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    Pandemic is making musicians sing a different tune—virtually

    Synopsis

    The organised music industry has managed to weather the Covid storm on the back of high digital consumption.

    Getty Images
    The lockdown has taught many musicians to perform online and even make music remotely.
    People thronging without masks, cheering loudly and singing and dancing to the Punjabi and Bollywood cover songs — all these and more were part of a typical workday for Sukhmani Malik and Hari Singh. But that was until seven months ago when the duo would belt out Punjabi and Bollywood cover songs live at full-to-the-brink bars in Delhi and Chandigarh. Little did they know that they would soon have to sing a different tune to be relevant. And that was what they did as Covid-19 enforced social distancing and shut down performing establishments.

    In August, Hari and Sukhmani, as they call themselves, were able to hit the stage again. But it was for a televised performance. The stage was her drawing room in Gurgaon, the DJ console was replaced by a console table and a video director was the only audience member she could see. The event, Supermoon House Party, was broadcast live on the Zee TV network channels.

    Like Hari and Sukhmani, many in the music fraternity admit they’ve never worked this way before. But they have little choice now. So they have started doing home concerts or web concerts (webcerts), giving music lessons online or even picking up additional skills to make their online concerts sound better. The pandemic, which has disrupted several sectors, has hit a section of the music industry hard: the live music segment. Industry veterans say the live music segment is usually seen as being separate from the overall music industry and so less attention is paid to it.


    1

    In 2019, the recorded music industry was valued at Rs 1,068 crore, according to a report by the non-profit Indian Music Industry and Deloitte. Live events were estimated to generate Rs 1,280 crore in revenue. While the difference isn’t too wide, the recorded music industry is ahead by miles since it generated a revenue of Rs 8,660 crore from its “formal” partner industries — television, radio, live events, films and audio OTT — the report said.

    The organised music industry has managed to weather the Covid storm on the back of high digital consumption. In India, almost 70% of music revenue comes from digital platforms and the remaining from licensing deals, sale of discs, etc, says Devraj Sanyal, managing director of Universal Music. The live industry has no such revenue streams to fall back on. Sometimes organisers of such events may also have to pay for licensing. So like Hari and Sukhmani, many musicians and bands for whom a chunk of income was live events have had to reconfigure the way they work.

    “We have never performed this way before,” says Hari with a laugh. “In essence, we performed a concert for each other and the camera person got a private viewing. But at least we got paid for it.” Brothers Zaman Khan and Salman Khan Niazi, who founded Hindi band Astitva, have revamped Zaman’s bedroom into a makeshift studio for live performances. In May, when the demand for live webcerts started to pour in, the artists hurriedly ordered black sheets, ring lights and other equipment required to perform on platforms like Zoom. They also had to learn how to route their audio channels differently for online concerts or webcerts.

    2

    When an artist’s main gig is in jeopardy, they get more creative. Most musicians feed off audiences. Even if it happens through a mobile phone or a laptop screen for some time, it still gets them engagement at the end of the day. And that is what counts the most, say industry veterans. Even more established names in the formal music industry have had to readjust.

    Music director Shantanu Moitra, whose movie Gulabo Sitabo was released in June, says he has been working from home for his upcoming film. During the pandemic, Moitra collaborated with artist friends Shreya Ghoshal and Swanand Kirkire to create and release a song, Apni Maati, online. It didn’t have the backing of any record label yet the song, which was released for free, has garnered over 15 lakh hits on Ghoshal’s YouTube account.

    Moitra came up with a unique workaround. He recorded the song on his piano and used WhatsApp to send audio notes to his team spread across the country. He also shared the tune with lyricist Kirkire. They finalised the lyrics over Zoom calls. “We played it for Shreya (Ghoshal) over a video call. She loved it and we decided to produce it. I handled the audio part.” Moitra did something he’d never done before: using a Zoom call, he assembled an ensemble of musicians who had some of their basic music setups at home from across the country to make music. Ghoshal’s father recorded the video for her while the band members recorded their pieces of the music and sent it to a central server where it was put together. Moitra orchestrated the piece.

