Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bangalore's Carnatic Tale -- from Radio to the Web

Worldspace Radio's abrupt termination of services left behind a void in music aficionados. However, Carnatic classical music listeners may have reason for cheer as the RJs of its Carnatic music channel team up again - this time for an online avatar

El Classico: The RJs of RadioWeb Carnatic
by Rajagopalan Venkataraman

Bangalore: Commonality of interests was what R Mahadevan, radio jockey and former director of Shruti, the Carnatic music channel on Worldspace Satellite Radio, and A S Krishnan, former employee at Wipro Technologies, discovered when they met on a social networking website one-and-half years ago - a passion for Carnatic music.

Now directors and co-founders of RadioWeb Carnatic, an online Carnatic music radio channel that has been running for a few weeks now, the duo was driven by the desire to create a user-friendly website. Work on the site started about nine months back; they were then clear that this should not be just another website to stream music. With the "retiree" audience - in the age group of 60s and 70s - in their minds, they had decided that the website must be such that it can translate itself to any user. While Mahadevan and his team of RJs are the "voice" of RadioWeb, Krishnan's task involves understanding the technical and business perspectives of music.

Mahadevan has this to say about satellite radio: "Satellite as a medium was unviable. Nitty-gritty's such as receivers and chips need customisation, which was expensive,” referring to Worldspace Satellite Radio, which closed down its services in India in 2009. “Also at that time the internet hadn't boomed in India.” Their rendezvous preceded the rise of smartphones and low-cost broadband and mobile internet. Barring surmounting minor challenges such as acquiring rights of music labels, a radio channel launch then was all on the cards; the channel has since then signed up with two audio companies.

The RJ avers that Worldspace's shutdown in 2009 was no deterrent to him. Quiz him on whether it was a coincidence that his colleagues from Worldspace are part of his new venture and he says: "It was no conscious decision, but they were very passionate about it. My colleagues strove hard for producing programmes and staying up late at work. They had then made it clear that should something materialise, they would be a part of it." Acknowledging the economic advantages of using the internet as a medium, more so when compared to other forms of infrastructure-inherent radio, Krishnan says that their channel is a self-funded venture.

On selecting content for the channel, Mahadevan elucidates that film and classical music albums are available either commercially or not with one difference - there exists a huge base of classical music artistes who aren't represented commercially. He cites a staggering statistic to buttress his point: "For any given 10 artistes who get commercial representation in the form of releasing albums, there are 25- 30 artistes who don't." The RJ adds that Chennai remains the Mecca for Carnatic music artistes wanting to gain commercial recognition, where at least 75 per cent of such activity takes place, followed by Bangalore at about 20 per cent, and the remainder across the world.

With digitisation and easy availability of music, Mahadevan articulates that the responsibility to select the right music arises, which he describes as "back-breaking work". Krishnan offers a different perspective: "There are also those listeners who don't have a clue on what to listen to. This coupled with the reduced availability of music albums in showrooms due to high retail costs and dwindling attention spans mean people rely on others for recommendations." And that is where listening to music becomes a community activity, the two infer. Mahadevan adds that the urge to let others know what one is listening to is a natural instinct. He reminisces that during his Worldspace stint, random people used to call him up on songs that were played, which they had listened to on the recommendation of their acquaintances.

'Curated Music Adds Value to the Listener'
It is only natural that the discussion veers towards curated music. Mahadevan expounds that curated music provides two advantages - one, the RJ, in addition to playing the music, makes for communication, albeit passive; and two, the RJ by being able to build trust in listeners, also gives them a larger picture of the genre of music. Krishnan explains in a corollary: "We are providing a starting point for the listener to go and discover their music, their tastes; after all, the desire to understand what they are listening to always exists."
Does the threat of transgressing the distinction from being informative to getting didactic exist? Says Mahadevan: "There are different shows that we run, just as there are different kinds of listeners. Certain technicality needs to be presented if the show pertains to concepts such as ragas. If the show features artistes, then one can be more universal with the content. Not many may be interested in the intricate details involved; however, we cannot assume that all our listeners will be are aware of them."

He succinctly sums up the criterion for artistes featured in their radio channel: "While the renditions of yesteryear artistes need to be played, music, being a continuum, equal representation needs to be accorded to the present-day artistes as well, as they become eventual leading musicians."

With market fragmentation being the norm, isn't it necessary to determine what market the channel will address? Krishnan clears the air: "Carnatic music is a niche market; we intend addressing those who are interested in it." The duo adds that this factor did not influence their setting up base in Bangalore. Hindi film music, the former Wipro employee adds, can be rightly said to be the true mass media product in India. Practically every other music form is niche in its own sense, he says.

Bangalore may have a multitude of FM channels, but it still has a sole FM channel for Classical music - All India Radio's Sangeetha Vahini. Laying speculation to rest about AIR being their competitors, Krishnan, says: "Our markets may overlap, but our products are entirely different. We are not competing with AIR."

It is but natural for any organisation to board the social media bandwagon for promotion. Krishnan, however, states: "For anything to become viral on social media, it must have duration of less than five minutes, following which the user must be ready to comment on it. We are still working on it." Mahadevan, quips, as if in a sign of the times, "We are still waiting for our Kolaveri moment."

An edited version of this article may be read at: http://newindianexpress.com/magazine/article559369.ece