Every artist in a capitalist society has good reason to be inspired by the slogan “Eliminate the Middleman!” At the courts of great patrons like Emperor Akbar and Louis VIV, there was no such creature. The artist lived in the patron’s palace, and was always ready to perform at a moment’s notice.4584ba8f182b7534811df2625206b466-2

Today, now that the patron has been replaced by the innumerable and distant public, someone must convince the public to buy the art, then deliver the art, and collect the money. This person is the middleman (or woman), someone who controls an organization that is powerful enough to negotiate exploitative deals with the artist.

Perhaps even worse, the middleman has strong financial pressure to only appeal to the least common denominator, because it is easier to sell a few products to a lot of people, then a lot of products to a few people.

Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan have eliminated the middleman by turning him into an automaton, thanks to the web artistry of multimedia designer Ani Gupta and software engineer Adarsh Kochhar. Together, they have created a website which is the basis for a revolutionary new music label called Underscore Records (visit www.underscorerecords.com). Mudgal and Padhan, are not “middle persons,” but rather highly respected musicians themselves. They created this distribution network for their own music and are now offering to share it with others. Now that distribution has become automated by the web, traditional record companies and distributors, who used to be the richest and most powerful people in the music business, are on the verge of becoming completely superfluous.

Most articles about internet-marketing talk about the giant distributors like Amazon.com or CDbaby. Mudgal and Pradhan had, in fact, a brief relationship with a megasite called Induslive.com, which provided a page for them to devote to Hindustani music. Unfortunately, the venture capitalists who ran the site backed off and decided to run it only as a CD store selling largely Hindi film music. This kind of least-common-denominator thinking, which was essential during the days of bricks-and-mortar stores, is not only unnecessary in the virtual world, but may eventually be seen as self-defeating.

With Underscore Records, Mudgal and Pradhan have created the cyberspace equivalent of an Indian mom-and-pop store (they also happen to be husband and wife, as well as tabla accompanist and vocalist).

When stores like this are run by a couple you can trust, they provide a service to the community that no “big box store” can match. Such stores get their value from the fact that the owners have really good taste and are willing to look hard to find the very best product. They are also not constrained by the usual assumptions about what is supposed to be sold and not sold. If they find something of good value, they’ll carry it, and someone will end up buying it even if they weren’t looking for it when they came in the store.

All of this is just a metaphor, of course, and one needs a host of other metaphors and categories to fully capture the accomplishments of this extraordinary couple. First and foremost, they are gifted and accomplished musical performers. Mudgal was awarded the Padma Shri by the government of India for her superb classical singing, which was prominently featured in Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra, among other places. She also became an Indian pop star without even trying to sound like a filmi singer. Pradhan is a disciple of tabla maestro Nikhil Gosh, a successful composer, and has gained recognition both as a soloist and an accompanist to vocal and instrumental music as well as dance. He was also awarded a doctoral degree in history from the University of Mumbai, and much of Underscore’s mission can be seen as historical archiving or even musical archeology. They are determined to make sure that every aspect of Indian music is preserved and communicated to as many people as possible through the Underscore website.

Among their archeological discoveries are 78 rpm recordings of Marathi theater singers whose style became the basis for the first Bollywood movie musicals. There is a DVD featuring unique cross-cultural music and dance by three very different Indian diasporic cultures: Africans who traveled to Gujarat, Biharis who traveled to Trinidad, and a London based group of Indian Jews. There are also books in Hindi, Marathi, and English on performers, ragas, and musical styles that are in danger of dying out. There are podcasts and recordings on contemporary fusion music innovations, including a new version of the Three Penny Opera with Indian songs. Underscore also does its bit for the future, providing introductory materials for early elementary school children on the basics of tabla playing.

Much of what makes Underscore revolutionary comes from what it does not do. Their introductory letter to artists stresses that “Underscore is not in a position to fund press conferences and launch parties for the launch of your album, and neither is it able to promote or publicize your album through advertisements, news items, features, interviews, or other means in the print and electronic media.” The artists cover almost all the expenses, including recording or production of the CDs, and in exchange are permitted to reap almost all the profits. This is certainly preferable to the old system, where the great filmi singers were paid a flat fee for each song, and producers reaped all the profits.

Those still caught in old ways of thinking might well ask, “In what sense are the artists on a label, rather than just producing the album themselves?” The important difference is the strict artistic standards that Mudgal and Pradhan apply to every aspect of production, from recording to package design. Getting accepted as an Underscore Artist is as challenging as getting on any major record label, and getting the final version approved is more challenging still. The difference is that the challenge involves artistic excellence, rather than marketability to a mass audience.

 

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.

 

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