Carnatic music is one of the worst-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in India. Like any performing arts activity that doesn’t exist without the now dangerous “Three Cs” — crowds, close contacts and closed spaces (to borrow from doctor-writer Siddhartha Mukherjee) — it is in suspended animation. Some say the cessation may last at least a year to 18 months, while the experience of the 1918 Flu pandemic suggests even a longer duration, possibly up to three years.
For Carnatic musicians, it’s an existential threat: both their revenues, which are even otherwise very limited, and performance-opportunities have taken a terrible hit. Since early March, all their concerts have been cancelled, including the overseas gigs that had become a staple for many senior and middle-level musicians. And since musicians live solely on concert fees, it also means they are without income for the last three months and are not going to earn anything from concerts as long as the threat of the pandemic exists.
Moreover, Carnatic music, like any other form of performance-based classical music, is also about creativity and high level of skills that require constant concert-fitness. With the stage shut down indefinitely, the artistes are in serious trouble. A certain stasis that could have irreversible damage to their personal and professional ives.
While some of the top performers have decent savings to fall back upon and tide over even a longer period of unemployment, a large number musicians, particularly the accompanists such as percussionists and violists, are in serious trouble because they live on a concert-to-concert basis. Even in regular times, they feel the pinch when a month’s concerts are cancelled. The worst-hit are the sub-accompanists such as Ghatam and Ganjira players because they are the least paid in the industry and are expendable when programmes are run on a budget. Even with very modest lives, many are struggling to pay rents, EMIs on home and vehicle mortgages, and medical and educational expenses. Some have ramped up online teaching, particularly of the NRI kids, and are somehow managing to make both ends meet, but percussionists would find it hard to even do that. Who would want to learn an instrument that is the lowest in the concert value-chain?
Clearly, the musicians need an alternative to live concerts to both earn their livelihood and to keep performing. It’s certainly not unique to Carnatic music, but a challenge that performance industries all over the world are currently facing.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that a six-month shutdown could cost the performance industry about US$ 10 billion. The longer the spell of inactivity, the higher the losses. According to WEF, the global music industry is valued at about $50 billion and half the revenues come from live music. Although the Carnatic genre is only a negligible part of this pie, in contrast, its revenue comes almost entirely from live stage programmes. In other words, the global music industry has some other alternatives streams of revenue that would keep the musicians housed, fed and clothed, but Carnatic musicians would struggle for mere sustenance.
What the Covid-19 pandemic has thoroughly exposed is this art form’s existential vulnerability arising out of a limited socio-cultural infrastructure that sustains it. The moment this infrastructure, which unfortunately seems to harbour a strange resolve not to scale up beyond its extremely limited universe, faces some vulnerability, both the art and the artistes take a massive hit. It’s a deleterious fault-line that gets exposed even by a minor crisis, but Covid-19 is a disruptive pandemic with an unpredictable path.
In this unfathomable uncertainty, the Carnatic art and the artistes need an alternative to survive. In a world of social distancing, where crowds, closed spaces and close contacts that make up concerts are impossible and even illegal, the alternative is only digital. It’s time for the Carnatic genre to find its digital alter-ego. There’s no other way.
Timing the shift
“Fundamentally consumption of art is going to change drastically. We will see a quick shift from physical space to digital. But the most important thing to keep in mind for both organisers and artistes is not to make the digital space a replacement of the physical space,” says Mahesh Venkateswaran, founder of MadRasana, a pioneering Chennai-based initiative in creating alternative concert experiences. “Digital concerts can never ever replace the physical space. We need to take the best aspects of physical space and create newer paradigms that can be done in virtual space but never in physical space. Digital Concerts should be a brand new way to consume art,” he adds.
Interestingly, digital was indeed the format most of the artistes jumped to as soon they realised that regular concerts were not going to return any time soon. However, all of them flocked in the same direction: Facebook and Instagram. Within a few days of the lockdown, there was a deluge of concerts and clips by musicians at all levels on the social media. However, the excessive supply and stripped-down quality that the medium was capable of made it an unattractive experience. Lockdown-concerts became a tiring hashtag just like ubiquitous webinars and soon social media looked like a digital dump-yard of music produced on the phone. Musicians say they went digital because of their eagerness to continue performing and to be in touch with their followers.
Musicians admit that such excessive digital presence didn’t help them get extra followers or open avenues to monetise their efforts. When the regular concerts were barred, digital concerts indeed should have been their professional alternative, but it didn’t work because they didn’t have the right model or the industry-intelligence. They didn’t know how to go digital.
Devina Dutt of the Mumbai-based First Edition Arts, that has been trying to create a viable integrated concert-space with strategic focus on high quality digital productions and curations, feels the post-lockdown online concerts on social media filled a temporary need at a critical uncertain time, but it has run its course. “Once the lockdown happened, the immediate and perhaps understandable reaction in the short term was to put out content regardless of its quality and standards, but I think we have run the course there. Viewers were anyway never going to pay for those kind of concerts.”
