Music and the new media – adapt or perish!


Indian music and musical traditions are at a crossroads with the emergence of the new media. Today, learning and dissemination of music is ably assisted by webcasts, live streaming and Skype, though illegal downloads have long become a way of life. Harnessing the new media constructively, while keeping the rights of the artistes and the recording industry in mind, is the right way to go. Vithal C. Nadkarni finds his way through this musical maze.

At a Jaipur concert last year, the Benares gharana maestros Rajan and Sajan Mishra asked members of the audience to desist from recording their performance. Everybody switched off their phones, except one cheeky fellow who asked the Pundits what their problem was when he was recording purely for his own personal and private pleasure! The singers retorted that while they felt flattered by the wannabe recordist’s attention, they were also worried about music companies suing them if the recordings were shared and got downloaded on social media.

“Having released commercial recordings of ragas, we singers are contractually bound to prevent the illegal dissemination and duplication of tracks,” Pandit Rajan Mishra said. “And since the downloads of the ragas were bound to sound similar to the commercially released versions, what if we were dragged to court by the recording companies for breach of contract?” he asked.

Was he exaggerating? Not really. Courts are taking an increasingly harsh view of the problem of pirated music and the economic damage it wreaks on creators of content and its distributors. An appellate court in the United States recently ruled that the Recording Industry Association of America was perfectly within its constitutional rights to sue a downloader of pirated music for $222,000!

So, you don’t have to be a mass downloader or serial offender to qualify, a researcher told the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Someone who downloaded even a single movie or a music file was liable to be logged for punitive action! The Mishras’ question adds yet another spin to the rapidly gyrating relationship between ancient music traditions and the brave new media. It’s a relationship fraught with many positive spin-offs, and as many negative impacts. The question of ripped music, for example; of rampant digital piracy and extortionate loss of royalties. And the prospect of viral popularity for those lucky or savvy enough to leverage the almost limitless opportunities of the World Wide Web at the opposite end.

One positive trend is the increasing use of webcasts by music sabhas for the benefit of rasikas who couldn’t make it to the brick-and-mortar concert halls! Music honchos say live-streaming, with all its panoply of computers and hi-end cameras, is more expensive than a conventional webcast. This also enables broadcasters to embellish the content with greater value addition for listeners’ satisfaction. In this, as in the earlier format of hard copies and CDs, novices and unknown musicians are likely to resort to self-financed or sponsored freebies. But branded artistes do tend to attract fees and premium placements. Similarly, one-time webcast and even films of concerts are creating the new trend of watching these virtual concerts in traditional performance halls along with like-minded rasikas.

Recently, your writer watched a well-filmed performance of the Patiala-Kasur gharana maestro, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), where the artiste took the listeners through the delectable intricacies of Sabrang-Piya, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s compositions.

“It’s a phenomenon that is both magical and can even be misleading,” says Yojana Shivanand, the noted classical musician who has years of experience working with a major recording label. “It’s like the proverbial bhool-bhulayya or the maze: Some musicians may have found success here,” she adds. “But infinitely more are the numbers of artistes that may have tasted nothing or worse.”

In this context, Shivanand recalls the words of the late Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki on his 60th birthday celebration; in the presence of his legendary cousin, Bharatratna Lata Mangeshkar, Pandit Abhisheki warned aspiring musicians to think twice before jumping headlong into a full-time music career: “Be prepared to be smoked out and hunted like hapless rabbits,” he said in Marathi (Saseholpat hote).

“What Panditji said then seems to apply with greater force in today’s age of the wired world,” Shivanand explains. “Sure, there seems to be lots of action (and cameras), but numbers and statistics are notoriously difficult to obtain.” Her gut-feeling is that while there are lots of talented musicians making waves and doing all sorts of exciting experiments and presentations, it’s equally true we’re all waiting for the next Messiah: “We just don’t have the next Gangubai (Hangal) or the next Bhimsen (Joshi): such musicians are only born and not made; and the media, whether old or new, can at best play a facilitating role in show-casing them,” she said.

“The buzzword today is hype,” counters the connoisseur Ramdas Bhatkal, who in addition to being a rigorously trained classical musician, is also a pioneering publisher. “Publicity, whether of the conventional kind or of the innovative type, seems to be the killer app of today’s mediocratic (versus the older meritocratic) times,” Bhatkal elaborates.

On the flip side, the ongoing digital and mobile revolution has brought great benefits for listeners or the so-called Kansens (in contrast to the performer or Tansens); recently, a Florida-based connoisseur posted on Facebook a vintage recording of the late Gwalior-Agra maestro, the late Yeshwantbuwa Joshi. Within seconds there was world-wide buzz: One seasoned fan said that in his long listening career, he had never heard the compositions in the raga allaiya bilawal being sung by anybody else.

Equally alacritous was another fan’s response who provided the exact provenance of the composition; a commercial recording by Jitendra Abhisheki released in 1992 had indeed immortalised the fast (drut) composition created by the late Pandit Ratnakar Ramnathkar under the pen-name Prem-rang. And the digital debate went on much to the delight of the uploader. What was more, the commercially-produced recording of the song had already been uploaded in the public domain.

While all this may come as music to connoisseurs’ ears, we must also spare a thought for the more worldly issues such as copy-right infringement, right to royalty for creative work, and the larger financial implications for both the artistes’ fraternity and the recording industry.

Quite apart from this economic aspect of the digital media revolution is its impact on teaching and dissemination of music. “The time-honoured gurukul system is an ideal that most of us would love to emulate and re-create,” says Smita Wagh, who started out as a precocious protégé of Agra gharana and morphed into an established teacher herself. “But we also must be realistic about the prevailing economic and other exigencies.”

Also, what do you do when your revered octogenarian guru is himself a 21st century jetsetter? Smita Wagh went to learn from her master, Pandit Babanrao Haldankar, (who learned from the Jaipur doyenne Moghubai Kurdikar and the Agra veteran Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan) week after
week even after he shifted from Mumbai to Pune. But what was she to do when Pandit Haldankar moved to Miss Liberty’s land? Besides, she had her own brood of students to guide. That’s when Skype came to her rescue. The software, which was developed for conversation over the internet, proved invaluable in safeguarding her talim and riyaz under the ever-watchful eye (and ear) of her guru!

Elsewhere, extensive research has shown that such virtual guru-sishya interactions do have a natural feel to them; they are also crucial in the evolution of imagination and enthusiasm as well as mastering of equipment and music. But a major downside was techno glitches and interruptions that led to literal and figurative disconnectedness. Moral of this story was that one needs to be tech savvy to remain connected in these fast-changing times, to pursue timeless/traditional music. While it continues to thrive in raga clouds and other digital archival avatars, most neophytes and wannabe performers also have to contend with a mixed or Janus-faced prospect: lots of uncertainty laced with humungous, potential opportunity.


Vithal C. Nadkarni

The writer is a senior consulting editor and columnist with the Times of India Group of Publications. He is also a fellow of the London-based 21st Century Trust and a recipient of the US-based Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship.