As Indian indie musicians livestream gigs during lockdown, questions about right platforms, monetising remain
Many indie musicians performed more “shows” in the first couple of weeks of the lockdown than they do in a year, and went live every single day. Sadly, this set a precedent that online gigs, like the recorded music itself, are something fans can expect for free.
In March, I wrote about the strategies Indian independent musicians could employ to compensate for the lack of gigs. One of my suggestions was that they embrace livestreams. I don’t know how many of them were reading but they sure took that advice to heart.
Many performed more “shows” in the first couple of weeks of the lockdown than they do in a year, and went live every single day. Sadly, this set a precedent that online gigs, like the recorded music itself, are something fans can expect for free. At a time when concerts aren’t likely to return until December or even early next year, this could have dangerous consequences for their already precarious livelihoods.
I believe most genuine fans will pay to watch their favourite acts, if you ask them to. But many artists feel it wouldn’t be fair to ask their audiences to shell out money for a casual livestream played from their living room or bedroom. My counter to that is in our country, most music venues are really bars and restaurants that lack a proper sound and stage set-up and often, you risk not being able to see or hear the performance. You take the same chance when you tune into a livestream without knowing whether a patchy internet connection will cause glitches and skips. And at least some of those IRL events are ticketed.
The ability to monetise livestreams, however, is dependent on the platform being used, and most indie acts have shown a strong preference for social media networks. Of these, Instagram is the most popular, even though it has many limitations. You can only go live through your phone, the sound isn’t that great, you can’t pre-record and stream performances the way you can on Facebook, and as yet, there’s no way to make money from it in India. (Instagram recently announced that soon, creators will be able to sell virtual badges that will appear next to the purchaser’s name when they comment during a livestream. But the feature will initially only be available in Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, the UK and the US.)
The reason they stick to Insta, say artists, is because that’s where the majority of them have the highest followers. “Most of my audience, which is between 17 and 24 [years old], is on Instagram,” said singer-songwriter Raghav Meattle to me recently. “They’re addicted to it. The minute I do something on Facebook, the traction is 10 percent of that.” Similarly, vocalist-composer Tejas finds that his hardcore fans are on IG. “There’s a lot more engagement there for me.”
There are a few exceptions to this of course. For veteran acts like Indian Ocean whose fan bases skew older, the bulk of their listeners are on Facebook. While a few promoters and artists have experimented with staging gigs on Twitch, where fans can donate “bits”, the service hasn’t yet caught on in a big way here at least for indie musicians.
What about YouTube? The video-streaming service offers multiple ways in which creators can make money through their channels and livestreams. Now because your average Indian indie exponent doesn’t upload videos with the regularity that they should, it’s out of bounds for a substantial number as they don’t meet the criteria for its partner programme. This requires creators to have more than “4,000 public hours of watch time in the last 12 months” and over “1,000 subscribers”.
For a little while, it seemed like indie acts could make some money from their livestreams thanks to brands that backed a series of online shows in March and April. Participating artists received anything from their standard concert fee, from the likes of Bacardi and Vodafone, to token amounts to nothing at all. A few clothing labels, such as Jack & Jones and Superdry, provided compensation in the form of vouchers that could be cashed after the lockdown is lifted.
A number of brands — I’m using the term to refer to everything from festivals to publications to venues — have got the talent to perform for free in case the funds raised are being donated to charity or in the spirit of “brightening up people’s days” during these dark times. Artists agree in the hope that the brands’ networks will lead to the acquisition of new connections or followers. Because after all, you never know who’s watching. It’s much easier for an industry heavyweight to catch a few minutes of your livestream than it was to get them to travel to a venue.
“Every gig I’ve played has paid off or I’m hoping will pay off in some way,” said Tejas.
He received a fraction of his fee for playing the inaugural installment of JioSaavn’s Live Anywhere series of livestreams but was pleased to find that the CEO of the audio-streaming service, Rishi Malhotra, saw his set. Similarly, he played US-based South Asian organisation Product Of Culture’s online festival to tap the NRI market. Which means, as in the physical world, he’s been doing it for the “exposure”
It’s a hit-and-miss policy. Meattle found that when he performed for the pages of a couple of popular blogs because they had over a million followers, fewer people watched than when he plays his own channels. He believes that product placement is the most likely way for him to monetise his Instagram gigs, especially those of his now cult series of open mic sessions Late Night Cone-versations, which he started in April.
“I feel it will have to be [along the lines of] me talking about something music-related or wearing something like headphones,” he said. “Late Night Cone-versations will always be niche. If I start ticketing it, it will become uncool.” The vocalist and composer is a shining example of how consistency and reaching out to the larger community can reap benefits. The success of his single “City Life” combined with the popularity of Late Night Cone-versations have contributed to a nearly 800 percent rise in his listenership on Spotify over the past three months.
This column is the first of a two-part series about the economic viability of livestreams for Indian independent musicians. The next part will explore the ways in which the indie scene is attempting to monetise online concerts.
A selection of new Indian independent music I recommend checking out.
Audio track: “Lead”, Tejas
The first single from the pop singer-songwriter’s long-pending second album Outlast features triumphant horns and is an indication of a new, fuller sound.
Music video: “People (Hindi Reprise)”, Nikhil D’Souza
Standing out from all the animated and split-screen videos we’ve got recently is this sweet short about neighbourly love in times of social distancing, which goes perfectly with the song’s theme of unity in diversity.
Album/EP: Lift Off, T.ill APES
Joining the ranks of such genre-defying groups as Mumbai’s Ape Echoes and New Delhi’s Inalab are this Bengaluru ensemble whose debut EP is a playful mix of hip-hop and jazz and more, and among the grooviest releases of the year.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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