In India, the music industry is dominated by Bollywood Music controlling 80% of the market
In India, the music industry is dominated by Bollywood Music controlling 80% of the market|Representational image
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Indie music record labels on shaky ground amid COVID-19 crisis

Record labels have been especially facing the brunt of lockdown as live gigs, concerts and music releases have all come to a standstill

Amlan Jyoti Das

Amlan Jyoti Das

Guwahati: Among many sectors that have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis is live entertainment and music industry of the country. Record labels have been especially facing the brunt of the lockdown as live gigs, concerts, music releases have all come to a standstill, which is far more saturated for independent record labels.

“There aren’t many independent record labels to speak of in India because the industry has been almost dead for over two decades now. What we have in India, for a music Industry is, predominantly Bollywood music controlling 80% of the market. The other 20% is shared roughly by International and local vernacular music industries,” said Ajay Chanam, the founder and managing partner of Half Step Rock, a music record label based in Banglore that started operations around March-April of 2015. The record label is associated with bands and artistes such as Lords Eastern Nomads (formerly PHYNYX), Guru Rewben, Spreading Roots and NAGEN.

Hailing from Manipur, Chanam added that there has been a surge in the number of independent musicians and artistes in the last couple of years, and from that perspective, one can say that the independent music scene is more vibrant now in India than ever before.

However, “for the few independent record labels that are out there, the pandemic has rocked their already shaky boats and there will be no easy return with the overall economy taking a nosedive,” he said. Moreover, independent record labels earn through 360-degree contracts they have with their artistes, and they in turn earn through gigs, mostly. “All gigs have been canceled for more than two months now and don’t seem likely to resume in the immediate future, either,” he added.

There are a few record labels out there including ours; however, it takes quite a long time, legally speaking, to establish one in Northeast India

Prabal Bora, manager, Rainforest Records

Rise of bedroom studios has led to the disappearance of record labels
Rise of bedroom studios has led to the disappearance of record labels

Prabal Bora, manager of indie record label Rainforest Records based in Assam, said that the Northeast is already behind in terms of established record labels. “There are a few out there, including ours; however, it takes quite a long time, legally speaking, to establish one in Northeast,” he said. Moreover, due to the rise of underground artistes and the rise of “bedroom studios,” concept record labels are no longer a common scene. “With the COVID-19 scene, we are facing a huge crisis in the already rocky situation of ours as concerts, live gigs coming to a stop there is no revenue generation and even digital distribution is not enough,” he added.

Spotify has already started a COVID-19 relief fund for those in the music community who are in dire need, across the globe. Movements such as 'I Lost My Gig' started as a way to bring monetary relief due to income lost by the cancellation of the SXSW music festival in Austin (Texas) but has now evolved the world over with chapters in Australia, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, and Canada.

Essentially, these are platforms that verify submissions of income lost by artists due to the cancellation of gigs collating verified databases for any party interested to help.

There is a limit to how loud one man can shout alone for the 1.36 billion people to hear, and the big artiste, on the other hand, ones who can shout loud enough for people to take note of, aren’t hit as hard, so aren’t making the right noise, either.
In the music industry, every man is for himself, says Ajay Chanam,  founder and managing partner of Half Step Rock
In the music industry, every man is for himself, says Ajay Chanam, founder and managing partner of Half Step Rock

Hence the crisis is as real as it gets. “The problem with the artiste community is, they will seldom ask for help. Not to a stranger. Rarely publicly. They are also very disorganised in the sense that most of them work as freelancers and are not a part of any trade or industry body which can represent their interests in appropriate forums,” said Chanam.

He added that it’s like every man for himself in this industry. There is a limit to how loud one man can shout alone for the 1.36 billion people to hear and the big artiste, on the other hand, ones who can shout loud enough for people to take note, aren’t hit as hard, so aren’t making the right noise, either.

One thing often leads to another in situations like this and therefore it is very important to keep our artiste alive during times like these. It is only through the prism of art that we can even look into the dark, honestly. It is only through art that we can bring some hope and joy during times of distress

Ajay Chanam, founder and managing partner of Half Step Rock

“What’s even more worrisome is that no one can predict the post-COVID-19 scene either,” lamented Bora. With the fear of contamination still raging in the minds of listeners, there is a possibility of people not even turning up to gigs even after COVID-19 is said and done.

Chanam, on the other hand, echoed yet another concern regarding the ongoing and post-COVID scene. He said, “This is a temporary scene in my opinion and we will cross it in six to eight months. What I am afraid of is, the harm we might inflict on ourselves during this phase till we find the cure. What is happening in the US, for example. Black Lives Matter has become larger than the pandemic. One thing often leads to another in situations like this and therefore it is very important to keep our artiste alive during times like these. It is only through the prism of art that we can even look into the dark, honestly. It is only through art that we can bring some hope and joy during times of distress.”

With the fear of contamination still raging in the minds of listeners, there is a possibility of people not even turning up to gigs even after COVID-19 pandemic is over
With the fear of contamination still raging in the minds of listeners, there is a possibility of people not even turning up to gigs even after COVID-19 pandemic is over Representational image

Half Step Rock has also launched the India chapter of 'I Lost My Gig' on Tuesday night (https://ilostmygig.in). Over the next few days and weeks, the label will be seeking right partners in media (print, online, electronic, radio and outdoor), government, music associations, music festivals, artist management agencies, production houses, studios, conferences, and support organisations. “While it is founded and driven by Half Step Rock, we are open to others who want to join us in this effort and lend their expertise,” said the founder.

Given the fact that it would still take time to attend any concert or gig physically, does it mean that virtual gigs are the new future?

With international, national, and regional artistes taking the help of modern technologies and the ever easy and available social media, they are entertaining their fans and themselves via these virtual lives. So, is it safe to say that virtual gigs are the new future?

Chanam disagrees. “Those who think that virtual gigs are the future post covid immediately, are people who do not understand neither the science nor the art behind sound and music. Leave alone the pure thrill both the artists and their fans derive in being in the same space together,” he added.

Virtual lives can never replace the feeling and reality of actual lives and concerts
Virtual lives can never replace the feeling and reality of actual lives and concerts Representational image

Technically speaking, he said, the digital sound is still inferior to analog and that is the reason why there is a resurgence in the sale and production of vinyl records amongst connoisseurs of music the world over. Secondly, the sound format used in most web-based music platforms to reproduce sound is the worst even among the digital formats available today.

“A WAV format, let’s say with 24bit depth and 48Khz sample size, is roughly around 7-10 times the size of the same track in its MP3 form. Web-based applications, especially when free, are about pushing data without loss and compressing them to reduce dependency on larger bandwidth for lossless transfer of data. The richer the sound, the larger is the size of data to be transferred,” Chanam said.

Hence we will either need super-fast internet speeds with super large bandwidths or better compression technologies than we have today that does not compromise on sound quality for virtual gigs to be an option. Additionally, all musicians know YouTube compression algorithms reduce the quality of their sound but they still use it as it is free and this free music still hasn’t stopped fans from filling up the concert tickets. “Let’s not confuse what some artistes are doing during the lockdown out of compulsion as their natural choice,” he added.

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