Monday, 30 June 2008

NCPA and the Sell-out of Heritage - III: The System and the Small Guy

NCPA and the Sell-out of Heritage
Part III - The System and the Small Guy

[This is the third in a series of articles on NCPA's recent move to commercialise its archival resources. Here Abhik takes a look at the "system" - the state, big business, large research bodies - and how much, or how little, it has done for the small guy.]

1. Introduction

Lots could be said on the ethics of commercialisation. Particularly on how control shifts seamlessly from the government to big business. This has happened so many times before. And each time the small guy has been short-changed in the process. The present instance, the commercialisation of the NCPA archives, is only one of the more recent examples. In this article, I discuss the functioning of a few such institutions in India.

2. Copyrights

India is waking up to the money-spinning potential of copyrights. As different interest-groups struggle to come to terms with it, bystanders can get to see some truly bizarre developments.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) has taken the lead in securing its rights. So much so that at one point the media, staggered by the stringent conditions imposed on it, even contemplated boycotting the circus altogether. Once the tournament got underway, it was the League's turn at the receiving end of intellectual property laws. Teams faced legal action for playing copyrighted music without permission.

Overenthusiastic use of copyright laws has led to other developments also. For one, the high cost of licensing is being blamed for the declining amounts of music aired on TV channels. The same high fees are also reportedly eroding the financial viability of commercial FM channels.

A report carried by DNA accuses the music industry of imposing steep royalties to offset dwindling album sales due to piracy. It quotes a Saregama executive as explaining the question of reducing royalties did not arise, as FM channels have not helped the cause of Indian music:
When the first phase of FM radio begun, we thought it would give a fillip to musicians by promoting various genres of music. However, nothing of that sort has happened. Instead, all you see is about 150-odd FM stations, all playing the same Bollywood music in the Top 20 format.
This claim would have been much more believable had the recording industry not used the precise opposite argument to justify its own high revenues from album sales.

Saragama is a leading member of the Indian Music Industry (IMI), the nation's premier lobby-group for the industry. According to IMI's website, "When revenue from top selling hits is lost to piracy, companies cannot afford to invest in specialist areas and offer consumers a wider selection of music."

So on the one hand, high revenues are justified as necessary for providing diversity; and on the other hand, FM channels have steep royalties slapped on them because they do not provide enough diversity! Given the pitiful lack of diversity in Saregama's own catalogue (high revenues notwithstanding), one fears to ask them if they plan to reduce royalties for channels actually "helping the cause of music."

Which leads to the question, if this is the conditions faced by commercial broadcasters, what is the condition of community radio organisations? Royalties comprise a big obstacle. While American copyright societies charge low-power FM stations about Rs. 5.73 per hour of music, Indian societies levy something like Rs. 480!

3. Community Radio

Matter of fact, community radio forms another classic instance of small guys getting marginalised. The report referred to above states some more interesting facts. Broadcasters can buy transmitters only from two government-approved companies, both selling their products at Rs. 1.5 - 2 lakhs. Also, they must not carry any "news" reports. The problem here is, what constitutes "news" is not defined or specified.

We have seen how quickly the liberalisation of airwaves translated into commercial FM broadcasts. Community radio has not been so lucky; it has barely got off the ground, and the state is doing nothing to help. As a commentator put it, "Does the government of India trust Rupert Murdoch more than its own citizens?" (Incidentally, the quote is taken from this article, which I recommend highly as a concise summary of all that is wrong with broadcasting in India.)

In 1995, the Supreme Court held in Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting v. Cricket Association of Bengal that airwaves are public property [para 47] and that the right to communicate implict in the right to freedom of speech (Article 19(1)(a)) includes the right to broadcast over airwaves [para 44]. Consequently, in 2002 the government announced a policy change. By 2006 it had brought out guidelines twice over. In 2007 the I&B Secretary claimed no less than 4000 stations will be established in the next few years.

Initially, the developments were received with considerable enthusiasm in both mainstream and non-mainstream media. This very quickly gave way to disillusionment, as activists awoke to the reality of red tape and prohibitive costs. It also became clear that the government had no intention of letting go of control. As a bureaucrat is reported to have explained at a conference:
See, private radio broadcasting is just an 8-year-old baby in India. It’s in its infancy and so we have to advice (sic) the child, ‘Do this . . . please don’t do this . . ..’ Once you mature, we’ll give you leeway . . . but you have to prove yourself mature; please exercise self-regulation.

