Between live streaming's limitations and live gigs' hazards, indie music scene could find promising middle ground

While there’s no doubt that online shows entertained and even comforted us during these trying past few months, there’s also no doubt that they’ll never match up to the experience of watching a concert in person. And sadly, they don’t seem to be matching up in terms of income for artists either.

Amit Gurbaxani November 23, 2020 09:23:09 IST
Between live streaming's limitations and live gigs' hazards, indie music scene could find promising middle ground

The Anand Bhaskar Collective at a concert in Bhopal in January this year. Frontman Bhaskar, who has played about a dozen online gigs between March and August, says he's made less than 10 percent of the amount he typically earns from live performances. Image via Facebook/@anandbhaskarofficial

A confession: I’m bored of livestreams, but I’m not bold enough to attend live gigs just yet. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like this.

While there’s no doubt that online shows entertained and even comforted us during these trying past few months, there’s also no doubt that they’ll never match up to the experience of watching a concert in person. And sadly, they don’t seem to be matching up in terms of income for artists either.

Ask Anand Bhaskar. The popular singer, who fronts the Hindi rock band Anand Bhaskar Collective, played about a dozen such gigs between March and August for big-name brands, promoters, festivals and venues including GlassOnion Studios, Hungama, JioSaavn, Rock Street Journal, Social, Taalbelia and Vodafone. He told me that he’s made less than 10 percent of the amount he typically earns from actual live performances.

Bhaskar’s bookings are managed by Believe Digital, which brought him the bulk of these engagements and advised him to take them on to “stay relevant” during the lockdown. While Vodafone and JioSaavn paid his act’s regular club rates or a little less, most other organisers worked on a revenue split of 50 percent or above. In such cases, however, the proceeds from ticket sales were insubstantial.

“People will not pay to watch somebody go live on Instagram or YouTube,” said Bhaskar. “They might as well go through countless well-produced videos on YouTube for free.” As a sessions singer and composer, he’s been buffered by the eight month-long cessation of live shows, but going by his experience, much like in the offline world, online gigs are only viable when there’s a sponsor, like Vodafone and JioSaavn, involved, no matter the scale of the event.

PR professional Schubert Fernandes and artist manager Ryan Thomas started The Lockdown Gig series of fortnightly shows as a way to support independent artists who were deprived of their main source of livelihood. Their guiding principle, Fernandes told me, was “no free gigs”; participating acts would be remunerated with a certain minimum sum even if it meant Thomas and he had to pay them out of their own pockets when the figure generated from the sales of tickets, tagged at Rs 500, fell short.

Fortunately for them, Dolby came on board as sponsor from the second instalment, thereby ensuring artists receive a token amount. Fernandes admits that without Dolby’s contribution, they “would have probably done one, two, three episodes and then decided to stop”. As livestream fatigue has set in, the number of ticket buyers has fallen to less than half of what it was when the series launched in April. They now plan to rebrand it The Unlock Gig.

It’s not just the number of attendees but also the quantity of online Indian independent music gigs being mounted that seems to have dipped since July. From being spread throughout the week, they’re currently concentrated over the weekend. And some of the new platforms I wrote about four months ago have found it tough to sustain themselves. New Delhi-based booking agency GigSync has abandoned its Listn.tv project after it realised it wasn’t making financial sense, while both Altered TV and Clapstream have shifted focus, albeit temporarily, to more profitable private events.

On the other hand, there’s been a flurry of activity within the space. As far as Indian indie is concerned, Skillbox seems to have captured the segment over market leaders Paytm Insider and BookMyShow and the list of studios hosting livestreamed concerts has grown longer with the addition of Soulmate frontman Rudy Wallang’s Hole In The Wall in Shillong, Muzico in Bengaluru, and The Circuit and Island City in Mumbai, the last of which is currently staging a three-month-long “festival” every Sunday through the end of December.

Skillbox too has got some international competition in the form of Dice FM, which arrived here in October and Bandcamp, which just unveiled its ticketed livestreaming service Bandcamp Live. Even audio-streaming platform Gaana, which has not traditionally been associated with indie music, is attempting to attract the genre’s fans with a weekly Thursday evening series of online performances by upcoming acts.

Even though livestreams aren’t quite compensating for the fall in artist’s incomes from the absence of live gigs, much like audio and video streaming, they’re proving to be a great marketing tool for reaching out to new audiences. This is part of what makes Dice bullish about India where it has thus far helped stage two free online concerts by singer-songwriter Raghav Meattle, a pre-launch show in September to gauge the market and another earlier this month, for which they covered studio costs.

