Backlash to VH1 India's live-streamed gigs highlights how bad sound quality often lets down good musicians

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

August 24, 2018 18:41:17 IST

That the internet is a double-edged sword is widely acknowledged. It can broadcast content to millions of consumers across the world, bringing them closer to you with just the swipe of a finger. It can catalogue those embarrassing tweets and posts for posterity much after you’ve matured, to haunt you of a digital past you’d rather forget. It is the ultimate leveller where celebrities and fans inhabit the same orbit; where access and excess are constantly flipping the scales.

It is also a ridiculously unforgiving medium. If it promises easy access, it brings with it the sceptre of scorn. It exposes one to the most vicious levels of criticism, often coming from anonymous quarters. It is the nature of the medium, and those who work with this are fully aware of it. Developing online properties has become a serious business, where even approval (Likes) and disapproval are commodified.

Against this widely acknowledged backdrop, VH1 India put out a woeful live webcast of gigs on Facebook to commemorate Independence Day. Make no mistake: the artists were popular, talented and creators of some exceptional music from across the country. From rock legends like Thermal and A Quarter to stalwarts from India’s electronica scene like Gaurav Raina (of Midival Punditz fame), from quirky artists like Laxmi Bomb and Sidd Coutto to fresher sounds like The Koniac Net and The Jass B’stards, VH1 India pulled out all the stops to celebrate the occasion. With the right intentions in place and the variety of artists representing the new Indian sound, on paper and on ground, this was poised to be one big musical experience online.

What really happened though was another matter. A lot of the bands had no idea how awful their livestreaming was; to their trained ears, their on-stage sound was perfect. How then could anyone who conceptualised an event of such scale, with such clear vision, fail their artists? How could a multi-city online series of live concerts, whose most fundamental purpose is to showcase a plethora of music — an artform that elementarily deals with the sense of hearing — let down both the artist and the listener in the sound department? Quite easily, apparently.

It seems so basic to expect good sound quality from a music concert, just as one would expect good visual quality from a movie or even a painting. But this isn’t the only instance where sound quality has let down a good act in India. Where, then, does the blame lie? The answers to this are far from fundamental and to blame VH1 alone would be making them scapegoats for a problem that’s endemic to the system.

Sidd Coutto performs for VH1 Soundnation. Image via Facebook/@Vh1 India

Sidd Coutto performs for VH1 Soundnation. Image via Facebook/@Vh1 India

Some of the comments to the performance

Some of the comments following the performance

Tech challenges:

We’ve all gone for gigs where the sound has been “off” or underwhelming. Normally we shake it off as a one-off outing and move on. That we feed the mediocrity itself is problematic but that’s a wholly different topic. When one is producing for an online audience, the challenges are far greater. One cannot expect television level quality for live webcasting, let alone CD or DVD quality. Apart from technical glitches that are par for the course while producing and disseminating music live, the medium itself is flawed. The sound is travelling from a live stage to a device. And in today’s world, that device is increasingly the smartphone.

So, the music does not go through a broadcast mix and is directly being live streamed to the consumer. This essentially means that high quality music is being compressed so greatly to reach a mobile phone audience that the sound quality is severely compromised. To add to it, one cannot accurately fathom the various phone models the listeners may have; simply put, you cannot presume that the users have phones with great sound systems. Particularly when most mobile users look for a better camera than a speaker.

If the internet is the future, then companies who want to live webcast have to do their due diligence to plug such technical loopholes that present the artist in an awful light. Despite sound checks, the audio quality of live concerts online tends to be wanting. When one is working with a medium with such far-reaching effects, it’s only natural that the stakes are higher.

Blame it on the users:

It really doesn’t help that excluding audiophiles, the average audience knowledge is questionable. Some understand that it isn’t the artist who was terrible but the technicalities of sound that let them down. It’s another matter that sometimes there are just bad shows, bolstered by bad sound. Some others are quick to pan a bad sounding act and pin the blame on the artist who incidentally has no clue that the live streaming sound is so dreadful.

At the same time, most people don’t even realise that the sound systems within their own handsets may or may not do justice to the music that the artist is playing. So long as the volume button works, most of us are good to go — that really is the extent of one’s expectation of sound quality. Yet these very people become the most spiteful critics of musicians, leaving hurtful personal comments. People who can’t tell the difference between the technical and the creative are both judge and jury in a world that’s pretty much a free-for-all slug fest.

When this is the audience one has to factor in, would not organisers be guilty of some degree of defamation (of the artist)? Especially in India, where non-Bollywood musicians are increasingly relying on the digital platform to release their music and interact with fans (to counteract the all-encompassing-ness of Bollywood music).

Budget problems:

Organisers of a live webcast concert are expected to ensure that the sound traversing the world through various hand-held devices, is on point. Obviously not to DVD standards, but most certainly not hampering the experience. In an ideal world, that would be a given.

But this isn’t an ideal world. It’s a business where budgets run the show and are often unequally allocated without foresight or even priority. Ask anyone in the sound engineering space today and a constant complaint is that the budgets aren’t allocated to good equipment and sound. Corporates would often be willing to pay high prices for mediocre artists and even backdrops or production value but would be rather stingy when it comes to sound quality. The irony isn’t lost on anyone. These are supposed to be concerts; therefore, the sonic experience should be paramount, one would imagine.

VH1 India could not have anticipated the outcome in this particular instance, but the problem is deep-seated and is beyond the confines of one brand. We’re all feeding a system of sub-par technical quality. The average Indian audience doesn’t want to pay. It is entitled; expecting superlative production values while scrounging for a sponsor pass. Many corporates don’t think sound is worth spending on and would probably allocate the budget for fireworks after the show than the sound quality for the entire duration of the show.

Technology is rapidly changing the world over with mind-blowing production values coming into play. Music is no longer just consumed on radio or on television but through newer and newer platforms possible. But so long as consumers and corporates in India don’t change their attitude, we will continue to have great music sounding awful.

Sometimes, one wonders how musicians continue to create new music when they have so much stacked against them.

Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 18:42 PM