Monday, 5 March 2018

The economics of Classical Music in India


This blogger is  a recently turned fan of Indian classical music. Being the weirdo he is, it is only to be expected that he would turn his attention to the economic side of this . Yes, I know it's weird with a capital W that instead of humming a tune, a blog post on economics is what comes out.

Classical music in India is economically a basket case. Every piece in the carnatic music supply chain is in doldrums moneywise.

Take the fan. A listener will only go to a concert if it is free. Will not buy a ticket even if it is just Rs 50. It is perfectly acceptable behaviour to go to a concert, find that there is a ticket and return back without going in ! The fan is a complete hypocrite. Music must be free. Musicians don't deserve money. But their own salaries (pensions) must be doubled.

Artistes, unless they are at the top of the profession earn an absolute pittance. I am  certain that what most upcoming musicians earn will not even be up to the minimum wage levels in India for casual labour. It is not unknown for lesser musicians to pay to perform rather than the other way around.

The musicians at the very top do earn for their concerts and the popular perception amongst the fans is that they demand too much money. This is nonsense. They may earn Rs 100,000 for a concert; something they have to share with the accompanying artistes. They can probably do 4 or 5 concerts a month on an average. That level of earnings is equivalent to what a middle manager in a company doing an irrelevant pedestrian job will make. And these are the top musicians in the land.

The organisations that hold these concerts are called sabhas - they are the equivalent of music clubs. Given the facts above, every one of them makes a loss and are barely solvent. How they survive is a mystery.

With these economics, it is hardly surprising that there are zero facilities for concerts. None of the cities have anything like the equivalent of an opera house. There is just one good concert hall in the cities of Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore and they were all built at least 25 years ago. Not a single new concert hall of any size or quality has come up in decades - and just witness the number of malls, cinema multiplexes, resturants and the like that have sprung up. Concerts are held in ramshackle places where the word acoustics is foreign and as for facilities, what are they ?

There are two lifelines that has so far kept this genre going.

One is sponsorship from businesses. Sabha organisers harry, beg, plead, grovel for grants for businesses. You can always find a music fan in a company and they sometimes contribute for a concert. This can hardly be justified in any company for business reasons - this must just be written off as a handout with no benefit for the business.

For the artistes themselves, their main source of income is teaching music to Indian Americans on Skype. You see, the Indian parents in the US feel very guilty for disassociating their children from Indian culture. They are partial to therefore teaching them Indian classical music. Skype offers a perfect medium. Its a nice ego boost to be taught by the finest musician in the genre. This is how artistes put food on the table. The dollar goes a long way as you know.

Another option for artistes is to perform in  the US.  The huge Indian American community in the US wants to "keep in touch" with Indian music, even if they are pretty ignorant about it. For some strange reason Cleveland (of the "bum state" fame) is the headquarters of carnatic music.

All this makes for depressing reading. Musicians world over, in most genres, are millionaires. Classical music in  India is however economically gasping for breath. It is in decent health in terms of listener interest. But it can only thrive if a sensible economic model starts to emerge. For a start, listeners should start paying for a concert instead of demanding it for free. I'll buy a ticket for every concert I go to , or if its a free concert, at least drop the notional ticket price into the donation box.


gils said...

Interesting view point thala. Trust you to come up with such an observation. Ivlo prachanais irunthum, try to get a sabha slot...any sabha slot.. in december for a performance. Its next to impossible. For something that is so difficult to maintain and hardly any revenue it somehow doesnt tally.

Ramesh said...

Comment from Chandrasekhar received on email

Your compassion for the sabhas is not totally right. With the aspiring foreign stars ready to loosen their purse strings ticket collection is not the priority of the sabhas. Having grown up one veritable feast of concerts for various festivals like rama navami gokulashtami navaratri etc the Chennai citizen is loathe to pay for a kutcheri.I feel that in view of the competition to rope in foreign talent sabhas may seriously consider offering free snacks for the listener. However i am all for paying if the seats and acoustics and the music are reasonable

Venkat said...

If you are fan of classical music i recommend you an auditorium in JP nagar brigade millennium township. as you say this is the only musical auditorium built in last 25 years.
There are young fans ready to pay for a concert, but the concert information and location are far from access.
1. concerts should come to big theater halls like movie shows tickets shall be sold in app.
2. New auditorium shall be built in every big township projects with builders inclusion.
3. marketing strategy needs up-gradation.
4. Like Netflix exclusive online platform shall be built only for classical music, here live and recorded videos shall be streamed.

