Mumbai’s sky-high rents have left no room for big music concerts

City of dreams.
City of dreams.
Image: REUTERS/Adeel Halim
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Indie music aficionados in Mumbai had something to celebrate at the start of the year, with the announcement that antiSOCIAL, which ceased operations at the end of 2017, would be returning. The reopening—slated for sometime in April or May somewhere in Lower Parel—would mean the city would finally have a gig venue worth visiting again.

The excitement was in sharp contrast to the muted response, two months ago, to the news that the flagship Mumbai outpost of the Hard Rock Café chain in Worli had shuttered. Concerts were regularly hosted at both antiSOCIAL and Hard Rock, but while antiSOCIAL was sorely missed, few tears were shed over Hard Rock, at least among the city’s gigging fraternity. These divergent reactions could be because of the purpose the two places served. Though it programmed gigs at least two nights a week for most of its 11-year run, Hard Rock was primarily a bar and restaurant, whose regulars came mainly to listen to the retro rock and pop played over the speakers. On the other hand, antiSOCIAL, located in the basement of Khar Social, was built for the purpose of hosting shows by the country’s independent music acts.

That said, the closure of Hard Rock did leave Mumbai without a large-capacity concert venue. The ability to pack a space that big—6,000 square feet that could fit in almost 800 people—was proof that a band had reached a certain level of popularity, said Anirudh Voleti, the head of talent at the Delhi-based artist management company Big Bad Wolf whose roster includes Indian Ocean and Parvaaz.

“A good club gig always resonates with audiences, clients [and] markets, in terms of positioning the artist,” Voleti said.

Pain points

Mumbai has lately been losing concert venues at an alarming rate. The closures began in 2016 with Blue Frog, which could squeeze in 800 people on its busiest nights. In December of the next year, both antiSOCIAL in Khar and Bonobo in Bandra fell to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s crackdown on places that violated fire safety norms. Some hope was kindled in 2017, with the reopening of Razzberry Rhinoceros, which served as an incubator for several rock and metal bands in the nineties and aughties, but the Juhu lounge barely stages any live shows.

As a result, what the city is left with are smaller spaces. They range from those that can accommodate fewer than a hundred people, such as The Quarter in Opera House and The Little Door in Andheri, to a maximum of 350 people, such as Flea Bazaar Café and Flyp Café in Lower Parel. These are insufficient “for any international-scale act,” said Nikhil Udupa, the co-founder of the Mumbai-headquartered 4/4 Experiences, which “offers consultancy and turnkey execution solutions in the fields of music, art, dance, urban street culture and comedy”.

That was the fix faced by Bohemia Live, the Bengaluru company that put together British Bengaluru progressive metal band TesseracT’s recent two-city tour of India. The Mumbai leg, which was staged at the Lower Parel bar Verbena, was originally booked at Hard Rock Cafe in Worli. “One of the primary requirements for us was to have a venue [with a capacity of] at least 500,” said Amarjeet Singha, who runs Bohemia Live. “An option was Hard Rock Cafe in Andheri, but that’s smaller, and the view of the stage is not that great.” They managed to convince the owners of Verbena, which can house up to 600 people in its alfresco area after the tables are removed, to take a chance and attract a new audience that “wouldn’t have visited before”. Another problem, Singha said, was that no venue was willing to give them a Friday night slot, a “party night” when many bars and restaurants host DJs spinning Bollywood or commercial dance music.

According to Udupa, the main reason most food and beverage spots don’t want to risk generating lower sales by hosting bands instead of DJs is the high rental costs in the city. “Any venue in Mumbai [that] you ask what their pain point is, [say] it’s rentals,” he said. “Mumbai has the most unrealistic real estate prices anywhere.”

Promoters are universal in their praise of the Social chain of bars and its parent company Impresario, whose venues have been consistent in their support of independent music over the last five years. However, none of their venues, apart from antiSOCIAL in Khar, was built to hold live performances.

Todi Mill Social, which is now hosting a number of shows that used to take place at antiSOCIAL, does not have a permanent stage. Instead, an elevated seating area near the entrance is cleared to serve as the platform for bands, who perform in the line of sight of only about a hundred customers in a venue that can accommodate about 600 people.

It’s for this reason that Todi Mill Social does not attract the kind of numbers drawn by antiSOCIAL or even the erstwhile Blue Frog, which was widely regarded as the city’s best venue and was located in the same compound. Anirban Chakraborty, the executive director of Rock Street Journal, said that their gigs at Todi Mill Social get a little over a hundred attendees as compared to those at antiSOCIAL, which would on occasion be filled with over 400 fans. “For me, to make an effort to go to Blue Frog was not a big deal because I was getting [something] worth my effort and money,” he said. “There [at Todi Mill Social] I’m not sure because I’ll probably not get to see the gig properly.”

Most promoters feel that bars and restaurants would be encouraged to host more shows if promoters and artists moved from the prevalent practice of charging a flat fee—most acts get between Rs30,000 to Rs50,000 per gig—and opted for a split of or all the entry fees, which is the accepted model in Europe and the US. “Pushing for a flat fee secures [a band] something but it also does not allow them to show that they’re worth more,” said Udupa. “I think people should start by trying to go in 50-50. What’s the point of getting into the business of promotion if your artist earns the same and you earn the same percentage [cut as] six years [ago]?”

Naveen Deshpande, the founder of artist and event management company Mixtape, which is based out of Mumbai, concurs. “Most of the shows we’ve done in the past few months have been [for a] straight-up 100% gate fee,” he said. “This puts an equal onus on the act to bring in people, which in turn benefits their host and entices them to hold more such performances. [It’s] very important to [try and help] move sales whether it’s in the form of liquor [or] food.”

These days in Mumbai, the majority of gigs by bands are held at Above The Habitat, a venue in Khar that’s owned and run by the proprietors of Hotel Unicontinental, where it is located. Above The Habitat has won props for its support of the music scene by stepping in when antiSOCIAL shut. But the fact that it’s “a raw venue” that concert organisers pay a flat fee to rent, and set up with their own sound and light equipment, coupled with its lower capacity of around 250 people, makes it unsuitable for big-ticket Indian and international acts.

For those, most promoters are turning to Famous Studios in Mahalaxmi, where the rental costs are as high as Rs2 lakh to Rs3 lakh, and is therefore impractical to hire without a sponsor. “You’re also spending money on all production,” said Udupa. “You hope to make something from the bar so you pay for an alcohol licence, stocking, serving, [and] manpower.” The advantage that it offers though is flexibility. “There are a bunch of studios, so you can combine two to three rooms to make the capacity anything from 500 to 1,500,” he said.

The last resort, in one promoter’s words, is a mall such as High Street Phoenix in Lower Parel or Phoenix MarketCity in Kurla, which doesn’t quite have the same vibe as a pub gig. Auditoriums like the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which are only open to programming certain kinds of indie acts, such as singer-songwriters or jazz musicians, aren’t usually an alternative.

It’s ironic that Mumbai, considered the country’s live music hub where audiences are more willing to shell out entry fees than, say, in Delhi, does not boast even one legitimate large-capacity concert venue. Bengaluru, on the hand, is home to many, including Opus, BFlat, The Humming Tree, and Fandom at Gilly’s Redefined. For the TesseracT concert at Verbena, Bohemia Live had to build a stage and rent sound equipment, said Singha. In Bengaluru, “you just come with your instruments and play”.

Now, all hopes are pinned on antiSOCIAL 2.0. The second avatar will be a 400-500 capacity, warehouse-like space, “with a better sound system,” said Vivek Dudani, who heads programming for antiSOCIAL in West India. That sounds like music to our ears.

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