2020 was a year defined by the need for ‘essentials’ – medical services, food necessities, jobs and rent payments. Yet, the irony of last year was that as coronavirus spread its tentacles across the world, choking economies, claiming lives, and confining millions within their homes, one of the most ‘essential’ components of human existence, music, was deemed as ‘non-essential’.
Many musicians, singers, sound engineers and technicians across the world found themselves jobless in 2020. Some even struggled to pay rent and feed themselves. However, 2020 was also a year that proved that music could find its way through the darkness.
Last year bears testimony to the strength and resilience of those musicians who despite their struggles came forward to support the less privileged in their industry. It showed that the pandemic might have pushed many musicians to take other jobs, leave cities, and change lifestyles, but it has not been able to infect their hopes or willingness to create music. In the early months of last year, when Italy lost many citizens to the virus, its musicians organized balcony concerts to keep the morale high. Wuhan, the ground-zero of COVID-19 breakout, resonated with the loud chants, and songs sung by its residents during the initial phases of their lockdown.
For The ‘Independent’ community
In India too, this crisis brought the loosely tied independent music industry together, with the ‘privileged’ musicians coming forward to help out those who were in desperate need.
Rahul Ram, the bass guitarist and vocalist of Indian Ocean, told News18, “Members of bands like ours, or Parikrama and Euphoria have homes, and bank balances. They would be able to stay afloat during this crisis. We have taken a hit too; we did not get 90 per cent of our income last year. But it did not drive us to sell cars, or drastically curtail our lifestyles.”
However, there are many, who had been pushed towards poverty, pointed out Ram. In Rajasthan, for instance, the folk artists have taken jobs as daily wage labourers, or taxi drivers to feed their families. “The smaller and relatively younger musicians who have put everything on the line to have a career in music, who had fought with their parents to keep their dreams alive, have also been badly affected,” he said.
Last year was especially difficult for sound engineers and technicians who found themselves completely out of jobs with no live gigs happening during most of the year. “They generally invest crores in sound systems and depend on a steady income to pay off the loans they took to make such investments. But, this pandemic has left them high and dry,” explained Ram.
He pointed out that in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, and several other countries, performers and musicians have received aid directly or indirectly from the government but, in the absence of such assistance in India, musicians have been trying on their individual levels to help out one another.
“I have friends who invited folk artists to play online so that they can earn money. They are not the only ones. In my experience, the individual enterprise has been the biggest driving force last year, and we have all tried to help out other musicians in our little ways. We have also played for far less than we generally do because we understand that the person paying is also going through a difficult time,” he added.
Letting the music flow
In 2020, another thing that cast a shadow of worry on independent artists was the licensing deals signed by The Indian Performing Right Society Limited (IPRS) with Facebook (and Instagram) and other OTT platforms. The deals are meant to promote ‘fair trade’ and help original creators earn royalties when their works are used by other performers.
Sharif D Rangnekar, singer/songwriter of Friends of Linger and Curator of Embrace: Music Justice Arts told News18 that while the intent behind these licensing deals is great, the timing of these deals shows no empathy towards struggling artists, who have been singing covers to make money during the pandemic.
“Under the current situation, there are already limited avenues for any artist to reach out to an audience and the kind of restrictions that these deals impose affect those young artists who do not have the money or power to reach out to the audience with their original compositions,” he said.
However, Rangnekar pointed out that 2020 was a year marked by collaborations, rather than competitions despite the licensing deals. “A new thing that we have seen in 2020 is that many more artists have shown the will to work together, and create music. Last year was marked by so many artistic collaborations by artists who were physically thousands of miles apart from one another,” he said.
Keeping Hope and finding positivity
Rangnekar hopes that audiences who have been following artists on Instagram and other online platforms will also come to venues when the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic are relaxed, and vaccines are made available to the public. “I do believe that there are people who have developed some emotional connection to independent artists during this time, who will come and cheer for them in the analogue world of reality,” he claimed.
Dr Palash Sen of Euphoria said that this is the moment that the Independent music industry should siege if it ever wants to prosper. For years, Sen has worked towards building a movement – India for Indie – to facilitate independent musicians to have their industry. However, he has had little success with it. But, he is hopeful that the pandemic might change that.
