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COVID-19 Impact: With Concerts on Pause, Music Industry Innovates Way Forward

Independent artists have forever relied on ticket sales for a regular flow of income. Now, with concerts completely suspended, how is the live music industry coping?

By now, we’re all aware of the havoc the pandemic has wreaked all over the globe. Large social gatherings, in most countries, is still prohibited and, as a result, the live music industry’s been at a standstill for months. From Justin Bieber to The Weeknd to Guns N’ Roses; all artists had to call off their highly anticipated world tours. In India, the lucky ones saw U2 perform live in Mumbai back in December before the live entertainment industry froze unexpectedly.

While aforementioned big names, and similar artists with over a billion streams on Spotify alone, will glide through uncertain times, independent musicians & record labels, artist management companies, and event organizers will face the major brunt of the current situation.

It’s no secret that India’s music industry is dominated by Bollywood. Regional music, too, is largely filmy. But, for the past decade, the independent music scene has been rising steadily due to the injection of fresh ideas. The fast-growing metal community, dedicated electronic music fans, hardcore alternative devotees, and true-blue hip-hop heads have all come together to create an underground music scene that’s been thriving across metros and, in recent times, tier II cities.

For instance, the Gurugram based online music portal SkillBox, which connects musicians with artists & listeners worldwide, were on their way to host concert series Aggressive Tendencies when the lockdown began. Bhayanak Maut, veterans of the Indian metal scene, along with bands Primal Abuse, LURID & Last Walk, were to perform in Hyderabad. SkillBox was also gearing up for a Blackstratblues gig in Mumbai, and a concert event in association with LiveWire in Kolkata. Similarly, KRUNK, Mixtape & sLick–all artist management companies and booking agencies–found themselves under dire circumstances.

How then, when concerts are completely suspended, are these fairly new companies surviving? How is the music industry, as a whole, adjusting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic? And what’s the way forward?

Live Streaming Skyrockets

For independent artists, besides sales of merchandise, live shows have forever been the major source of income. Be it pubs, underground clubs, or small gig venues, booking agencies representing varying artists relied on fans buying tickets and attending shows for a regular flow of income. This disruption that the pandemic has caused is affecting everyone alike. But record labels, event organizers, artists managers, and musicians have found a way around it using live streaming. What began as impromptu performances on InstagramTV, Facebook & YouTube Live and Zoom has turned into a new form of revenue.

Skillbox’s StreamBox, an inbuilt live streaming service, kick-started a series of performances in April with voluntary fee and over fifty artists. In May, SkillBox hosted their first ticketed live streaming event with Parekh & Singh performing live from a studio with proper set-up. SkillBox, since that concert, hasn’t looked back and has gone on to organize a number of ticketed events with artists across genres. 

Amarjeet Singha, Business Development Head at SkillBox, says, “It was absolute chaos when lockdown was announced and all shows were cancelled. Live streaming was something we explored before, but the quality was never up to mark. But, now, live streaming is our main product, besides promoting new, talented artists from across the country”. 

Amarjeet says that SkillBox will focus on hosting more ticketed events on live streaming as a way to generate revenue. “We recently hosted American deathcore band Suicide Silence’s live show streaming directly from the US. The set-up was top-notch with multiple cameras, cranes, large stage, lights, and all other effects.” He says that the event was well-received and prompted them to host another international act, progressive metal band Between the Buried and Me on 12 August.

Talking about the challenges faced when hosting a live streaming event, Amarjeet says, “Not everyone has the equipment or set-up to perform a stellar live show; there has to be production value, especially when you want to sell tickets.” He says most streaming events featuring Indian artists, barring a few, have been free or pay-what-you-wish because of lack of proper production. “Our ticketed events have mostly featured international artists; Parekh & Singh, too, are based in the UK.” Amarjeet says that as things reopen, concerts will be hard to come by, but SkillBox, and other similar online platforms, are working on setting-up safe studios across cities from where artists can perform live. “On Independence Day, we’re hosting Lifafa, solo project of Peter Cat Recording Co frontman Suryakant Sawhney, live from New Delhi.”

Bigger players in the ticketing industry, like & BookMyShow, also entered the music live streaming space. Not only are they selling tickets to these online events, but are also streaming these shows on their own platforms. SkillBox, Amarjeet informs, is also offering the function of booking tickets on their website while collaborating with various independent record labels & artist management companies. 

Diversifying Income Stream

After the lockdown cancelled live shows across India, 63.1 per cent of event companies reported a loss of upto Rs. 1 crore, according to a report by The Events and Entertainment Management Association. As a result, both companies & musicians have turned to alternative ways of revenue streams which they hope will continue in the future.

Many musicians, for instance, gave lessons online on how to play an instrument of their choice or hit the perfect high note. Platforms like SkillBox, to increase engagement with prospective audiences, organized sessions where those involved in the music business discussed ways to move forward. These sessions were open to all at a nominal fee. Similarly, record labels nrtya & Azadi collaborated and promoted specially curated playlists on Spotify, Apple Music & JioSaavn to increase reach of published tracks and improve streaming numbers.

Dhruv Singh, founder of Pagal Haina, said they’ve been exploring alternative revenue streams more deeply so they get to a point where live gigs generate 50 per cent or less of their total revenue. While artists in the West rack millions of streams, Indian artists struggle to break the 100,000 barrier. Services like CD Baby, that publish & distribute music across streaming platforms worldwide, have been expanding in India making sure independent artists receive royalties directly while revenue is maximised. Spotify, too, has been curating playlists dedicated to showcasing Indian artists; like Hip Te Hop, Bambai Bantai, Dillihood, Ghaint Flow, Burrh Rap, Rock in India and Indie India, among others.

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Increased Focus on Independent Artists

Since the lockdown, listeners have gotten more sensitized towards the struggles of independent artists. Talking about the support received by independent artists, Amarjeet says, “Most of our highest viewed live streams have been by artists who are either completely new, an EP old, or deeply embedded in the underground.” He says that people have been discovering new music more often during the lockdown because of how frequently their moods change. And it’s true, people aren’t sticking to that one playlist anymore. Labels are, hence, finding ways to provide songs maximum exposure through various free and subscription based streaming services. From collaborating with radio stations like Worldwide FM & New Delhi based to organizing masterclasses in association with Spotify about the best practices for releasing music and getting playlisted, the industry put their best foot forward.

OK Listen, a digital platform to discover and purchase independent music, suspended commission on sales on the website for the month of April in order to support artists. It also curated numerous fresh playlists on Spotify & Apple Music promoting Indian independent artists.

India’s underground music scene has grown at an impressive speed lately. Artists like Prateek Kuhad, who were once local names, landed in former President Obama’s favorite songs playlist while gully rap ended up soundtracking India’s 2019 Oscar entry Gully Boy. Be it Prabh Deep, Bhayanak Maut or Sez on the Beat, artists from the independent scene broke through to the mainstream in various ways. With the pandemic blurring the future, both artists and labels are devising ways to keep revenue flowing while making their music reach as far as possible. India’s streaming numbers are in an upward spiral at 200 million strong. With consumption & creativity rising, the future will only be intriguing.

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Mayank Gulati