Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Concerning Record Labels, Big and Small

Mooching around in music shops is nowhere as much fun as it once was. For one, they have become very noisy places. For another, the old culture of choosing several records and asking them to play each one a bit before making one's final selection, or even walking away, has completely disappeared. Back in my college days, HMV House on Brigade Road, Bangalore had a separate room for classical music where people could listen to their selections in relative quietude before making their purchases. Today, if you request the sales personnel to play a recording before you've paid for it, they react like you're asking to defile its chastity or something.

What hurts even more is the jaded Hindustani music selections shops invariably seem to have on offer these days. Recordings of the great masters are invariably stuff ripped off a highly restricted set of vinyl releases and then recycled and repackaged ad nauseam. One company's marketing team has now started re-releasing old tracks in CDs painted black to resemble their long-playing progenitors. I suppose this '60s-retro look-'n'-feel in vogue now is a natural progression of the "ethnic chic" marketing ethos that dominated the classical music world in the '80s and '90s - remember those "Morning Raagaas" and "Evening Raagaas" [sic] compliations? New releases, on the other hand, are simply unappetising - more than anything else a reflection of the stranglehold star progeny and gimmick-artistes have over the music scene generally. And the prices! With file-sharing so widespread these days, I simply cannot understand why record labels still think selling at 300 to 500 Rupees something any enterprising enthusiast can download for free is a good idea. Or is it that they have given up on classical music piracy and decided bilking tourists and other narks makes for a more efficient business model?

Fortunately, not every company feels necessary to abase itself to this extent. I discovered this the other day at the Begumpet, Hyderabad Landmark outlet. To give them their due,  the Landmark people do strive for a more meaningful balance between saleable glitz and the stuff people like me want to hear. Unfortunately this effort does not quite come off, due mainly to the dearth of interesting recordings available. So I was less than enthusiastic about spending some two hours there, which I had to do because the wife and I had volunteered to take some friends from Bangladesh shopping. The book section yielded a few interesting finds, but nothing in the must-buy-right-now-come-what-may class. So I gravitated towards the music section eventually, and with no real expectations of finding anything of much interest.

My initial desultory survey seemed to confirm this pessimism, when I came across this bunch of CDs tucked away in a corner. It was easy to see why they hadn't been given much prominence; the surrounding honk and glamour made their cheap production values look even more shabby. They didn't aspire to jewel boxes, merely stiff paper envelopes containing disks sheathed in clear polythene packets. In fact, they weren't even CDs in the proper sense, as I found once I got back home. But for thirty Rupees a disk, and of music of this quality, I'd cheerfully forgo the bells and whistles.

The Lahari label is pretty obscure even in its hometown Bangalore, but I had encountered it once earlier. Back in 1994 I had bought two cassettes of Basavaraj Rajguru, one featuring Shuddha Sarang and Maru Bihag, and the other Komal Rishab Asuvari [sic], Nayyaki [sic] Kanada and a Khamaz [sic] tumri [sic]. The abysmal production values extended to other areas too, with more serious consequences. The cheapo tape stock they used began to give out within a short time, and ultimately became unplayable altogether. All these years I had been looking for replacements, with little success. So I was nothing less than delighted to discover they have now been reissued as CDs and, what's more, priced at thirty Rupees the same as the rest. Then there was a gorgeous Bilaskhani Todi and Kalavati by Parameshwar Hegde. I have long held the belief he's one of India's most underrated vocalists today, and this release merely reinforces my opinion. The other vocal stuff on offer wasn't so interesting; mostly second-string vocalists from Dharwad and Vinayak Torvi acolytes. The instrumental section also contained a big surprise: three releases, no less, by the Harmonium wizard Rambhau Bijapure. I confess I'm not a big fan of Harmonium solos, but the one CD I've listened to so far (Nat Bhairav and Sur Malhar) was a genuine pleasure, as were the Parameshwar Hegde and the two Basavarajes. They all deserve detailed exegeses, and I intend to review them individually as and when time permits. For now, let me venture a few comments on the enterprise in general.

