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Vol. XXX No. 20, February 16-28, 2021

Going digital @musicacademymadras

by Sriram V

The 94th annual concerts of the Music Academy, Madras are over. The season, such as it was, met with a fabulous response from audiences across the world, and the numbers though modest when compared to the following for more popular art forms, were greatly encouraging. At the end of it, the Music Academy has written one more chapter into its history, one that is the first step in what promises to be a long and exciting journey into a new world.

The Academy had till 2018 kept the digital world at arm’s length. Ticket sales were only at the counter and officially the organisation did not release any of its programmes, be they lecture demonstrations or concerts, online. Each December, there was considerable comment from non-members over the difficulties in having to queue up on the night of the 1st to purchase season tickets. Others complained on the eve of the concerts of their favourite stars, when they had to stand in line the previous night to buy tickets. The Academy on its part did discourage such queuing. But the hype had built up and people began massing at the gates, braving floods and cyclones.

Since 2018, a few tentative steps had been taken by the Academy, by way of its presence on digital platforms. Within the organisation, its collection of 4,000 black and white photographs, many of its rare books and several hours of music had been digitised. Its souvenirs from 1935 and the journals from 1930 were also electronically available. In 2018, the website was revamped and accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were opened. A year later, the Academy began its YouTube channel and uploaded the proceedings of the 93rd annual conference, together with the inauguration and Sadas. The immediate response was most heartening. The number of views for many of those programmes reached four figures almost within a day of uploading. The number of subscribers to the channel grew from zero to 2,000 within the fortnight spanning December 16th 2019 to January 1, 2020. Encouraged by this, the Academy resolved to strengthen its presence on digital media in the season of 2020.

Early in January it seemed business as usual. The schedule for the music festival to be held in December that year was finalised with the artistes and released on the Academy’s website. Attention then shifted to the endowment programmes and concerts to be held through the year. Nobody then bargained for the Covid outbreak, which threatened to derail the season itself, something unheard of in the Academy’s history of nine decades and more. Initially, in March 2020 there was hope that it would tide over by August or so but when the months wore on and there was no sign of the pandemic going away, it was clear that something new had to be worked out if a season from the Academy was to be forthcoming. As it is, all other programmes for the year had to be given the go by. And in sharp contrast to a normal year when the Academy’s two venues, the TTK Auditorium and the Kasturi Srinivasan Hall were booked by several private organisers for events of all kinds, cancellations and refunds became the norm.

It was in June 2020 that members of the Academy’s Executive Committee began pondering in private conversations over what could be done with the 94th annual conference and concerts. The simplest decision would have been to do nothing. After all, in such a tumultuous year, with a macro catastrophe raging, nobody would have blamed the organisation for giving its season a miss. But the Committee resolved that it had to conduct its festival in a digital format, even if it were to be in a truncated form. This it felt was the least that could be done keeping in view the Academy’s heritage. For starters it was decided after long and detailed deliberations that the conference, namely the morning deliberations, need not be held. Unlike the concerts where most performers were from Chennai, the lecture sessions involved scholars from various parts of the world. Many of the Committee of Experts who participated were elderly and so could not be expected to attend in person. Remote sessions were ruled out as many speakers would need to connect from their residences, which not all were comfortable with, and then there were connectivity issues as well. The doing away with the conference for the year also meant the award of Sangita Kalanidhi would not be conferred. For those who do not know this, the award is conferred on the artiste who presides over the year’s annual conference. Moreover, this being a once in a lifetime experience for the recipient, an online sadas minus the trappings of all the ceremonial and grandeur of a live event would have been a huge disappointment.

These aspects decided upon, attention shifted to the concerts. The Academy opted to go in for a week-long December festival, beginning on 24th and ending on 31st December, as was the practice in the first few decades of its existence. That meant having to plan for fewer performances. The morning slot was dropped for the year. As for the remaining, given the shorter duration, it was decided that only the prize winners from the previous years and a few of the more popular Sangita Kalanidhis would be featured. The Academy very regretfully sent out a letter of apology to all the artistes whom it had contracted to feature that December but it now had to drop. Those selected were all contacted in person and the new format was explained– the concerts would be for a shorter duration – an hour for the junior slots and 90 minutes for the sub-senior and senior slots. Many rasikas wrote in asking as to why the concerts could not have been for the normal durations of 90 minutes for the junior, 120 for the sub-senior and 150 for the senior slots. While the Academy could indeed have taken that route, this being the first time it was attempting such things, it was felt that it would be best not to try to overreach and fail. While this planning was on, the Academy was thrilled to know that HCL Concerts, with whom it had several endowment programmes going through the years, was keen to offer support. That tie-up was soon in place and it proved a huge morale booster.

