Updated: Oct 3, 2019
By Prasanta Phukon
Rock music’s popularity is waning as pop & hip hop come of age
Rock music’s popularity has taken a hit globally at different times as the industry evolved from one form to the other. In the seventies, rock music lost the market to disco; in the eighties came the hair bands; nineties saw the rise of hip hop. The death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 was a setback for rock music that was almost lost with the emergence of boy bands.
At the turn of the century there was a glimmer of hope with a handful of bands like White Stripes, Strocks and Arctic Monkeys keeping up the rock spirit. But they were mere imitation of the best of the fifties and sixties.
Even today, the top 100 chart of the international music industry is a disappointment for rock lovers. Imagine Dragons and Greta Van Fleet are among the few names to look for.
Rock capital or is it?
The downhill journey of the genre has very much been visible in Shillong as rock is being gradually replaced by pop and hip hop. So how did it happen?
Technology has an important role in the waning popularity of rock music. With software and tech gadgets available today, people can easily create music even in their bedrooms without even learning a single musical instrument.
But things were different in the good old days. In Shillong, growing up in the nineties was all about rock and fun. Anyone would pick up a musical instrument and passionately learn the art of rock music and eventually they would give it a shot to start a rock band in a garage or any space permitted by their parents.
Shillong does have a storied past where waltz, foxtrot, bop and other song and dance forms livened up the town’s jam sessions and dance halls. There was the Fentones that won the Simla Beat Contest in the 1970s, The Great Society electrifying both local and national audiences in the 1980s, and many others like The Vanguards, The Vaudevilles, Blood and Thunder and Eddie Rynjah, to name a few.
Shillong became synonymous with rock in India. It still enjoys the title of “the rock capital of India”. And yet with time, rock lovers have felt the need for more to liven up the genre at the time of crisis.
According to Kit Shangpliang of Summersalt, Shillong is “the music city of India” more than the rock capital. “Many bands in Shillong have come up from genres like country, blues and folk. Local folk bands were also popular but with time, rock emerged as the mainstay. But it won’t be fair to say that it is the rock capital,” he says.
“In cities like Bangkok, there are pubs and stores dedicated to rock music. But in Shillong, live music is being hit by the ‘one man phenomenon’ or ‘disc jockey’. There is still a great longing for rock concerts among people here but marketability is the issue and many promoters choose digital music over live events,” Shangpliang explains.
Live performance by rock artistes is “more organic in terms of music” and Shillong has always overindulged in it giving only a pittance of the patronage to metal or hip hop that has always been regarded as the unrespectable cousin of rock.
To a large extent, this has strengthened the do-it-yourself ethic of hip hop and metal bands. It is bands such as Aberrant, Plague Throat, Kryptographik Street Poets and K Bloodz, among others, which are giving Shillong some semblance of a music scene.
It is mostly these metal bands and hip hop crews who are putting out their own material and organising their own shows. Every day, they are reaching out and finding a community of their own. They are not waiting for big events and bright lights and not going for big cities to find their audience as most rockers do nowadays. In fact, the hip hop and metal artistes are doing what their rock counterparts did in the seventies — playing for their people. They would rather spin verses than weave illusions.
K Nongrum, head of the Department of Geography at Synod College and former guitarist of The Unknown Band (1980-95), says the music scene in Shillong City is rather dull.
“There were musical events, especially fetes, organised by many sports and socio-cultural clubs for fund raising. These kept us musicians busy. Also, with many musical events taking place regularly, Shillong city then could be called a rock capital. But in the past 25-30 years, political insurgency and ethnic uncertainty have dampened the spirit of music in the region. Except for some instances, my musician friends have not done well in their musical endeavours. The insurgency problem too has decimated the musical ties… It is sad for a generation from 1985 when live bands would perform almost every weekend,” observes Nongrum.
The veteran musician admits that metal and hip hop have eaten into the rock market here.
Local rock band Adroit also rues the decreasing fanfare for the genre as not many events are happening here. And those who are ardent fans of rock music have to be happy with whatever they are getting. Music, after all, is Shillongiites’ lifeline.
Many musicians see changing time and lifestyle as the factor for rock music’s gradual decline.
Pragya, the lead guitarist from rock band Mantra, says the environment we live in plays a huge role in influencing listeners.
“I grew up in the early nineties when punk rock bands such as Green Day, Good Charlotte, Blink 182 and Simple Plan were at their peak. Also, a few of us were rebels and against everything conventional. So we could relate to the punk culture,” he portrays the changing music environment in the hill city.
Akash Dey, the young owner of Meghalaya Music, the oldest shop selling musical instruments in Police Bazar since 1988, corroborates the musicians’ views.
A composer himself, Dey says there has been a huge drop in sales of rock music instruments in the last one decade. “The only visitors and buyers are the renowned rock bands here. The young and new musicians who visit the shop pursue what is trending worldwide. And some of the newcomers who opt for rock are now learning new forms of music to keep up with the trend,” says Dey.
The second generation musical instrument seller and music aficionado reminisces about the time when every youth in Shillong would dream to possess an instrument to play rock music.
Hope is still alive
Despite the popular view that the rock genre is suffering a setback, some musicians are still holding on to the hope that someday it will regain its past glory.
Members of the metal band Dymbur believe the number of metal and rock fans is increasing in the city with several national and international acts being organised here.
“But Shillong lacks metal music promoters, venues and music festivals and because of that, many well-known local bands and newcomers do not get a proper platform to showcase their talent. There is not even a pub in Shillong that allows a metal band to play or hosts a metal concert. Why? It’s because these people still have this mindset about metal music being evil and noisy,” say the musicians.
Reverse Tragedy, a metal rock band from Mizoram, feels Shillong is still the rock capital of India and “we should not give the chance for the rock scene to fade away, and if it does, what would happen to the rest of the region”. The members’ apprehension is in the right direction as Shillong rules the music scenario in the North East.
Danny Marak, the former vocalist of Adam’s Apple, tries to justify the perceived change.
He says Shillong’s musicians have been influenced by several genres but “there are active rock bands like Colours and Empherical Tribe and they are doing a great job”.
Android too appreciates the new rock bands for their hard work but complains about opportunity. “The saddest part in our state is that there are many talents in all genres but there are no promoters or even a platform. This is frustrating for artistes many of whom quit… The promoters must work hard to support young musicians,” it says.
Nongrum too echoes the sentiment. He says if a proper environment is created, the city’s youngsters will rock again.
“I would not say rock is dead. Given a proper platform, it will again get back its fan following. I have watched many musical concerts in the city recently and what I have noticed is that the connection between the stage and audience is not very enthusiastic. I remember The Unknown Band played at Rynjah ITI ground in 1985. The next day the place looked like a pig sty. I don’t see that kind of crowd in Shillong anymore,” he says in support of the genre.
Some like the members of Fame The Band of Tura say one should stop categorising and start enjoying good music. “Everyone should just enjoy good things. People who truly love music will appreciate any form of good music. Artistes have to stay relevant to the times. Rock isn’t better than pop and pop isn’t better than rock. Music is better than everything,” is what the band believes.
Rock music’s popularity maybe waning but it will be wrong to say that it has died a natural death. There are still bands like Liberated Minds, The Lynx and Thunder’s Cave which are fighting hard to keep the city rocking. In recent times, the Meghalaya Aids Society has done its bit to revive rock music by organising battle of the bands for a good cause and the events have been a crowd puller.
So those who grew up with rock music can take heart from these and can still be proud of their ‘rock capital’.