The evening crowd spoke in hushed tones at a cycle shop reorganized for a concert. The string lights and cozy setting, a gentle breeze gusting, set a lovely stage. Sikanth took a breath and picked up his guitar. With the very first note he could feel himself drawn into the music and so too the audience. A haunting rendering of Hey You by Pink Floyd followed, and as the song ended, the room was hooked. An experience he describes as ‘simply electric’.
It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile,
‘Cause he knows it’s me, they’ve been coming to see
To forget about life for a while
– Billy Joel, Piano Man
Sikanth is a veteran of the music scene in Bangalore. He’s played in the city since 1992. He’s an unassuming, jovial man with a seemingly never-ending supply of jokes.
He said that not too long ago, Bangalore’s music scene was simply electric. “It was vibrant and competitive, with lots of venues to pick from – ranging from cafes and bars to concert grounds,” he said reminiscing, “Indie music was coming into its own. It was finally feasible for musicians to earn a decent living performing.”
The average music lover could look forward to dozens of performances a month across venues and genres, from jazz to fusion to acoustic pop and the blues, he said. He observed that at long last, India was growing an alternative to film music. He added that there were now opportunities for hobbyists and professionals alike to try their hand at music. There was more opportunities for artists and choice for the consumer.
“It was starting to seem reasonable to be able to make a career off performing independent music and covers,” he said, “The increased number of venues and increased openness of owners to artists of different hues dramatically increased options and opportunities for professional musicians.”
Arati Rao Shetty, co-founder of Bflat, one of Bangalore’s most beloved music venues, renowned for its curation of music, said, “Venues like ours – Bluefrog, the Humming Tree, Take 5, and later Fandom- created an eco-system for live musicians, that enabled musicians to be able to able to make money performing in the city. They had assurance of regular work, smaller gigs in during the week and larger shows on the weekend.”
“this eco-system enabled the indie (independent) music scene in the city to pick up, with more places to perform, they let go of the shackles of covers, bloomed and blossomed and began performing their own music!” she smiled.
“It really was the most amazing thing, and then it all got crushed, like a goliath had walked in and stomped everything in its path”
They heard me singing,
and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things
and just punch the clock.
– Arcade Fire, Sprawl II
The pandemic is not the first time the entire industry that surrounded the vibrant live music scene has faced an existential threat in Bangalore. In 2018, following a thirteen-year legal battle, the Supreme court upheld the Licensing of Public Places of Entertainment Order (2005), issued under the Karnataka Police Act. This meant that venues had to apply for a license. Following the ruling, on the 29th of August, the Central Crime Branch (CCB) of the Bangalore City Police served show cause notices to 107 pubs and restaurants for hosting live performances illegally.
This crackdown led to venues across the city cancelling shows for fear of reprisal from the authorities. The rules were not clear, and venue owners could not figure out how to obtain the license, and were not willing to host gigs amidst the uncertainty.
Venues that were cornerstones of the Bangalore music circuit, like The Humming Tree, Bflat and Take5 all shut their doors in the months that followed.
But the industry marched on, bruised yet defiant.
I went down to the sacred store,
Where I’d heard the music, years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
–Don McLean, American Pie
Today, amongst the rubble of what has been struck by the global pandemic lies what is left of Bangalore’s entertainment scene. In the barrage of the pandemic, people had to stop dancing, the music had to stop playing, and no tickets were punched at the theaters. The pulse of a thriving arts scene in the city was forced to flatline.
“The industry is almost wiped out,” sighed Marcus, a guitarist who was a staple of the live music scene. “Music, and the arts at large, are a big part of the culture of the city. With the blow after blow of this past year, it’s like a part of this city has died.” Gigs were Marcus’s primary source of income and why he became a musician.
“I haven’t played a show since March 2020. I’ve been performing on stage since I was 8-9 years old. Not having that anymore is a larger loss than just my income. It feels like a part of me is lost.” After his main source of income dried up, Marcus tried to teach guitar online, but couldn’t find enough regular students to substitute for his income from gigs.
“We’re really screwed, man. I’m lucky, I found some regular students for my online classes, but many people I know and have played with have resorted to delivering packages for Dunzo and Swiggy just to make ends meet,” he said. He added some other guys are trying to become “influencers” online and are making videos, but they haven’t been able to secure a stable source of income either. “I tried playing shows online myself, but people weren’t turning up and it just didn’t feel the same…so I stopped.”
Dinushan Shanmuganathan is Lucky Ali’s live drummer, and has played with everyone from Kannada playback singers, to cover bands. “Like most musicians I know, I am recording from home. Apart from some commercial work, most of what I record is not monetizable. We are mostly preparing content for after the pandemic, when we can get out there and perform…” He sighed. “But the way things are shaping up, it is very unclear when we will be able to perform again. I am looking for jobs outside the industry, as there is no end in sight, and unfortunately it is looking like there isn’t much to look forward to for live musicians, anymore.” His income also came primarily from gigging and touring, and had dried up a month before the first lockdown in March of 2020, as in anticipation of a lockdown, gigs and tours started getting cancelled
Musicians have no safety net. They have no labour protections or any kind of social security net. The loss of revenue from the complete cessation of live music shows has been a deadly financial blow for many musicians.
