Regional Music Goes Digital: Challenges of the Garhwali Music Industry (North India)


Florence Nowak

PhD defended at: 




Ethnomusicology has recently turned the spotlight on regional popular music: repertoires that thrive on being local yet get broadly distributed, music that challenges the “traditional oral folk” versus “modern mass-media pop” dichotomy. The music of Garhwal, a pre-Himalayan region of India, is one such case. The question of the digital turn’s effects on creative industries has been asked for international majors and underground subcultures, but what about music that stands in the middle? While we have gathered studies on unrecorded Indian folk and Bollywood mass-media hits, how much can we claim to know about the playlists of most lambda users? How can we characterise this music and its evolution in the digital age?
This is what I sought to explore in my PhD from the EHESS in Paris, under the supervision of Catherine Servan-Schreiber, in continuation with my Master’s thesis. I led an eight months ethnographic inquiry in Garhwal and in Delhi, including over a hundred prolonged interviews with various actors (music directors, producers, singers, musicians, journalists, distributors, listeners, academics, public services, associations) and participant observation in the studios. Garhwal is a division of the recently created state of Uttarakhand (North India). Its population of about eight million people speaks Hindi and in part English, along with a versatile Garhwali dialect. Like other Indian regions, it has developed a blooming local music recording production from the 1950s onwards. It went through a golden age in the 1980s-1990s and has met with some serious difficulties since the 2010s. The massive online circulation that saw the end of the cassette, CD and VCD era is one factor for this crisis, yet I contend in my thesis that there is more to this issue than piracy. Garhwali songs stand at the crossing of social, economic, legal and musicological concerns that have surfaced with the digitisation of music.
Thus, the thesis gives an ethnographic account of both reception and production (chapters 1 and 2), then proceeds to analyse the economic and legal issues of the industry from an anthropological point of view (chapters 3 and 4). This leads to a more general reflection on the mechanisms of collective imaginaries and the nature of creative industries (chapters 5 and 6). Indeed, the situation stands far from the the groundless image of a traditional, local, informal production that would have been shattered by the modern, global intrusion of the world wide web. Rather, an ethnographic approach reveals that tensions emerge from the competition between conflicting norms of authority in the circulation of music, in the work environment, its regulation, the visibility of the artists and the cultural representations they construct.