Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Likely Scenario: The music business here

This piece appeared in the Economic Times Calcutta edition's pull-out supplement ET Casual on the 7th of January 2011 in a suitably edited form. What you read below is the original piece I wrote without the edits.


But The Music Never Stops

Get a load of this: A band of sincere, dedicated musicians spend years developing their own sound, seeking audiences beyond their present fans, wanting to make their music widely available. Enter big name label with bigger smile: “Tell you what guys. You record the album and we'll cover the expenses, even throw in some mastering in the UK. In return, you give us the song rights in perpetuity and we distribute the album. Whatever sells we get 80% 'cause we've got overheads, you get 20%, after deducting what we pay for recording costs. Then we'll split 50-50 whatever you make from live performances even though we have no system in place to get you gigs. So you do the footwork, get the sponsors and we'll point you to our printers who can give you a nice rate for posters, banners and all that. Oh yeah, and we'll send you the email IDs of a couple of event managers who could help. Look at it this way guys, you'll be an artist with our international banner and label. A global star on the upcoming artists page in our website. What more could you want?”

Band guys scratch collective head, think, think... “Ok. So, uh, how do you like, er, our music?”

Label guy: “...Music? Oh, yeah, sure music...” Voice trails off, quickly ordering cappucino for all.

Another scene in a glass-walled conference room up on the 13th floor with a 180° view of other upcoming 13 and more floorers on formerly agricultural land: “Yes, of course we want to sponsor events where the youth gather. You know our brand is totally directed at a youth market and they love, we know from our own surveys, rock music.” Eyes glint ferociously behind designer glasses as he looks steely-eyed at four earnest musicians, a couple of them not evidently stoned, all of them entering the chronological crisis space, wondering wtf are we doing here?

Just to set things on an even keel, what exactly does the sponsor get from all this? I mean, all this so-and-so presents you guys in concert, prime positioning of our banners, standees is all normal stuff. What else?” He makes it sound like it's war.

Um, mention of your brand during the announcements?”

Yeah, yeah sure, and...? Ok, look, since that's all you guys can give what we propose is we come in for 15% of this budget you've given and we want our brand as main sponsor.”

But that offer is for those who come in for 50% or more!”

Maniacal giggle emanate from designer wearing marketing jockey. “50%? Who's going to give you 50%? I mean you guys aren't filling up a stadium are you? It's just a 600 seater audi better known for theatre. Make it up from ticket sales, but give us 200 comps before that, we'll give it to our loyal customers. What? A hundred bucks? You guys are underselling! Charge at least 350-400 per! How will you recover your costs, man! Now if you guys did some Bollywood stuff, some Rahman tunes, you know? You can get sponsors just like that!” Fingers snap cruelly.


The band's album is only available in 6 stores in four metros and two Tier 2 cities where ignorant salesfolk move the CD from top shelf to bottom shelf on the 2nd day of display. After three months, the label says sales are dismal and they are not considering any further reprints. Band gets an accountant's statement saying whatever has sold has been adjusted against recording and mastering expenses paid by the label and that the band still owes the company a sum roughly equalling the combined investment the musicians made in their equipment over the years. In six months, once the entire stock of 250 units has been sold out the label tells the band to record another one at the same terms and conditions. This time the contract will have additional clauses allowing the label to use any or all their songs in other compilations and that radio play too will not entitle them to royalties. Ringtone sales will entitle them to 8% of the income generated from there. The band has no way of monitoring and auditing all this and Big Smile expresses grief when they ask him how this might be done. Nothing is mentioned in the contract about paid downloads from the label's website.

The 15% main sponsor who hogs all the prominence threatens delayed payment and penalty clauses as his standees are not correctly positioned in the 'high traffic' zone of the auditorium's lobby to get complete eyeballs from the footfalls. 350 bucks being a little too steep, the band has heavily discounted ticket prices even after having paid a 25% agricultural income tax to the government because ticket prices exceeded 90 rupees. The sponsor not having paid any advance, the band pays all expenses upfront, already exceeding what the main sponsor has come in for. Other sponsors who came in for less did so because they wanted to bask in the glow of the main sponsor's shine. And they felt no need to sponsor more because they believed the main sponsor would defray the bulk of the expenses.

Three months after the show, Designer Wear is talking about being busy at international conferences, internal meetings, year-end deadlines and key personnel quitting as reasons for not releasing their cheque that should have been paid 15 days after the event... “subject to conditions”. In the months after the show, as they waited for the cheque, the band registered themselves, got a trade license, a bank account, a PAN card, completed online documents, signed multiple hard copies and spent even more money on a dentist to repair the ruin caused by gnashing their teeth. The other sponsorships, reluctantly paid, seemed somehow meagre after TDS.

The last I heard the band was persevering, still doing gigs that came their way, a little persnickety about the ones they took. And they are on the lookout for a better deal from maybe another label. Or maybe they'll put their stuff up on indie sites on a favourable sharing arrangement. Maybe they'll just give it all away for free.

But the music never stops.

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