4. Copyright Societies

So far we have seen copyrights used by the big guys against other big guys. The law of copyright is not indifferent to the the interests of the small guy. It contemplates the establishment of copyright societies or collectives, whose job is to enforce rights and obtain royalties on behalf of individual right-holders. In Indian law, Part VII of the Copyright Act, 1957, covering Sections 33 to 36-A, deals with copyright societies.

The Indian Copyright Office site provides a list of copyright societies presently functioning in India. It lists all of four societies:
  • Cinematographic films: Society for Copyright Regulation of Indian Producers for Film and Television (SCRIPT) (no official website yet)
  • Musical works: Indian Performing Right Society Limited (IPRS)
  • Sound recordings: Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL)
  • Reprographic works: Indian Reprographic Rights Organization (IRRO)
  • Another one, the Indian Copyright Society (ICRS), which is mentioned in the list, appears to be an umbrella organisation of sorts. Its website advertises "single-window" clearance of copyright licensing, but does not say much beyond that, especially about the Society's antecedents.
Three out of the first four have deep, pervasive links with the big guys. Little is known about SCRIPT, but the name itself suggests an organisation of producers, i.e. big guys. PPL was created by members of the Indian Phonographic Industry (IPI), which in 1994 changed its name to IMI. IRRO was formed with the active participation of the Authors Guild of India and the Federation of Indian Publishers, the first an organisation for small guys, and the second for big guys. It is not known how effectively IRRO protects authors' interests in respect of big-guy publishers. The site mentions virtually nothing of its activities.

IPRS seems to be the only organisation created to genuinely uphold the interests of small guys. According to its website, it was established in 1969 by the left-leaning composer and trade-unionist M B Sreenivasan, with the help of lyricist Naqsh Lyallpuri. Its former directors include composers Salil Choudhury, Laxmikant (Kudalkar),P Ramesh Naidu, Naushad and M S Viswanathan; lyricists R N Jayagopal, Kannadasan, O N V Kurup and Majrooh Sultanpuri; singer-composers Hemanta Mukherjee and Sudhir Phadke, and even actor I S Johar.

In the 1990s it transformed itself, and appointed as executives dedicated professionals from the younger generation. Recently it has been in the news for initiating proceedings against IPL to secure the interests of its members.

India still lacks a performer's rights society. IPRS is a performing rights society. It protects the interests of writers, lyricists and composers, licensing their performances in exchange for royalties. It does not protect the interests of the performers themselves.

Organisations abroad like the Canadian Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) play a major role in securing performer's rights. In the financial year 2006-07, ACTRA disbursed as much as $9 million to its members.

5. Conclusion

Radio stations, record companies, copyright societies, and music archives. I discuss them together not for similarities in their area of functioning; it has more to do with the way the have functioned in India for so many years.

Short-changing the small guy started with the licence raj. It shut out entrepreneural opportunities to all but a chosen few. The liberalisation process demonstrated that neglect of the small guy has nothing to do with the system of governance. No matter if it's the sarkari babu or the corporate executive at the helm, the small guy gets short-changed regardless.

All-India Radio owns by far the most extensive archives in the nation. In the sixty-odd years since independence, it has consistently denied outsiders access to its archives.. Now it is also taking steps to commercially release its recordings. So is the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

The Akademi's archival access record is only marginally better. Though officially it is open to all members, it is subject to frequent operational delays typical of government-run institutions in India. Privately run archives have their own access-related issues. It has been the experience of some that bodies like NCPA and ARCE-AIIS are actually more receptive to the needs of foreigners (read westerners) than Indian scholars!

Intellectual property laws do not constitute a solution. A ponderous judiciary not entirely corruption-free jacks up legal costs, thereby ipso facto tilting the scale against the small guys. This is even if you discount the powerful lobby-groups big guys control. Even under ideal conditions, it can protect only some small guys, like performers and composers.

What about the interests of the rasik? In most art-music traditions, the role of an informed audience is no less important than that of the performers themselves. And yet they seem to be perpetually getting the short end of the stick. Patchily distributed albums at inflated prices, barred access to archives, sloppy broadcast organisations, the industry-wide craze for big-draw names at the expense of musical excellence, these are only some the obstacles Indian rasiks keep facing.

And yet it is because of the small guys, the creators, the performers and their audience, that music is alive today. Everything else, recording companies, government-run cultural agencies, broadcast channels and music archives equally, play only a peripheral role in the production and consumption of music (if I may resort to such soul-destroying terminology).

