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Music festivals rock India as middle-class grows

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - For much of the year, the central Himalayan town of Naukuchiatal sees a steady trickle of tourists who come for its majestic nine-cornered lake and lush, green landscape.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - For much of the year, the central Himalayan town of Naukuchiatal sees a steady trickle of tourists who come for its majestic nine-cornered lake and lush, green landscape.

But for three days each May, the trickle becomes a flood as hundreds pour into this northern Indian town for "Escape," one of the nation's emergent music festivals buoyed by young, middle-class Indians who now have money to spare for live music.

Around 30 established and emerging Indian artists, ranging from the heavy-metal band Phobia to the New Delhi-based Reggae Rajahs performed against the sweeping mountain backdrop this year, the festival's third.

"This is my first time at a music festival and I love it," said one man, who called in sick at work to attend.

For hundreds of years, Indians have come together to sing, dance and play music often as part of spiritual and religious gatherings, and music is a huge part of the Kumbh Mela, a triennial mass Hindu pilgrimage that has been described as the world's largest gathering.

But now India is witnessing a rise in contemporary music festivals similar to those rampant in the U.S. and Europe.

"The scene is getting better in India. Initially, five, six years back, there were no festivals. It's just starting to pick up," says Randeep Singh from Menwhopause, India's only rock band to have played at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.

The country's music scene, dominated by music from Bollywood films, is growing, bucking a global downtrend caused by piracy.

In 2010, India, the world's 14th largest music market, saw a year-on-year increase of 16.5 percent in trade value, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which represents the global recording industry.

This contrasts with the U.S. and Japan, the world's two largest music markets, and most of Europe, which saw further declines in recorded music sales, prompting musicians to use live music events to make up for the lost revenue.

According to IFPI, performance rights revenue last year grew by 4.6 percent globally. India saw some of the biggest growth, jumping to $40.1 million in 2010 from $26.2 million in 2009.

"I can afford it now. Before I wanted to go and see Deep Purple and I couldn't even afford a 1000-rupee ticket. But now I can," said festival-goer Akash Vora.

At the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in the southern city of Pune, some of India's biggest bands played alongside UK acts, such as Asian Dub Foundation and The Magic Numbers.

The presence of international performers helped sell thousands of tickets and cemented the festival as one of the country's biggest despite only debuting last December.

"Every band I've met in Delhi, Chennai, wherever, they've said they really want to be at Weekender and fans who also want to be at Weekender. Luckily for us, the first year went off great and the word will spread," said Anuj Gupta from OML Entertainment, the festival's promoter.

"I don't see a hundred thousand people filling up a festival with local bands in India. But with international artists or Bollywood artists, then absolutely."

India's festivals are also gaining attention abroad, with the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), a multi-genre event launched only four years ago and held in a 500-year-old fort overlooking the blue city of Jodhpur, seeing the number of foreign attendees rise each year.

Some travel companies have begun catering to this, seeking to lure British music festival fans tired of dealing with poor weather and high ticket prices.

"Of course, long distance festivals are going to attract fewer people, but we have noticed an increase of British travelers at RIFF over the years," said Miranda Boord, with U.K.-based firm Original Travels that offers tours to the festival.

"Escape" founder L. Tochhawng, looking to the future, said he has the luxury of being able to perfect his event each year and to build a reputation.

"Every year has been a learning experience and every year we're trying to tighten up the whole thing and take it a little step further. So you keep on changing the entire equation to see how it works and hopefully you'll come to an equation that finally works completely," he said.

"Festivals are beginning to catch up here. I don't think India is late. I think India is in the right time."