Between live streamings limitations and live gigs hazards indie music scene could find promising middle ground

Singer-songwriter Raghav Meattle staged two free online concerts with Dice Media. Image via Facebook/@raghavmeattle

“People who live in major cities [account for] 78 percent of tickets sold for our live events [but] only 38 percent of tickets sold for livestream events,” said Dice founder and CEO Phil Hutcheon. “We forget that there’s a huge world out there of people who don’t live in London, Mumbai, Sydney or New York that desperately wanted to see these things.” This was evident during their pilot with Meattle. “People from all across the country [including those in] West Bengal and Orissa tuned in,” said the company’s India lead Arnav Banerjee.

Hutcheon and Banerjee are putting their faith in “superfans”, the kind of who will shell out cash for “merchandise and upgrades”. Maybe then, in a price-sensitive market like India, making money from livestreams requires a bit of innovation in the offerings, such as the bundling of collectibles or the option of VIP tickets entitling customers to be part of meet-and-greet video conferences with the artists. This is something that has thus far not really been explored by Indian independent acts.

A notable exception was artist management company Under The Radar’s retroFUTURE comprising sets by the three electronic music acts on its roster, Anish Sood, Nucleya and Ritviz, for which you could buy a “superfan” ticket that not only got you a T-shirt, hoodie or kurta but also access to future on-ground events. Even though they were priced at 10 times the rate of the phase one general admission ticket, they comprised about 10 percent of the total sales for the event.

That said, retroFUTURE was not your typical livestream. The producers, who were seen performing in a virtual environment, pre-recorded their sets. Similarly, artists will be filming their appearances for this year’s online edition of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in December in advance. This was necessary, promoters Only Much Louder (OML) say, to enable the creation of a set-up that will closely replicate the real-life experience. Attendees will have to choose between stages and will be able to use a slate of interactive features like chat rooms, filters and games.

As with retroFUTURE, there are multiple tiers of tickets, with the most expensive option getting you a festival merch kit and a complimentary early bird pass for the next instalment, which will hopefully be held in 2021. Which leads me to wonder if the success of a ticketed livestream entails a trade-off between immediacy and engagement.

However, both OML and Weekender bankrollers Bacardi deserve to be commended for not only choosing to forego the offline version this year — that they could have possibly staged with a lower capacity and local arts — but also for their decision to pay performers the same fee they would have otherwise received. In a surprisingly tone-deaf move, Sunburn promoters Percept Live announced plans to stage the EDM extravaganza in Goa in the last week of December as per usual, only to postpone less than a week after, following an outpouring of outrage. Even at 20 percent of its normal capacity, the festival would have had thousands of people gathering together in close proximity.

Perhaps Percept was taking its cue from local promoters that have been organising gigs in the sunshine state for a while. Considering that their announcement post got over 28,000 likes on Instagram, it’s clear that the nation’s revelers are hungry to get back on the party trail. They’ll be the first to queue up now that lockdown restrictions have eased across the country, and concert venues are gradually reopening. Most recently, antiSOCIAL in Mumbai, arguably India’s most active stand-alone gig spot, returned with a packed calendar of limited-capacity events music, comedy and dance six nights a week.

The venue is attempting to allay customers’ fears with the introduction of a “state-of-the-art Safeair Ultra-Violet (UVC) air disinfection system that has been installed in the a/cs, which continuously purifies and removes airborne viruses and bacteria” apart from the implementation of other standard health and sanitation measures such as temperature checks and the mandatory booking of tickets online and wearing of masks. Tickets are dearer than before, to make up for the decrease in audience numbers but given the pricing of some online concerts, this should be less of a deterrent than say, the requirement of the declaration of one’s health status through the controversial Aarogya Setu app.

The decision to visit will depend ultimately on each fan’s comfort level. During the early days of the lockdown, I grandly said to a friend on social media that I’d be up front whenever gigs return. After seeing the lack of adherence to social distancing norms at stores and on the street and that part of the populace doesn’t wear masks properly or at all, I reconsidered. Besides, like a number of promoters have said, standing apart from each other or dancing in a circle just doesn’t work for certain types of genres such as electronic music or metal, both of which antiSOCIAL will host this month.

Additionally, a 30 percent crowd too means being around about a hundred strangers, many of whom will remove their masks to eat and drink. Not serving food or running the bar wouldn’t be practical because sales of F&B form a significant part of the takings from cultural events. Of course, the response that venues like antiSOCIAL get will determine whether they will keep up the pace at which they’re running them.

Among the ideas that have been mooted among organisers are “hybrid” concerts where the gig being performed at a club is available to watch online for a lower price. It’s an option, Nishant Gadhok, the founder of electronic music events enterprise Gently Altered and streaming platform Altered TV, is mulling over. “Maybe I’ll give the venue a chunk of the online revenue,” he said. It’s a great idea, and if fence sitters like me can see that social distancing norms are indeed being followed, then we might just get the confidence to grab our masks and hand sanitiser and head out for a show.

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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