“With the lockdowns last year, fewer Bollywood films and music have come in, which is why lots of people are listening to different genres of music and looking for different kinds of entertainment. I think for the independent industry this is the best time to strike, and I hope that all independent musicians will make that effort,” he said.
Sen said that the only way to tide through this crisis is with sheer positivity. “The first thing I did during this pandemic was to change my mindset. I had to accept that I will not be on the ground or the stage, so I did as many virtual concerts, and Instagram live as I could,” added Sen.
Sen wasn’t the only one to see the silver lining of ‘positives’ amidst the dark clouds of the pandemic. Sentirenla Lucia, a graduate from Berklee College of Music (Boston Massachusetts), a singer and a music teacher from Delhi told News18 that she found herself in a paradoxical situation during the last few months, because as an artist she was out of a job, while as a teacher she had many new students coming to her to learn.
“Many college students and kids who wanted to study music came to me, and I prepared them for their entrance exams during this period,” she said. Lucia said that despite the pandemic, her students’ enthusiasm is intact with some applying to as many as ten schools abroad to learn music. “Most of these students are serious about making a career in music. They are preparing to study music in Australia, Europe or America. I prepare students for ABRSM Theory and Trinity exams so that they can hold a degree in Music here in India. Students who want to study abroad come to me so that I can help them prepare for the auditions and placement tests. As a teacher, I was working all day, while as a performer, I was really upset because I had no gigs to perform in the early months,” she added.
Struggles of mental health
For most performers, who did not have another profession besides music, 2020 was riddled with anxiety and mental health issues. It did not take long for them to realise that free online concerts online would neither take their career anywhere nor pay their bills during this time.
“I went through a lot of stress and anxiety. I was so uncertain about the future, and I still am, ” said John Oinam, the lead vocalist of the Indie band, Blue Meadow. For Oinam and his bandmates, 2020 was supposed to be the year their future changed because their debut EP, Weeds Are Flowers was releasing.
“We had so many plans about touring, and promoting our EP, and playing different gigs, but all came to a crashing halt during this pandemic. My bandmates had to return to their hometowns, and they are still there…I moved back to my parents’ home. ” said Oinam.
Oinam wasn’t the only one. Arati Rao Shetty, a Bangalore based singer and music promoter told News18, “I have spent 10-11 years promoting independent musicians, and I feel crushed to think of what they are going through…the future is very worrying, and I have seen some of my musician friends deal with mental health issues. Their backs are against the wall because they do not have any other option. Music isn’t something that they pursued on the side. For those musicians and technicians, it has been incredibly hard.” She added.
Rao Shetty pointed out that she turned to ‘creative pursuits’ to ‘keep her sanity’ and recommended that to cope with the difficulties of the current times, artists should immerse themselves in other creative activities completely.
“I saw that so many musicians painted during this time. Some cooked from their home kitchen and sold the food on order. It was heartening to see that so many of them took new creative routes this year,” she added.
Waiting for the storm to pass
The founder of The Piano Man Jazz Club, Arjun Sagar Gupta, said that even though the crowds are coming back and things are looking up, the business has been slow.
“Till November we had 25 per cent footfall, now it has increased to 30 per cent. Most of the couples we see nowadays are nuclear couples. People living with parents or older family members are not coming out, and it is understandable. Things will only normalize When the vaccine distribution in metros becomes prominent and easily accessible,” Said Gupta.
Gupta knows that the way ahead is uncertain, but the best course of action is to wait for the storm to pass. “I have spent a good ten years of my life building this business, and I refuse to let it collapse. I most certainly do not want it to collapse because we didn’t fight hard enough. But, of course, I cannot deny that the business is suffering. Now, the main question I have been asking myself is, ‘where do I get the money to keep things going?’ and the unfortunate answer is that things have to be financed from debt during this time. But what gives me hope is the positivity of all the artists I have spoken to during this time. The fact that people are coming out to live gigs slowly is also a cause of optimism. But beyond those reasons, what I have also seen is that there is a lot of support from the market for businesses such as ours. People are saying, ‘hang in there, we will be there when we can,'” he added.