Pricing CDs so low is always a good idea. It contributes immensely to the propagation of music, especially the high-quality music their lineup boasts. In the bargain it also serves as a more ethical alternative to piracy. But if you are really serious about all this, not to mention about selling your products, the least you can do is provide proper information about your range of releases? I'd say this problem is endemic across Indian labels. The last time HMV (as it then was) came up with a really well-produced catalogue was back in 1982. The present Saregama website is a marvel of ambiguity. Others like  Music Today's site are not particularly better. Lahari trumps them all; it eschews a web presence altogether! Forget about its own website, even the email address printed on the CD envelopes belongs to the domain. As a result, nobody's quite sure of what they have on offer. My second gripe is with availability and distribution. In the past, small labels found it almost impossible to have their releases marketed across record stores. Today, record stores, and also big publishers and distribution networks, are themselves facing a fadeout. Online distribution as pioneered in India by the likes of Flipkart is a huge game-changer, should I say a game-leveller. All of a sudden, marketing clout and distribution infrastructure have ceased to matter. The problem is, companies like Lahari don't see it that way. Despite several searches I could not find out if any online retailer, Flipkart or otherwise, stocks their releases. As it is, their presence in chains like Westside is marginal. And lastly, on an unrelated note, how about improving production quality a little? In point of fact, the releases are not even CDs in the proper sense, but merely CD-Rs whose useful life is limited by the quality of the dyes used in their production. The Basavaraja release cover designs border on the grotesque: one of them features a colour photograph of the maestro, with a kind of halo surrounding his head, set off against a background of purple, blue and magenta plasmae. The track listings are spelled even more uh, radically than they were in the cassette releases: Volume Two now features (1) Komal Rishabh - Raag: Asuvari; (2) Kamaaz Rishabh - Raag: Tumri; and (3) Nayyaki - Raag: Kannada. Worse, the track order seems to have scrambled itself in the CD - the Nayyaki is labelled Track 1, followed by the Tumri and then Asuwari. The Rambhau releases are much better produced - cleaner design, properly written track listings, even a brief biographical passage included on the reverse side.

To conclude, what is the point of this diatribe? It is merely that companies like Lahari can achieve a lot. They have some very interesting recordings on offer (like I said, more on them later). They also have a ready market, comprising serious listeners. And today, online shopping has made redundant a lot of marketing and distribution nonsense. In short, the time is ripe for smaller players to step in and supply serious music at affordable prices, something big labels have conspicuously avoided so far.

Well, not exactly. The times, they do seem to be a-changin' after all. Flipkart's come out with its own digital music store, apparently undertaken in collaboration with the biggies. Individual tracks sell for between Rupees six and fifteen, full albums for less than a hundred, usually around fifty to seventy. Take this Gajananrao Joshi CD I spotted at Landmark, priced at Rs. 295 which I thought was way too much. Flipkart offers the entire album in the form of 320 kbps mp3 downloads, at a total cost of Rs. 69. So all this while we've been paying Rs. 295-69 = 226 for the CD media, the jewel case, inlay cards, distribution, shelf space at the retailers and other essential if somewhat peripheral expenses. This is outrageous even by modern marketing standards - imagine McDonalds charging Rs. 69 for a hamburger, and Rs. 295 for the same thing with a coke and fries thrown in?

So this digital music store's a worthwhile idea after all, right? Actually, no. And for a reason we ought to have guessed. If the biggies are involved, can slapdash production values be far behind? Track listings, track lengths, album details and other metadata are provided so chaotically it gets difficult to ascertain just what you're buying, particularly whether you'll end up purchasing duplicates of what you already have. We clearly have a long, long way to go.


Alliance of Indian Wastepickers said...

Abhik, I just enjoy reading whatever you write. Being very classical music illiterate nothing much to add. Keep enlighting us.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Many thanks for the comment, Alliance. Mousing over the email notification I received on my gmail account reveals the name Amit Walambe, so is that who you are? :P If so I vehemently disagree with your assessment of yourself. Even if I take it at face value, I would still prefer to draw a distinction between music literacy and music consciousness. One does not necessarily follow from the other. Ask any random Gandharva Mahavidyalaya students how much time they spend listening to music, you'll figure out what I mean. And vice versa, you have people like my late father, who couldn't tell one note from another but had an uncanny intuitive understanding of raagdari and musical aesthetics in general.

And one more thing, would you really say this post demands of readers a high level of musical literacy? To my mind it's not even about music per se, but rather about the recording industry and how it tries to market (how I detest that word!) classical music. What say?

Abhay said...

Good piece, Abhik. I hadn't known that Flipkart had started selling digital music. A search there brought up some good stuff. For instance, the contents of one of the 4 cassettes HMV had released after Mansur passed away - "Echoes of a Soulful Voice" - are available on the site, even though they aren't available on itself! Thanks for the tip.

expiring_frog said...

I think the extra Rs. 226 is for the increase in your social status when you can physically display your Amjad Ali/Hariprasad/Shivkumar collection in tasteful wooden cabinets in your living room.

Abhik Majumdar said...

@ Abhay:

Thanks :) I had in fact originally intended this post as an RMIC tipoff, albeit about the Lahari releases, not Flipkart's latest. I agree the Flipkart people are doing a fantastic job. Managed to procure through them a copy of GN Joshi's "Down Melody Lane", something even the topmost brass at Orient Blackswan (as it's now called) couldn't manage for me.

Your find actually serves to reinforce my point. Certainly there's a lot of excellent stuff out there, but very badly organised. You mentioned one of a four-volume set. How about the other three? Are they for sale? If so, then why can't a reasonably diligent browser locate them? And if not, what's the point of selling only one volume out of four? I myself came across an album called Bade Ghulam Ali Khan - Memorable Milestones, which had exactly one track in it, Aaye Na Balam. I'm sure the CD release came with more tracks. So what's happened to them? Are they for sale? If so, where? If not, why not? This is when irritation gets the better of you and you shut the browser window.

Abhik Majumdar said...

@ Expiring Frog:

Completely agree with you, and cf. what I had said in the post about them selling CDs made to resemble mini LPs (EPs?). They look so much more preettier [sic], no?

Not entirely convinced the wooden cabinets will be tasteful.

ASingh said...

Abhik - great post. And I share your concerns (and angst) about the quality of music releases.
I do have a few qualms about the business model your propose.
While I agree on the existence of 'serious listeners' part but not sure about the 'ready market' bit.
My (limited) personal experience organizing concerts in Urbana and Champaign has led me to be mostly disappointed in either the quantity of quality (when it comes to any sort of financial support) of these 'serious listeners'.
Most are more than happy to mooch off your 1950s recordings of Amir Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar, or Bhimsen Joshi...would even pay for those.
But when it comes to 'lesser known' artists like say Basavaraj, Manik Bhide, or even a Gajananbuwa they're more 'eh'.
More than the quality of the music it is the brand/name/or status attached to it that leads to people buying music.
I know few listeners who expand their tastes by listening to new (at least to their ears) artists. Of course, I am glad to include within my friend circles quite a few happy exceptions (you included, btw). :D
Again - just personal experience.
Limited sampling space.
I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

ASingh said...

That being said, I have to say our experience making Mukul Shivputra's recordings available for direct sale were quite successful. So much so, that without the overheads of producing CD liners and hiring secretaries to answer phone calls, such a business model (direct sale of mp3s by artists or concert organizers) might even be highly profitable business model.
I do have to add that with Mukulji's recordings we tapped into a large market of Kumarji's listeners and followers - having a ready market of receptive listeners is key, I'd say.

Abhik Majumdar said...

ASingh, you raise some very interesting points. I started to reply to you, even looked up this line from Susan Sontag's On Photography: "To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed." Then I thought perhaps it'll be better if I reply through another blogpost. Certainly your observations deserve a response of such length. So stay tuned!

Vivekanand P V said...

Flipkart’s flyte is certainly a hopeful endeavour. It merely requires a conscious and professional touch. Many tracks are still offered at 128 kbps (max), and most of them are poorly labelled. By looking at their professional standard at other walks of trade, one would still want to be hopeful.

That apart, I cannot agree more on your observations on lesser mortals like Lahari. Certainly, publishing a well-informed catalogue and an online-access to their store is not what they cannot afford. One wonders; just wonders. On the same note, Underscore Records is pretty sweet in its idea and functioning. I happened to recall the Legendary Legacy, a label produced by Sangeeta Shankar. They have absolutely wonderful collection, though one would still expect a good presentation of the production (media, in-lay, jacket, etc). The pricing of the CDs is moderate (Rs 100 for each CD). Interestingly, LL has a website and an online store (though unintuitive). I’m sure they can serve the buyers with high-quality mp3s, sans the cost of physical production of the CD. Mystica Music, although the offering is distressingly limited, has been operating in these lines.


