Social media ragas from Sanjay Subrahmanyan

Akshaya Chandrasekaran October 3 | Updated on October 04, 2021

How the classical vocalist got audiences singing to his tune, 30 seconds at a time, is a case study in branding and engagement

You don’t expect Carnatic music ragas like Nalinakanti and Niroshta to leap out at you while scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. Don’t they belong more to sabhas and live concerts? But musician Sanjay Subrahmanyan, helped by brand auteur Bhargavii Mani, is redefining the rules of engagement with his audience, pitching out mellifluous notes in exciting formats — reels, short video series, and online concerts — all across social media.

Carnatic classical music was ripe for some digital intervention, and the way Subrahmanyan has exploded across a medley of formats is a case study on personal branding by a performing artiste across social media. His ‘On That Note’ on YouTube, which combines music with memories has not only cemented his engagement with his loyal fan base, but earned him new audiences.

The Alaap

It all began in March 2021, when Mani, founder of Bhargavii Mani and Consultants, formerly Edge Design House, was approached by Subrahmanyan to produce episodes of his online concert ‘Sanjay Sabha’. Her response was a question: Are you leveraging your brand adequately? The vocalist was no stranger to technology; he had launched his official website and produced his podcast back in 2008, well ahead of the curve. And even before the jugalbandi with Mani, he had already tested the waters, with three episodes of the online concert. But that was not enough for Mani. She wanted to bring to light the many facets of the artiste and explore new avenues for him to directly engage with his fan base.

Mani performed a SWOT analysis, examined risks, pain points, and brand requirements in a systematic way, which, she says, opened up many possibilities. “One of the most wonderful traits about Sanjay, and his wife Aarthi, is their ability to remain objective. They were so open to feedback. The level of friendliness and ‘egoless’ objectivity Sanjay has, especially as a musician of his stature, leaves me spellbound to this day. His silent confidence in himself, and humility, is conducive for healthy collaboration.”

Digital swaras

How did the musician find the capacity to innovate as he was stepping into uncharted territory? Responds Subrahmanyan: “I have had no problems adapting to new technology in the past. However, to be honest, I was not a fan of singing online concerts or producing digital content. The initial optimism that I would be back to live performances very soon was probably the main reason. But when the pandemic showed no signs of subsiding, I had to rethink all this. After meeting Bhargavii and working with her, I believe my digital presence is here to stay, even after I resume live performances. I am excited to push boundaries.”

The idea for the ‘On that Note’ series came to Mani when she realised Sanjay was a natural storyteller. “I was jotting down all the anecdotes he shared with me about his musical journey. Chatting over a cup of coffee, the idea gradually took shape, and we decided to combine music with memories where he picks a select raga, performs it, and then renders his favourite memory attached to it in a casual, friendly way, all in roughly two minutes.”

Indeed, one of the audience’s favourite aspects of the series has been getting to know the artiste outside the performance context. Many also profess their enchantment with the vibrant colour palette in the videos and eye-catching tambura silhouette of a logo. “The colour palettes are inspired from the impressionist art that Sanjay enjoys and the logo represents his tambura which is 100+ years old (which is his only form of shruti),” explains Mani.

Striking a chord

The first six episodes were shot in one day, and when it was released, it became a runaway hit, racking up more than 1,00,000 views in its first week alone. Many people, who were not traditionally Carnatic music fans, were tuning in. “That was the whole point,” says Mani.

“Today the art form is appreciated even by children, who are all digital beings. They need to experience classical music in the form they experience everything else — on their laptop and mobile phones. If only pop music is available, they will only grow up listening to that. There’s no reason as to why Carnatic music cannot occupy that space, really,” says Harish Bijoor, brand and business strategy consultant.

That reception of ‘On that Note’ inspired Subrahmanyan and his team to expand the series to the format of 30-second reels, and the interactive ‘Short Notes’ was born.

For instance, the vocalist who has never sung a film song, performs a raga tied to an old Illayaraja composition, at once entertaining and educating an audience. “The comments we receive the most is from people who say, I did not know Carnatic music is so much fun,” says Mani.

Branding a musician on social media is wildly different from branding a large business.

The number game of likes and topping trending charts, important for businesses selling products, which can be bought out with money, does not apply here.

It is far more challenging to create organic, high-engagement content which has a long-lasting impact, and aligns with the artiste’s personal brand.

Bijoor believes efforts such as this are laudable. “There is nothing classical about classical music. That might sound sacrilegious, but what I mean is, classical is considered to be old, antediluvian, and so retro. That is not the case now. Classical music has changed with time. What used to be physical has become digital.”

“YouTube subscribers have tripled for Sanjay’s channel. The proof of the pudding is in the retention rate and the quality of engagement,” says Mani.

For Subrahmanyan, the love and affection is so overwhelming that he says “it is almost as if I don’t miss the after-kutchery experience! One of the biggest takeaways is the global reach and how people from everywhere are tuning in.”

New Notes

Today, Sanjay Sabha is shot in-house, with a seven-camera setup and produced for a virtual audience, who sign up to be a patron for the paid programming.

Mani said she watched videos of the musician and noted his characteristic movements, paying particularly close attention to the relationship he shares with his accompanists, the importance he gives to enunciation, and his proficiency in multiple languages. “I wanted to render a holistic experience and capture all that,” she says.

On upcoming projects, Subrahmanyan says, “We are looking at ways to explore deep technology in Carnatic music and continue with what we are already doing. Meanwhile, I have had a lot of time to work at home, refresh myself creatively, polish old material, and gear up for concerts. I am a positive guy. I totally endorse the current buzzword WAGMI (We’re ALL Gonna Make It).”

Published on October 03, 2021

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