Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXI No. 18, January 1-15, 2022
Yet another December has just got over. And with it the curtains come down on the December Music Season as well. Given the chaos that is ongoing owing to multiple COVID 19 strains it is a wonder that a music season happened at all and so we need to be thankful that it did. After all, this is one of the principal contributing factors to the UNESCO giving Chennai a creative city tag. But the dependence on a miniscule target audience in a pandemic-ridden year is throwing up various structural weaknesses that the art may do well to address if it wants to survive.
Audiences in 2021 were a divided lot. Those from abroad largely remained abroad. For a season that depends heavily on the NRI presence this was bad though many of those living in foreign lands did buy tickets to watch performances online. Several of the locals chose to stay away as well – the fear of infection probably proved a deterrent especially in this art where the target audience is largely elderly. The organisers were divided as well – some chose to present exclusive online content, others had physical events and then there was a third group that having oscillated between virtual and physical events, plumped for a bit of both. The response to all of this has been mixed at best.
One of the chief reasons has been a general sense of fatigue with events online. While virtual events have come as a boon for the elderly and those with mobility issues, the bulk of audiences would prefer to be attending performances at venues. Artistes too prefer the latter – the live presence of an audience is of vital importance, and nothing can be more frustrating than singing or dancing for a recording crew. Yes, artistes do record in studios but the monotony was relieved by several live performances. Just to be a recording artiste is difficult for those brought up on concert fare. At the same time, audiences also seem to be wary of thronging venues – only the very top artistes have drawn full houses this year and even they have not been able to do so at all concerts. As a consequence, ticket sales have been low, leading to a depressed commercial sentiment.
Another cause for the low sales has been the plethora of free content that is being uploaded, often by the same artistes who are also singing ticketed concerts. While it is good practice to put up samples for free viewing, posting entire concerts for free means these artistes are creating alternate channels that will bring them no revenue. It has also led to a bad practice among audiences to demand YouTube and zoom links from artistes so that they can simply listen for free, with no obligations to the artistes or the organiser. How then can the economics of classical music be self-sustaining?
That it is not self-sustaining is well known – all music organisers right from the most powerful bodies to the by-the-corner sabha depend on sponsors more than on ticket sales. But that does not mean we can do away with tickets. In a bad economic situation corporate houses may withdraw support and then, if the habit of ticket purchases becomes non-existent, the art form may just collapse. This has already happened in Tamil theatre – sales of tickets were long ago given up on the pretext of propagating the art. Today, hardly anybody goes to see plays and with sponsorship having dried up, Tamil theatre is trying to manage on less and less. It shows in the tacky sets and the poor production aesthetics – that is all that can be afforded. That the same situation is rapidly being reached by the classical arts is evident if you see most of the venues and the tales of pathetic artiste remuneration. Today Tamil theatre is almost run by amateurs. It would be a bad day for the classical arts if no full-time professionals take to them and the performers are all amateurs, purely because there is no earning potential.
It is time for some deep soul searching and for some corrections by at least the next season.