Describing what happened to the music industry after the lockdown, Sikanth said, “Well, one day it was there, functioning like it always did, and the next it just – stopped. No recording in the studio, no gigs, the whole industry had to hit pause. It’s been that way ever since. For over a year now, nothing has happened, and it doesn’t seem like things are going to pick back up again any time soon.”
Sikanth pointed out that when most people think of the music industry they think only of the musicians. “There are so many people involved in the industry: musicians, light guys, sound guys, venue managers, promoters, DJs – all of them were dependent on people wanting to go out and experience live music to earn their living. When it all stopped, they were left hanging, with no money coming in. Either they had to adapt and find new sources of income, stay home and wait for things to get better, or leave the industry and find another job.”
He paused. “None of us have any idea when we can play live again.”
Online concerts, gigs, and classes haven’t quite managed to fill the void left by a lack of live performances. Some websites have held ticketed online concerts and musicians have attempted to keep a frequent online presence, with Instagram live performances and videos. But the uptake hasn’t been what they hoped for. Performances on Zoom are just not the same and subject to bandwidth issues and technical difficulties.
Dance me to your beauty, with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic, ‘til I’m gathered safely in
Life me like an olive branch and be by homeward dove
–Leonard Cohen, Dance me to the end of love
Online classes have been easier for musicians who were already conducting classes before the pandemic and already had a steady stream of students. Classical singers and musicians have found it easier to pick up online classes, with a steady audience of parents and students who suddenly had too much time on their hands.
Shobha Srinivasan, a Carnatic classical singer, teacher and Music therapist, spoke of how the Carnatic music scene has been coping with the situation a little better. “Right from the beginning of the first lockdown, big names in the industry began conducting online performances and made it clear that they will charge for people to attend. Some are just putting content out there, but the scene has managed to retain its vibrance.”
She said that as most Carnatic music teachers had students before the pandemic, they were well positioned to transition to a digital environment. Although she says this mode leads to a compromise in both the quality of learning and teaching, and could never replace in-person classes, it was a “good substitute.”
Prospects for performers is still bleak, she fears. “Before the pandemic, performers would have set year-round schedules, they would tour across the country, America and Europe. Now, they’re forced to adapt. Maestros are now putting up masterclasses online- but I think any change is temporary”
“People will come back to shows when things open back up – although I don’t see that happening anytime soon – definitely not in the next few years”
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
-Don Mclean, American Pie
Rachana Ramdin, from Mauritius, has been living in Bangalore for ten years and has been a full-time singer for six. She is the lead singer of Zhané, an Afro band. Before the lockdown, things were going really well. There were lots of gigs and the band was thinking of recording an album. “Things were really picking up before it all came crashing down.”
“Performing live was my only source of income, so I’ve had no income since shows have stopped. On the bright side, we have all had time to work on our own music. Me and the band are recording an album. [The issue is that] the government doesn’t consider the entertainment industry, so they’re of no help. The [music] community has banded together and we try and help each other out when we can.”
The band and her tried figuring out the ‘new normal’, they tried hosting concerts digitally, but although fans seemed initially enthusiastic, they never managed to gain any real traction, and the enthusiasm faded.
“In the first lockdown there were a couple of paying online gigs, but the response was poor, so those opportunities dried up.”
When asked of the future, she said the only thing on their minds was preparing for when they can get back out there. “Music is so much more than a source of income for us. We love it, we love performing- that’s why we’re in this, that why we’re muscians.”
“I know for a fact that as soon as we [the band] are able to, we will get back on stage, but I fear that a lot of people will be skeptical of coming, and as a result, venues will have smaller budgets. We depend on the pubs and clubs, when they don’t make money, they pay less. A five-piece band will now have to become a three-piece band, or an acoustic duo.”
Music, arts and cultural activities play a vital role in society – they chronicle and reflect the context and time in which they are produced. Bob Dylan’s The Times they are A-changin’ chronicled the culmination of a decade of counter-culture movements and anti-war protests in America in the 70s. Tagore, Faiz and Sarojini Naidu’s poetry stood as a testament to the revolution that was then taking place and that resulted in India’s independence.
Things are looking rather grim for the live music industry at present. Musicians don’t seem to have much hope that things will pick up again any time soon. Online avenues haven’t proved to be a sufficient alternative, so many of them are being forced to look for other jobs and consider leaving the industry altogether.
“The future of live music is in up in the air for now. There is definitely nothing as long as there is COVID, and after that, we stand at the mercy of the city’s by-laws, the state home ministry has to recognize the importance of live music and help us preserve this cultural bookmark of our city” Said Arati Rao