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Music of the Mob

sonu nigam ar rahman talk about the music mafia

Rahman and Sonu Nigam

Opening the Pandora’s Box

After the unfortunate suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput, there is a lot of talk about politics, nepotism, groupism, factionalism, etc. in the Indian film industry. While this discussion revolved around the film industry, it was just a matter of time before someone started talking about the music industry that is associated with it. And that is exactly what happened. A few days ago, the well-known singer Sonu Nigam for the first time broke the news about groupism and bullying in the field of film music. Sonu Nigam stated in one of his vlogs that there is a bigger mafia in music than in movies. Just a few days after Sonu Nigam’s statement, well-known music composer A. R. Rahman, in an interview with a radio channel, remarked that there is a ‘gang’ in the Hindi film industry which is trying to discredit him by spreading rumours and creating misunderstanding about him among the producers. As a result, Rahman has almost stopped getting work in Hindi films.

Sonu Nigam and A. R. Rahman are some of the biggest and most successful names in the field. Naturally, newcomers to the field wonder what will happen to them if this is the treatment meted out to these stalwarts! Sonu Nigam made the same point in an interview to a news channel. “Think about what happens to new kids where someone like me who has worked for many years is subjected to such treatment!”

Shekhar Kapur’s Tweet

Writer Amol Udgirkar, in a Facebook post some time ago, wrote about Abhay Deol’s experience with T-Series while doing the movie ‘One by Two’. Even though the film had music by veteran music composers like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, the company did not bring it to the market. In fact, T-Series tried to suppress this music. As Sonu Nigam alleged against these music companies, they not only decide whom the producers should work with, they also enforce their opinion about whom they should not work with.

After Rehman’s interview, director Shekhar Kapoor made a remarkably interesting tweet. Addressing A. R. Rahman, he said, “Your problem is that you went and got an Oscar. This proves you have more talent Bollywood can handle…

Singer Monali Thakur, while showing her support for Sonu Nigam, said that talent is kept at bay while mediocrity is rewarded. Amol Udgirkar’s post also mentioned that even talented musicians like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, who made three or four films a year previously, now get to make only about one film a year.

Through My Looking Glass

I am going to tell you what my observation is as a musician who has been working in this field for the last twenty-five years. If we wish to get an accurate picture of this situation, we must look at it objectively and without prejudice. But no matter how objective my perspective, I am perfectly aware that this is still only a perspective. As a musician, I am going to show you through my kaleidoscope a picture of how this affects me and how I perceive it.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

No matter what the field, politics are bound to enter it. The entertainment industry is no exception. There are only a few unique features of the music industry that make politics more intense here. The first thing is that the this being a field incessantly in the public eye, it has a high glamour quotient; Public life, and often even private life, is constantly under scrutiny and that puts the artist under stress. Another characteristic is that the flow of work and money is not sustainable, which creates a kind of insecurity. Also, colleagues are not just colleagues; they are also competitors. Therefore, even in teamwork, there is a perpetual undercurrent of competition. This adds another dimension to the feeling of insecurity.

In Game theory, there is an example that is analysed, which is called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The theory is that although two prisoners arrested for the same crime are rational thinkers and it is in their mutual interest to help each other; they do not cooperate. The police do not have enough evidence to convict both on the main charge, but they do have enough evidence to convict them on lesser charges. The prisoners are simultaneously questioned in two isolated chambers. The police make similar proposals to the two prisoners. The one who confesses and testifies about the role of both persons in the crime will be sentenced to 1 year, but the other person will be sentenced to 10 years for the same offence. Both prisoners are also told that the offer rests on the other person’s table as well. And the offer has an expiry period. Now, they must make a decision, either to stay silent or to betray the cohort. It is in the best interests of both to remain silent, for then each of them will go to prison for only 6 months on a minor charge. But both are riddled with the doubt that if the other one confesses, the person who keeps quiet and shows loyalty may go to jail for the next ten years! Usually, both these people will end up confessing and testifying.

In a field already loaded with uncertainty, artists constantly live under the apprehension that they might lose an opportunity to make the proverbial ‘deal’. A musician is as good as his/ her last work. One has to constantly wade into the uncertain waters to keep afloat. It is like what Ghalib describes in his ‘sher’ (couplet) –

dām-e-har-mauj meñ hai halqa-e-sad-kām-e-nahañg
dekheñ kyā guzre hai qatre pe guhar hone tak

Ghalib says that there is a snare in every wave and crocodiles are waiting with hundreds of their jaws open to devour anything they see. Now let us see what the drop has to go through until it becomes a pearl! That is the everyday struggle of an artist!

The Art and the Product

Music may be an art, but there is also economics which runs it. If I said today that I would record a song, it would not be a simple or an inexpensive process. Considering the cost of musicians, singers, studios, the cost of a song may run into lakhs. This is where a mechanical and somewhat inhumane system enters the fray. That system is the Music Company. Music is not just music but also a product now. So, one must follow the rules of the market. And now market forces suddenly outweigh the values ​​of art. Even up to this point, it is an understandable change. What starts changing here is that people who have little or no understanding of music start deciding the fate of music that is created. They begin to decide what music should be produced by musicians and what music should be liked by listeners. Many a time, these decisions are based on whim and not even solid marketing sense.

