D Sampath Kumar

The ‘market failure’ in Carnatic music

D. Sampathkumar | Updated on March 09, 2018

Coming together: To create a level performing field.- K BHAGYA PRAKASH

The market for Carnatic music suffers from such structural rigidities that an ‘inclusive’ form seems next to impossible

Imagine this scenario: There is a vast open ground with a stage erected at the centre. A Christian singer from the fishing community in Kanyakumari is rendering the composition of a Dalit poet set to a melody in Kalyani raga in the Carnatic tradition. The audience consists of people of a mixed social background with lungi-clad men in the company of middle-aged women in resplendent silk sarees sporting glittering diamond studs swaying to the lilting music. Sounds fanciful? Perhaps. But that is as close to a vision of ‘inclusive’ music that the Magsaysay award-winner TM Krishna, a noted exponent of Carnatic music, nurtures in his mind.

As he explained in a conversation the other day with Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former civil servant and public figure, at an event organised by the Chennai International Centre, he would like to see a new brand of ‘inclusive’ Carnatic music that embraces in its scope, alternative formats of a concert to the one that is currently in vogue. He would also like to see a framework of musical expression that accommodates other forms of music (folk) and indeed, even other forms in the performing arts (traditional rural dance forms) as well. And of course the ultimate test of ‘inclusion’: a socially diverse pool of patrons and performers.

Unrealistic vision?

But how realistic is this vision? Not very. The harsh reality is that such a vision is at odds with accepted notions of what makes a market in goods/services in economic theory. For an inclusive market in Carnatic music there has to be a vast pool of practitioners and students of such music. It additionally needs a vast population of consumers who are willing to consume an eclectic brand of performing art (that combines different forms of vocal and instrumental music with all kinds of dance forms). Above all, we need an energetic band of entrepreneurs (the sabha secretaries, if you like) who are willing to underwrite the risk of bringing to the marketplace such a product in the hope that it would find ready acceptance.

The market for Carnatic music as it exists today suffers from such structural rigidities that the prospects of an ‘inclusive’ form of music that Krishna envisions seem next to impossible.

Let us look at the entry barrier for a potential supplier of such music. For an ‘inclusive’ market you need a vast number of students willing to train in such a school of music and in time, become practised exponents of that form. That straightaway comes up against a structural constraint. There are only a limited number of teachers who can impart, whether for a fee or not, their knowledge of Carnatic music and sensitise students to its finer points.

It stands to reason that these professionals must already be engaged in the task of training the current crop of students. While it is conceivable that they could squeeze in some extra time to train some additional students, given the natural constraints of time it is difficult to see how the operation can be scaled up in any meaningful way in the short to medium term.

This is where Carnatic or any classical music differs from a sport such as cricket. It is no accident that cricket has become an ‘inclusive’ sport cutting across caste and class barriers. It is quite easy for a group of urchins on Marina beach to pick up a coconut palm frond and a rubber ball to set up a game of cricket. In time, some talent scout spots a rough uncut diamond of talent among them, who is then put through an intensive programme of training to form an ‘inclusive’ sport that it has become in India.

Severe challenges

If the supply side is beset with huge challenges, on the demand side too, the challenges are no less severe. Will consumers accept an ‘inclusive’ brand of music in the sense of an eclectic mix of traditional Carnatic music interspersed with folk songs and local versions of rap music? Or for that matter, would consumers of Carnatic music in its most classical form, be persuaded to be receptive to an alternative format to the one in which concerts are currently presented? The answer must be in the negative. Changing consumer preferences can be extremely difficult.

How does the marketing manager of a new brand of hair oil hope to persuade potential consumers to his latest offering? There is no sure-fire formula. As the CEO of one such business put it, marketing managers depend on nothing more than a tactic of ‘Just Spray and Pray’— put the new stuff on the shelves of as many stores as you can and pray that consumers are tempted to pick it up.

Of course, consumers have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to adopt new products in a manner that even its creators could not have imagined. A Sony ‘Walkman’ became an instant hit in the 70s. Web surfers took an instant liking to Google’s search engine ‘offering’ to the point that it became a metaphor for the search process itself. You no longer search for things on the internet. You just ‘Google’ it. Who would have thought that the ubiquitous cell phone would become so universal in the span of a decade or so?

None of this makes the case that consumers are forever willing to experiment with things and have an insatiable appetite for all things new in the marketplace. In all these cases there was a coming together of a vaguely felt need and a new product in a symbiotic way and the rest is history. But as a rule, consumers can be very rigid and hidebound to a point that the most optimistic marketer will feel exasperated.

The most venturesome of suppliers and even the broadest minded of consumers cannot come together and create a market for a product if there is no functioning marketplace. A talented of singer from an obscure social background cannot parade his wares to an audience if there is no platform. Unlike in the corporate world where the incumbent management faces a constant threat of ‘corporate control’ being usurped, those in charge of running music ‘sabhas’ face no such threat. Mostly, these institutions are nothing more than an aggregation of an incestuous group of people who have come together under a corporate umbrella thus giving the appearance of separateness. The omnipotent ‘sabha’ secretary thus has no economic incentives for experimentation. An appeal to his social conscience is not half as effective as economic incentives or personal stake in an alternative outcome.

Dream on

But a harsh environment ought not to deter one from dreaming of a virtuous possibility. In the event, Krishna cannot be faulted for visualising an alternative future for Carnatic music that is in accord with his notion of ‘inclusiveness’. After all, the poet Subramania Bharati dreamt of Kakkai kuruvi engal jadhi, Neel kadalum malaiyum engal koottam (The sparrow and the crow are our caste, The sea and the mountains share our kinship) while envisioning a sustainable future for the planet earth.

His dream is far from fulfilled. But that ideal, then and as now, is still worth living for.

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Published on September 04, 2016
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