Common wisdom about marketing music is that financial survival requires sacrificing art on the altar of commerce. A viable business supposedly can’t sell esoteric music because not enough people will buy it to cover the costs of shipping, advertising, and inventory storage. Consequently, only the very biggest names in serious music get marketed at all; the rest of the shelf space is filled with Bollywood and Britney Spears.
This problem has been even worse in India than in the United States, because recordings have to be sold at a much lower price, requiring an increased number of sales in order to turn a profit. This is probably why “filmi” music was for years the only consistently successful form of popular music in India. It was more economically viable to get everyone to listen to the same small group of artists than to try to preserve the rich diversity of musical styles that vary from village to village.
However, as the costs of selling, storing, and making recordings have decreased significantly, the nature of the market has dramatically changed. Ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel points out that when cassettes replaced vinyl records in India, new popular musical genres such as ghazals and devotional music flourished, and “film music’s share of the commercial market plummeted to less than half of all sales.” Today “many cassette producers and performers are based in provincial towns and even villages,” often preserving the folk styles that filmi music had almost destroyed.
The world wide web has had an even bigger impact on the marketing of Indian music, turning the traditional wisdom completely on its head. Web-based businesses are able to save money by selling all of their products from a single warehouse in a low-rent location. They can also attract customers from all over the world, thanks to sophisticated search engines. This means that it becomes profitable to stock thousands of titles, because customers can easily find you if you’ve got what they want, and there’s no problem waiting until they do find you because storage space is cheap. Product sales for web-based companies like Amazon are thus portrayed by graphs with a few products at one end selling millions, then trickling down to a “long tail” of products which sell only hundreds or even dozens of units. But unlike in traditional business models, this tail is so long that it can amount to 70 percent of the company’s gross sales. In the words of Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wiredmagazine, this new business model aims at “selling less of more.” Consequently, web-marketing businesses do not ignore small elite markets like Hindustani and Karnatik music, but instead see them as their bread and butter.
The business that provides the most support for musical niche markets is CDbaby. For 35 dollars and five copies of an album, CDbaby will create a website which features audio samples, online credit card processing, and checks mailed directly to artists. Indian classical music is only a tiny fragment of CDbaby’s $250,000 yearly sales. But this company knows that all of their sales depend on small markets like this one, and the top executives are constantly responding to the requests of their 150,000 artists. For example, CDbaby’s search engine originally had one category (“Asian”) which lumped Indian classical music together with everything from shakuhachi to belly dancing. However, a recently requested update created separate categories for Raga, Indian Classical, Karnatik and Bollywood, which link to both legendary giants and aspiring newcomers.
The company Raga Records distributes over 20 recordings through CDbaby, including performances by Mohan Bhatt, Nayan Ghosh, Buddhadev Das Gupta, rare Drupad performances by Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra veena and the senior Dagar Brothers on vocals, and eleven recordings by the late Nikhil Bannerjee. Each of these recordings has a page linked to all the others, as well as having links to the general categories of Indian classical and to all other artists based in India. Other artists on the Indian classical page include most of the greats (Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pandit Jasraj, Kadri Gopalnath, Kala Ramnath, Sultan Khan, Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Ajoy Chakrabarty, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) as well as many California favorites (Shweta Jhaveri, Shubhangi Sakhalkar, Deepak Ram, Nachiketa Sharma). These priceless gems are nestled cheek-by-jowl with diamonds in the rough and glitzy rhinestones, but are none the worst for it.
You can surf from site to site, listen to free samples, and judge for yourself. These samples also make great background music when you’re doing other computer-based jobs, although each sample is deliberately cut after two minutes to give an incentive for buying the whole CD. If you want to hear complete recordings, however, you need only click on the link that takes you from CDbaby to the musician’s MySpace page. Besides music, you will usually find videos, still photos, concerts, touring schedules, and links to other musicians, many of whom can’t easily be found anywhere else.
I was especially delighted to discover khyal vocalist Ruchira Kale, whose beautiful voice has never been heard outside of India, and rudra veena player Naad Chakra. This system of links has also established communication with players of Indian music from all over the world. There are MySpace pages for Indian musicians in France, Japan, and even for Japanese musicians who play Indian music and live in France. There is a community of musicians in North Carolina who have studied Indian classical music and combine it with other styles. My favorites from this community are Jay Manley, who uses his electric guitar to create sustained bends inspired by sitar meend, and Johnny Sarod with the acoustic fusion group Hindugrass. When you compare this variety to the homogenous pap available on commercial radio, it’s not hard to guess where the future of music lies. Sometimes the cure for technological problems turns out to be a more appropriate technology.
|Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.|