Corona and musicians – The Times of India Blog

Everyone is getting front row seats to the concerts these days. There’s the bonus of no travel time too, and the freedom to noisily munch on a bowl of potato chips, in pyjamas. With nowhere to go, thanks to a certain virus, now your auditorium is your laptop screen. Pat yourself on the back for oftentimes not parting with a paisa, yet getting to watch your favourite artiste up close. But what about that artiste? What if your profession demands you climb on to a stage to sing before a live audience? It’s going to be a while before a crowd claps for you. Yes, doing your act online is the flavour of the moment. But is that moment being monetised? Is it going to be lights-out for the middling and struggling musicians, while stars shrug and accept a pay cut for their brand of creativity-meets-cash? Are these performers rejigging showtime, to put food on the table?

It isn’t a pretty picture. Many feted artistes are willing to write off this year as a “no show”. They probably can, since there’s some corpus to dip into. But what about the freelance drummer who plays in jagraatas, the not-so-well-known tabla-player who accompanies a sarod maestro, the Raagi in the gurudwara, or the crooner in the hotel lobby? Many of them are on hand-to-mouth budgets, and haven’t earned anything in the last couple of months. The next couple of months also don’t look particularly sunny.

Pramod Basu (name changed), a table player in Bhubaneswar, is distraught. “There are no concerts where I can accompany artists. No one wants to do tabla tuitions at home. My wife and son are financially dependent on me, and I haven’t earned anything in three months.” Basu, who could cobble together Rs 30,000 a month pre-Corona, is considering going back to his village, but is conflicted, as his son studies in Bhubaneswar. There are many like him – no savings, not tech-savvy.

Then there are those who have triumphed over technology, but without the elusive prefix “famous”. For them, teaching online via Skype or Zoom helps bring in some of the bacon. Even Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, in Delhi, with its 1100 music and dance students that are taught by 30 teachers, has favoured the online route. “For a month we did not charge our students tuition fees as classes had got disrupted, but our teachers were paid their salaries throughout,” says principal, Madhup Mudgal.

When shutters were downed in March 2020, both bathroom singers and bona-fide bands went online to hum different variations of a look-at-me tune. Mostly, for free. A bit like how newspapers were serving up breaking news for free, when the dotcom boom hit us where it didn’t hurt, initially. But there’s an almost 360-degree twist to that tale since. Musicians too are playing catch up.

The reality, however, is so dismal, that even the handful of well-established musicians are scratching their heads on how to fine tune their acts. Singer Rahul Ram, of Indian Ocean and Aisi Taisi Democracy fame, has a tepid take: “We do get paid to perform online, but with huge fee cuts. I miss the energy of our five-member band playing on stage. It’s no fun sitting alone in our respective homes and trying to stitch each of our tracks together.”

There are silver linings though. Someone who is sanguine about the situation, while admitting that Covid19 has caused a huge dent in her earnings, is eminent Hindustani vocalist, Shubha Mudgal. “My life as a student of music remains intact, despite the pandemic. I have taken no other measures to ensure earnings but to stick to regular riyaaz and study. This is possibly the only way in which I can ensure that as and when possible, I will be able to start earning again,” she says. Not that there is any dearth of concerts for her even now. She’s recently done paid online performances for audiences based in Kolkata and Melbourne, with another one coming up in Vancouver.

While there may be musicians like Mudgal who are paid a fee for their online performances, there are some, like singer-songwriter Sonam Kalra, who do ticketed shows too. About a month ago, early bird tickets for Rs 500, and full-price ones at Rs 1,000 were sold for her show Partition: Stories of Separation. And sure enough, you were guaranteed front row seats.

Meanwhile, Bookmyshow had joined hands with Udupa Foundation, to give proceeds from ticket sales (starting @ Rs 350) of ‘Udupa Music Festival At Your Home’ to supporting musicians facing financial hardships due to Corona related cancellations. HCL, one of the early birds to patronise Indian classical music online, has also been paying artistes they showcase. As curator, HCL Concerts Team, Karan Anand says: “We pay an honorarium because we value the artist’s talent and hard work. But since the lockdown, there may be a reduction in the fee as most musicians do home concerts without accompanists, and don’t have to invest time in traveling.”

If performing from home is gradually becoming a feasible business proposition for musicians, then beefing up for it is the next move to consider. This means, for those who can, investing in equipment. Kalra says she’s ramped up her home studio to include state-of-the art mikes, mixers, sound cards, etc. for the best possible listening experience online. She still, however, has to grapple with “issues of time lags, wavering internet speeds, and apps that cut out certain instrument frequencies”, adding, “I try to be as tech-savvy as possible, but the connection with a live audience is something I can’t duplicate.”

Looks like the mother of invention isn’t far for seamless transmission in online music concerts. Sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee is confident that “soon there will be a proprietary platform that will make viewing a concert from the comfort of your home as good as when you go to an auditorium.” This then could be the game changer in the era of distancing, where you might want to stay home to see your favourite musicians light up your laptop screen, rather than trudge to the toniest theatre in town, to see them in flesh and blood.

There are, of course, all kinds of musicians. There are the stars, and then there are the folk artists who often aren’t on anybody’s radar. Perhaps government intervention, like in Rajasthan, may save them from falling by the wayside. For its thousands of folk singers across sand dunes, the state “has paid Rs 2, 500 for each song they record a video of and send to us to upload onto our websites,” says Sreya Guha, principal secretary, Tourism, Arts and Culture Department, and adds: “It’s wonderful to see videos of women sitting on charpoys, singing traditional songs we had no earlier records of.” Let’s hope that Rs 2,500 reaches the right bank accounts.

Mega-event organiser Teamwork Arts’ is also reaching out to beleaguered artists through its initiative #ArtMatters, where people can, through donations, subscriptions, and purchasing tickets, support performers. Says its managing director Sanjoy K Roy: “We all talk about our rich cultural tradition, but aren’t willing to pay a rupee for it. The arts have always been our last priority.”

Unfortunately, the goal post has shifted since. Now the priority is survival of the artist, not so much of art.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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