India’s Indie Musicians Struggle as COVID Restrictions Reduce Their Incomes by Half

With no support from the government, folk artistes, backstage crew and post-production workers are the worst hit, minus any work whatsoever.

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New Delhi: During the lockdown period, many people sought solace in music. Listening to music also became a coping mechanism for many of those confined by the COVID-19 restrictions. But how has the pandemic affected the people who make the music?

Musicians, whether popular or not popular, whether those who perform in public or those who work behind the scenes to ensure that the music reaches the public, have all been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it brings with it, including the months-long nation-wide lockdown that took place last year.

Many of them have expressed their disappointment over the lack of awareness of how musicians earn a living and believe this is one probable reason for the lack of support they have received from government in such hard times. They were also vocal about the struggles of people who work behind the scenes – the post-production staff and event management staff including those who set up the stage, lights and sound – and how they were hit the worst in the lockdown.

The global music industry is worth over $50 billion, with two major income streams: live music, which makes up over 50% of total revenues and is derived mainly from the sales of tickets for live performances; and recorded music, which combines revenue from streaming, digital downloads, physical sales and synchronisation revenues (licensing of music for movies, games, TV and advertising).

Live events and gigs often feature original compositions and songs that have been created by, or made popular through, popstars or cinema. According to the Indian Music Industry-Deloitte report, music-driven live events generated Rs 1,280 crores in 2019. The live events industry was valued at Rs 6,500 crores the same year.

The Events and Entertainment Management Association (EEMA) in 2020 conducted a member survey with 170 companies that were affected by COVID-19. After the event cancellations following the virus outbreak, 63.1% of the live event companies in India reported revenue losses of up to Rs 1 crore.

However, there seems to be no way to measure the impact of the pandemic on independent musicians who are solely dependent on live gigs for income.

Pan-India stories of survival

Chugga Khan, a folk musician from Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer, had performed in 128 countries over 25 years before the pandemic-induced curbs hit his income. “It’s been 18 months since I performed in a concert,” said Khan, who used to work abroad for at least two to three months or even a year in pre-COVID times. He’s solely dependent on concerts for his income. “Even the concerts in India have been cancelled [due to the pandemic]. I have no education. This [folk music] is all I know,” he said.

Khan primarily plays the morchang (a percussion instrument) and bhapang (a single stringed percussion instrument), sings folk Sufi and also writes his own songs. He has performed with renowned bands and independent musicians such as the Indian Ocean, Radiohead, Sushila Raman and Vikku Vinayakram.

In Rajasthan, his group used to sing at weddings, dargahs and temples, but now even these options are not available.

To survive these last 18 months, Khan told The Wire over the phone, the women of his family have had to sell their jewellery. They didn’t even have the money to pay their electricity bills, he said. Fortunately, he added, some other musicians have helped him financially.

Also read: Thank You for the Music, the PPE for Our Minds

On the other side of the country, Soulmate, one of India’s best blues bands from the North East, performed around ten shows, including four to five virtual gigs, in the last year and a half compared with the 30-35 shows a year that they did in pre-COVID times, according to Rudy Wallang from the band.

Soulmate had played a live gig at the North East festival in Guwahati last December, but that too was streamed to audiences around the globe. Then they played one live (offline) gig in Goa in January and one in Bengaluru in February and then the second wave of the pandemic started. Since then, the band has not played any gigs.

“Now we are surviving on our savings which will soon run thin if we don’t get work. I speak for the majority of musicians who depend on live performances. We are all in the same boat,” Rudy told The Wire by email.

Alobo Naga, an award-winning artist from Dimapur, Nagaland, said he started feeling the pinch only this January, when all the shows his band had been booked for were cancelled. Naga has been playing live music for the past ten years.

Naga performed a live gig outside his hometown last December, where only a limited number of people were present, due to COVID-19 protocols. Last winter, the band also started doing live drive-in concerts in Dimapur as part of its plan-B, since there were no other gig opportunities available. But they could not continue to do this in the summer heat, said Naga.

Live performances during a pandemic throw up other issues too. Osho Jain, an Indore-based independent musician who has been working from Mumbai for six years, said that while one of the clubs in Delhi where he had performed during the pandemic maintained social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols, he was scared to see none of the audience wearing a mask during another show in a club in Gurgaon.

“The club was full and it had around 350-400 people, but nobody was wearing a mask. It was very scary. But I couldn’t stop myself because I love playing live so much,” he added. “However, I told my manager that I would not travel for shows for two or three months during the pandemic.”

Also read: Chart: The History of Portable Music

While there are many tales of woe, some musicians saw the lockdown as an opportunity to start afresh.

Lucknow-based Arpit Agnihotri who has been living in Delhi for over a decade thought the lockdown would be a great time to create new music. Digvijay Singh Parihar from Ghaziabad claimed that when the lockdown was imposed, more musicians started writing, composing, singing and mixing their own music instead of depending on a company or a production house for work.

“[Music] labels will sign their own artists. Therefore, musicians realised that it was high time to start working on originals,” Parihar explained.