The tragedy today, therefore, is that these peripheral players, coincidentally the big guys, predominate over the small guys. In the process, so do their interests take precedence over that which nourishes the life of music.

[back to prefatory note and list of articles]


james said...

Abhik, I think you have some very valid points (although sometimes verging on left-wing diatribe). who is your "small guy"? could be me! More likely though someone from the mirasi community, still struggling to find any means of making money. The mainstream in the music world with the best intentions doesn't seem to know how to deal with them. You do ignore the wonder that was, A.I.R. Where else in the world was there such a brilliant system of almost-live performances, various genres, graded radio artists,RSS's, National programs, Sangit sarita (still brilliant, sometimes) providing often the only performing venue for musicians, plus generous employment to sarengi and tabla players who would otherwise have difficulty earning decent livings. we are all aware of the sorry state of affairs now at A.I.R., i think because of a lack of direction and new ideas. Nationalised radio in countries like the U.K.,France and Canada shows that it could still be relevant. True F.M. has been a big disappointment, then again it is just like the newspapers and tv, pretending to be quality and serious, yet for culture seeming to have an allergy to anything at all in classical music, and spewing out the same filmi, page 3, britney garbage. It is a real shame there isn't classical music on the f.m. waves in Mumbai. There are also now so many alternatives to the major record companies, in particular the internet (rajan p.'s site, surjit singh's, the saigal site, talat mahmood site, youtube, etc, etc, and musician guild (kishore merchant), the people in ahmedabad and udaipur, ratanjankar foundation, etc. World satellite radio seems to be fairly popular. really the rasika seems well served these days! I have myself never heard of anyone having had any problem with on-premises access to the archives at ncpa or arce. Is it just hearsay? The vituperative criticism of all the institutions involved in music promotion seems exaggerated with no appreciation for what they do, and no positive ideas from you or arnab. I hope the hints of unionisation were not serious. It is problematic amongst musicians and has not been successful internationally. you may not agree but i believe the major artists in classical music are the cream of the crop. Exceptions of course, and preferences and prejudices, but they have arrived there on their musical merit. The promotion of Anoushka Shankar being an ominous portent of the future?

shubha said...

I feel compelled to mention here that it is not just the struggling musician who qualifies for the 'small guy' tag in this issue of NCPA attempting to commercialize its archives. When Aneesh and I first wrote to NCPA registering our dismay at the manner in which they have initiated this project, we mentioned categorically that we would not permit our recordings to be sold and we also asked that our recordings be removed from the catalog and returned to us. Owen Mortimer responded saying that he was sorry to hear of our decision and would try and persuade us again at a later date, but that he would have to forward our request to retrieve our recordings to others at the NCPA. We sent him a reminder once again a few days ago because we did not hear from either Vijaya Mehta or Suvarnalata Rao (whom we also addressed in our email) about our demand for returning our recordings. Once again we heard only from Owen Mortimer saying he was not able to answer our query and would have to forward our demand internally.

Surely we have the right to ask for our own recordings? Let us assume for a minute that we would consider permitting the sale of our recordings. Would we not be justified in asking for a copy to to satisfy ourselves about the quality of the music and the recording to ensure that it is worthy of being published? Or does NCPA expect every artiste to trot down to its hallowed precincts to listen to their recordings? It is very clear to me that this is a high handed decision that has been taken by NCPA without any consideration for the rights of artistes. And the artistes who stand the danger of being shortchanged by this NCPA initiative are not just the "someone from the mirasi community, still struggling to find any means of making money" as James describes them. I'm afraid in this instance the "small guy" is every single artiste whose recording is part of the NCPA archival catalog that is being put on sale before mandatory permission is taken from them in writing. And yes, that makes me part of the "small" guys too! Oh yes, despite my larger-than-life obesity!

Abhik Majumdar said...

James, your definition of "left-wing diatribe" seems to encompass all instances of the legitimate rights of the marginalised! "Left-wing" is a subjective notion - Sen. McCarthy demonstrated that long ago - so I'll let that pass. What bothers me is your use of "diatribe", with all its pejorative connotations.

Your arguments about NCPA rest on the assumpsit that there's not much money to be made in this venture. Sh Aneesh Pradhan's comment to the first post in this series comprises a well-substatiated counter.

That apart, look at they way they have gone about the whole process. First they hire a (presumably) expensive foreign consultant, next they float a tender with unseeming haste, and only then do they see fit to inform the main stake-holders, namely the performers, and that too through a mass e-mail.

