Gigging in the time of social distancing

ANURAG TAGAT | Updated on May 15, 2020

Fired up: DJ-producer Parimal Shais performing at the CAD music festival held in February   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SWARAJ SRIWASTAV

The cash boxes are not jingling. And live performances have moved into the realm of wishful thinking. India’s indie music, however, is retuning itself to perform for a home-quarantined audience

* According to IFPI’s Global Music Report, the value of the Indian music industry grew by 18.7 per cent to $181.7 million (about ₹1,370 crore) from 2018 to 2019

* Indie musicians such as Prateek Kuhad, Parvaaz and Blackstratblues have been live streaming post lockdown

* Artistes fear budget cuts and fewer live acts post lockdown

It was the first week of February 2020. A sprawling six-acre farm — with a lake, and coconut and mango trees — in the suburb of Malad, Mumbai, was gearing up for Control ALT Delete. Also known as CAD, the two-day annual crowdfunded music festival wasn’t just about the performances though, or the size of the audience. It was a testament to the support India’s independent or indie music (read non-film and mostly made without sponsors or big labels) had drummed up over the years.

Wuhan and the novel coronavirus were nowhere on the horizon when CAD 2020 listeners streamed into the venue, stopping by the donation box the organisers had placed near the performance area. Among the last major music gatherings to be held before the nationwide lockdown on March 25, CAD had already raised ₹72,000 more than its target of ₹5 lakh to cover the cost of the logistics. The yield of the daanpeti or donation box was used to pay the performers. One of them was Mumbai-based singer and songwriter Ankur Tewari of Gully Boy fame, who took the stage before Park Circus, a Kolkata funk/hip-hop group, rapped in Hindi, Bengali and English about the state of the nation.

The reset Festivals such as Control Alt Delete in Mumbai have come to a total halt after the Covid-19 outbreak - Swaraj Sriwastav   -  swaraj sriwastav


The CAD donation box is now gathering dust, along with plans for such musical gatherings across the country. The lockdown has forced them into the background while artistes, as well as composers, music managers and festival organisers grapple with the new normal of social distancing and pandemic protocols. Performance venues are in the grips of a silence that is unlikely to retire soon. Live shows, something that most indie musicians depend on for livelihood, are now in the realm of wishful thinking. According to The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI)’s Global Music Report, the value of the Indian music industry grew by 18.7 per cent to $181.7 million (about ₹1370 crore ) from 2018 to 2019. There are no figures yet on the money the music world has lost to the pandemic, but it would be in hundreds of crores of rupees.

The music, however, hasn’t died out. While the ordinary citizen the world over has taken to balconies and terraces to keep it alive, many artistes — including the indie performer — have gone on social media to preserve their art. The financial setbacks notwithstanding, the artistes, their managers and sponsors are now brainstorming for ways to infuse new life and survival tricks into the trade while also being in touch with the listener.

Long wait: For SIXK, an urban pop group, the lockdown has come in the way of promotional plans for its latest single Dansa, released in early March   -  JIO SAAVN ARTIST ORIGINALS


For SIXK (pronounced ‘sick’), an “urban pop group” comprising rappers, singers and producers and a drummer, the lockdown has come in the way of the promotional plans (including shows and shoots for video content) it had for its latest single Dansa, released in early March. Just over a year in action, the group blends together elements of hip-hop, electronic, pop and soul in its music. Producer and vocalist Viraj Chheda says the team is keen to “explore and experiment” while enjoying a relaxed schedule that allows more time for new ideas, tracks, lyrics and so on.

Independent music manager Sushil Chhugani, who worked closely with rapper DIVINE during his Sony Music India days, has had few moments of rest and calm since the lockdown. The manager in him has also evolved into a mentor for the artistes he now works with across cities. During this “very challenging time”, Chhugani says, some artistes are busy with releasing a body of work while others are just creating more music. “I’ve also spoken to artistes who have taken up online courses to further develop their skills, which seems like a good step to optimise the time available,” Chhugani says. He adds that there are some who are “living in a bubble” and it’s his job to “protect the bubble as far as possible”. “I feel it’s also the time for artistes with a self-sustained, robust channel and ecosystem to help other artistes access that system and network,” Chhugani says, hinting at collaborations within the community to tide over the unprecedented situation induced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bigger names in the circuit such as Prateek Kuhad, Parvaaz and Blackstratblues have tried live streams post lockdown. This, however, is more an attempt to comfort listeners rather than make a quick buck. Many others, such as The Local Train, have maintained radio silence on social media since March, shunning virtual concerts.

Cold mess: Artistes’s such as Prateek Kuhad’s live streams are more to comfort listeners rather than make a quick buck   -  IMAGE COURTESY: PRATEEK KUHAD


Live streams, while in no way as easily monetisable as live concerts, are a regular feature right now. While brands such as the Social chain of pubs, JioSaavn, Bookmyshow and Vh1 may be capitalising on it, music management companies such as Mixtape don’t have any on-ground work they can plan around such sessions.