Fan base is there but mostly this industry need to upgrade them to current generation.

Ramesh said...

@Gilsu - Yes, there are lots of aspiring singers wanting to participate in the December season, but it still does not provide a sustainable economic model. They can't sing forever free or keep paying to sing. Where will the money come from ?

@Chandrasekhar - Somehow, I am not in favour of the model of milking the foreign participant. This is not sustainable. Plus this cannot last forever - the Indian Americans after one generation will have no ear for Indian music at all.

@Venkat - Alas, I live in the exact opposite corner of Bangalore to JP Nagar. Its easier for me to go to Music Academy in Chennai than come there :) Your ideas are all very good. That might be the way to go to sustain.

Sriram Khé said...

This is but one of the many instances when the market fails. And fails big time. People prefer to spend their money elsewhere.

There is one important aspect that you don't address, especially when you refer to the southern cities and Carnatic music. To begin with, this was a small group of upper-caste folks who were involved with this as musicians and rasikas. On top of that, as TM Krishna has written and spoken in plenty, the past few decades has been one in which non-Brahmins have been systematically excluded from this music. The Music Academy--one of the better venues--is one of the worst culprits in this. This is a business that instead of trying to increase its customer base systematically went the other way and shut itself off from non-Brahmins and non-Hindus.

Again, I refer any interested reader to TM Krishna's book, and his commentaries on this topic. One of my favorites of his is how the much revered MS practically remade the performance and interpretations to be nothing more than a Hindu religious bhajan session, which is how most kutcheris now are--in contrast to the creative and risky musical interpretations in the past by people like Madurai Mani!

Finally, you write that "Musicians world over, in most genres, are millionaires." Nope. Musicians, whether in the US or elsewhere, are often counting pennies, unless they are the few who are way, way on top. The earnings exponentially decrease with distance from the top tier. Ironically, the non-market USSR subsidized music and ballet quite a bit. Since the collapse of the Soviet system, well, ...

Ramesh said...

@Sriram - The matter you raise is well above the scope of the post, but since you raise it we will debate it. Of course, there was casteism in music, just as casteism was there in every walk of Indian life. Interestingly every instrument was the preserve mostly of Brahmins, but nadaswaram was exclusively the preserve of other castes, mostly Pillais. The greatest nadaswaram player of all was Rajarathinam Pillay - an intersting anecdote is that on the stroke of midnight, when India gained independence, AIR played Rajarathinam Pillai simply because nadaswaram was considered the most auspicious instrument.

The anecdote of nadaswaram isn't by any means defence of the dominance of Brahmins in carnatic music.

TM Krishna is an ass. I have no time for him. Some of the issues he raises are true and others nonsense. But for sheer arrogance there are few to beat that man and arrogance does not win arguments.

Anne in Salem said...

I think all orchestras in the US struggle financially. Ticket income covers maybe half of the costs, with significant fundraising via CD sales, events, and corporate grants filling the gaps. There is a constant struggle to fill the seats.

Many people complain about the cost of tickets, but those same people willingly shell out two or three times as much to attend sporting events or rock concerts. The audience for classical music is aging. My generation grew up on rock music, not classical. Most in the younger generations consider classical music to be irrelevant, boring, for old people - an anachronism. With funding for music education dwindling, there is no feeder stream of fans. Movies seem to provide most youngsters' only introduction to classical music (thank you, John Williams). Why would they buy tickets?

How much is the unwillingness to pay for tickets associated with the quality of recordings - why pay to see live the same thing you can hear at home? Where do music streaming services like Spotify fit in the conversation?

Ramesh said...

@Anne - Both you and Sriram have pointed out the extreme disparities in income levels of musicians. That is true. And yes, classical music seems to be an old person's genre. However, in India, lots of youngsters are learning Carnatic Music and the audience too is not as geriatric as before. There is fair interest.

Yes, in this genre free recordings are through the radio (yes it still exists !). Free to listen recordings are broadcast daily on both radio and TV. That might be another reason why people don't want to pay.

I know both of your wonderful curiosity for new experiences and your interest in music. Here's a link for a short piece of Carnatic Music, sung by M S Subhalakshmi, considered the greatest carnatic singer of all time. Its an old recording and will be a completely novel form of music for you !

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