There are two inferences to be drawn from all this. First, such elaborate and expensive preparations indicate ipso facto there's indeed a good deal of money involved. No institution will spend so much on commercial exploitation unless it is likely to recover its investment and also gain from the venture. Secondly, it is manifest that NCPA is doing things in a very strange way, what with treating performers as a veritable afterthought. It leaves NCPA a lot to answer for as far as their motives are concerned.

Nobody in his right mind can deny AIR has done lots for classical music. But isn't that being beside the point? The issue at hand here is the non-transparent manner in which it has functioned for so many years. This held good in its days of excellence when it used to be run by professionals; it holds good all the more today when bureaucrats predominate.

Now for the alternatives you mention. Once again I feel you've missed the point. All the websites you mention are run by dedicated individuals on a shoestring budget, mostly with no institutional support either.

It is a telling comment that their efforts are far more effective in sustaining the interest of rasiks than august institutions like SNA, NCPA and ARCE have been. If the rasik is indeed well-served these days, it's little thanks to the heavyweights.

And there's little point arguing about it. The very fact that you cite those websites as evidence of the rasik's wellbeing establishes this fact.

I don't know if a single line on on-premises access can qualify as "vituperative criticism". Sh Pradhan has already talked about the problems with NCPA's on-premises access policy. I worked at ARCE for a year, and so have seen it very thoroughly from the inside.

Let me give you one example of the kind of things visitors don't get to know about. During my stint there, restrictions on employees' issuing books from the library increased progressively. Initially we could issue only one book at a time for a non-renewable overnight loan by signing on the register. Then we had to get the register countersigned by the deputy-director.

Towards the end of my tenure a new rule was instituted, under which employees could borrow books, still one a day for an overnight loan, only with the permission of the Director herself. I believe presently employees are not permitted to borrow books, period.

The ostensible reason for such restrictions is to not cause inconvenience to visiting scholars who might be looking for the same book. One, this implies a classification between scholars and employees (whose business is to work and not borrow books or otherwise inconvenience scholars). And secondly, on an average the place used to get about one to two visitors a day. So the chances of scholars being inconvenienced is very small indeed.

Appreciation of what they do? OK, let's talk of what ARCE does, since we're both familiar with that institution. Beyond housing recordings in climate-controlled environs and organising sundry conferences, their contribution to music extends to about four publications in the last 26 years. Of these, two are conference proceedings, one a doctoral thesis written by a non-staff-member, and the last the results of an ethnographic survey conducted some seventeen years before it was published!

Now you tell me what kind of positive suggestions one can make under the circumstances. "Try to generate more publications"? "Free access to employees, treat them at par with scholars"? "Treat Indian and foreign visitors at par"? Sure, why not? I'm certain I'll be given a patient hearing if I make these suggestions. Then again, maybe not.

I was dead serious about "unionising", as you call it. Except I was not talking about trades unions in the conventional sense. Copyright societies are recognised under S. 33 of the Copyright Act. More powerful interest groups have already created such societies to protect and further their interest. Take IMI, a lobby-group for the record industry, which has created PPL, a copyright society.

I have stated in the post how these lobby-groups indulge in double standards. Is it so unreasonable, or so scandalously commie, to suggest performers take recourse to provisions under the Copyright Act to protect their legitimate interests from such double-dealing?

Let me conclude by saying Shubhaji's characterisation of the small guy is what I myself had in mind. It includes not only the mirashi or other marginalised musician, but also the more successful musician, the scholar, the non-embedded music critic, the rasik (including, yes, you and me), in short, anyone who is marginalised because tries to work for the nourishment of music without vested interests.

Arnab Chakrabarty said...

For starters, I am very disturbed by James’s statement about today's top names in HCM being the cream of the crop. Some are, and many are not. There are many whose musical merit far exceeds those of the 'big names'. To rise to the top here in India, one cannot bank entirely on merit. India is a vast country with relatively scarce per capita availability of resources. This leads to a fair amount of tolerance for dishonesty and nepotism, which have now become an integral part of our national fabric. The Great Indian Values tend to condone the attainment of material success by any means possible and available. This is especially true of a resource-starved professional arena like HCM, and the outcome of this ratrace has already impacted the process of music making at a fundamental level.

Your faith in AIR's gradation system calls for an entirely new discussion and debate, as I am sure, many other performers have interesting things to say about it. Allow me to add a disclaimer that the AIR system has been more than fair to me, but I know for fact that it is not always the case.

