“It’s better now, but for the longest time, Kerala had no venues for bands to play in,” complained Govind Menon, a violinist and composer. “That’s why most musicians from Kerala would come to Bangalore to get an audience.”
For musicians like Menon, who rued Kerala’s lack of performance venues, two music lovers from Kochi found a solution in June 2016 with The Muse Room – small dedicated platforms online and offline that host upcoming independent musicians every week.
The idea was conceived by Sumesh Lal along with ex-Motherjane frontman and founder of recording label Aum-i-artistes Suraj Mani, the same people behind the popular Music Mojo series on the Malayalam music channel Kappa TV (a show similar to Coke Studio).
So far, Lal and Mani have propped up four venues, one in Kochi, another in Thiruvananthapuram, and two in Bengaluru, where gigs are held as part of The Muse Room theme. Unlike regular restaurant-cum-live music venues, most Muse Room venues stand as somewhat pristine citadels for musicians – they serve no drinks or food to minimise distractions for the audience and allow the music speak for itself.
The platform has a fervent admirer in Jitesh James Dharmaraj, bassist for the Chennai band RJD who also plays for Junkyard Groove. At the end of RJD’s show at the OO Heaven, a small concert hall of at the Aum-i-artiste office in Bengaluru, he declared to a small audience of about thirty people: “In all my years of playing music, never have I played in a place like this. A place for musicians by musicians. It’s so rare to find a place where the audience is there only for the music.”
His brother, Ritesh John Dharmaraj, lead singer of the RJD who plays drums for Junkyard Groove, agreed. “I normally never talk about the stories behind my songs, people tend to simply talk over it and not listen, but here I could do that.”
Mehdi Deobandi of SMAKmahadev, an acoustic, experimental band which has also performed at the OO Heaven, said, “Most places that hold gigs, especially in Bangalore, charge concert rates but they’re just bar gigs, where the owners are looking to fill up the venue and provide some entertainment for the night. Don’t get me wrong, playing to a crowd of drunk and excited people is fun as well, but you don’t really feel like your music is reaching anyone.”
With alcohol and weekend socialising, the music becomes secondary, Deobandi added. “[At the Muse Room] for the first time, I had people coming up to me after the show and asking me about the meaning of certain lyrics and the slightly odd tuning that I give my guitar,” he said. “They were actually paying attention.”
Suraj Mani explained the Muse Room’s novel style – “What we’re trying to do is to create infrastructure to help build the music scene. One of the ways is by making a simple format of acoustic shows which we can take directly to people.”
Until now, only acoustic bands have been featured at The Muse Room venues. Ranjini Menon, who is in charge of artist relations at The Muse Room, said they were open to all kinds of music. “The Muse Room in Kochi at least, where all the videos on their YouTube channel have been recorded, is a small venue that can’t accommodate a drum kit which is why we’ve been somewhat limited,” she said.
Encouragingly, the lineup sees several musicians singing in Malayalam apart from English, perhaps as a consequence of the venue’s location. However bands from other parts of the country have also been making their way down south to be featured on the channel.
As of now only the performances that take place at the Kochi Muse Room have been put up on the Muse Room’s YouTube channel, which has a little over a 100 videos. Audio recordings of the performances at the OO Heaven are being compiled for a soon to be released album. Like Balcony TV, a multi-city YouTube music platform which started its Indian edition in 2012, Muse Room hopes to curate and showcase some of the best upcoming talent in the country (as well as all over the world) in recorded performances. There are plans to expand to more venues and host similar shows in apartment complexes and other community spaces.
Packaging music content in a video format is crucial for any new band, but popularity depends on the quality of content they produce, both online and offline. “A video that we put up three years ago had only 10,000 views to start off with,” said Menon. “Only after we performed at several gigs, it has gone up to lakhs of views now.” Earning money through the sale of albums or songs themselves is practically unheard of. What brings home their bread are still concerts – and so multiple, good venues are crucial.
Another way to discover music is to attend music festivals like NH7, Strawberry fields, Sula Fest or any other from the other growing list of events. These events showcase several bands over the course of a few days – known and unknown – which is a great way of boosting the music scene. However, festivals come only once a year and last for about a week at most.
Compared perhaps unfairly to the West, India is missing the effort that goes into building a music scene – musicians being able to reach their audiences and listeners having easy access to fresh content. Infrastructure such as promotion of new bands on the radio, billboard charts, dedicated venues and even good music journalism for that matter, is sorely needed. This is where Muse Room comes in. “We’re championing independent music,” said Mani, in a fundraising video. “We believe in it. We have been rewarded many times over by the content that we have seen come out of this country.”