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Over the nine-odd years of its existence, blueFROG kick-started a live music scene that was transformative, spearheading a decisive shift from ‘Bollywood nights’ to a wide variety of independent music programming.
Over the nine-odd years of its existence, blueFROG kick-started a live music scene that was transformative, spearheading a decisive shift from ‘Bollywood nights’ to a wide variety of independent music programming.

blueFROG: Thank you for the music

As blueFROG down its shutters on Sunday, a look at the giant leap that live music took because of the iconic nightclub and music venue in Mumbai

On 28 August, after a month of special programming and a performance-packed three day mini-festival, Mumbai’s iconic nightclub and music venue blueFROG will shutter its doors for the last time.

Over the nine-odd years of its existence, blueFROG kick-started a live music scene that was transformative, spearheading a decisive shift from ‘Bollywood nights’ to a wide variety of independent music programming.

Set in a converted mill compound, the 6,500 square feet venue also raised the bar for performances with its state-of-the-art sound system and interiors modelled on Milan’s famous La Scala opera house.

Nikhil Udupa, long-time scene veteran and head of Pepsi MTV Indies Content, a music channel dedicated to independent music, says, “I genuinely think it’s the single most important venue that Mumbai has seen."

When blueFROG opened to the public in December 2007, the Mumbai live music scene found itself at a strange crossroads. After years of sets dominated by cover versions of popular American or British songs, Indian bands were finally focusing on writing and performing original music. This, along with cheaper recording technology, led to a major growth in musical output in terms of both quantity and quality. Bands like Pentagram, Scribe and Blackstratblues were putting out albums that would go on to be Indian rock classics. But they had nowhere to play them. The legendary Razzberry Rhinoceros, a seedy discotheque in Juhu Hotel which acted as a second home for many of Mumbai’s independent musicians, stopped hosting gigs earlier that year. The search for alternate venues was largely fruitless, with one-off gigs in other pubs and clubs suffering from bad sound and a host of logistical issues.

It didn’t help that the audience for live music back then consisted of broke college students, not an attractive demographic for establishments that lived or died by their bar sales. If you were an independent rock fan in 2007, your only options for live music were the occasional college competition and the annual Independence Rock festival, which by then was already on its way to mediocrity and obscurity.

Around this time, composer-producers Ashutosh Phatak and Dhruv Ghanekar were finalising plans for an integrated music company that featured a club accompanied by a recording studio, a record label and an artist management service. Film director Mahesh Mathai, film producer Srila Chatterjee and fund manager Simran Mulchandani came on as partners and they leased space in the then deserted Mathuradas Mills Compound. The club would be exclusively dedicated to live music, with local and international acts performing six days a week. With a special focus on blues, jazz and world music, as well as cutting edge electronica, it aimed to nurture the city’s nascent live music culture. “The idea was to be a catalyst," says Phatak. “To try and expose people to different kinds of music and give young bands a stage they can aspire to play on."

“People were starving for that sort of space," says musician Randolph Correia, whose act Shaa’ir and Func, with singer-actor Monica Dogra, would play some of their best gigs at the club. “You felt like it was a scene coming together, developing." It wasn’t just that the musicians had somewhere to play. The club’s respect for its artists, a rare thing even now, was illustrated by a small incident that happened a few weeks after the club opened.

The Portuguese singer-songwriter performing for the night was so upset by the loud chatter of some of the patrons that she threatened to walk off the stage. This prompted Phatak to get on the stage and ask the patrons to respect the artist or leave. While the kerfuffle and the lesson in etiquette caused some minor outrage with the diners, it also signalled to the wider music community that here was a club that took the needs of artists seriously. “I got quite a bit of stick for that, but I’m quite proud of it," says Phatak of the incident.

Over the next nine years, the club would host over 200 performances a year with artists ranging from local newbies to some of the most cutting edge artists from Europe and North America. Many of the shows will long be a part of Mumbai music scene lore, such as the Bauchklang triple header in 2008, the Mute Math gig in 2013 which would feature crowd-surfing on an inflatable mattress, and my personal favourite—two sets by the incredibly weird and intense drum-and-bass-meets-rap-meets-performance art group X Makeena.

Apart from its own fantastic programming, the club would also play host to gigs by independent promoters, such as the long running The Scene shows which focused on fresh talent, and the crowd-funded Control Alt Delete metal gig which, in June 2014, had 800 metalheads take over the venue, including two bus-loads of fans all the way from Indore. The club’s success would also spur many of Mumbai’s other clubs and bars to open their doors to live music, giving music fans the plethora of options that they have become so used to today.

But along with the highs, there came some lows. The recording label soon shut down, reflecting a general trend in the global music industry. The studios failed to kick off and had to be shut down after a few years due to rising rent costs. There was the ill-fated and short lived expansion to New Delhi, although the outposts in Pune and Bangalore are still running. Pathak, though, has no regrets. “I think it’s better to have done something even if it doesn’t work out," he says.

Early last month, the club announced that they would be vacating the Lower Parel premises, as negotiations over renewing the lease broke down. Mathuradas Mills had become gentrified, packed full of pubs and bars, a process ironically initiated by blueFROG itself. Correspondingly, the rents are now so high that it made running the club unviable. “So the thought was that we’ve had a good run over here, let’s see if we can now take it somewhere else," says Phatak. The company is now looking to open two smaller venues in Colaba and the suburbs, alongside organising independent music events under the blueFROG brand name.

In a way, the club’s trajectory is similar that of the city’s live music scene. In 2008, everyone was convinced that independent music was just on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. blueFROG’s ambitions—a massive venue, record label, studio—indicated a general belief that indie music would soon be a worthy challenger to Bollywood. Sadly, it hasn’t turned out that way. Instead of a straight run to the top, the indie scene has fragmented into an ecosystem of small niches. As a result of this fragmentation, along with a dip in programming quality, blueFROG rarely filled up to its 800-1000 capacity in the later years.

The trend towards smaller clubs is probably the smarter business decision. But the loss of blueFROG means that we no longer have a stepping stone for bands to go from playing to 100-odd people at AntiSocial—along with the much reviled Hard Rock Cafe, the only dedicated performance venue left in the city—to the festival stage. As Pangea guitarist and former blueFROG employee Shadaab Kadri puts it, “It’s the time for small venues, but I still feel like you need a venue like blueFROG because the experience that you get playing at a place like that is something else."

However, none of the promoters I spoke to agreed with any notions of doom and gloom about the indie scene. blueFROG would be missed, but the scene continues to survive and thrive. “I think wherever there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity," says ennuidotbomb label head and promoter Rishu Singh. “Someone else will step in to fill the gap."

Despite the recent troubles, Phatak himself remains optimistic about the future of Mumbai’s live music scene. “We’re still in the infancy period and it can only grow," he says. “I think the main thing we need to do is to make sure the audiences respect that and value it. So the minute people start paying for gigs it becomes so much easier and less-sponsor led. We need to get to that point."

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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