The latest excitement for musicians is the newly launched Clubhouse, a social audio app, where people come together to talk and listen. Over the past month, I have listened to topics of varying interest. The global rooms on technology, particularly news on innovation, is extremely enriching. Equally interesting, and for various reasons, have been the rooms that Indian musicians occupy. Ranging from chat-only rooms where music lovers discuss their favourite composers and tunes, there are others populated by celebrity musicians, who are either performing or speaking with fans and friends. Then there are free concert halls, where musicians perform, often on request.
While this serving platter of various musical offerings seems irresistible, there are some concerns as well. Top among these is the worry that the pandemic has upended both the pecking order and performing opportunities, and ‘staying relevant’ (I believe this has become a catch phrase) is the key. Next is the growing concern that the world is privileging social media stars at the cost of those who have slogged for decades and may not be as successful online. Third and perhaps one of the greatest concerns is the growing disparity between the denizens of the performing arts world and the commerce and business platforms that market them.
Bridging the gap
Terms such as brand management, design concept, innovation and disruption, brand personality and salience — all of which populated much of my growing up in the worlds of advertising and business — seem alien to those more accustomed to ragas and talas. But going forward, I believe this is the gap that will need bridging and artistes can gain from a surfeit of online courses and tips. However, the problems of access, language and community barriers are rife. Digital divide apart, beliefs create a divide too. All of these concepts are skewed and benefit only the educated urban, leaving many out. Should we then choose to be led by technology alone? It seems to present a dystopic future for traditional craftspersons and folk artistes.
The Indian urban elite has embraced these audio rooms just as they would take to shopping in an upscale mall or dining at a fancy restaurant. Everyone is in it, and if you are not, you are missing something. The voiceless in real life continue to remain shy and reticent online too. The gaps in awareness are apparent. I was in a room where the discussion on online branding and individual identity sculpting had one musician from a less privileged socio-economic background finally asking, “What is this brand?”
Equally worrying is the proliferation of talented people willing to perform for free endlessly, and trying to cater to everyone’s demands and requests. While arguments of ‘staying relevant’ may be put forth in support, the issue still remains about sustaining a reasonable living from the arts during a crisis. If so much is given away for free, will there still be takers for sponsored or ticketed events? Maybe some can afford to do this. But if we get audiences and stakeholders accustomed to freebies all the time, what then would happen to the rest who depend on performances for survival?
As with every other platform, the rabble-rousers prevail. The appropriation of voices and using this to prop oneself up seems to have taken hold of these platforms too, which leaves us wondering what will happen to those disenfranchised by both technology and access and social inequity. Better regulation and moderation can be called for, but are we, as an artistic ecosystem, capable of self-regulation?
Intellectual property, monetisation routes and branding aside — what are we heading towards? While greater education, bridging divides and bringing down barriers continue to remain moral imperatives, the conflation of technology and privilege is surely a huge blow to the majority of Indian artistes and performers who live outside of this intersection. Are we ready to start discussing this?
The writer is a well-known pianist and educator and associate professor at Krea University.