been exceptionally good music fans in India, with some of the best and the brightest in the global pop scene coming down to perform for them. From major rock and rap stars like Coldplay, Jay-Z and Macklemore to underground cult heroes like Actress, The Aristocrats and The Joy Formidable, from massive arena shows to small and intimate club gigs, we’ve never been as spoilt for choice as we are today. But this isn’t just one-way traffic. As Indian acts make their presence felt on the global touring map, they are drawing the attention of promoters and booking agents across the world. With festival season in the US and Europe fast approaching, the past month has seen a number of Indian acts announce multi-city tours in the Western hemisphere.

Perhaps the most high-profile of these is prog-metal poster boys Skyharbor, who will be supporting American alt-metal heavyweights Deftones on a 13-date tour across Europe, starting April 18. But you also have Delhi alt-rock veterans Them Clones going to the US for a tour that will see them perform at venues like Hollywood’s legendary Whiskey a Go Go nightclub, which has launched the careers of acts like System of a Down, Guns N’ Roses and The Doors. New Delhi ska/rocksteady act The Ska Vengers will be returning to the UK for a tour which features performances at festivals like Boomtown Fair, The Wilderness Festival and Bestival. And then there are the yet-to-be-announced showcases at festivals like Austin’s SXSW or London’s Alchemy that have increasingly featured Indian indie acts in their line-ups in recent years. No longer satisfied with being the big fish in the small indie pond, India’s bands and producers are eyeing new audiences and the much more lucrative global touring market. But as any Indian musician will tell you, that’s much easier said than done.

The first problem you face as an indie band is convincing venues and promoters to give you a slot. While this is less of an issue for classical musicians or folk rock acts like Indian Ocean and the Raghu Dixit Project — whose music is considered ‘exotic’ enough to bring in Western audiences — it can be quite a struggle for a metal band or an electronica act.

“Why is it worth their while to take a risk with you when there are local acts that are probably way more popular and come with way lower overheads?” explains guitarist and producer Keshav Dhar, whose Skyharbor is one of the few Indian bands that tour the US and the UK on a regular basis.

The easiest entry point is to apply for a slot at music festivals, which are generally more willing to take a punt on unknown acts. Not only do you get to play to a new audience at these festivals, you may also be lucky enough to catch the eye of a booking agent. That’s what happened with Skyharbor, who were approached by their first European booking agency after a set at UK’s TechFest. Even if lady luck does not intervene, a successful European or American festival appearance gives you much more credibility when approaching a booking agency to help set up a tour.

Once you’ve found yourself a reliable agent and booked a few dates, you’ll come up against a much bigger stumbling block — money. It’s difficult enough for smaller American or European bands to scrounge up enough cash for a tour in their home territories. For Indian bands, most of whom operate without any financial support from a record label, it can be a gargantuan task paying for cross-continental flight tickets, the visas, and the complicated logistics of a multi-city tour, all of it worsened by the unfavourable exchange rates. “Most Indian bands don’t get enough gigs in a year to pay for even the flight tickets,” says Demonic Resurrection guitarist and frontman Sahil Makhija, who has toured the UK and other parts of Europe multiple times in the past few years.

“So, for most of them an international tour makes zero financial sense.”

But, over the years, that hasn’t stopped many Indian bands from saving, begging and borrowing money to fulfil the dream of an international tour. Often, however, the reality of that dream tour comes as a rude shock. Indian bands may not get nearly as many gig opportunities as their international counterparts, but they do tend to be a bit spoilt when they do. Promoters here usually take care of travel costs, hotel rooms and other incidentals, apart from paying a performance fee. It can be much more ruthless in Europe and the US, with everything coming from your pocket. So you economise — you route your tours such that you’re playing almost a gig a day, you spend most of the day travelling in cramped, rundown rented vehicles, you sleep a few hours a night in the cheapest, dingiest hotel rooms, you live off inexpensive junk food. It is an exhausting, and occasionally dangerous grind. On their first US tour, Skyharbor had a brush with death as their van, not equipped for icy roads, almost skidded off a hillside. They saw another car in front of them actually go over the side.

And after all of that, you come home with little to show for it except a large hole in your bank account. “It’s a huge eye-opener,” says Dhar. “Suddenly you’re playing tiny clubs and you’re faced with the reality that in, say, Europe, this is how many people will pay to watch you play. It’s actually scary, and we lost a ton of money because we got paid peanuts.”

This is why many Indian bands who have toured abroad in the past decade or so haven’t gone back. The losses are too big to justify another go. Those that do have a longer-term business plan in place, and the ability to absorb losses year after year till they break even. They’re gambling that each tour brings them slightly bigger crowds and slightly better performance fees. And maybe a record deal, though given the state of the music industry today, even that is an incremental gain at best. It’s a gamble that few Indian bands can afford to take, and even Skyharbor, perhaps the most successful non-folk music act to tour abroad regularly in recent years, is still inching towards the break-even mark. “How bands like DR and Kryptos do it is we go play, then we come back and play a bunch of gigs and college shows in India to recover that money,” says Makhija. “And then we reinvest that into going again next year. You have to treat it like a business and go in with a proper business plan or you’re just flushing money down the drain.”

One controversial option for bands to build a sustainable audience faster is the buy-on, where a smaller band pays a chunk of money to a bigger band in exchange for a support slot on one of their tours.

While a few Indian bands have exercised this option in recent years, the initial investment is magnitudes bigger than just setting up your own tour, and the gains in merchandise sales or better fees next time around are uncertain at the best of times.

With a Western hemisphere tour a losing proposition for a majority of Indian acts, many are exploring other ways to engage with international audiences.

One way of doing this — especially if you’re a solo producer rather than a band — is through artist residencies and funding grants that allow them to work in a different country without taking on the financial risks of a tour. That’s how Mumbai’s Sanaya Ardeshir aka Sandunes got to play at the SXSW showcase a couple of years ago.

She was already in the US as part of a musical exchange/entrepreneurship programme called OneBeat.

The other option is to look at other territories closer home, such as West Asia and China, where the costs and logistics are slightly more manageable. Delhi electronica acts Teddy Boy Kill, Hashback Hashish, Lifafa and JAMBLU have taken this route, all three having gone to China in recent years on tours set up by Rana Ghose of New Delhi’s REProduce Artists agency (which also curated the SXSW showcase that Ardeshir played at). Ghose and Teddy Boy Kill were at IOMMI 2013, a music conference in the Reunion Islands, when a Chinese promoter approached them for a festival in China.

That festival appearance turned into a tour and allowed Ghose to build his own network of promoters in China who were curious about the music coming out of India. With a bit of hustling and a lot of penny-pinching, Ghose has managed to ensure that the artist doesn’t lose much money on any of these tours, even if there’s still some time to go before they’re profitable.

With India’s touring circuit still restricted to five or six cities, and geopolitics or the lack of a big enough scene ruling our South Asian neighbours as options, Southeast Asia suddenly makes a lot more sense. Ghose is quite optimistic about this.

“I really believe that we can build this sort of Asian touring circuit that’s more sustainable than spending lakhs on flights and visas to the US,” he says. “And after the JAMBLU tour last week I just got an offer from a label wanting to sign him. So things are happening, you know.”

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)