ROCK JOURNALISM IN INDIA
Disclaimer: The following piece has a fair amount of preaching in it, which, while unforgiveable, is also necessary in this case.
Aside from being a complete nutcase, Frank Zappa was also sort of a visionary. So when he spoke, people tended to listen, albeit with a pinch of salt. Apparently, he once said, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” Turns out that, much like Freddie Mercury, Zappa was a closeted Indian too, since most of our population anyway can’t read or write.
There’s been much debate in the nerdy journalist community about purely objective “Old Journalism”, versus the more modern and slightly opinionated form of “New Journalism”. This means that the largest daily in the nation can easily throw in a column titled “Times View” on its front page and get away with plastering its own views (usually laced with propaganda) on any subject, without any ethical dilemmas, since less-than-objective reporting has been accepted in many quarters. In fact, there are lots of exciting things happening in the world of journalism, with respected publications like The Guardian threatening to go bust while think-tanks collaborate to come up with solutions, unsuccessfully so far, to counter the problems posed by the internet and the concept of ‘free news’.
What this has resulted in though is an explosion in the coverage of rock music – in both reporting and opinions. With free access to webspace through blogs, anyone can become a music critic now, and everyone in the world loves to throw around opinions when it comes to music they like or dislike; it’s but natural. So naturally, there are thousands of differing views, both positive and negative, on any band that you might Google. On top of that, the actual publications that built up reputations in the pre-internet world are fighting even harder to stay on top of the pile by offering value and quality (as well as quantity), in their coverage of the international rock music industry, focusing largely on British and American bands (I’m leaving aside dedicated coverage of European metal movements for the sake of convenience). One look at the NME or Pitchfork websites and one might notice how superior and organized their coverage of the industry is, and how much quality they have to offer, even if their opinions might seem cringe-worthy at times.
Not in India Though
No shit it’s different in India. When it comes to rock journalism here, the role of the ‘free press’ is to offer metaphoric oral sex to any band that’s playing a fair amount of gigs. The role of a journalist in India is, unfortunately, to write gig reviews which speak more about his or her opinion on the subjects of separatist movements in Kashmir and the number of black t-shirts in a crowd as well as his own intoxicated state and the terrible sound, and less about the actual music and ambience. Album reviews consisting of “Holy shit, I was blown away by the third song; I can’t remember the name though,” and a whole lot of exclamation marks and grammatical errors are the norm.
And then there are the epic battles that follow. A band mildly criticized in a piece for covering a personal favourite of the writer poorly sends in one member who launches a staunch defence of their abilities in the comments section on the forum or fanzine where the review is posted, followed by a string of invectives aimed at the writer. A few retaliatory remarks later, one by one the entire bands follows, eventually leading to a free-for-all and an early death for a band which may or may not actually be crap, but is far too sensitive to read negative comments about itself from a writer whose own credibility is also questionable. It’s a lose-lose situation.
The Need for Structure
At the risk of sounding preachy, any counter-culture movement (in this case, the underground rock scene in India) can only grow through professionalism and a proper structure. Festivals like the Weekender or GIR are successful not because the organizers ‘believe’ or any other such idealistic crap, but because they work hard to make them successful and want to achieve benefits, both financial and emotional.
When it comes to coverage of rock music in India, I can only think of two real print magazines – Rock Street Journal and Rolling Stone. I’m not in a position to comment on their content or how they’re run, but a majority of people not involved in the ‘scene’ haven’t even heard of RSJ, and have never picked up a copy of Rolling Stone.
Looking at things from a broader perspective, the press serves to not only report on events, but also formulate popular public perceptions. There’s a reason why the guy who murdered Jessica Lal is hated significantly more than the thousands of people who get away with murder every day, and that reason is the role of the press.
Marketing – The only reason publications which lose money on a regular basis are allowed to exist is because of advertising. Most magazines in fact do end up making losses with each published issue. But they exist because of a dedicated readership and a core group of advertisers who continue to pump funds into a failing venture merely because it’s not a large sum for them and because the association with the publication in question allows them prestige and a certain sense of intellectual superiority, among other things.
So a publication focusing on rock music can only do well if it provides a reasonable enough bait for these advertisers – it needs a strategy to offer value to advertisers by creating a niche for itself in the upper-middle class conflicted youth who generally believe in black t-shirts and death.
For this to happen, publications need to hire dedicated marketing professionals who can strategize on growth and expansion and pay them enough to keep them from defecting to the commercial world.
Written Content – The content of a publication is the key to even small success (no shit). So there is a real need to hire actual writers who are either educated or can string a couple of sentences together without resorting to grammatically-incorrect hyperbole.
Most pieces about bands that have become household names in India are usually filled with praise and a whole lot of mutual back rubbing. I’m guessing this isn’t some kind of bias or underhanded bribery manifesting itself, but rather a simple process of safeguarding against stigma and ridicule.
Because of the incestuous and exclusive nature of the Indian underground rock movement, there is a very real fear that one negative critique of a popular band that mostly everyone likes – like say Indigo Children or Scribe – will result in backlash and put into question the integrity and judgment of both the writer and the publication, which is why, quite fairly, most writers tend to steer clear of any divisive opinions about the household names.
So the only way out to criticize a big band without sounding unnecessarily obtuse and make it a valid critique is to approach the band/gig/music/album objectively and write an informed piece at the risk of social disgrace and shame.
The Role of the Editor – By ‘editor’, I don’t mean the Rajdeep Sardesai/Barkha Dutt/Prannoy Roy category of Chief Editor, but rather the person who handles and manages the actual content. Browsing through the multiple websites on Indian rock, I was alarmed by the sheer number of inane grammatical mistakes. While some poor grammar and a spelling mistake here or there can largely be tossed aside as minor errors, what really disheartened me was the use of intrnt language and the high number of Us and Ys and WTFs.
This is where the editor comes in. There is a definite need for a person who knows just the basics of grammar and writing if nothing else to correct these indiscretions, since these can be quite jarring for an educated reader, and the reader is bound to lose any respect for a writer or publication indulging in abbreviated lingo. This means that the reader automatically develops a sense of SMS/chatting equation with the writer, and this peer-to-peer interaction results in the writer losing all credibility if he tries to put forth anything remotely contentious. One of the worst cases of this is email interviews with bands, which are copy-pasted from the mail directly on to the website without as much as a second glance. What is the point of reading such pieces?
Fanzines – With the dearth of professional publications focusing solely on the underground music industry, there’s a very real need for fans to take it upon themselves to initiate ventures which can go some distance in increasing visibility for talented artistes within the movement. Websites such as this one and Indian Rock MP3 are some fanzines which are reaching out to a fair amount of people through social networks and aggressive online marketing, which is great to see. But unfortunately, growth of fanzines is heavily dependent on the aforementioned need for professionalism and legitimate structures. The only thing I can think of is that these fanzines should develop a large network of writers with differing views to add variety to the content along with quality, as well as eliminate unnecessary biases which are inevitable with a small pool of writers.
The Reader – Finally, let’s all blame the reader as well, although I can’t quite decide whether the inanity displayed by the majority of the readership in India is the fault of the reader himself, or that of the education system. But that’s an argument for another day.