The definition of "small guy", is most certainly not restricted to sarangi and tabla players of mirasi origin. There are many "small guys" even amongst the musically elite Maharashtrian brahmins, among others, whose profound erudition on musical matters does not necessarily yield material success. Let us take Pt. Yashwantbuwa Joshi as a classic case study. By no means is Buwa anywhere outside of the top league of khayaliyas, be it erudition, rigour of ragadari, rangeelapan and the ability to hold his sway in a mehfil for over three hours. Had success been directly proportional to being a mehfil-ka-badshah, Buwa’s name would probably be mentioned alongside the star performers of today! Buwa lives in a one-room chawl in Dadar, and is forced to teach (at about $3 a lesson at age 82) for a living. He is now a cynical old man who has spent most of his life feeling cheated, and staring helplessly at the stellar successes of far lesser musicians, many of who make a living by providing wealthy Indians with a musical hotline to God. Do you think it is fair to argue that Buwa is an ascetic who does not really care for material success? If a society does so, it is only a convenient way of politely brushing aside its responsibility towards its Yashwantbuwas, Shamsuddin Faridis and Sudhindra Bhowmicks!

james said...

I am glad to hear that there still is a profit to be made in classical music cd's! I am in the position of defending ncpa- they have obviously ruffled the feathers of our sensitive musicians! that there doesn't seem to be anyone fom that origanisation participating in this debate reflects poorly on them. I did question the assumption of mala fide intentions and point out my impression that the archives were open to anyone to listen to on premises. i might be wrong. I will be very interested to see how they respond eventually, if they do, to shubhaji and her request! Abhik, were you suggesting that instead of the foreign consultatnt, tenders, etc. the ncpa could have put the catalogue on the internet? Do you mean the recordings too? I am all in favor of putting it all out there for free as they have done with the wonderful Saigal website. by the way that reminds me, do all the accompanists there have to be consulted beforehand, or the descendants of the composers (if known)? arnab, we will all always have our un-recoginised favorites and prejudices, but I still feel that top performers combine excellent technique, pleasant voice, and an emotional element (connection with audience). All very subjective i know, but without one of these features it is difficult to reach the top, unless there is a nostalgic element. There are exceptions too! I do not know about the full career of Yeshwant bua Joshi, but he did have a big following and many concerts in Mumbai in recent years up until a couple of years ago. I would add others to to your list of under-appreciated singers. by the way, i was not defending the gradation policy of A.I.R., rather the unique in the world system for recording and broadcasting musicians (which does include the gradation system). It is another debate. I mentioned it because other institutions were brought into the picture and I only ever seem to hear criticism of it and its pathetic current state.

Aneesh said...

Abhikji, thanks ever so much for the two detailed pieces on the NCPA situation, and thanks Arnab, for also adding your timely piece.

Clearly there's more to this than meets the eye. I might add one clarification. Artistes have yet to receive a mail from the NCPA about its decision to seek tenders. We received the mail only because we run a record label Underscore Records.

I think much needs to be done in terms of legal remedy when it comes to traditional knowledge like Hindustani music, and it's about time we start addressing the problem before we all get taken for a ride.

I would also like to place on record that I had prepared two model contracts for performers, which were to be whetted by organisers in Mumbai. Not surprisingly, there was no response for well over a year, after which time, Shubha and I decided to put these contracts up on the Resource section of for performers and organisers to freely download. Abhikji, we would invite your comments on these contracts. The AIR/DD contracts also need to be examined, particularly in the light of current trends related to archival recordings.

Abhik Majumdar said...

@ James

> Abhik, were you suggesting that instead of the foreign consultatnt, tenders, etc. the ncpa could have put the catalogue on the internet?

James, this is not an either/or situation, or a set of alternatives.

NCPA's functioning has been fairly non-transparent so far. Not uploading their catalogue (leave alone the recordings themselves) is an instance, as is hiring a consultant and floating a tender before approaching artistes. In other words, the connection between them is that they are both symptomatic of a deeper malaise. And it is this malaise that I target.

@ Aneeshji

Thanks for all the wonderful things you said about us, and thanks also for your clarification. It would seem the situation is even bleaker than we thought!

As far as legal remedies go, I'm getting increasingly disillusioned with intellectual property rights as a means of safeguarding our musical traditions. I am However, this of course shouldn't deter us from formulating legal strategies to ensure performers and music-lovers are not perpetually rooked out of their legitimate interests.

I shall give the contracts a thorough look-over. Could you also upload the standard-form contract AIR and DD use?