However, in terms of income, the pandemic has hit almost every independent musician in the same way.

Parihar, who performed live shows until the second wave hit, has seen over a 50% cut in his fees during the pandemic.

“Every artist out there is affected. Live performances are what every artist depend on for a major part of their income,” said Ashok Betty Nelson from the Kerala-based band Thaikkudam Bridge.

Speaking on behalf of the band, Ashok shared some optimism despite the lack of live gig opportunities during the lockdown period. “For instance, the band did jingles and advertisements for a manufacturing and a pharma company,” he said.

Thaikkudam Bridge. Photo: Official website

The uncertain circumstances not only hit the musicians’ financial health, but also took an emotional toll on many of them.

The lockdown impacted them so hard that many of them had to change professions, Arpit told The Wire over the phone, referring to musicians he knows personally.

On how he’s managing his own mental health, he said, “I have this in mind that whenever this is over and I come out again to perform, I should be better than before.”

Digvijay relied on virtual parties with friends and acquaintances to relieve himself of the mental stress during the lockdown.

Money matters

For Naga, the lockdown was discouraging because although people kept themselves entertained with music, they seemed to care nothing about the fact that the musicians were struggling financially.

While many musicians agreed with this thought, they also said they understood that people will always first save lives in a pandemic and then think about other issues.

Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram told The Wire over the phone that his income has dipped by at least 80% due to the pandemic. However, he added, the people who manage the lights, sound, stage settings and so on are much worse off because nobody needs a stage and other equipment for a virtual gig.

Many musicians have taken up online teaching. But how many people can teach? asked Ram. Not everybody has that skill, he pointed out.

In general, the pandemic has reduced every musician’s revenue by over a half. For instance, a musician who was earning Rs 1 lakh per show for offline gigs before COVID-19 now gets Rs 15,000-20,000 for a virtual gig. Some musicians also agree to perform virtual gigs in college festivals for free,” Osho explained.

In terms of income generation, apart from the money earned from live shows, Osho has a distributor who brings to him all the revenue he earns from streaming platforms. But those musicians who are solely dependent on the government for their income have to wait for weeks.

Yusuf Khan, a folk musician from Rajasthan’s Alwar, performed a couple of virtual shows sponsored by the government during the pandemic. The government pays them in vouchers. But encashing these vouchers is a struggle, because the money is transferred late into their accounts, he said.

Are virtual gigs feasible?

At the beginning of the lockdown last year, many musicians began performing virtual concerts online.

“Initially people started doing Facebook Live. You can do a Facebook Live day after day and nobody can ask you for money. They were just finding an outlet. Then around August last year, people started to set up studios because two or more people cannot perform a virtual concert from separate places,” said Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram, explaining the technical issues such as the amount of lag between voices and sounds of instruments.

Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram. Photo: Youtube screengrab

Most musicians are not delighted by the idea of performing virtual gigs in the long term. For one thing, in a virtual gig, a musician performs while looking into the camera. This leads to a lack of interaction with the audience. And for another thing, there is always a lag of a second or two which also affects the performance.

“The experience [of playing a virtual gig] is very different in terms of energy,” said Rudy. “When we play live, the energy and love we receive from our audience is amazing and we convert that love and energy into our own and give it back to them. In a live stream, it’s one-sided because though we are playing to our fans, it’s via a camera! Half the energy is missing! But this is the best way at this time considering the circumstances.”

Government response lacking

“We represent our country across the world. The government should help us,” said Chugga Khan, who had approached the local tourism department in Jaisalmer for financial help but received nothing but a few days of rations.

In July 2020, veteran indie musician Palash Sen had addressed a petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that sought help for freelance independent musicians, sound engineers, lyricists, singers and others struggling during the pandemic.

According to the Indian Express, he had said in his petition that there is no representative body to represent the misery and demands of independent musicians.

While Sen has not yet responded to The Wire seeking comments on the matter, Naga said he and his fellow musicians had also signed the petition. “But nothing happened, unfortunately,” he added.

Rahul Ram agreed there’s no government body in India to help indie artists. “Since the term ‘independent’ is so broad and can include a folk artist from Rajasthan and a dancer from Odisha, how can there be one body that represents them all? Even with musicians there’s no body to reach them all,” he explained.

Ashok was impressed by the Kerala government’s scheme to provide a certain amount of money for all artistes, but acknowledges that this may not be possible all over the country. “It’s easier said than done to make such things possible in a highly populated country like India,” he said.

In many European countries, the respective ministries of culture have announced relief measures for the arts and culture sector, in the form of tax cuts, salary compensation and so on during the pandemic. Some of the measures are directed to the music sector. However, the Indian government has taken no such steps to support struggling musicians.

“The difference between Europe and India is night and day,” said Rudy. “We (musicians, artistes and so on) have not received any help whatsoever, whether from the Centre or the state governments. It’s like we don’t exist at all. The politicians here are only concerned about three things: power, staying in control and making money! They have tunnel vision! The less said about them the better!”

The Wire emailed the secretary and additional secretaries of the Ministry of Culture for their comments on the matter. The story will be updated as and when the responses come in.