Ringing in the money
Although half the revenue of the music industry world over comes from live music, the consumption patterns have been changing over the last few years. Streaming, various forms of monetisation (such as licensing music for arts and commerce music) and digital aggregation have become stable revenue streams and reports show that since the pandemic shut down live concerts, their consumption has been on the rise. “The crisis is likely to accelerate underlying trends in the music industry,” is how the WEF summarises the possibility. Globally, the alternative streams are indeed picking up.
And that’s encouraging news for a form such as Carnatic music. Digital concerts, streaming and innovative ways of licensing, even as a stopgap alternative, offer new avenues of revenue. Digital also means larger and cross-over audiences, world-class production values and a scale that the genre has never been able to achieve.
“But the artistes have to think through the content,” says Venakteswaran. “This is a great opportunity to change the format of the concert, be it from the overall time to the way the concert is constructed. In virtual space, everyone in the audience is in the front row and they can get very very close and intimate to the artistes. The vibration of the artistes on stage can be transmitted to the audience in meaningful ways not possible before. Here is a great opportunity for all artistes to create a bouquet of their digital assets that are their own creation which can be monetised over a period of time. I also believe for the first time the art space will have an integrated view of performers and technicians coming together as a team to produce very different form of content.”
“We feel that live concerts as we knew them have an uncertain future. It is difficult to craft a vision for taking concerts online when things are so fluid. One thing we do know for sure is that we don’t want to rush in with substandard material. If people are generally reluctant to pay for live concerts — unless the musicians are stars, they are unlikely to pay for substandard online concerts. Musicians and organisers need to come together to convince sponsors and audiences that while live concerts remain the most preferred format, in the near and foreseeable future, good quality with high production values need to be considered and accepted as a serious alternative,” adds Dutt.
A major hurdle, however, is monetising the “Digital”. Not paying for concerts is a habit that has been as old as the format itself. Carnatic concerts are largely free, except during the Chennai season or on special occasions, and there has been no effort from any quarters to make it a commercially viable art. The demographics of the audience, the setting and the organisation (read proprietary sponsorships) themselves are set in such a way that both the monetary and experiential aspects of the concerts are highly restricted and archaic.
Committed impresarios such as Venakteswaran and Dutt as well as business-savvy musicians are unanimous in their opinion that a breakthrough cannot happen without people willing to pay. In fact, there has been a lot of discussion around the world on the issue and the general consensus has been against free content. “Don’t give away your content for free,” say most, warning that it will lead to the same revenue-crisis that the news-media has landed itself in.
“As far as monetising is concerned, years of consuming free content has made audiences reluctant to pay for music. They have effectively signalled that they are not interested in engaging with the economic challenges involved in setting up concerts. We feel that after five years of creating high-value content and putting it out for free purely to promote the artistes and their music, it is time to relook at that model that could help us meet our costs for putting out similar concerts online. We hope to convince sponsors that the reach via online concerts with a global footprint and permanent branding is worth considering. Audiences too, need to step up and put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting the music and its practitioners across the line and not just concentrate on big names and stars. Perhaps there is an opportunity for aiming for a more equitable pipeline of musicians with no compromise on quality of course. Perhaps this is that moment,” says Dutt.
Venakteswaran also thinks that for monetisation to take off, some fundamental change in the minds of the audience has to happen and it has to start with the fact that everyone has to pay for art. “To a large extent, we have made art free way too long that it will be a huge mind-shift . The artistes also have to figure out how to balance between free content and paid content.”
Saketharaman, a top musician of the younger generation, who also had a senior engineer-management role in the corporate sector, suggests paid tickets in an online platform (like in Berliner Philharmoniker), streaming for city-specific Sabha members with IP-controls and monetising Youtube channels as some immediate first steps. He thinks it’s also an opportunity to expand the access to learning Carnatic music — a deficiency that the critics of Carnatic music are perpetually peeved about — through online classes. In fact, he has just launched a “Cross Over with Saketh” series on YouTube as part of his digital exploration.
Venakteswaran is one of the very few people who seem to have a concrete idea of a virtual concert model, which he calls a “multiplex of sorts, where anyone can come, purchase a ticket and watch it. More importantly, based on the type of ticket you hold, you can have different experiences for the same concert — like interaction, or enabling the content of the concert itself based on their requests and so on.”
But what about the co-created experiences of physical concerts that the artistes feed off from? Venakteswaran thinks it’s possible too. “It will be great if we can build an environment — where they can virtually also see the audience in front of them and react to their singing live — with claps etc. All these are in the drawing board and we have started working on such a seamless platform in collaboration with a US company.”
Meanwhile, what’s required at the moment is stopping indiscriminate sharing of free and technically poor quality online content unless one has a clear plan of monetising it (e.g. Youtube channels) and working towards creating a synergistic model. The worst case will be each musician or organisation coming up with a streaming app.
The game has certainly changed. You have to be in it for a long haul.
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