The pop-rock band on new releases, the boom in the indie industry and the versatility of pop
It is pop-rock band Sanam’s second innings at the YouTubeFanFest in Mumbai. There’s a buzz spreading from dummer Keshav Dhanraj – who claims to be groggy and is acting anything but it – to bassist Venkat Subramaniyam – who has already tackled his morning cup of joe.
The band last performed at the festival in 2016 and their number of subscribers has almost octupled since then, escalating from 71,000 to a whopping 5.6 million in three years. Frontman Sanam Puri reveals that the journey has not been an easy one. “As a band, it’s not easy in this country, because not everybody recognizes our band, not everybody understands the concept of having a band. A guitarist, bassist, drummer, singer — everybody put together is one song,” explains Puri, citing a transition in the Indian music landscape that tends to favor Bollywood playback singers. “It’s slowly changing thanks to YouTube.”
When Sanam made its YouTube debut, the platform had just turned seven and “Gangnam Style” was going viral. Filming and uploading covers on to the video-sharing giant was a departure from the band’s earlier plans, but with their rendition of “Gulabi Aankhen” garnering over 104 million views on YouTube, Sanam has found leave to go back to their roots and pursue original music.
The pop-rock outfit picked their genre space for its versatility. Back when Sanam was a three member act in school, they played rock. “Pop” too, volunteers guitarist Samar, as Subramaniyam chimes, “and funk.” The band’s bassist views pop as an encompassing genre — “All genres have songs that reach out and cross over to become a pop song. So a hip-hop song can become a pop song. Electronic music that was underground has become pop music,” says Subramaniyam. Sanam quips, “A song without any song can become a pop song.” Sanam’s guitarist Samar chooses this moment to interject, “even silence,” and the quartet burst into cacophonous laughter.
The band chooses to write pop music for the simple reason of relevance — but change is in the books. “We’ve reached a point where we don’t sound like we did 10 years ago, and we’re as excited today as we were then,” Subramaniyam says, referring to the band’s journey to self-discovery and the new music to be released. Sanam is coming in strong, just hot off the press with a new Radio City Freedom Award for Best Pop Song (People’s Choice) with “Itni Door” and fans can expect hip-hop, R&B and more as the band draws inspiration from Gully rap, Punjabi rap and Tamil hip-hop.
The band’s drummer Dhanraj sees “mad talent in India,” describing the emerging acts as “probably the best in the world.” With the press and digital media supporting independent music, Dhanraj thinks that the future looks positive for the release of indie music. “This is one area where we’re seeing a lot of development and even though the arising genres are naive, they’re still grabbing a hold among the masses which is a good thing — because it’s about time,” notes Subramaniyam. Sanam believes that the present is the right time for independent music. “There’s enough support for everybody, just like in the Nineties, except it’s going to get better than that,” he says.
To YouTubers who are just starting out, Dhanraj suggests that “the most important thing to do is to identify what you’re good at and to start working towards that because there’s space for everything on the digital platform: comedy, acting, music, cooking — everything. Give it time.” Subramaniyam ventures that one should be smart about what they upload and the techniques they can pick up to shoot, edit and publish. Above all, Samar adds, “Don’t copy anyone. Just be yourself. Do your own thing.” And to the nervous creatives, Sanam says, “You won’t know until you try. You have to begin somewhere. So just begin, don’t be scared, it’s all going to work out.”
Ask the band what has kept them tied together over the years and they all respond, “Love, and friendship!” Among India’s first internet-created music stars, Sanam won’t forget their fans who are the drive behind the band. The other major source of drive, of course, is their fifth member — manager Ben Thomas. “He is like family and for an independent act, actually for any artist, it’s really important to have a strong management that you can trust and believe in. Luckily for us, our management is like our family. He’s a part of the band,” Dhanraj says. They are friends and family before they’re a band. Sanam expresses, “One day, I will lose my voice and lose my sensibility of music completely, but it’s not like they’ll leave me just because I can’t do music anymore.”