The next step was to finalise on the vendors for the actual process of recording and streaming. The Academy signed up with Showspace for the actual event management and broadcast, and Prakriti JIVA Media and Offbeat Music Ventures for the recording and uploading. During the many brainstorming sessions that were held thereafter, much clarity emerged and a few further decisions taken. It was decided that the senior concerts would all be ticketed for non-members, just as they were when performed to a live audience at the Academy. It was also finalised that tickets would be available for an entire season and also for individual performances. This in retrospect would prove to be an inspired choice and came in for much praise from rasikas the world over. Another call that was taken was not to broadcast the concerts live, given the vagaries of internet bandwidth. The concerts would all be pre-recorded at the Academy premises and then streamed.

The tempo quickened by early December, when the actual recordings happened. With all safety protocols in place – the stage was disinfected after every recording and the attendant staff was always clad in PPE- the artistes began coming in. There was no audience barring the recording crew and it may have been a strange experience for the artistes though they took it in their stride. As the stage settings had to be done keeping physical distance norms between the performers in mind, it was not the usual seating arrangement either and they needed to adjust to that. The Academy tested this for efficacy with an HCL endowment concert by Gayatri Venkataraghavan, Mysore Srikanth, Delhi Sairam and BS Purushothaman. The students of the Advanced School of Carnatic Music too stood in for a test session. And so, when the actual concert recordings began, everything proceeded smoothly. A few among the Academy Executive Committee were present during the performances to make sure all went well. It must be pointed out here that to make the effect as close to a live performance, there were no retakes or edits. Artistes came, performed for the duration they were asked to, and left. The end product was as recorded. Academy treasurer V Balasubramaniam, Librarian MS Jagadish and Assistant Satyavati then viewed the recordings by way of a check on recording quality.

While all of this was going on, a parallel shoot was in progress. A 19-part series of capsules on the Academy’s history and contributions was developed, with Secretaries Dr Meenakshi Sumathi Krishnan and Sriram V anchoring them. The episodes featured some of the artistes who are regulars at the Academy, including some of the Sangita Kalanidhi-s. While Sangita Kalanidhis Sudha Raghunathan, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Dr S Sowmya came in person to record others such as Sangita Kalanidhis Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, Trichy Sankaran, A Kanyakumari and Aruna Sairam sent in recordings. In addition, there was a digital inauguration as well, with the students of the Academy’s ASCM singing the invocation, President N Murali welcoming the e-audience, Roshni Nadar Malhotra, Chairperson of HCL Technologies inaugurating, Secretary V Srikanth delivering the Vote of Thanks and Secretary Dr Meenakshi Sumathi Krishnan compering.

Bookings for the Academy’s 94th concert tickets opened on December 10th or so. There were a few initial hiccups for which there was some criticism on social media, all of which was quickly contained by workarounds and more importantly, reaching out to those who had problems. A helpdesk was established at the Academy premises and apart from the vendor personnel, the Academy staff too rose to the occasion, handling calls and offering solutions. The Academy put up several promotional videos and in the disseminating of these to a wider audience, due acknowledgment must be made of the way the HCL Concerts team too tirelessly gave publicity to them. The response from the audience was fantastic. Word soon got around about how the Academy was responding to queries and this channelled more people to purchase tickets. There were some steep learning steps – the Academy website’s secure socket layer chose to expire right in mid-December and that caused much stress for a day. One week later, just on the eve of two superstar performance days, the Academy’s website crashed. It could not handle the traffic! Statistics shared by the web support team was revealing. Hits had gone up by a several thousands. But a quick upgrade of the server solved this too. While all this was on, emails were sent to the Academy’s members – Patron, Donor, Life and Ordinary – with login credentials so that they could watch the concerts.

When the actual concerts began going online, the stage, the sound and the quality of video came in for uniform praise. There was a complaint of buffering from some locations and to overcome this, the Academy quickly changed over from streaming live to a pre-uploaded format. Many more such on-the-spot decisions had to be taken – par for the course for the Academy during season times, but it is just that this time it was not an audience within the venue but scattered all over the world. After premiering via the event platform, the free concerts and the history episodes were uploaded onto the Academy’s YouTube channel where the statistics proved mindboggling. The number of subscribers to the Academy’s channel went up three times during that one week. All of this would have never been possible without the cooperation and whole-hearted support of the artistes, who overcoming all challenges, gave of their best.

There were of course several learning steps. The navigation of the event platform was not exactly user-friendly. People also felt that the lighting was too bright and that there was a tad much of cuts and dissolves. There was also a feeling that the duration could have been longer. As the Academy begins planning for Season 2021, it will keep all of these in mind.

Suddenly for the Music Academy, a much larger audience worldwide has become available. While on the one hand this is exciting, it also means a lot more responsibility as regards the quality of its programmes and the way they are made available. Certainly, digital as one of the means of dissemination has come to stay. The Academy has embarked on a new journey. For a 93-year-old organisation to reinvent itself and within such a short time is a commendable achievement but much will depend on how it takes it forward in the years to come. – Courtesy: Sruti magazine.

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