Naveen Deshpande, founder of Mixtape, the Mumbai-based company in its 10th year now, says the company’s international tours are planned a year in advance.

Deshpande, who has worked with rock veterans Indus Creed and Pentagram and also set up Disrupt, Mixtape’s own electronic music festival, knows that the lockdown will hit the business badly.

“From the event perspective, I don’t think anyone wants to take any chance now, especially brands. They want to suss out and think about where to park their money. Everyone’s going to be vying for these brands for their events, so I think there’s going to be chaos,” he says.

Sounding the note of warning


Ritnika Nayan, artiste and event manager


A seasoned artiste and event manager who’s worked with bands and festivals for over a decade, Ritnika Nayan currently represents digital music distributor CD Baby in India and runs her management company Music Gets Me High. She expresses concerns and clarity for independent music in India in the post-Covid-19 scenario.

Do you think it will take a lot of effort for independent artistes to bounce back?

The lockdown situation has opened the eyes of a lot of artistes. They are now realising they can’t put all their eggs in one basket. Earlier, most independent artistes focused on playing shows. But now they need to start focusing on other avenues such as music promotion, production and monetising.

The key now is to use social media for live shows, paid online shows, focusing on developing YouTube channels that can be monetised and, of course, releasing more music to streaming platforms. When it comes to the live industry, it will definitely take a long time for it to bounce back, given the fact that group events may be restricted even after the general lockdown eases.

Globally, the whole idea of artistes being paid a guaranteed fee for a gig may be discontinued. What do you think of this? Is the gate-share deal (where artistes and venues split the amount raised from tickets sold) the only viable way forward?

I’ve worked on the gate-share model when I was a promoter in London, and some curated events (such as the annual crowdfunded music festival Control ALT Delete) in India have done well on the pay-what-you-want model. However, in India, we have an issue of getting people to pay for shows. Everyone wants to be on the guest list, so that often makes it tough to rely only on gate-share to pay the artistes. I think the artistes need to start being flexible with their rates and we need the audience to start being open to paying for Indian artistes. They often don’t mind paying for international performers.

What have you been hearing from organisers of music festivals and artistes regarding the post-lockdown path?

Well, I had plans to attend several music conferences and showcases, plus I consult with a few festivals. A lot of them have been put on hold at least till July. The biggest concern is maintaining social distancing at a music festival; how to make sure people feel safe to come and, of course, how to make sure that the festival doesn’t become a hotspot for the virus. When it comes to artistes, their biggest concern is the money. There has been a decline in the number of gigs and money available for live bands. DJs have been doing better. A lot of bands are worried that this Covid-19 situation will result in greater cuts in budgets and (fewer) opportunities for bands and other live acts.

What is your advice for independent musicians to ride this out?

My advice would be to keep at it and not lose hope! We always need music in our life. In fact, not just music but all art forms. Most of us who are stuck at home are managing by listening to music, watching films and television shows. This is all art and it will always be important. We may have it tough for a little while, but we will bounce back.

Smaller, intimate shows were going strong pre-pandemic and, when we’re slowly hobbling back, will those be a good starting point for artistes? Do you think intimate gigs will be the way forward before the return of the big festival gathering?

Smaller gatherings are definitely a safer route. No one wants to be the guinea pig that starts off with the first big event that might lead to another outbreak. But how does one monetise it in order to cover costs for the artistes? That’s something we need to figure out. Perhaps having brands sponsor more intimate events — which can also be used to create interesting virtual content — might be the way to go.

Delhi-based Dhruv Visvanath’s plan for 2020, fortunately, has so far proved pandemic-safe. Although he’s spent about a decade writing and performing music, it was only after his 2018 album The Lost Cause that Visvanath toured the US and Canada and attended a songwriting camp in Sweden. His latest song Dear Madeline lives up to the percussive guitar style that he led with on The Lost Cause but also lays emphasis on more layers and pop hooks. He might joke about queueing up for groceries during interviews and live streams, but his home studio is his sanctuary. He tells BLink how the lockdown is affecting him, “I think for me it’s worked out almost closer to the way I’d like. There were some really interesting opportunities later in the year and live performances too, but that being said, the focus was going to be release music. I think this is a chance to build a bigger community around the music.”

Many others have decided to not play live shows, but Visvanath is committed to bringing his charm to live streams every other week.

Over in Kochi, DJ-producer Parimal Shais had just started gigging around the country but has so far hopped on to one live DJ set via Instagram in April, where he premiered new material off his upcoming records.

Shais is arguably the one to watch out for, perhaps for the way he can take yesteryear Bollywood and Malayalam film music and slice it up and produce a hip-hop rendition. But it’s also because he’s been using Indian instruments — chenda, Carnatic violin and tabla, for instance — in his beat bank for artists such as Hanumankind, ThirumaLi and Canadian duo Cartel Madras. Malayalam’s film music industry may be coming for hip-hop but Shais — who started out in 2018 and released his album Kumari Kandam Traps Vol. 1 in 2019 — is wary. “Right now the crowd is accepting more commercial hip-hop. ThirumaLi is dropping a lot of commercial tracks through his channel. He’s getting a million plays. I have a total of about 50,000 plays for the 15 tracks on my album. But still, 50,000 is a huge number. Everything is Malayalam and Tamil in my album.”

