By Neha Kirpal
The business of music has undergone a huge transformation in recent years, and independent musicians today are increasingly turning to digital platforms to reach out to niche audiences using their mix of Indian cadences, multilingual roots and modern beats.
In a new series ‘ePop Stars’, we speak to young women musicians to help navigate the complex landscape for us, throwing light on various technical aspects of the industry, such as streaming channels, privacy issues and plagiarism as well as the experience of being a woman musician in today’s day and age.
A well-known soul singer in India’s western music circles, Vasundhara ‘Vee’ Vidalur works with RnB, funk, blues, fusion and jazz ensembles as both a collaborator and curator. An active contributor to India’s independent music movement for the past 15 years, she has performed at various studio projects and live performances across the country and abroad.
The Mumbai-based singer-songwriter, who is of Assamese origin and was raised in Delhi, creates events about joy, “personal humanity” and self-love. She is also an author and educator who mentors other singers through her School of Voice.
What are the challenges and benefits of streaming channels (YouTube, Spotify and others) versus the older days when people had to buy records or cassettes? Is there more opportunity for fame and financial reward or less than before?
Online is a different paradigm. It has massive benefits but also pitfalls. Records, cassettes and CDs were physical media. Labels were very important at that time because they were involved in all facets of the music business – creation, recording, distribution, promotion and collection of money. It was one big machine that worked smoothly enough.
However, the probability of an artist getting a chance to make it big was in the hands of the ‘Artist and Repertoire Head’, who could make or break an artist’s fate. I’m sure we missed out on many gems because of this. On the upside, an artist could focus on his musical offerings while the label would handle the business – at a price.
Today, that turnkey role has been split simply because of technology. A big part of distribution and promotion is online, because that’s where people listen to music. Music creation and recording is also democratised because new technology allows everyone to create music affordably even out of their homes.
However, the pillars are still the same. Creation. Recording. Distribution. Promotion. Money Collection.
Today, an artist can break in with ease. All it takes is one upload. There are no gatekeepers when it comes to making your music available. But the growth and rise to fame are as tricky today as they were then. Without a label, an artist must deliver on all the pillars and roles herself. Distribution and collection will still happen through online platforms and that’s a great blessing. But the work of creation and promotion lies solely with the artist.
Many indies lose out on this because promotion is a complex, nuanced and often expensive thing, especially if you want your music to scale in a way that is true to you too.
We have seen millionaires and billionaires in both the paradigms. It’s just that the enormity of everyone else who is also trying to establish themselves is more visible today. The struggles and triumphs are much more visible because everything is online.
What are the challenges and benefits of being a woman musician in today’s day and age?
In my opinion, the moment a woman brings gender into the equation, things can get murky. Any professional musician is an “artist in business”. Business is a gender-neutral thing. It’s based on acumen. I keep telling all the women artists I know to be strong professionals and carry that energy into a room rather than making everything about gender.
Of course, gender is a reality. Gender games exist. But a woman who transcends this also creates phenomenal longevity in her work life. There are confusions and vulnerabilities around women and child prodigies getting into music and I’ve covered these issues and their solutions in detail in my book Big Dreams, Bold Choices.
This is not only to protect the artist but also to ensure that music is made with creative courage and certainty without gender or age being a deterrent in any way.
What are the sources of income for today’s musicians who primarily put up their music for free online?
Musicians invest a lot into their craft – their instruments, gear, training and growth. Then there is an investment in the recording, mixing, mastering, design and publishing of every single release.
An artist gets only USD 0.003 per stream, which means that you need a couple of hundred streams to make a single dollar! It’s much more profitable to sing live in India till the time you get billions of streams and see any real money from streaming.
I would like new artists to look at streaming platforms as shopping windows for on-ground work like recordings, sessions work, jingles, live events and festivals. This way, they create a real income and an on-ground network of clients, fans and promoters. The money earned can then be intelligently used for the next release, for promotion, paying rent and supporting our families.
Many musicians have created massive wealth from on-ground work and this has helped them boost their online self-promotion as well. In fact, this is another big part of my book –understanding venues, audiences, knowing payment slab variability and learning the basic financial dynamics as they exist today.
What are some of the privacy issues, plagiarism and other threats that you face personally and professionally?
As soon as a song is submitted for distribution and publishing, it is safe. Two unique codes are generated and the song can be tracked worldwide. Plagiarism is not so easy in that case. When I uploaded my own song Run on YouTube, it got a copyright claim simply because this algorithmic protection was working.
However, if we casually post ideas on social media and YouTube, it’s very possible for people to take them and build on them. I’ve heard some horror stories of a big label taking a creator’s idea and making the song a big hit with another singer. This is not only true for India; it has happened worldwide and there are stories and films about these events.
The correct way to protect your music is to publish it in the standard way and let the authorities track the usage of the song.
Any technical training required?
Training is the minimum respect one can pay to one’s art form and instrument. If I choose an instrument or my voice to express my soul, I should at least learn to use it well. That’s what various training modalities give you.
I hold nothing against those who are in a hurry and will, therefore, hide behind technology to make any output sound like music. Their efforts are centered on reward rather than authenticity. That’s another domain entirely. It’s like going to Japan for two days to take selfies versus staying there for months to soak in the culture and the spirituality of the place. They are just different intentions on the traveller’s part.