This is both an awful and an incredible time to be a lover of music. Right after the slew of announcements cancelling live shows in the run-up to the COVID 19 lockdown, artists took their music to Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. In one sense, art has never been more accessible. In another sense, it has never been more abundant; the tyranny of choice pervades.
From live to Facebook Live, the artists have had to change aspects of their music, adapt to the shredding bandwidth, ("In India 4G is only 1 and a half G," Ankur Tewari told Shubha Mudgal in one of the live conversations.) the lack of accompanying musicians, and setting up cameras, lights and mics themselves. This is in addition to thinking deeply about the role of the artist in such times, the future of the music industry generally, and their own music, more specifically.
I spoke to a few artists, and attended a dozen live events to understand this changing landscape and what it means for music and the industry hereon.
TM Krishna, the carnatic singer, and activist-author, believes that all art is political. "Who you perform for, what you perform, when you perform, everything is political. There is nothing called benign art. It's utter bullshit. What you're saying is that it does not disturb the status quo, which is defined by the group they belong to. I hope this experience takes people out of that bubble."
In this sense, the role of the artist is not just sharing their music for people to celebrate, as the human race enters a new psychological state. Ankur Tewari, the songwriter-singer, whose latest "Woh Hum Nahin" was an anthem in support of the protests against the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act, told me about this feeling of immediacy as an artist.
"An artist must reflect the times, using your art and craft to reach out to people and tell them stories that they find their stories in. Art is essential, but especially so in times of crisis," says Tewari.
Krishna performed a concert on March 29. It was a ticketed Carnatic event. All proceeds were collected and went to artists, mostly from Tamil Nadu, displaced by the Corona crisis. Tewari too makes it clear that his services do not come free. Whenever he plays for a brand, he insists he either be paid or that money be given directly to charity. Someone must benefit financially from all the art being produced.
When the rock band Indian Ocean first came live on Facebook they were nervous- the technology was new to them. Because they could not all perform together, Amit Kilam, one of the band members began, and then transitioned the Facebook live to Rahul Ram. About 3,000 people were online, watching, dropping, and rejoining. Kilam got his two daughters to help play the piano, and prod him when he forgot the lyrics, or to help keep pace. Ram's dog, Amavas, made special appearances, cozying into his lap or purring loudly in the background.
"Naya daur hai, isi ko concert samajh lete hain," Kilam says as he wound his music around stories he would tell about the songs, answering questions the viewers sent. If anything this is a more forgiving, more intimate experience, uncaring for perfection. One of the live viewers asked "Chilli chicken or rogan gosht?" Kilam answered instinctively "Rogan gosh" before crooning to Bhor. Vishal Dadlani, who was on the stream, commented "Magic my brother, pure magic." The last live show they did a few days ago had mics and a more professional camera placement. The artist was acclimatizing.
What about the pre-concert nerves? "Always ya. I still get jitters, it's the same as going on stage," Tewari confides. Even his preparation is the same- going over the set lists and rehearsing before the performance.
What about the satisfaction of performing live to a full room? Both Tewari and Krishna mention that when they sing, it is mostly meditative and internal. But now, being the only person in the room must be different. For Krishna, the moment the tanpura starts being played, he is just happy singing.
The satisfaction for Tewari is slightly different. "I look forward to doing it in the sense that it sets some kind of schedule in my life when I am tempted to not have one." The audience interaction too is different. "My third or fourth insta live, the people who came knew each other and were chatting with each other, like they were in a virtual pub."
In some sense things are the same, but in some, they are radically different. Tewari now himself checks for lights, to make sure his expressions would be seen, making sure the mics on his phone or laptop are working, that the distance is not too much, and the background not too jarring.
For Krishna, it was more elaborate. He actually filmed his performance earlier, and streamed it live because of bandwidth fears.
"It was done at home in Chennai. We had two iPhone cameras, one zoom camera, and one zoom audio system, all attached to chairs, and wooden boxes. My daughters and I filmed it the previous day. We worked for half an hour to see the positions of tanpura and everything. My usual drill before the performance is keeping quiet for 10 minutes. I spent an hour before going through the song requests, putting that list out in front of me. It was just one shoot- two hours non stop," adds Krishna.
I wondered if he also had any post-gig rituals he still stuck to?
"Oh, I have a drink. And I did follow that this time too," he laughs.
Krishna mentions that though in the immediate future, gathering might be a problem because of the psychological tensions, in the long run live music will be back. "There is a physicality of live-music I don't think we as a species can survive without. The difference between listening to it online and being in a room or an open air auditorium where the whole space is filled with that sound… that's what makes performing live so exciting," he says.
But there will be a parallel track of stronger online engagement. YouTube in some sense is that parallel universe. But something Shubha Mudgal pointed out is that while many musicians can take to Facebook Live, folk and classical traditional arts that require live audience and open air spaces might not be able to make use of such platforms. Will you be able to enjoy a Kathakali performance watching it on Instagram on your small screens? Ankur Tewari strumming his guitar is more geography agnostic.
Moreover this is not a proper commercial space yet, as Krishna points out. While the bigwigs like Bacardi NH7 Weekender, which is entirely online on Instagram, are also paying all the artists, this is not a universal thing. "The next tough question is how this ecosystem as a marketplace is going to evolve? Is it going to be subscription based? Ticketed concerts? There are lots of ifs and buts. One thing is that the young generation, technologically, gets it. But if this is going to be a sustainable model. I really don't know."
When I asked Tewari what he has learnt from all of this, he talks like an analyst about diluting risks, figuring out different ways to support oneself as an artist. "Tomorrow maybe the internet collapses, and the reverse of this would happen, you would need only live music, the old school way. You have to be ready and adapt to how things change. Otherwise you'll become a dinosaur."