Many years ago, I approached a music company with the proposal to compose poems by Shanta Shelke, the veteran Marathi poet and lyricist. The Marathi owner of the company asked me without moving a muscle on his face, “Who is Shanta Shelke?” He did not stop there. He told me, “There is no such thing as poetry. There is no audience for it. If you have some devotional songs, make me an offer. It is easy to market God.”

As I mentioned above, people who have no connection with music are the ones with the powers to make executive decisions. Let me tell you about an experience I had with a large music company. I had drawn up a proposal for a non-film music album in Hindi, I went to meet the owner of a music company. He listened to songs with a poker face. Then he called the peon at his door and said to me, “Play your songs for him again. If he likes songs, the common man will like them too.” I played the songs again. It was obvious that the peon had been through this rigmarole several times for he listened to it with an even more impassive face than his employer and he constantly looked to him for any hint of what the master wanted him to say; Frankly, I found this whole ritual more amusing than insulting at the time, but the point was that this method of evaluating music was not just fickle by musical standards, it was unscientific in approach even regarding product evaluation!

The musician will make the music, but after that, he may not have the aptitude or the infrastructure to be able to distribute and market it, and even if s/he does, s/he will not always have the network or the capital to go through with it. Before the digital revolution, the distribution systems were in the hands of these companies. These companies used to make extremely unilateral agreements with the artists. I know a lot of artists who have suffered at the hands of music companies which bound them in unilateral agreements. The artists used to be stuck in three-year contracts hoping that the companies would launch them in a grand manner. It never happened. The only thing that happened was that the artists were made to do shows or projects where there was no scope of presenting any original music (just film song versions). At the end of three years, the musician would just be frustrated with the loss of his/ her prime-time years as an artist.

The Bondage of Democratisation

Then came the internet, came YouTube. In a sense, music was democratised. But film music is still distributed by music companies. There too music companies due to their immense libraries of music that they have accumulated over the years have a head start in comparison of a solo musician with his own YouTube channel. It takes a lot of time and energy to get your channel monetised and earn any significant income from that source. Piracy does not help. I know several WhatsApp groups where people send music clips or whole songs even without realising that they are committing theft of intellectual property. Ironically, they genuinely feel that sharing music is kind of philanthropy.

There is another side to the democratisation of music too. With technology being friendly to novices, suddenly in the past two decades, there has been a spurt in the people opting for music as a career. You are drawn to the same vicious circle and that prisoner’s dilemma. Music becomes more a source of livelihood than a fountain of sheer creativity.

The large music companies make exclusive contracts with singers, musicians. There is no dearth of odd jobs. Artists too jump at that one chance in a million where they will have one song among six or seven other songs by different music composers and earn that film credit. There is no immortality, but it provides with a livelihood and many artists accept this option. The people who run these giant, inhumane systems, however, can be of immense ego and dogmatic attitude and they start living in the illusion of “I create artists”. During my days of struggle, I have heard the phrase “tera kuchch nahin hoga” (You will never make it) from many so-called star-makers.

This is not the case just in the music film industry. A few days, I heard that a film director was instructed by a music company “not to hire Kaushal Inamdar as a music composer and take their contracted pair of music composers instead. Woh apne aadmi hain! (They are our people)”

When I heard this from the indignant director, I had two options. Either I assume that I have been treated unfairly or believe that it is a business decision of the music company. I chose the second option. There are preferences, there are prejudices and there is jealousy. To think of oneself as a victim is to push oneself into a dark, bottomless pit. Preserving our self-esteem is our first duty towards ourselves.

As opportunities increase in this field, so does competition, and as competition grows, so will politics. I have no naïve hope that this will end. I am not a pessimist. Far from it! But if one does not recognise the problem or keeps turning a blind eye, then one cannot look for solutions either.

We Shall Overcome

As far as I am concerned, I have decided to eliminate the intermediary system that tells me what music to do and tells the fans what music they should hear. I have a direct appeal to the listeners and connoisseurs of good music. If we are watchful about what kind of entertainment we get, it is in our best interest as a society. Let us encourage artists directly. Let us buy their music. Music is not just entertainment; It is our cultural heritage. Economic development will increase the standard of living, but cultural prosperity will increase the standard of life.

Where does the arrogance of those who say, ‘We want control over everyone’ come from? It comes out of the fact they reach millions of people at once. They stop thinking of you as a listener, as an individual, and they start thinking of you as part of a herd, as a mob and not as their audience. They have a cute word for it called “masses”. The truth is if we consider ourselves to be aloof from this herd, the dissonance in the field of music will decrease. Let us begin by thinking of ourselves as listeners, not as a consumer. Let us eliminate the need for a middleman. Let you and I have a conversation as a musician and a listener. The onus is now on us.

© Kaushal S. Inamdar

1 Comment

  1. It is heart breaking to see the art and creativity meeting this fate. It must be deeply painful to go through those insulting incidences you narrated. And we can’t expect the required maturity of the thought process in every artist facing such situations.

    As you said, I too think internet had changed a lot of things overall. It disrupted the established processes and shaken up the music-mafia and similar mafias in other areas. Although piracy is a big downside, I still feel that it had opened the world to artists. It may test your patience but if you keep worshiping your art and produce soulful forms, eventually you are going to get your fan following.

    What ‘Marathi Asmita Cultural Foundation’ is doing for language, we need similar foundations to support, conserve, encourage and promote the genuine creative arts. We must turn the demand-supply process upside that will care for class instead of catering to the mass. Because anyway masses will keep getting what they demand from the current care takers of music industry.

    A good counselling article I will say.

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