Now that club gigs are back, and some of them are even packed to scary capacities, I asked Indian independent artists, managers and other industry folk about the one big career lesson they gained over the past 11 months when live music, their main source of income, was put on a prolonged pause. If the threat of another lockdown is followed through, especially in cities like Mumbai where COVID-19 case counts are increasing, these are the learnings that will help pull them through.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, among the most common responses I received was essentially one word: "Save". For many of the musicians who had not yet realised the importance of keeping aside funds for a rainy day (or in this particular case, year), the only way to remedy the situation was to find new ways to earn, and indeed the largest lesson for the majority of indie musicians was also in essence a single word: "Diversify".
I've written about how the lockdown led to a bunch of new initiatives that attempted to solve the issues around livestreamed performances. Perhaps the most prominent among them was New Delhi-headquartered ticketing platform Skillbox, which swiftly shifted its focus to selling passes for virtual shows hosted on its own website. Revenue from these streams were only a quarter of those from offline events, Skillbox co-founder and CEO Anmol Kukreja told me. Nevertheless, the switch helped raise their profile among the indie music community, and as a result, for the past few months, more gigs by independent acts " as opposed to mainstream and regional music artists " have been listed on Skillbox than on Bookmyshow and Insider.
However, many artists and fans found that both the experience and economics of staging livestreamed concerts fell considerably short of the real thing. For an alternative source of income, several turned to education and started holding online classes. For example, vocalist-composer Raghav Meattle conducted a songwriting workshop for the app CRED, singer-songwriter Ashwin Adwani created and sold 'top lines' to a music school, and producer Sartek successfully pitched a DJing course for Sunburn's just-launched academy. All three acts are signed to artist management company Shark + Ink, which also tapped avenues such as digital gigs for corporates, endorsement deals with brands and synch opportunities with production houses for its roster of over a dozen pop, rock and electronic music artists.
Expectedly, event-focused companies were hit hardest by the lockdown, and consequently the independent music industry witnessed some consolidation within this space. For instance, Mumbai-based enterprises 4/4 Entertainment and hip-hop label Azadi Records merged recently to form new entity 4z4di Entertainment. For Reuksh Alagh, who manages Delhi-based singer-songwriter Tanmaya Bhatnagar, the lockdown occurred at the worst time: just around when she was planning to launch her career.
Following the positive response to her debut single "Kya Tum Naraaz Ho?", which they supported with a "virtual tour", Alagh and Bhatnagar scored a songwriting deal with ZEE5. Subsequently, she composed the track "Kya Yeh Tumhe Pata Hai?" for the video OTT platform's Hindi film Comedy Couple, which was released in October. Then in November, she put out her first English tune "I Can't Go Back To Sleep", which thanks to Alagh's "connections in New York and Nashville", got added to the global Spotify playlist Winter Acoustic. By the end of last year, Alagh had landed sponsorship deals for Bhatnagar with international music instrument and accessories makers Enya Music and D'Addario.
Singer-songwriter Jayanth Potharaju, on the other hand, found new work after listing his services on freelancer marketplace Fiverr through which he was hired to "write songs as gifts", an assignment that kept him busy until January this year. Because most of his customers were from western countries, he banked more cash than he would have by playing online gigs. Like many of his counterparts and contemporaries, the artist, who lives in Chennai and is still in college, used his free time to upskill. He studied music production because "sticking to just acoustic stuff is not enough, especially if you're freelancing," he said. "The competition is too high."
Meanwhile, conscious rapper Smokey The Ghost aka Sumukh Mysore determined that money is not always "made in the music" but "around the music". As somebody who rhymes in English and therefore has a limited audience within India, he now calls himself less of a "B2C" MC and more of a "B2B" rapper. The Bengaluru-residing artist, who co-founded the hip-hop collective Wanandaf in his home city, leverages his two decades of experience to advise and assist fellow hip-hoppers on everything from marketing their music to building relationships with brands " for a fee.
Hopefully, the indie industry will emerge stronger and wiser from the last few months. As Nikhil Udupa of 4Z4di Entertainment says, it would bode well to "not scramble for the same piece of pie [but] bake a bigger one." Here's some of the other pithy and pertinent advice shared by some of the artists and other professionals who replied to my post on social media.
"DIY." " Arjun Vagale, electronic music producer
"Keep working and keep the faith alive." " Arsh Sharma, singer-composer, electro-rock act FuzzCulture
"Start building channels online where you can interact and get paid directly by your listeners." " Malfnktion aka Aditya Alamuru, electronic music producer
"Don't not be active on social media just cause you're back to live gigs. Keeping the audience you have engaged online means more people coming for gigs offline." " Nida Siddiqui, singer-songwriter
"Never do a free gig." " Oh Arya aka Aryaditya Bose, singer-songwriter
"Practise and get better at what you do in your downtime so that the efforts pay off later." " Pragnya Wakhlu, singer-songwriter
"Figure out your damn royalties." " Sandhya Surendran, entertainment lawyer and founder of legal consultancy service Lexic
"Put yourself out there digitally. Have a bigger, better online presence." " Sigmund Quadros, sound engineer
"Meditate. Practice mindfulness. Regularly." " Uddipan Sarmah, vocalist-guitarist and frontman, post-rock band aswekeepsearching
"Everyone needs a basic audio setup [at home] to ensure they can keep working and get clients." " progressive rock guitarist and composer Yatin Srivastava
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox