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Lights, Camera, Agents: The Backstage Business

A new generation of music enthusiasts are dominating the live gig scene. They're not artists, but the flourishing music industry means even if they cant stand in the spotlight, they can be right behind it.

VANDANA SEBASTIAN  6th Mar 2011

A lights technician helps Mumford and Sons set up stage during their first visit to India

he Prodigy, Roger Waters, Black Eyed Peas, Bryan Adams, Akon, Beyonce, and Shakira: the list reads like a Who's Who of international music, but it's actually a small selection of some of the acts that have blown away Indian audiences with power-packed performances in the last few years. But while it's great such acts are choosing to come to India, the most uplifting thing for people involved in music in India in the last few years is the increase in the number of pubs and other venues, concerts and multiple-day festivals, all of which help Indian bands to grow and find audiences.

One very interesting offshoot of this growth in the music industry is that it has spawned a huge support industry: light and sound technicians, music agents, rock journalists, concert organisers, production companies and music visualisers. This is not to say that working in music has become as mainstream as the older career paths in India, but we have now reached a stage where it is certainly a viable option for a young person stepping out of college. Right now, most of these jobs are dominated by the old hands, who have the experience and so handle most of the biggest shows, but a new generation, many of whom have studied specifically to get into this business, is threatening to upset the old order.

"Four years ago when I would go for gigs, I would find myself the only photographer present. Though now, at every gig there are not less than five to ten photographers," says concert photographer Shiv Ahuja. Ahuja conducted a workshop on concert photography recently. "I was surprised to see around 60 kids turn up. Concert photography is a very narrow genre, and it is interesting to note the number of people suddenly developing oping an interest in it."

Take a job like music visualising, which could hardly have been considered a profession even a few years ago. The electronic music/arts collective B.L.O.T was one of the first bands to pioneer the concept of integrating visuals with their music. Of course the B.L.O.T. experience is different, as very few acts regard take visuals as seriously as they do, but as bands and concert organsiers have tried to replicate the Western concert experience, the visual accompaniment to live music has become increasingly elaborate.

"People weren't very interested in music visualising as a career a few years ago. It's only now that it is being thought of as a serious career because of the demand generated by the live gig scene," says Mumbai-based visual designer Zarina Rustomjee. A visual designer does the video graphics that are displayed on screen at live performances. "I was one of the very few people into this when I first started out, and certainly the only woman."

"It's not considered a woman's job," says 25-year old Priya Mathews, a Delhi-based lights designer. "You have to work odd hours, have to haggle with vendors to get equipment within a budget, and of course, have to be very good with technology." A lights designer is responsible for the stage lighting arrangements. Mathews, like most people in this industry, got into the field by happy accident. She started out by playing around with the lights console while a friend's band was performing one evening and realised that she was good at it. A few shows later, she was into lights designing full-time. "People don't get into something like this readily. There is a stigma attached to it, because people don't know whether you will be able to make enough money. But if you enjoy it, it can pretty much be the best job in the world. You get to listen to great music, socialise and experiment." Earlier, lights were done by labourers, who would help in setting up the stage and equipment. But as gigs have gotten bigger in scope and ambition, light design has emerged as a highly specialised field. "The whole show is computer-programmed now. Nothing is done on the spot," says Mathews.

t is also myth that there is not enough money in the field. Most of these jobs are paid for by the hour. A music visualiser can earn anywhere between Rs 10,000 to Rs 25,000 per show. Rustomjee, who works on close to 15 shows a month, says, "There are no shortage of gigs happening in the city. Most nightclubs organise almost 2-3 live shows per week."

Sound engineering is another area that's picking up steam. More bands automatically translate into more music being recorded. Gaurav Chintamani, who owns Delhi's Quarter Note Studios says, "Since I passed out from the School of Audio Engineering in Chennai, class sizes have been increasing drastically. The supply has been increasing to meet the demand."

One noteworthy trend is that most people working in "concert support" are musicians themselves. People who aren't well-versed in the scene are either not aware of the plethora of career options in the music industry or do not feel comfortable jumping into this cliquish world.

"Being a musician helps as you get a lot of exposure within the industry. And of course, in a field like ours, you need to have a sound understanding of music," says Chintamani, who also plays for the band Advaita.

Specialised concert and artist management companies have been sprouting up by the dozen, in turn swelling up career opportunities, though not necessarily as artists. Earlier event management companies would cover an umbrella of events, including music shows. Now event concert management is a lot more specialised.  "It would have been impossible for a company with our profile to take off five years ago. Independent non-film music has been gaining in popularity only recently," says Girish 'Bobby' Talwar, founding director, Babblefish Productions. "Indian markets have always been demand-oriented. People don't get into new spaces unless they can gain from it. But this is a good time to be in this business, which is why niche music production houses are doing so well."

Babblefish's parent company is one of the great successes in the music industry in the last few years, Only Much Louder. The OML chief executive Vijay Nair started out by managing a friend's band. Soon he was managing other bands professionally and decided to start a production house to manage live music. "It is a sustainable career option at this point of time, which is why we have been around for a while now," says Nair.

When Ritnika Nayan returned from London a few years ago armed with a degree in music management, she realised that career prospects in the field were very limited. This led her to start her own firm – Music Gets Me High (MGMH), an artist management and concert production. "The scene has picked up in the last year," says Nayan. "Establishing yourself is an effort and you need to have the knack for it. In careers like ours, you have to be very social and good at getting the right contacts. It's definitely not easy, but you have to make the choice: do you want to have to kick yourself everyday and drag yourself to a dull nine-to-five job, or do you want to be consumed with deep love and hate for what you do?"

The fast-moving live gig scene has, by default, also brought a windfall to nightclubs and bars. "At gigs, the consumption is never too high as people usually have the tendency to nurse 1-2 drinks throughout the evening. But we do get a lot of publicity because of music events," says Sumeet Kumar, manager, Café Morrison.

It's a win-win situation. Listeners are happier, artists are bigger, nightclubs have become livelier, and a whole new group of music enthusiasts have been able to make careers out of doing something they love.

 
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