ASingh said...

Abhik - I wait with bated breath. :-)

BTW, apropos the quote - are we equating 'photographing' with 'recording' (as in, 'to record is to appropriate the thing recorded')?

Abhik Majumdar said...

@ Vivekanand
> By looking at their professional standard at other walks of trade, one would still want to be hopeful.

My opinion is that Flipkart is being professional on this count also. But it cannot do everything all by itself. It sources its products (books, laptops, cameras etc.) from various suppliers, and depends on them for the information it includes in the product descriptions. And as we know only too well, it is they and not Flipkart who are being unprofessional.

Your point about LL, Underscore and other publishers is very appropriate. I would only like to add the observation that these efforts are too scattered and rather small in scale when viewed individually. If they can all come together, perhaps let Flipkart do their online selling, their impact might be greater.

Abhik Majumdar said...

> are we equating 'photographing' with 'recording' (as in, 'to record is to appropriate the thing recorded')?

Ah ha! This precise question had occurred to me also, then I realised I won't be able to address it satisfactorily in the space of a comment. Hence the idea of spinning it off as a separate blogpost :D

Vivekanand P V said...

> And as we know only too well, it is they and not Flipkart who are being unprofessional.

You see, doubtless the eventual vendor is Flipkart, which sells the commodities in its brand name. And who could possibly sell the music to Flipkart? Recording companies indeed. Now, who should take the blame, the labels or Flipkart? It may be futile to pass the parcel. I should say the trader has a greater responsibility. As we all know it only too well, we ultimately ask the trader for any misinformation or frivolity, don’t we?

Your idea of small labels teaming up with Flipkart is too good to be true. How else would a label of Bangalore such as Lahari reach the cognoscenti of say, Delhi?

Incidentally, I remember another label Alurkar Music House of Pune. I’m not sure if it is defunct or dormant after the death of Suresh Alurkar, its owner. I must say, they have an excellent repository, particularly of younger artistes. I recall most of their in-lays had Bandishes, exquisite introductions of artistes, and so on. A jolly good thing to have it that way. Somehow I felt the pricing was too much even by Pune standards (a CD costs Rs 395 sometimes if the artiste is known and ragas are popular). I visited the shop six months after Suresh Alurkar. The shop was reopened shortly before I went. To my astonishment, I found his widow behind the desk. She was only interested in selling whatever she feels as mere ‘stock’. No queries pertaining to their earlier releases were answered. Of course not a single rupee was discounted for Rs 2000 I paid. Not even an invoice they offered. What happened to the music they produced? I had no answers. Not even today.


Vaibhav said...

hey Abhik,

Great post. Thoroughly enjoyed your critique, probably more because it was about the type of Music I am just getting hang of,

Like already said, I'd be one of those Music illiterates, who recently started listening to likes of Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. Jasraj, Pt. Channulal Mishra, etc. Suffice is to say that there are not mnay things that I have enjoyed same as I am enjoying them.

I have zero knowledge when it comes to the intricacies of this 'serious music' but I was already reading stuff online when I stumbled upon this:

BHIMSEN JOSHI:A Passion for Music (Hardcover)
by Abhik Majumdar

I got to this blog by recommendation of your sister-in-law, but why did she never mention that you even have a book(!!!!) is beyond me.

Looking forward to explore the blog ....

Ps just downloaded 2GB of Pt. Jasraj last night. Already have a serious of music books lined up as my next reads, though which would only be possibly after I get out of my present involvement.

And yeah regarding the whole Music Industry's business model, Online music stores such as flyte is one of the most prominent leveler that we can hope for. Its a practical problem, since there is no rave demand for lesser known artists there is no pressure on supply side. One really good thing flyte should and must do would be to invite small record houses to upload their music on their site( prolly its already been done, ). Production & distribution cost are nothing but a baggage for lesser known artists and small record companies.


ani said...

Wonderful post by Abhik! I couldn't agree more with his views (not that agreement with my own views is the sole reason why the post is great) - 300 rupees for yet another vomit inducing recording by by a formerly great Pandit-ji is precisely the type of stupidity which puts people off.

Daibashish said...

Enjoyed reading the article Abhik!
I do agree that there is a lot of potential of labels like Lahari and other less heard ones, to go online and avoid the distribution/shelving costs. Underscore Records for example is doing quite well. However, it is important to note that worldwide only about 10-15% music sale revenue still comes from online music sales (includes itunes, amazon, flipkart etc..) and even less for classical music, so as a music label one can still not give up on the distribution and marketing of physical CDs. Reducing the prices has several benefits as you mentioned (low piracy, more audience, etc.), but reducing the cost dramatically for classical music CDs on the shelves would hurt the perception of classical music as sublime and superior to pop. music. among the casual listener. It could have long term damage to the reputation of the art form if its sub-priced and can be insulting to some artists. For e.g. how would it feel to have rap album sell for Rs 400 while a classical album sells for Rs 50 on the same shelf? I'm not saying that this 'assigned prestige' is necessary but sometimes even these superficialities help getting many people to take up classical music, hoping to experience something different and perhaps superior to the pop and remix junk out there. Also distributors and shops also have increasing costs of stocking so I don't see the prices of just classical music CDs going down at the stores is necessarily a good thing. Since 85-90% of records sold are still through the physical stores I don't think Lahari should give up on that market...atleast not just yet.

In the US there was a time 5-6 years back when prices online were 10-20% cheaper than what you'd find at a store, but slowly with more and more people taking to the internet marketplace that price difference is pretty much extinct now. I think in India also labels initially should have a lower price for CDs online, luring people to increasingly shop online. Once there is sufficient sales generated from this, then they can close the gap. This could happen rather quickly and within 4-5 years labels like Lahari could possibly move completely to an online business model, and have just their highly selling records in the stores for the general audience to find.

As with most things, success of these labels would only come through the right balance of both mediums. Hopefully in the process they start to improve their production quality and at least list the tracks correctly!


Abhik Majumdar said...

> Now, who should take the blame, the labels or Flipkart? It may be futile to pass the parcel. I should say the trader has a greater responsibility.

The way I look at it is that Flipkart, being an intermediary, cannot be expected to have specialised knowledge of all the products it sells. To take an example, if you want to find out if a brand of hair oil contains a particular chemical you're allergic to, whom do you approach? Yes, usually we approach the shopkeeper, but that's because contacting Indian manufacturers is difficult. In any case, if we do foist on the shopkeeper a query about chemical composition, chances are he won't have a clue what we are talking about. And that is only to be expected, because he is not a hair oil specialist. On the other hand, if the manufacturer also claims ignorance, that will be truly shocking because it is entirely reasonable for us to expect the manufacturer knows what goes into the hair oil he himself is making.

Alurkar had done some excellent work in its day. I also used to enjoy reading their informative inlay cards. I think the music was hived off to another company called Fountain, not sure what happened after that.

Abhik Majumdar said...

@ Vaibhav
Hi Vaibhav, good to touch base, and good also to know you're getting into HCM (Hindustani Classical Music).

Where do you dl your music from? Many mediafire and other folders are no longer accessible, thanks to the recent crackdown on online file storage sites. I would recommend this site called This is still operational; more importantly, they have many recordings of the old masters.

That brings me to the next thing I want to talk about, whom to listen to. Bhimsenji is right up there with the all-time greats, there can be no doubt about it. Many of us have some reservations about Jasraj though, in spite of the fact that he is so well known. His early recordings are excellent, but then as he began to be better known, he started diluted his music somewhat, making it excessively emotion-ridden and theatrical to secure popularity among those not so well-versed with the nuances of music.

At you will find plenty of Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, DV Paluskar, some Vasantrao Deshpande, some Bhimsen Joshi, do listen to them. Among instrumentalists, check out Nikhil Banerjee, Radhika Mohan Maitra, and of course Vilayat Khan. Perhaps you could also listen to some Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva and Faiyaz Khan, but I have to tell you in advance that initially you might be put off with the way they sing; it takes a little familiarity with HCM to really enjoy their music.

All for now, cheers!

Abhik Majumdar said...

@ Aniruddha

> 300 rupees for yet another vomit inducing recording by by a formerly great Pandit-ji is precisely the type of stupidity which puts people off.