Mumbai-based lawyer-turned-musician Aditi Ramesh — who has used her quarantine time to write in Tamil — says she can only watch and participate in so many live streams before they become a little too much. The digital gigs barely pay, beyond a few donations, which makes Ramesh concerned for the future. As much as she can see the bright side of writing material and pushing herself creatively with collaborations, Ramesh admits, “It is really tough. I’m right now relying on savings. There are people who owe me money but I can’t even ask because everyone is facing economic hardship right now. I don’t blame them for it either, because it’s an unprecedented time. I’m doing some background score work, but it’s way lower paying — they don’t have the budgets but I’m doing it also because it’s a chance to learn and it’s artistically nice. The main thing is rent, that’s the difficult bit.” If things continue beyond three months, Ramesh says she may go back to live with her parents. “Unless we crack a way to earn... I don’t think about it actually. I just take it a day at a time,” she finally says.

Sing a song of lockdown

Aditi Ramesh, lawyer-turned-musician   -  RONIT SARKAR


  • She prefaced with a timely message for the hundred-odd people who had turned up to catch her early-afternoon set with her jazz-fusion band: “It’s important that we realise we’re all the same and that we treat our fellow human beings with kindness and respect. There’s no real reason to be rude or unkind to any person in any place or in any context.”
  • Performing live since 2017, Ramesh (29) worked as a lawyer before moving full-time into music. Known for her vocal range that allows her to meld Carnatic swaras with raucous jazz and R&B scatting, Ramesh is also part of vocal group Voctronica in Mumbai. With her band, however, the fluidity of fusion is very apparent. At the festival, she also sang Swaminatha Paripalaya and a semi-autobiographical song called Marriageable Age, which addresses societal and parental pressures to settle down. She says, “I make music as a conscious message to get people to think, and the other is to definitely present Indian culture in a contemporary way to other countries and represent it.”
  • A work tour of the UK for both Ramesh (with a band she set up remotely comprising London-based musicians) and Voctronica has been called off. Ramesh has put on the backburner her concept album centred around the human lifecycle but has been a top pick for virtual concerts. Last week, she released a topical new song called Heal, which features musicians from Ranchi (producer Tre Ess), Bengaluru (vocalist Ranjani Ramadoss), Shillong (opera singer Toshan Singh Nongbet) and London. She says, “The point of the song is that even though we all complain a lot and think about how hard this [lockdown] is for us, the world is finally healing from human life. We should think about this in our future actions and how we live our lives.”

If there’s one part of the independent music scene that follows the do-it-yourself ethos, it’s the metal bands. Although constantly bogged down in stigma and the lack of venues, the likes of death-thrash metal band Godless from Hyderabad are making sure that they cover at least seven Indian cities and a month of European dates every year. Taking cues from established international touring bands from India such as Mumbai’s Gutslit or Bengaluru act Kryptos, Godless has slowly begun drawing crowds that aren’t even necessarily into metal. Formed in 2015 and now with two EPs to their name, Godless performed at one of the biggest festivals for rock and metal, Wacken Open Air in Germany, in 2018. Their unrelenting style of death metal made them quite a sight to behold at CAD Mumbai as well, creating fans out of people who perhaps just got the breakneck speed and technicality of their craft. CAD co-organiser Nikhil Udupa says, “All these people who never listen to metal were there. It gives us a big push to programme music that’s outside of the usual stuff.” But all metal bands, too, have had to cancel their national and international tours. Wacken Open Air has been called off for the first time in its 30-year run in Germany. Bands have announced more merchandise sales to try and recover costs and generate revenue, but it can only go so far because delivery is taking longer than usual and fans are now saving up as much as possible to ride out the lockdown. Indian metal will likely forego the handful of gigs they get and they also don’t necessarily have the streaming numbers to pull in a sizeable royalty check. But knowing the underdog status they’ve always had, it’s likely that they will return post-lockdown, albeit with a few scrapes. “We will make this happen down the line, once everything is back to normal. Times are tough, but they will pass,” says Gutslit bassist and founder Gurdip Singh Narang. Unfazed, Gutslit has announced a 14-city European tour in November. The anticipatory game runs on in the Indian independent space, as everywhere else, during the pandemic. It might just change the way gigs are conducted and how revenue is earned, but right now every member — the artistes, organisers, venues and staffers — just need a time period. Last month, Mixtape’s Deshpande put the estimate at three months, which he would revisit now. He says about the way ahead, “From then (we have) to plan what’s next. They (stakeholders) all want to see when things are going to end and then they want to plan. Everyone’s waiting to know which month to look at.”

Anurag Tagat is a freelance music journalist

Published on May 15, 2020

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