India's Electronic Music Scene Under Lockdown: The First Three Months of the COVID-19 Pandemic
City University of New York (US)
On Sunday, 8 March 2020, rumors circulated that COVID-19 reached Bengaluru, an Indian IT hub reputed for its drinking culture and electronic music scene. That night, a sizeable crowd gathered at the city's Tao Terrace to hear Pawas Gupta, a Berlin-based techno producer of Indian origin. For a moment, one could feel lost in the music and forget that coronavirus was finally reaching India, a nation of 1.4 billion people. By night's end, event-goers awkwardly attempted social distance farewells, as they knew it might be a while before another gig.
Unbeknownst to them, city and state-wide lockdowns would be issued over the coming days. As the public mood descended into fear and uncertainty, music promoters postponed gigs and my dissertation research meetings were rescheduled. I boarded an empty flight to Mumbai and returned to my flat, vacated by flatmates who had gone back to their hometowns. On 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown which would be extended multiple times through June 2020.
Over the last five years, India's electronic music scene has grown into a vibrant independent industry, with electronic music producers playing at clubs and festivals sponsored by beverage and clothing brands. Lockdown rendered this infrastructure largely irrelevant, forcing the scene to seek new modes of survival. Drawing from interviews with electronic music producers, industry professionals and fans, this essay pieces together how electronic music producers were affected during the first phase of lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic in India.
The first days of lockdown were an experiment in governance and in home living. Devoid of car horns, the Mumbai soundscape was replete with sounds of pressure cookers releasing steam in the homes of families living in close quarters. Apartment residents walked laps on rooftop terraces during those warm spring evenings and the Prime Minister's voice resonated from televisions through the open windows of homes and into gullies where watchmen sat facing empty roads. As India observed the West succumb to pandemic, many Indians unequivocally supported a lockdown. Life slowed down and everyone waited.
The spirit of experimentation drove many electronic music producers to take inspiration from a coronavirus-saturated mediascape. A video of politician Ramdas Athawale chanting "Go, Corona, Go!" (The Times of India 2020) became a controversial meme that was seen by many as a chant of unity and by others as a futile cause. The video was remixed by Mumbai-based artists Nathan Thomas (Nate08 2020) and Sanaya Ardeshir, (sandunesmusic 2020), among others. Although their music employed conventions from lesser known genres like footwork, glitch and lofi, the remixes gained significant traction on social media. Other Indian artists, like Hyderabad's Raj Varma, YungRaj, participated in "#covidwars", an international beat challenge where producers called upon each other to create bass music (COVID WARS 2020). Without pressures of club time slots and crowds, artists had opportunities to experiment with different musical styles and audiences had more time to listen. As Bengaluru-based producer Ketan Bahirat, Oceantied, mentions:
It was weird for everyone...especially for those of us making club-oriented music... You know, because we were so used to music specifically to play on a dancefloor and a lot of people didn't even feel like doing it anymore. So all my arrangements changed, all my moods changed.
Free time provided an opportunity for producers to pursue alternative projects; e.g., Indira Kanawade, DJ Smokey, diverged from her regular drum 'n' bass project to create Hindustani-fused house. Karan Kanchan, known primarily for his work in Indian hip hop, curated a free and open source sample library from Indian producers entitled Sounds of Bedroom Producers Volume One. Kanchan also began an Instagram Live series dedicated to sampling old Bollywood songs. Free time provided senior industry figures with chances to explore undiscovered artists; for instance, director of internet radio Boxout.fm Mohammed Abood and artist manager Tej Brar co-hosted a producer listening session on Instagram Live.
India's electronic music scene is extraordinarily diverse and cannot be pinned to a single type of sound nor style. However, India's scene possesses a distinct sociopolitical context from which common musical experiences are generated and a set of technologies through which practitioners convene. Producers from different Indian cities streamed their creative processes on Facebook and Twitch, while developing relationships through WhatsApp groups and Discord channels where tracks and technical tips were shared. Multiple producers with whom I spoke looked back at these early weeks as a "leveling of the playing field". For them, it was a glimmer of creative cross-pollination that was independent from hierarchies of the pre-COVID-19 music scene.
As lockdown continued into April, May and June, it became clear that coronavirus cases in the country were not decreasing. To make matters worse, heart breaking news of stranded migrant workers and looming anxieties of economic downturn were compounded by worries of how the virus might spread after lockdown. Many Indians turned to civil society organizations to offer food and assistance to those in need.
Care played just as important a role for musicians under lockdown and well-being check-ins became a routine exercise among friends. Vizag-based Kalimireddy Nikhil describes,
I think it's like this worm that's growing inside us. All my life, I was alone while my parents were at work. Now I am with my parents all throughout the day. It gets to me and not meeting my friends gets to me. Some amount of social interaction, not by text, but by calling up friends, goes a long way during this time.
Charity became ubiquitous. DJs provided financial assistance and groceries to other artists. Playing and producing for a cause became a prominent motivation to organize streamed events. For instance, Artists for a Cause was a multi-day online festival which raised funds to feed migrant workers, and Streams for Relief raised funds for victims of Typhoon Amphan, a storm which devastated regions in East India and Bangladesh during May 2020.
Curated compilations of music, made during lockdown, brought recognition to many lesser known Indian producers. The creation of these compilations were dependent upon networks of support and the sharing of resources. Kolkata-based artist and promoter Varun Desai formed Social Isolation Records, releasing Social Isolation 1, Social Isolation 2 and Social Desolation, compilations of music by Indian noise and ambient artists. Drawing on his experience in organizing netlabels since 2009, Desai felt that many barriers for artists of the pre-COVID-19 scene could be circumvented—that "there are so many great ideas and so little confidence" and "having someone push their work is much needed right now". Desai found himself mastering music and setting up online music platform accounts for many of the compilation artists. Ketan Bahirat organized a series of releases entitled 22-2, which began as a producer challenge where 22 producers provide 22 samples with which each producer has two days to make a track. Two subsequent albums were released with formal distribution, and its participants connected with one another through Instagram, Discord and Twitch.
