Arjun opines that a lot of [music] venues [in india] aren’t rooted in ideology, but in economics
Arjun opines that a lot of [music] venues [in india] aren’t rooted in ideology, but in economics

Music and musicians during the pandemic: Sound of silence

Arjun Sagar Gupta, the passionate founder of Delhi’s jazz club, and other top musicians on how creativity has survived the pandemic
By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:12 PM IST

There’s something different about a music venue run by a musician. The sound is wholesome - more understood, setting up is smoother and the vibe is of a community coming together to enjoy the artform, learn from and lean on it, and support one another. The musicians on stage are more than mere entertainers. And the silence is different – it’s put in place so that audiences listen to one song in complete silence and let the magic take over. At least that’s the case at The Piano Man, Delhi, and Gurugram. That’s the dream project of musician Arjun Sagar Gupta, which began as an art café variant in 2010. 

All that jazz

It’s also got something to do with the humble perfectionist that Arjun is. He’s changed the music scene in the country in the last five years with his current outlets. And his never-ending thirst to learn anything that piques his interest, and following it through: The Delhi boy is an engineer who’s worked at the back end of a call centre, did a crash course in architecture from a German scientist in Frankfurt and won a scholarship to study American contemporary music and composition, played and taught piano in Bhutan, almost took up a job in the industrial sector in Mexico and began an export company in his college days that partly funded the start of The Piano Man in 2012. In 2010, he started a B2B bakery to learn the F&B business hands on, where he literally Googled how to bake and decorate cakes to start with. But it’s his dad, Rakesh Gupta, who suggested the memorable name and the Vasant Vihar branch was born, where Arjun would tinker away solitarily on a piano. Then, there was The Piano Man Garden in Palam Vihar before he decided to take the leap and give Delhi a jazz bar.

I remember the opening night in 2015 – all the indie musicians across all age groups cheered as Arjun took the stage and crooned, showing off the impeccable sound of the space and introducing the concept of respect to gig attendees used to chattering over the music. “We wanted to create a point for exposure as venues in India aren’t rooted in ideology but economics,” he says. And so, he took loans, spending mid-single-digit crores to get the right soundproof glass, custom-designed furniture and equipment, cables and amps in-house, as well as training the team on how a venue should function. “How can you be a music venue and not get the sound right?” he laughs. “Lugging around equipment isn’t easy. Not having a competent crew at the venue is frustrating. Having no respect is worse and makes you feel uncomfortable,” he says from his experience. Which is where he saw that most venues make one primary mistake: the owners/managers disrespect musicians, and the organisation imitates it. A habit that has zero tolerance on his properties, including when it comes to customers giving shade to musicians. 

Arjun (middle) and his father, Rakesh, (left) at the Chick Corea (right) gig at The Piano Man Safdarjung Enclave in 2018
Arjun (middle) and his father, Rakesh, (left) at the Chick Corea (right) gig at The Piano Man Safdarjung Enclave in 2018

So, there isn’t a separate artiste menu like at almost all other venues across the country. “I’ve been handed a different menu, told to not sit in certain areas, had servers and managers discriminate against musicians and experienced the segregation,” he says. A musician first through and through, it was just time to stand up for the community.

New normal

One that has been heavily hit during the pandemic with almost zero live performances of late. TPM is back though, with a performance everyday.

Arjun is also planning to convert their artiste management venture into a streaming platform/label, and working on redesigning the ecosystem to shift focus and reward creativity instead of popularity. “The idea is to incentivise the creation of art for the sake of art. We continue to make the same mistakes, creating individual megastars, ignoring thousands of other equally and often more talented artistes, instead of a stable and secure infrastructure for artistes. The problem is simple, how does one create a more effective platform for art distribution,” says Arjun, explaining his plans that will promote a model of patronage for musicians.

How else can musicians tide over these financially difficult times? “Patronage services that allow fans and well-wishers to support them with small monthly payments. Even with a few dozen supporters, one can start to meet basic monthly expenses. An additional advantage is that to grow your patron base, you have to start delivering content more frequently, creating a discipline for yourself,” he says “Wonderful artistes like Jacob Collier, Pomplamoose and Pentatonix use the model, it’s a great way to build a secure baseline so one can focus more on creativity,” he adds.

The Piano Man was heavily hit during the pandemic with almost zero live performances, but now it’s back with a performance everyday
The Piano Man was heavily hit during the pandemic with almost zero live performances, but now it’s back with a performance everyday

“I’m amazed by the resilience of musicians – some doubled down on teaching, some relocated to their hometowns and continue to make music. I haven’t encountered anyone who has given up on music, here or internationally,” he observes. Though some European countries have financial support from their respective governments. This, at a time when many venues aren’t able to settle outstanding musician payments. “Pre-Covid, the fact that getting payments on time (sometimes getting them at all) for artistes was a real problem, is the real problem. Even post lockdown, even though the payment cycles may have gone up a little, there should be clarity and payments need to be cleared. How is that even a question?” he asks. “How do you expect a musician, who is also expected to release content for one’s enjoyment, to survive with no income?” he shrugs.

