“As independent artists on streaming platforms, we’re playing a game where the rules constantly change” – Shilpa Ananth

Multilingual vocalist and composer Shilpa Ananth shares her journey as a musician and the challenges of balancing her soul's calling with the demands of streaming platforms.

This is the third of our series ‘ePop Stars’, where we speak to young women musicians about their experience in today’s music industry, where streaming channels, privacy issues and algorithms add a whole new set of challenges. Read part one and part two here.

By Neha Kirpal

Multilingual Indian vocalist, songwriter, composer and producer based between Dubai and New York City, Shilpa Ananth’s signature style is of melding Indian melodies with RnB, funk and a touch of pop.

With a unique sound that fuses the dreamy landscapes of South India with soul, jazz, and electronic influences, Shilpa graduated with honours from the Berklee College of Music before coming up with her debut EP Indian Soul. She has recorded and performed with various Grammy award-winning composers, and has also toured extensively with Serbian female vocal group ‘ROSA’.

She has also performed with The Berklee Indian Ensemble, Women of the World, and the ‘Bollywood Boulevard’ musical production, performing at several prestigious venues around the US. Shilpa’s recent releases are the avant-pop singles Fear and i Dwell, created in collaboration with Aleksandra Denda. We spoke to her about being a woman musician in the age of digital music.

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 from an artist’s perspective? Is there more opportunity for fame and financial reward or less?

Personally, I am pretty old school, and prefer supporting the artist directly by picking up their vinyl, cassette or CD. It’s also an unparalleled listening experience to sit and immerse yourself in the entire story that the artist wants to tell you, and I do miss those days especially now, when that’s how I wish my art would be consumed. 

Shilpa Ananth

But with attention spans barely lasting between the blink of our eyes, it seems that the only way to gain a listener, or build an audience, or even be noticed by the editorial playlist curators, is by constantly putting out single after single on every streaming platform, every month, just to stay in their periphery and keep them coming back for more.

However, for an independent artist this is not a sustainable situation, and I always feel like I am walking a fine line between what feels like selling my soul, or else refusing to play the game and keeping it intact.

With the payout being so minimal per stream, it’s the artist that pays the price because we invest so much time, money and energy into putting out a new release, and there’s no one on the other end to listen to or feel the story.

It feels like a very easy and straightforward experience, and as a listener it truly is, as through these streaming platforms you are immediately connected and able to listen to any song you want at any time you want. But as an independent artist, it feels like we’re playing a game where the rules constantly change and we’re set up to lose, like anything we do only makes a difference if we hit a viral moment. 

How do you discover me if you don’t even know I exist?

What are the challenges of being a woman musician in today’s day and age?

It’s always been a challenge to be a woman in any industry, and for a long time I felt the need to be an accepted member of the elite boys’ club every time I was in a situation where I was the minority. However, as my experience, value for self and understanding of people grew, I stopped caring so much about which club I was allowed in, and started creating a space of mutual respect, support, inclusion and opportunity for more women to rise and realise their worth.

With unequal power dynamics, toxic masculinity, uncomfortable advances and rampant misogyny from our male counterparts, women have so much to deal with on a daily basis, on top of all the societal and familial pressure we already deal with regarding ageism, sexism and why we aren’t rushing to get married, have babies and be “settled” already. It’s exhausting. Creating art is one the only reason I am able to stay sane and know that I am on the right path, on the more mentally and emotionally challenging days.

Shilpa Ananth

What are the sources of income for today’s musicians who primarily put up their music for free online? How do you manage?

It’s pretty rough if you’re an upcoming musician doing it all by yourself, because it seems as though you need to manage many different income streams. This includes what you could be making through your streaming platforms, the money that you make from selling merch or when people buy your music online; or else getting paid to be a songwriter for someone else, playing online or in-person shows/festivals where you and your band are paid a good rate regardless of ticket sales, applying for government funding or private grants, working out paid partnerships or sponsorship deals with brands you align with, and the biggest one that could keep getting you paid for life being with a monthly royalty cheque when your music gets placed in movies or big budget shows.

So clearly there are many options and paths, but each one requires a good investment of time, research, faith and persistence, and this is why it feels like it can be too much for one person to be able to handle it all, and be artistically creative and release new music every month!

I also teach music at the new Berklee College of Music campus in Abu Dhabi, and luckily this is as much my calling as writing, singing and performing music is, so that’s yet another path to explore for artistic and financial freedom. It will allow you time as you work through the rest, and find yourself, space and a like-minded community.

What are some of the privacy issues, plagiarism and other threats that you face personally and professionally?

I think anyone that is brave enough to put out an original idea or a piece of their true self out is at risk of having their privacy violated and work plagiarised. And it’s worse if you’re given no credit, and the other person also finds success after ripping off or being ‘inspired’ by your hard work.

In order to stay protected, I always register every song I am about to release with a Performing Rights Organisation (PRO) and also register for the copyright of the entire work of art. This way if I ever need to contest a case, I have iron-clad legal proof to back my complaint.

Do you think a musician needs technical training? How different or difficult would life have been as a musician for you if you weren’t trained?

I think technical training is very important and necessary to go deeper within what you are capable of naturally and instinctually, to open notes within that you didn’t know existed, and to do it without hurting or damaging your instrument in the long term. I honestly don’t know how strong my ears and voice would be without the initial foundation I have from Carnatic classical music training, that started from the age of three.

I don’t know how else I would have understood the roots of Western styles of music, specific vocal techniques and music theory if I hadn’t gone to Berklee in Boston. 

The knowledge, years of professional experience, along with the talent I was born with, have all empowered me equally, and keep me motivated to keep learning and getting even better. So, I imagine life would be far more difficult and the understanding of my instrument to be shallow and basic had I not gone through any training or sacrifice for my art at all.

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