At the fag end of a difficult year, musicians are turning to polished digital concerts from studios and platforms that offer realtime feedback from the audience
Over the past month, Chennai’s musicians — many of whom have garnered national following — walked into closed malls and hotel spaces to perform without an audience. “I am used to Luxe Cinemas being always crowded; it was so strange, yet grand, to see it completely empty,” recalls Sharad Rao, the Chennai-born guitarist of Pune-based eight-piece band Easy Wanderlings.
Sharad and Easy Wanderlings’ vocalist Pratika Gopinath, Jbabe (the solo act of The F16s’ frontman Josh Fernandes), Maalavika Manoj aka Mali, and many others performed entire sets in isolated, silent spaces, to be streamed “live” on Instagram a couple of weeks later. The series, titled Centre Stage, is an attempt by Chennai’s new music platform, Circle of Love, to turn usual Instagram Live sessions into something more slick and polished.
Up the game (Clockwise from left) Jbabe performing for Circle of Love; singers Pentagram, Karthik and Pratika Special Arrangement
Enter, polished studios
Though the pandemic outbreak forced musicians to take to jamming online, it soon became evident that monetising was essential. And that meant streaming live from their bedrooms wouldn’t cut it any more.
Easy Wanderlings’ Pratika and Sharad were back in Chennai, working on a four-track EP with the rest of the band’s members spread across Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra. Live sets were far from their minds when Circle of Love co-founders Sameer Sethi and DJ Manny asked them to do one. “We weren’t really sure that we wanted to do it, but it was the first bit of work that we had got in a while, so we couldn’t say no,” says Sharad.
Easy Wanderlings’ vocalist Pratika Gopinath and guitarist Sharad Rao performing a set for Circle of Love at Luxe Cinemas in Chennai
Sameer, who has led teams handling Sunburn and the AR Rahman concert in 2019, says, “I knew the lockdown would make it difficult for everyone to cope, so I was looking at possible alternatives. We wanted to take the casual Lives and do it properly: with multiple cameras angles and edits, and paid artistes.” Circle of Love has already recorded three Live sets each at Luxe and Park Hyatt; recording studios too have woken up to this new channel of revenue.
Before 2020, live gigs would be in a controlled environment, points out Aditya Srinivasan, co-founder, Offbeat Music Ventures. “How somebody consumes the music you put out is entirely left to them. This means we have to account for a whole new set of variables,” says Aditya.
Started in February this year, Offbeat’s studio is a 5,500 square feet space in Chennai’s RA Puram, with 40-seater and 80-seater plug and play rooms. The studio enables artistes from different locations to stream together, and has so far hosted live concerts by bands such as Funktuation with Benny Dayal, NonViolinist Project and singers like Karthik and TM Krishna.
“Each of our shows sells an average of 500 to 600 tickets, a good combination of local and international. In case of free corporate shows, we get an attendance of 4,000 to 5,000 overall, with an average of 700 people watching at one point of time,” says co-founder Vijay Nathan, adding that they have green screens to display visuals as well, “Most people are now watching these shows on TVs rather than on their phones. So good visuals matter as much as the sound.”
Not all prefer the bright lights of a studio, however. In Mylapore, arts consultant Shreya Nagarajan Singh turned the ground floor of an eight-year-old home into a multipurpose arts space, Swapna. The informal vibe of the airy green balcony here has proved a hit among those doing morning recordings.
Lately, Shreya has been advising clients to premiere pre-recorded shows live. “There is excitement in a Live session, but you can’t monitor the Internet connection on both sides. For pre-recorded content, you can shoot in the best natural light possible, and still stream during evenings,” she says.
But Srikanth Natarajan, founder of The Chennai Scene, prefers realtime engagement. He recalls a live digital concert by rapper Hanumankind in Bengaluru. “He asked the audience to send him words in a chatbox and made freestyle raps out of them.” From August to November, Srikanth tied up with CornerHouse Studio in Kilpauk to livestream indie acts every weekend, the last one featuring Siennor. People from Dubai, cities in the US, as well as Coimbatore and Tiruchirappalli tuned in.
Josh aka Jbabe also echoes the importance of audience interaction. The last time he went live, he remembers asking viewers to join and sing for him, because “I was getting saturated singing by myself. As artistes, it is our job to perform for the people. It is kind of mundane otherwise.”
Listening to audiences
To bring this vital element of listener feedback, artistes have taken to platforms like Gurugram-based Skillbox. What started as a professional networking space for the performing arts in 2018, Skillbox has become a widely-used ticketing and native digital streaming platform. With the introduction of its vertical Livebox in May this year, its user base rose five times from before the pandemic.
“On Skillbox, artistes can either hold their own gigs, or be hired by clients and corporates (through legally binding contracts that assure payment),” says Anmol Kukreja, CEO. The service has a parallel chatbox for audience to respond in. They are working on enabling users to switch on their video and audio too, for comprehensive feedback.
For a concert to be worth its money, the quality of the recording has to be high not just at the performers’ end, but also at the listeners’. And not all applications can stream high fidelity audio and video without compressing it. A 1080p HD video may not even load if the listener’s Internet connection is bad. “So we have adaptive bit-rates (that change according to the strength of your signal),” explains Anmol
Skillbox has hosted 700 live shows so far, starting with a sold-out concert by Parekh and Singh, and moving on to the likes of Nikhil D’Souza, Pentagram, Ankur Tewari and Lifafa. Next month, Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram will be playing. Ram says, “The tech guys (in the music space) are almost as much out of work as us [artistes] — possibly more so because they can’t just go online and sing a song — they have come up with innovative solutions… We now have a new way to reach our fans in cities that we have never played in.”
With restrictions being eased and live concerts resuming with limited audiences, a hybrid model is the one to look out for: one that integrates a physical and a digital live gig. Says Ram, “It is like watching cricket at home on your TV. You get to watch every hit and spin, so you are actually watching better cricket. But yes, you are missing out on the sheer energy of 30,000 people cheering, so both become equally valid but different experiences.”
Sameer believes that this new model could turn the spotlight on the best musical talents Chennai has to offer. “Most people think of Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru at the mention of indie music,” he says. But a freshly widened reach might just put the city on the national indie map.