| 24 Apr 2024
'Needed: an alternative music scene' by Niladri Kumar

It's a big thing today if an artiste manages to get 5000 listeners

As a kid, I had heard from my father about the late 50's - 70's era when people thronged theatres in large numbers. There were no auditoriums then, concerts would be conducted in theatres because those were the only venues.

After the venue was packed to its capacity, the rest would stand outside – but none would go till it got over! My father was also one those who stood outside to hear these concerts and one who eventually went on to become a musician himself. In those times, around 15,000 people would gather for a concert, and it's quite surprising – there were no aggressive marketing campaigns like we have now that was something which I can refer to as the 'live music scene'.

Playing at the city music joints or pubs is certainly not a great achievement. I would be dishonest if I painted a rosy picture of today's scenario – it's not that great – it's a big thing if an artiste manages to get 5000 listeners.

Adopt the philosophy of the Maharajas

If we go back to the time when the Maharajas ruled, we can understand how music was 'patronised'. After the musicians were noticed by the Maharaja, he would 'patronise' them, provide them with all the necessities and would ask them to continue doing what they do best– i.e. make music. In return, the musician had to entertain the Maharaja or courtesans – pretty fair! On the other hand, musicians who were not patronised had to resort to singing on streets and depend on food offered at the temples. Today, the Maharajas have gone, but their role is being played – by government and by the corporates.

Sadly, ever since this change, 'patronising' disappeared. Today there's no organisation or body which has an eye for harnessing or nurturing talent like the Maharajas did. Moreover, the intention today is mainly business focused, and has nothing to do with preserving tradition or nurturing the talents – the corporates in this business need to reassess these things and develop an approach through which talent and tradition would be nurtured.

Are we making it feasible for our audiences to hear the music?

I had been to 'Mehfils' or house concerts which were often arranged by the prosperous class, as a kid. Besides the 'Mehfils', there were 'music circles' who were a group of music lovers who loved a particular artiste/musician and arranged for his/her concert by collecting funds. 'Mehfils' or 'Music circles' concerts proved to be of great help to the musicians. Often, musicians would work on Bollywood projects during the day and in the night play at house concerts or mehfils. However, very few musicians had the capacity to do both, i.e. playing classical music as well as for films. These concerts usually went on for four to five hours at a stretch, the artiste would have a lot of material to play and despite the long hours, none from the audience would feel jaded – today we have no guarantee if the artiste or listener would be willing to be there for more than an hour. Playing at stretch also needs experience, and even if an artiste is willing, where are the venues? The only venue of quality standard is NCPA in Colaba, 20 Kms away from the suburbs! With such tribulations, are we making it feasible for our audiences to hear the music?

Live scene is corporate bound

The present 'live' music scenario is corporate bound, it's only after you get a sponsor that one can go ahead with the concert. Apart from the artistes' fees, concerts have expenses like travel, transportation of equipments, sound – and now, security. How does one recover these costs? One cannot recover these from ticket sales as there are very few 'box-office' musicians who can ensure cent per cent sales irrespective of the ticket pricing. The smaller artiste has to often latch up to a bigger name fair enough. To add, often passes are given out in bulk to the sponsors, out of the given number of passes, only 50 per cent turn up – it's certainly unexciting for the artiste to play in front of empty chairs. And it hurts me that the true music lover has no option but to stand somewhere at the back.

The corporates have the power, and no one can deny the fact that economic power is a big power. What we need is a more 'streamlined' process and at the same time transparency in order to make the live music scene 'lively'. An approach, that is balanced and beneficial to all – sponsors, musicians and most importantly, the listeners. The corporates who sponsor live events can play a greater role, and though there are few who are working with an intention to do good for music, things often go off the beam for these do gooders as sometimes the artiste tries to cash-on and make the most of the opportunity – that's the flip side. However, I am optimistic that if there's pure intention on both the sides (corporate, organizers and artistes), the artistes who try to cash-on would change their attitude. Why wouldn't they?

Urgent need for an alternative music scene

The media can play a significant role, mainly the television media – but they don't seem to get out of their TRP trap. The only music we play on majority of channels today is Bollywood – and some are also airing reality shows! The fact that there is no channel encouraging 'alternative music' says it all. If an artiste is not exposed to the audience (local, international), how can we expect the audience to know about the artiste and come for the concert?

Ideally, I should not be complaining, I am one of lucky few who play often – but what about those who don't?

Niladri Kumar is a renowned Sitar and Zitar player from India. He has carved a niche for himself  in both Indian classical and fusion music. As a performing musician, Niladri Kumar has toured extensively in both India and abroad with his band ZitarFunk.