Price point

A setback has been the price of being lauded as a top performance space - it’s viewed primarily as a performance venue so they don’t get much of a lunch crowd, including the Gururgam branch which just opened at the end of 2019. “Everyone knows as a ‘music guy. In a difficult market and in trying times, we’ve worked to develop a menu under Chef Manoj. We are planning to start event programming in the afternoons as well (March 15th onwards) to enhance the lunch experience,” he adds.

Lowering prices isn’t an option: They had done that right before Covid hit, hoping to recover the amount spent on the Gurugram branch quicker.

You can stream the Chick Corea Tribute night from the venue tonight
You can stream the Chick Corea Tribute night from the venue tonight

To help their case (and stay afloat), Arjun has launched memberships via which customers can avail discounts and perks. They’ve also started a subscription service called Virtual Tickets, and will stream all concerts via thepianoman.in once they reach 1,000 subscribers. Till then, they’re asking regulars to support them via the monthly 499 subscription. As subscribers grow, they will start investing directly in the production of content (funding artistes) eventually launching their music streaming service/record label. Because, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that, the only way forward, is together. And that music can keep hope alive and us afloat even in the bleakest of times. And Delhi’s very own piano man is on a mission to silently show the magic of music.

{ Shillong Chamber Choir }

“You’ve got to think digital”

The Shillong Chamber Choir now have a studio
The Shillong Chamber Choir now have a studio

“Financially, the entertainment industry has been the hardest hit in the past year. 100 per cent of the choir’s earnings have been through live shows, not Instagram, Facebook or YouTube. We’ve had to cancel over 20 shows, and immediately reinvent. We had to find a way to stay afloat. The first thing that came to mind was Uncle’s Ark or Uncle’s home delivery. What can we do to serve our community while also keep ourselves occupied? Then the choir – what are we best at? To sing, heal and inspire. Luckily, we were able to stay afloat because we had resources and income saved over the past several years of our existence. We did charity shows but we also quickly set up a virtual studio space,” says William Richmond Basaiawmoit, lead singer of the choir.

They did a fundraiser for the TeamWork Arts campaign called I Believe Art Matters to raise funds for artistees who have been affected due to the pandemic through the course of these several months, and raised about 60 lakhs. “People forget about the spotboys, make-up artistees, those who make the instruments, the back-up singers, instrumentalists –thousands of people involved in the entertainment industry who rely on it for a living,” he says.

“You have to go digital, think out of the box, and use our power of art to inspire. I urge all musicians to use their art to heal. Because world needs it now more than ever and art is a great way of giving hope. I think that is our duty as artistees, and musicians. We expect people to give us and donate, but it’s in giving that we receive,” he concludes.

{ Kavita Krishnamurthy }

“Digital shows pay poorly”

Kavita says musicians have been a bad state as no one expected it to go on for this long
Kavita says musicians have been a bad state as no one expected it to go on for this long

“It’s been a bad state as no one expected it to go on for this long,” says the renowned playback singer. “Initially, people were doing digital concerts and shows, but those also waned off as they pay poorly. It’s better for established singers as they have some savings but those who depend on three concerts a month to sustain their homes are in a soup. Including singers, because writers and composers still have the IPRS. Festive season meant bands playing in malls or restaurants. There’s none of that too due to Covid,” she says.

“My husband L Subramaniam and I got SMSes from people and we sent money. With 50 people attending weddings, even those musicians are out of work. Everyone listens to music worldwide but musicians have no money. In fact, when there’s a calamity, it’s musicians who put together fundraiser concerts. Even on YouTube, music is pretty free only, and there are no royalties paid here. I wish there was some way one could maybe return a person’s taxes paid to them to help tide over this year!,” she adds.

{ Anuradha Pal }

“We raised money during the pandemic”

Anuradha says that with no income during lockdown, many musicians had severe existential issues
Anuradha says that with no income during lockdown, many musicians had severe existential issues

Anuradha conceptualised and presented a 30-minute live daily on Facebook and Instagram called ‘Beat the blues with Anuradha Pal’, talking about Indian music history, multi-percussion, riyaaz and tabla techniques for 64 days.

“Artistes are among the most ignored community. With no income or support during lockdown, many suffered. After getting such calls, I curated the four-day Anuradha Pal’s Kala Ke Sangh fundraiser festival with 27 Hindustani and Carnatic musicians in August on @SASevents (Sur aaurSaaz events) page on Facebook and YouTube. We raised enough to give 3,000 to 30,000 to 150 musicians. This included devotional singers, rare instrumentalists, jugglers, puppeteers, dancers, etc.” They also organised food ration for families of 60 musicians and are working on a 15 lakh grant to send to needy musicians.

Follow @kkuenzang on Twitter and Instagram

From HT Brunch, March 7, 2021

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