India's indie music scene, marked by competition and unsustainability, could profit from collectivisation

Most musicians accept that greater solidarity among artists is required to transform the scene from one that has traditionally been dominated by a privileged few into a more equal space.

Pritha Bhattacharya June 01, 2021 10:20:00 IST
India's indie music scene, marked by competition and unsustainability, could profit from collectivisation

Without collective action geared towards creating a just industry, the Indian indie music scene will remain closed off to diverse voices, allowing only a select few to thrive. Representational image via Wikimedia Commons

For many independent musicians in India, life has looked drastically different after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Before, they relied almost entirely on live gigs to earn a livelihood. Streaming websites contribute very little to their incomes, unless they are extremely popular; most use platforms like Spotify as a promotional tool. Now, after the passage of 15 months and the imposition of several lockdowns, their future remains uncertain. Clubs and other performance venues shut abruptly, then opened months later, only to shut again as the second wave of the pandemic struck. The result is that these artists lost their biggest source of revenue.

In the absence of any state-backed unemployment support scheme for self-employed individuals, these musicians were left to fend for themselves. In 2020, in a feeble attempt to address the crisis, the Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS) — a representative body of artists, music owners, composers, lyricists, and publishers of music responsible for collecting royalties on behalf of artists — announced a small grant for its members during the lockdown. Recently, the organisation announced a similar one-time special relief fund of Rs 7,500 for its members to address the growing financial insecurity among artists in aftermath of the second wave of the coronavirus in the country. Music composers and author members of the IPRS who had earned less than Rs 1 lakh in royalties between April 2020 and March 2021 are eligible for the grant. But since the IPRS is largely dominated by artists who work in the Hindi film industry, most independent musicians do not have access to this fund.

An inherently unsustainable career path

In an interview with Firstpost, Indian Idol contestant-turned-playback singer Bhavya Pandit shared that she had made some ill-timed investments around the announcement of the first lockdown. "I thought I would be able to recover the money through live gigs, but that did not happen. The reality of my situation hit me hard when the time came to pay rent for the second consecutive month and I had no money. I was depressed for a long time before I started looking for other sources of income,” she says.

Without any financial support from the government or private organisations like the IPRS, independent musicians had to extensively diversify their portfolios to earn a living. “Many musicians, including me, had to leave Mumbai at the start of the lockdown because staying in the city was no longer sustainable. I started to teach vocals, music composition and arrangement to earn a living. Additionally, I have also started giving background scores for independent films and short films, so that’s how I coped,” says Aditi Ramesh, a musician-vocalist and one of the founders of the dynamic Mumbai-based band Ladies Compartment.

Artists also started performing on live streams for free to sustain their audiences’ interest in their work, but this necessitated investing in high-quality equipment, which further added to their financial woes. The absence of such equipment, as well as other resources such as high-speed internet and a strong social media presence, meant that some lacked the basic means to diversify and find alternative sources of income within the industry.

“As a musician, the lockdown was extremely tough. Even before the pandemic, due to the political nature of my songs, I struggled to generate an income through gigs. But once the lockdown was announced, I had to abandon music entirely and move back to my village. Now I spend most of my time farming alongside my father,” says Deepak Peace, an independent musician based in Pune.

A few private individuals and companies like ArtUnites and SkillBox attempted to support artists either by providing high-quality equipment on rent for live concerts or by creating platforms where online live performances could be ticketed. But much of these initiatives were either a result of isolated acts of kindness or were entrepreneurial endeavours aimed at generating a profit.

The unorganised 'meritocracy'

The dominant feeling underpinning much of the independent music scene remains: if you are talented, you will eventually succeed. The status quo is perceived as the industry’s tough but fair meritocracy. While some artists might acknowledge that their privilege accruing from their caste-class status gives them an advantage in the initial days, they continue to believe that with the right combination of talent and hustle, anyone can succeed.

Thanks to the internet, and the aforementioned belief about talent and hard work, more and more individuals are trying their luck at launching a successful DIY musical career. Most work in isolation away from their peers, competing over a small pool of resources even as the top earners — a small minority within this group — continue to rake in unprecedented profits. As a result, musicians from marginalised backgrounds — bereft of the necessary cultural, social and financial capital needed to sustain their musical journeys — are left to fend for themselves.

In a study on the working conditions of independent artists, entertainment lawyer Manojna Yeluri argued that irregular and delayed payment schedules, a paucity of performance venues, irresponsible creative sharing (intellectual property and credit-related legal issues) and a lack of solidarity among artists have rendered them vulnerable to exploitation. In other words, musicians were already grappling with numerous challenges before the coronavirus pandemic drastically altered the scene.