    3

    In a sense, the pandemic became a great leveller for the live music industry, say industry veterans. Sanyal of Universal says it is possibly just a matter of another six months for the music business to recover from the shock. “I do recognise that there are huge parts of the extended music industry like the live and touring business that are highly affected and will need some time to recover. But the core music business, which is much more digital now than ever, isn’t affected terribly. As long as digital content consumption is on the up and up, all f o r m s o f content will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.”

    He adds that in times of the great cleanse that is the pandemic, the not-so-great music will fall by the wayside and the good and the great will remain and continue to flourish. The numbers posted by Moitra’s Apni Maati is proof that finding an audience is not a problem for the right content.

    Jasleen Royal, a singer-songwriter with many Bollywood songs under her belt, will agree. Her new single, Sang Rahiyo, that she shot in an isolated building in Mumbai in September has garnered a million views on the first day it launched. It has over 10 million views now. Royal, who used a small team and adequate precautions to execute the project, says she launched the video on her own channel rather than going with a big record label.

    She, however, is forthcoming in saying that she can’t wait to get on to a stage again. “I haven’t played a live concert since the outbreak. I am itching to start playing in front of a live audience again. But that will have to wait.”

    4

    For now, safety comes before everything else. The only other feasible way is to adapt to the changing times.

    Hari and Sukhmani, for example, are preparing for the 15 wedding events they have bagged in the coming days. They intend to plan well to ensure social distancing is maintained at these shows. After all, nearly 80% of Hari and Sukhmani’s work comes from live events. Not all artists have been lucky to see a quick return into the live circuit. Subir Malik, a founder-member of rock band Parikrama and who also manages talent, including Hari and Sukhmani, says it has been more difficult for groups that depended on corporate gigs. With companies cutting down on spending, it is difficult to say when the market for blues music will revive, he says, adding even Parikrama is struggling to find gigs.

    The worst hit people within the live music segment are the independent artists. Raghu Dixit of Raghu Dixit Project, a contemporary folk band based in Bengaluru, says the demand for his music seems to have evaporated. “I have not had any gigs since the pandemic began. The situation is very desperate. I don’t do covers, weddings or film songs. Unless someone wants an eclectic performance, I don’t do weddings. I have done at least 20 fundraisers but none for money. Financially, it is a pretty bad time for indie musicians right now,” he says. But there are those who see a silver lining even in the darkest of clouds. “Luckily, the pandemic hit the industry when the season for live gigs was almost over,” says Malik.

    Most live gigs that are held in open areas and bars are usually organised between October and February. These gigs generally tend to peter out around March. “Many artists are waiting for the season to start again. We are telling some of our clients to take more wedding events this year unlike before,” Malik says. Another ray of hope has come from the government order allowing restaurants to reopen their doors. Outlets that had promoted live events as their USP earlier can’t wait to restart the shows.

    5

    NCR-based pub chain Imperfecto says they are “reconfiguring” the way they work. Sharad Madan, director of Bel Cibo Hospitality, the parent company of Imperfecto, says: “We have started by bringing back live performances at our venues twice a week. To manage distancing, we’ve told the performing bands to keep the music mellow, and have kept our acts to duos and solos only. It is better than putting a pen drive on to play music,” he says. Madan expects the segment to bounce back by December.

    Every artist has to kind of restart his or her life, says Zaman of Astitva. “We have done many ticketed concerts as well as free gigs online during the pandemic. But no company is willing to pay us our usual rates. Some paid less than half. But it is still a good income as we were working from home.” He adds that the priority of their band this year will be to take on more wedding work, something they never thought of doing till last year. Artists will have to make such major adjustments to survive the pandemic, says Malik of Parikrama.

    Some acts that used to charge Rs 7-8 lakh a night will now have to halve their fee. “We are getting 50-60% of our original payments.” Sanyal of Universal Music hopes this is just a “temporary glitch” in the music industry. “Yes, the way we function will have probably changed forever. But music was, is and is likely to continue to be important in our lives.”

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