The economics of Classical Music in India


This blogger is  a recently turned fan of Indian classical music. Being the weirdo he is, it is only to be expected that he would turn his attention to the economic side of this . Yes, I know it's weird with a capital W that instead of humming a tune, a blog post on economics is what comes out.

Classical music in India is economically a basket case. Every piece in the carnatic music supply chain is in doldrums moneywise.

Take the fan. A listener will only go to a concert if it is free. Will not buy a ticket even if it is just Rs 50. It is perfectly acceptable behaviour to go to a concert, find that there is a ticket and return back without going in ! The fan is a complete hypocrite. Music must be free. Musicians don't deserve money. But their own salaries (pensions) must be doubled.

Artistes, unless they are at the top of the profession earn an absolute pittance. I am  certain that what most upcoming musicians earn will not even be up to the minimum wage levels in India for casual labour. It is not unknown for lesser musicians to pay to perform rather than the other way around.

The musicians at the very top do earn for their concerts and the popular perception amongst the fans is that they demand too much money. This is nonsense. They may earn Rs 100,000 for a concert; something they have to share with the accompanying artistes. They can probably do 4 or 5 concerts a month on an average. That level of earnings is equivalent to what a middle manager in a company doing an irrelevant pedestrian job will make. And these are the top musicians in the land.

The organisations that hold these concerts are called sabhas - they are the equivalent of music clubs. Given the facts above, every one of them makes a loss and are barely solvent. How they survive is a mystery.

With these economics, it is hardly surprising that there are zero facilities for concerts. None of the cities have anything like the equivalent of an opera house. There is just one good concert hall in the cities of Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore and they were all built at least 25 years ago. Not a single new concert hall of any size or quality has come up in decades - and just witness the number of malls, cinema multiplexes, resturants and the like that have sprung up. Concerts are held in ramshackle places where the word acoustics is foreign and as for facilities, what are they ?

There are two lifelines that has so far kept this genre going.

One is sponsorship from businesses. Sabha organisers harry, beg, plead, grovel for grants for businesses. You can always find a music fan in a company and they sometimes contribute for a concert. This can hardly be justified in any company for business reasons - this must just be written off as a handout with no benefit for the business.

For the artistes themselves, their main source of income is teaching music to Indian Americans on Skype. You see, the Indian parents in the US feel very guilty for disassociating their children from Indian culture. They are partial to therefore teaching them Indian classical music. Skype offers a perfect medium. Its a nice ego boost to be taught by the finest musician in the genre. This is how artistes put food on the table. The dollar goes a long way as you know.

Another option for artistes is to perform in  the US.  The huge Indian American community in the US wants to "keep in touch" with Indian music, even if they are pretty ignorant about it. For some strange reason Cleveland (of the "bum state" fame) is the headquarters of carnatic music.

All this makes for depressing reading. Musicians world over, in most genres, are millionaires. Classical music in  India is however economically gasping for breath. It is in decent health in terms of listener interest. But it can only thrive if a sensible economic model starts to emerge. For a start, listeners should start paying for a concert instead of demanding it for free. I'll buy a ticket for every concert I go to , or if its a free concert, at least drop the notional ticket price into the donation box.