Agreed! Except that in my experience "formerly great" Pandits tend to remain great even in their old age (unless of course they happen to be called Jasraj :P). For example, the Gajananbuwa recording I mentioned in the post is certainly an excellent buy. It was only the thought of Saregama exploiting Buwa's sublime artistry for their own base ends that made my blood boil. As such my gripe is with not so much with formerly great Pandits as with those Pandits whose greatness is largely a creation of the media (hype, anyone?).

Vaibhav said...

@ Abhik,

Thnx for the site, it looks exciting.

And I had a big enough cache of HCM just lying on my hard disk since long ( a friend of mine put it), but it was only recently did it chanced upon that I spontaneously started listening and loving it. I would doubt it was the after effects of coke studio (ofcourse pakistan's), but it was only after I heard Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt at JLF'12, did I bothered with Anoushkar Shanker. After that I jumped on Unsung by Pt Bhimsen joshi, which till date takes me back to some other place and time ( kotra). That album really makes the butterflies flutter.

Funny you should joke upon Pt Jasraj for I just downloaded and the torrent mentioned, and I was really liking two albums: Tapasya and Baiju Bawra. I find his voice to be really powerful and strong.

But then again, I wouldnt deny that having absolutely no ears for hardcore HDM, maybe I am titillated by the 'toned down' versions.

As of now, I just listen because its peaceful, different and good to listen.

Ps. forgot Pt ChannuLal Mishra with his own banarasi gig, Spirit of Benaras is really good too.

Unknown said...

Actually, I think genuine Indian classical music (not
this ) will move to a different paradigm. It will be practiced in semi-secret societies. One has to hunt music from friends and word of mouth, organize private conferences, scout obscure stores for obscurer recordings with no metadata and decode them. In that case, your point is moot. We would not care about HMV, Sony and copyrights. Musicians will adapt too.

Chetan Vinchhi said...

Hi Abhik,

A very nice topic. I agree with your observations re: Lahiri. I was exposed to Lahiri though a cassette version of the Basavraj Rajguru album (KoReA, NaKa) a long while back. Even then, their production value was pathetic.

They continue the tradition with badly produced albums of relatively rare but good artists. Apart from Pt.Rajguru, you have already taken note of the singing harmonium of Pt.Bijapure. He must have created a record of sorts by making his first studio recording in his 80s - that is Meru. Both that and Maha-Meru are exquisite albums.

More recently, Lahiri has started producing MP3 CDs. One such CD had a great surprise for me - harmonium recordings of the legendary Pt.Puttaraja Gawai! That the Jhinjoti track is called Janjuti does not take away from the sheer rarity value of this recording.

One pleasant surprise came in the form of a recording of Smt.Lalita Ubhaykar. It is a fairly well-produced CD (thin jewel case + small booklet). At Rs.60, the Maluha Kedar + Kamod CD is a steal. But I suspect the Ubhaykars might have influenced the quality of that CD in one or more ways.

Apart from such stalwarts, there are many recordings of upcoming or lesser-known but senior artists (like Pt.Puranikmath or Pt.G.R.Bhat) that have at least a curiosity value.

So here is the bottom line. Lahiri have or have access to a decent range of material. They have a knack for pricing the product, um, "correctly". They can be influenced (like in the case of Lalita-ji's album) to cook up a good product.

Can they then be influenced to clean up their act a bit and make a real difference? Heck, I am even willing to volunteer to help them get (back?) on track.

Finally, since they are already MP3-ing stuff, are they ready to sell their music online (through flipkart is one possibility)?

V Sridhar said...

Interesting observation on the efforts put in by small distributors.

On Flipkart and Digital Audio, I commend them for bringing on reasonably priced music with a decent search.

The annotations have a large share of errors. I tend to do an album search on the web to see what other sites' have to quote on the track listing. That gives a better reference.

Rebranding and repackaging the same content just makes it all the more difficult for folks' to figure out newer, distinct content.

Anonymous said...

Hope this is still correct but I fund it on the Net :

Lahari Recording Co Pvt Ltd

No.269, Lahari Twrs, 1st Mn Rd, Av Rd, Chamarajpet, Bangalore - 560018

(080) 26706519, 26706801, 22241306, 26706798, 26706527