Further, unlike the musicians in the Hindi film industry, artists in the independent scene continue to remain fairly unorganised.

The absence of a formal collective or union has to a great extent prevented independent musicians from forging bonds based on mutual interests and from holding stakeholders like venues, organisers and agencies accountable.

The need for solidarity

In a survey conducted by Firstpost, 16 out of 20 independent musicians acknowledged the need for a collective or union to address the growing insecurity plaguing the field. “If artists start focusing on what they have in common rather than focusing on things that set them apart, we will be able to come together. Today, in every state, you will at least find one successful independent musician who has the potential to bring other artists in their region together. A centralised collective of musicians, therefore, is possible, and can act as a platform for knowledge and resource sharing,” says Aditi Ramesh.

Similarly, singer-songwriter Maalavika Manoj, popularly known by her stage name Mali, also emphasised the need for more established artists to lead future initiatives to collectivise. “A musicians’ collective can certainly help artists hold powerful stakeholders in the field accountable for their actions, but any collective or union in India can only be effective if popular artists join the effort. The solidarity among only three-and-a-half independent artists will hardly help the scene,” she remarks.

Most musicians accept that greater solidarity among artists is required to transform the scene from one that has traditionally been dominated by a privileged few into a more equal space. However, many remain sceptical about the scene’s potential for change. “To put up a fight (for better working conditions), a musician has to be madly committed to the cause. In India, however, most musicians don’t even know if they will continue making music two or three years down the line. Most young musicians are given a year or two by their families to prove that they can make money through music. So for most of them, it is about survival; things like artistic integrity and solidarity with fellow musicians take a backseat,” says Abhay Sharma, one of the co-founders of the Delhi-based jazz band The Revisit Project.

In an interview with Firstpost, Sahib Singh, the founder of the Carnatic band Jatayu, said that for long, the competition between artists over limited spots and venues made it easier for organisers to exploit musicians, thereby cutting costs. “It also festered animosity among artists which prevented them from coming together. But things are changing; artists are becoming increasingly supportive of each other,” he says.

The promising potential of collectivisation

The pandemic has encouraged artists across the world to record their experiences and hold governments and big corporations accountable for their actions. For instance, the UK-based Musicians’ Union conducted in-depth interviews of thousands of musicians all across the country in 2020 for the research titled The Working Musician, to provide sound evidentiary grounds for future policy-making and civil society activism. The study highlighted that despite working multiple jobs, one in three musicians earned between £10,000-£20,000, with their earnings remaining static over time. To place these figures in context, the starting salary of a public school teacher in the UK is £21,000. Additionally, the group successfully ran the campaign #InvestInMusicians last year, which helped extend the Self-Employment Income Support (SIESS) grant by several months, as well as increased the funds going into the Culture Recovery Fund in the UK.

In another show of solidarity, the US-based Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) organised worldwide demonstrations outside Spotify offices on 15 March, as part of its Justice At Spotify campaign, with the demand that artists should be paid at least one cent per stream — effectively scrapping the current system of revenue distribution in which artists need around 250 streams to generate a dollar. In response, Spotify launched the website Loud and Clear to bring in increased transparency about their streaming royalties model. While the artists’ demands are yet to be met, they remain determined in their fight for fair royalty payments.

In India, musicians, lawyers and music journalists are also coming together to raise awareness among independent musicians about their rights and entitlements. Music journalist Amit Gurbaxani observed: “Last year, during the lockdown, many individuals within the field started to discuss the possibility of having some form of collective or union to address the issues of independent musicians and other workers in the field. These discussions, so far, have resulted in many resource-sharing portals.” Such resource-sharing endeavours are, however, plagued by a top-down approach adopted for information dissemination, which remains a concern — even among some of their creators.

Platforms like Indie Music Allies, ArtistikLicense and Songdewnetwork on Instagram and Lex Talk Music on Spotify are sharing knowledge on a range of topics, starting from copyright infringement and licensing, to tips on managing one's mental health in an attempt to fill several gaps in knowledge that frequently render musicians vulnerable to exploitation. While these platforms do not function as formal collectives or unions, they are all aiming towards generating greater solidarity among artists.

The activities of the Musician’s Union, UMAW or even the resource sharing platforms in India, show the promising potential of collectivisation for independent musicians. As complex and fraught with challenges the process may be, without collective action geared towards creating a just industry, the independent music scene in India will remain closed off to diverse voices, allowing only a select few to thrive.

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