THE MUSIC INDUSTRY is built on such flimsy foundations that survival—especially for independent and off-mainstream musicians—has depended almost entirely on the money they make from playing live for audiences. Coronavirus has upended that entire model. Everyone now needs to try to figure out a way to move forward, in order to engage audiences and allow musicians to make ends meet.
In April, there was a noticeable spurt of “home concerts”, in which musicians would perform to a camera at home and live-stream it to people watching on multiple platforms. Facebook Live, Instagram Live, YouTube, and of course the flavour of the pandemic, Zoom. There was a certain novelty attached to it, with artists doing regular streams of their music for fans deprived of the joys of concerts. Brands came on board, hosting artists on their social media pages. Publications, labels, music agencies, all tried to fill the void by taking things online. But while the initial hype may have died down, there’s still some substance left in the concept.
Anurag Rao, the head of bookings and artist management at Azadi Records who’s been heavily involved in the live music industry for a decade—he has previously managed Indian Ocean—recalls how depressed he felt for the first couple of weeks when things shut down. But now he’s at a stage where he’s figuring out solutions, to make the most of an unprecedented situation. Azadi has artists such as Prabh Deep and Seedhe Maut on their roster, and the label decided early on that they’d prefer to do streamed gigs that were either paid, or served as fundraisers. Rao tells me how he’s also looking for new models to explore, since he’s not very excited by the middling quality that a chunk of the current live-streams seem to offer. “We want to be able to do a better quality live-stream. Maybe do something where the first five minutes are free, and if you want to continue, you have to tip or make a donation. Or do a Patreon-like subscription. We’ve been debating all of this,” he says.
I could just perform from my house, and people would pay. It sounds farfetched, but it’s starting to make sense now, and I think people will accept it, says Kartik Pillai, musician
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Further, Rao is also looking at a more polished product where they can prospectively work with a physical space, set up cameras and sound, and doing a high-production stream for fans, maybe as a ticketed event or a packaged deal that brands can get on board with. “People have time right now, so appointment viewing can happen. So many people are re-watching Ramayan, that’s also appointment viewing. And you’re talking about a dead medium like TV. I think the same can be replicated online,” he says.
The idea of the home concert isn’t quite as simple as plug-and-play. There’s a lot of tech thingamajigs that go into it to create a meaningful experience for casual consumers. There’s the visual aesthetic that must be in place of course, with careful framing and a nice, cosy backdrop to the performance—preferably filled with charming musical instruments or futuristic looking gear—but far more important to the experience is the audio quality. Some live-streaming platforms—Instagram, for instance—are built for audio recorded directly from the phone. Others will more easily allow musicians to broadcast the audio from their computers or mics and soundcards to the apps, though you need a bunch of software and plug-ins to make that happen. And it all falls apart if your internet speed fluctuates, causing that unforgivable ‘lag’, or delay in the sound. (To get an understanding, think of how it’s still possible to watch a terrible print of a movie, but most people will get fed up if the sound is not synced.)
“It’s like I’m recalibrating myself,” says Arsh Sharma. The Delhi-based musician and producer plays in the band The Circus and pursues a solo project, Fuzz Culture (previously a duo), in addition to production and composition work. “What else can I do? I’m figuring out how to move forward in a world where only our digital impressions are alive.”
He’s using the time to reach out to newer audiences instead of playing for the same people, and developing a fan base online (in addition to doing fundraisers). “I wanted to appeal to not hardcore music people. I found them to be a lot more supportive and not judgemental,” he says. The idea is to take over Instagram or Facebook pages of different brands or organisations, and use that as currency to build your own following. Tejas Menon, the singer-songwriter in Mumbai, who goes by Tejas, has been active on social media from well before the lockdown. He has used the time to further expand on the idea of social engagement to reach out to people and spread his music.
Tejas has done a bunch of gigs, both on his page as well as with brands such as Vodafone, Social Offline, and Dolby On X JioSaavn. “Some,” he says, “were unpaid, some with revenue shared, some were ticketed but we got a flat fee.” It’s been a mix of paid concerts as well as strategic free ones. And he’s enjoyed the experience since it allows him the freedom to engage with his fans during the performances and deliberate on the lyrical direction of the songs.
Kartik Pillai, aka multi-instrumentalist at Peter Cat Recording Co. (PCRC), frontman of Begum, and solo electronica artist Jamblu, speaks of how the industry was already dead, but now it’s so much worse. He mentions how there’s been zero to minimal money involved in these gigs—he’s done one for REProduce, which got ruined because there was a storm in Kerala while he was performing, among others, and Begum songs for a session featuring artists on the label PagalHaina, for an audio-only event hosted on the UK-based streaming tool Gramrphone—but he’s glad it’s happening. “Man, I’ve been trying to do this for the past I don’t know how many years with Jamblu. I wouldn’t have to carry all these goddamn pedals everywhere, I could just do it from my house, and people would pay. It sounds farfetched, but it’s starting to make sense now, and I think people will accept it [as a new thing],” he says.
If you want to be a musician in 2020, it’s a struggle. I think it’s an interesting opportunity given to musicians to really know their personality, says Tejas Menon, singer-songwriter
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It’s a time of great upheaval for musicians, and musicians have taken to the digital space as a place to try out new modes of expression. Rahul Das, the brains behind experimental acts SundogProject and Oort, did a few live-streams on his Instagram and Face book pages and, he tells me, while the numbers may have been low—“it’s not bombastic, with 2,000 people watching but it’s there”—there was a rewarding engagement with the people who did log on. “I think the playing field in alt music has been levelled to an extent. A lot of people who had better connections with agencies or nightclubs, they’d be more prominent in social media feeds. But these platforms—Facebook, Instagram, Twitch—they’re coming down hard on copyrights of DJs playing other people’s music. A lot of people who’d be considered musicians but are actually curators or selectors.” Now, he says, artists are releasing more original music, using this opportunity and this gap in people’s lives and timelines, to increase their base. “It’s not huge, but a little bit—maybe a 2 per cent window that’s opened up. Which is why I feel it’s a good time for indie artists to not just release music but to connect, whether it’s with one person or 50.”
And there have been a spate of releases. Das himself has already put out three separate releases—an electronic EP by Oort, followed by an ambient release by SundogProject, parts of which he wrote or rearranged during the lockdown, called The Only Person On Earth, which was informed by the current situation. And the latest is a secret EP called IDONTKNOWIFTHISISHAPPINESSORSADNESS. In May, Peter Cat Recording Co. put out an album of B-sides, Happy Holidays, only on Bandcamp. It is a way, Pillai tells me, to gently urge their formidable fanbase to support the artists during this time by getting them to pay for the music instead of streaming it for revenue best counted in peanuts. It worked too, as they managed to get considerably high sales figures for it.
Arsh Sharma has managed to write two full FuzzCulture EPs during this period, one of which is complete, though he’s waiting for things to ease up a little to do a proper release. He also has a new weekly YouTube show, Music Production Hacks with FuzzCulture, where he talks about production techniques. Tejas Menon put out a new single, ‘Lead’, from an upcoming album that’s been in the works. Pillai has put out an album, Music to Be Nothing To, which he finished during all the extra time he had. Shoumik Biswas, or Disco Puppet, managed to raise around Rs. 25,000 through album sales for the NGO Goonj for the plight of migrants, after releasing Thoughts to Melt To last month. “People have their feelings of collective empathy and guilt, so they paid.”
We want to be able to do a better quality live-stream. Maybe the first five minutes are free, and if you want to continue, you have to tip or make a donation, says Anurag Rao, artist manager
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He wrote the whole thing once the lockdown kicked in, as a lo-fi song-a-day experiment that gradually took on a more involved shape. “I was just practising songwriting. I was feeling kind of trapped. Thinking about all these things.”
In addition to traditional album and EP releases—propelled by the much-loved monthly dates on Bandcamp where the company hands over 100 per cent of the sales to the artists instead of keeping their commission—a lot of interesting new things have been popping up. Corona Covers is a new project conceived by Anurag Rao, with vocals by Shubham Srivastava. They take famous songs and provide a humorous spin on them, with the overarching theme of coronavirus and the lockdown. They’ve done a parody version of the college classic ‘BC Sutta’ by Pakistani band Zeest, as well as ‘Hey There China’ (a take on ‘Hey There Delilah’) and ‘(Worst?) Time of Our Life’, the Green Day song. The lyrics of ‘Hey there, China’ go; ‘Hey there, China / What’s it like in Wuhan city? / I’m a thousand miles away from you / tonight I feel so shitty / Yes, I do / The World is shut because of you / I swear, it’s true.’ It’s a fun way of looking at what’s happening, and also helps Rao hone his writing chops. He’s aware that there’s a limited shelf life to the theme they’ve chosen, but he wants to continue with the project, eventually renaming it and working on parodies in general.
Tejas , too, got the chance to work on an idea he’s had for a long time. He tells me how he’s always been a huge fan of western musicals, and the lockdown gave him the chance to work on his own rock opera, made with Dinkar Dwivedi, called Conference Call: The Musicall!’ He’s drawn from his past experiences in the advertising industry—“it’s a broken industry,” he says—and poked fun at it in the 12-minute video (up on YouTube) through a dramatised conference video call on Zoom. The whole thing was done remotely: “We only used Google Drive, Premier Pro, Microsoft Word, WhatsApp. We just shot it on phones, and all the audio was done at home.” Tejas and Dwivedi reached out to singers and friends and directed and edited the whole thing as a split-screen experience.
Musicians are searching for new beginnings, new means of self-expression, new avenues for money, and perhaps just a way to cope. People are trying out new things, hoping something will stick—and while it’s safe to say that nothing can quite recreate the experience of live music, it’s also necessary to note that these are meant to be alternatives, not replacements. As Tejas says: “If you want to be a musician in 2020, it’s a struggle. I think it’s an interesting opportunity given to musicians to really know their personality.” In essence, it’s a brave new world we’re in the middle of today.