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The Price Tag On Live Music In India

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By Samar

Commerce trumps music. It is the beefy club doorman under whose watch the art and its lovers can stay or leave, thrive or disappear. This is somewhat known and grudgingly accepted. However, as costly new markets for music continue to spring up, it is becoming less acceptable. Competitive, expensive clubs are steadily monopolising access to live bands and painting an exclusionary caricature of the interested listener.

It has been going on for some time. Nightclubs in Hauz Khas, Green Park, Safdarjung are a few examples.  The mushrooming of a range of restobars which host live music has given birth to a new economic model. It is crafty, functional and applies a filter right at the door that communicates clearly that only a few can enter. These then become the few that represent consistent audiences.

A walk through the busy Hauz Khas Village street and one will be bombarded by two rows of flier-wielding, black-shirted men. They attempt to usher passersby into one of the numerous, theme-heavy places that feature gigs. Depending on the band(s) they are hosting, the nature of the event or how upscale the club is, your pocket may suffer a medium to severe burn.

Nights of free entry are illusory and can be considered bait. On other nights, you could find yourself paying Rs 500 just to get in. This will likely be extracted as ‘cover charge’, meaning it will cover a drink once you’re inside the club. It could also be taken as a simple entry fee without any caveat, pink paper bangles or stamped wrists (usually given as proof of having paid the cover charge).

Once inside the club, the entire picture presents itself and music is just one piece in the jigsaw. Broadly divided, it is food, drinks, music and the possibility of meeting single men and women. The grungy, DIY-esque posters, framed quotes on walls and other ‘underground’-oriented apparatus is just for show as this is an entirely capitalist affair. It is for the rich.

If you’re there for the show, firstly you pay very reasonably for entry (sometimes compensated for with a drink not expected by the nightclub to be your last). Now, it is unlikely that you will stand around without purchasing a thing all through the concert. You will be compelled to order food or drinks because the event will go on for hours. Psychologically because everybody is doing it would make your actions seem like normal and logical activity in such a place.

The damage takes seconds. The ease and sophistication with which the ‘good life’ is enjoyed on the pretext of live music is key. Money is dispensed with a social, intoxicated comfort which dulls the feeling that comes from spending heavily. These are steeply-priced places endorsing a certain lifestyle, and they happen to host concerts. And it’s all right because, after all, people are willing to pay.

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But how much of the ‘people’ do they represent?

To pay an elementary cover charge is to shell out more than most people earn in a day. For most people, one look at the menu of Summer House Café or Piano Man or BlueFrog would bring back whimsical memories of thekas or dhabas. It is simply unaffordable and unsustainable for a large chunk of music-lovers. They cannot indulge in the carefree purchase of even starters for hours, never mind burgers costing Rs 500 or a pint of Kingfisher for Rs 400.

They can and do value going for a concert as much as the next person. There is no rigid economic rule which can ever decide who likes what music. People from varied socioeconomic and lingual backgrounds can enjoy the same thing. Music (especially live) appreciation is not beholden to these considerations.

How can students coming to Delhi from humble backgrounds, or young professionals in low-paying industries, pay for this? They are not the ones solicited. It is not because they aren’t fans. The only cut they might not make is the economic one. For example, a lot of talented guitar players and English music connoisseurs (in the Delhi context) come from the Northeast. They are known to be engaged and informed about it. Not many of them, especially students, are well-off. Not many can afford those regular multi-band tribute nights or electronic nights. However, it’s not just about English music, many extravagant and pricey ‘Sufi Nights’, for instance, can attest to that.

The ‘system’ also makes it impossible for a new class of fans to come up. The audience cannot widen as it is cramped up within a financial bracket. The ones who are not initiated with the thrill of live music and aren’t wealthy will remain uninitiated as they cannot frequent Bandstand or Raasta or clubs in Gurgaon. Therefore, genuinely there are no new fans; the only new fans will be from the same, exclusive mould.

The remarkable part is that many who can’t really afford to, but cough up money anyway to attend these shows. The lure of watching bands they like could be responsible for a scenario like this – they attend despite insufficient finances, they borrow or cut back on other things. The case of Wimpy’s – the eating joint right outside Summer House Café, off Aurobindo Road, sums it up. On a night of a musical or a stand-up comic performance at Summer House, attendees can be found eating outside instead. During and after the show, quite a few step out for the inexpensive burgers and fries at Wimpy’s. People are landing up for the music but trying to find ways around the elitist settings.

And that is just about local bands that frequent smaller venues. The bigger gigs by famous, international bands/artists are a different story with the same economic underpinning.

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Consider the ticket prices. When Alt-J came to Delhi, the tickets cost between Rs 1,800 and Rs 3,000. When Guns N’ Roses toured in 2012, Mooz Entertainment created three ticket categories – Silver (Rs 1,500), Gold (Rs 3,000) and Platinum (Rs 10,000). Similarly, the Enrique Iglesias show in 2012, where the tickets ranged between Rs 2,500 to Rs 15,000. Norah Jones in 2013 and NH7 Weekender concerts (the tickets for the upcoming one is already touching Rs 3,250). NH7 is offering discounts under an ‘Under 21’ category to make it cheaper for students. Still, the definition of a student is wider; what they have essentially made is a bachelor’s degree category. People can continue being students (Masters and beyond) after college and have no better finances than a BA student. No discounts for them.

Then there is sponsorship. A typical, hyped event featuring a global act is partnered by, powered by and in association with numerous enterprises. However, this does not take the heat off the ticket prices, which remain high. Companies pay heavily for promotion and publicity. Logically, this should make steep ticket prices less of a necessity.

So who is at fault? The restaurants and bars are merely cashing in on a business model that works well. They have hit a money-spinner in modern metropolitan India. The clientele they serve exists and pays.

If free drinks for women means more guys will land up too and will pay for drinks, then the ‘Ladies’ Night’ will emerge. If gigs usher in people who are well off, then there are more platters of food to be sold. It’s about recognising an economic blueprint that works. The same applies to event management houses promoting larger concerts. In itself, they are free to earn money from the promotions; the problem is when live music becomes a debit card club. It is this phenomenon which gives an overwhelmingly yuppie flavour to most concerts today.

Any resolution to this impasse will have to come from the musicians. Not that they can be blamed for the situation, but their choices will ultimately change or perpetuate it. They should not be denied better pay (which they get if they play at certain venues), but can take a broader view of things.

The bar owners and event managers will never worry about how one-dimensional a fan base is, only they can. If they want their music to reach a wider audience and not just to one particular kind – playing at cheaper, less fashionable places must be considered along with the better-paying ones. It will present an opportunity to increase the fanbase and foster a more diverse listenership. In any case, too many times musicians at restobars find themselves ignored by oblivious attendees who are there to eat, drink and socialise. This furthers nothing for their stock, creates no new interest and brings with it a discouraging element of thanklessness.

The kids who didn’t go to metropolitan schools or come from wealthy families are being stonewalled. A culture of live music that is the exclusive fancy of the well off requires some kind of an equaliser.

It is an unhealthy circumstance that art, universally human-centric rather than language or class-centric, is being further appropriated by affluence. Steps need to be taken to erase this money-music binary. Only then can a truer picture of the connoisseur emerge and our heterogeneity find empirical presence in today’s ‘scene’.

Till then, if you’re not rich, there’s always the All India Radio.

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Image source: The India Today Group/Getty Images, Karan Patil, Runa Bhattacharjee/Flickr
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