While networks of care and support played many roles—psychic survival, skilling and social responsibility—industry professionals became increasingly reliant on each other. The directors of indie agencies came together through Whatsapp to share resources and news about a music economy that was changing on a day-to-day basis.
The music industry came to a halt the moment lockdown began. Venues stopped operating. Festivals scheduled for 2020 were cancelled. Sponsors terminated contracts. Many food and beverage employees were owed outstanding balances. In the Indian music industry, debt is so common that it is often assumed to be part of working relationships. But when work stops, it is uncertain whether debts will be repaid. Without any financial assistance, artists have been forced to question the validity of their profession.
As Mumbai producer Nawed Khan states: "We suddenly realized that having just one skill is a bad thing and there's nothing else you can do right now since you spent 20 years honing this skill, and suddenly the skill is useless in the real world". Another producer shares a similar sentiment. "It's been almost 15 years for me as a DJ/VJ, but today I am feeling like a beginner and have to start struggling from scratch".
A number of artists increasingly promoted the sale of their music during commission-free Bandcamp days (Diamond 2020), or found side-hustles like teaching music production over Zoom. Many took out loans or leaned on family support. Some considered new career paths, taking jobs in their family businesses. Others resorted to relatively low-paying gigs such as delivering food for the app Swiggy.
As lockdown eased during June 2020, the COVID-19 reproduction rate increased rapidly. Considering unpredictable travel regulations and the potential for infection, international artist tours in India have been rendered unforeseeable in the near future. These factors have prompted promoters and brands to focus on local acts, which may lead to artists playing more frequently in their home cities, potentially spawning regional electronic music scenes.
At the same time, online concerts geographically broadened listenership while posing some challenges. Lack of physical co-presence prevented artists from observing audience reactions, and audiences may not have always known if a stream was pre-recorded or truly live. Promotion was limited by algorithms that restricted the reach of posts and DJs were limited by copyright-identification algorithms, with exception to Mixcloud (Black 2020).
Artists took newfound interest in their onscreen appearance. As Mumbai-based producer Brij Dalvi, Three Oscillators, mentions: "At home, there's no lighting, there's no smoke, there's no show, there's nothing. Artists have got to make their bedroom look jazzy. Otherwise it looks like just another dude or chick playing a DJ set from their rooms". But not all artists under lockdown were capable of producing visually competitive streams, as Varun Desai points out: "How do you film multiple camera angles if you're by yourself in isolation?" Uneven distribution of resources led artists and promoters to act as brokers. Hyderabad's DJ Jee-1 created a platform to host guest DJs as a virtual reproduction of his Bollywood club nights, Rana Ghose of Re:Produce Artists curated concerts on his own server in Delhi, and Mumbai-based agency Gently Altered hosted events through their relationship with the interactive platform Shotgun.
By June, it became clear that many economic relations of the pre-COVID-19 music scene were replicating online. Established physical venues sought to stake their position in digital terrain, using their brand names and relationships with sponsors to finance high quality streams of artist performances tailored for commercial entities. Some artists with whom I spoke lamented the increasingly competitive field of social media and yearned for a musical utopia that came and went during the early, experimental days of lockdown.
As India's online music economy develops, music producers may increasingly find themselves negotiating roles as influencers, delivering musical experiences that are more tightly integrated with e-commerce, social media and virtual environments. Blogs have played an important role in taste-making; for instance, the Indian blog Wild City promoted local artists while also hosting workshops on music production. Games such as Minecraft have served as platforms for online music festivals, where gamers attended concerts at a variety of virtual stages. Block Fest, the first online festival to feature a stage for Indian artists, was scheduled for July 2020.
No matter how the industry might be restructured post-lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have fundamentally challenged music producers to interrogate their artistic motivations and relationships with each other. The present instability of what the future might bring leads musicians to ponder what their communal identity might be. As Kalmi describes:
Even though the COVID is there, in the end what is this all about? Is it for money and recognition? Both might be there today and gone tomorrow. But I feel like this is that time to make better relationships with all the people whom you've lost touch with...We need to think about how we as a whole community and a generation, not just a single person, can take things forward.
I wish to thank Ketan Bahirat, Tej Brar, Ramita Chaterjee, Brij Dalvi, Varun Desai, Rana Ghose, Kerry Harwin, Indira Kanawade, Jee-1, Karan Kanchan, Nawed Khan, Kenneth Lobo, Kalmireddy Nikhil for their valuable time and insights which were essential to the formation of this essay.
Chris McGuinness is a PhD student in ethnomusicology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His dissertation topic of electronic music production in India is supported by a research fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies. Chris has extensive experience as an electronic music producer, having made music for feature films, documentaries and independent projects.
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 Ketan Bahirat, interview with the author (on Whatsapp), 25 June 2020.
 Kalimreddy Nikhil, interview with the author (on Whatsapp), 26 June 2020.
 Varun Desai, interview with the author (on Whatsapp), 24 June 2020.
 Tej Brar, interview with the author (on Whatsapp), 25 June 2020.
 Nawed Khan, interview with the author (on Whatsapp), 24 June 2020.
 Anonymous, interview with the author (on Facebook), 23 June 2020.
 Brij Dalvi, interview with the author (on Whatsapp), 25 June 2020.
 Jee-1, interview with the author (on Facebook), 26 June 2020.
 Kalimreddy Nikhil, interview with the author (on Whatsapp), 27 June 2020.