Saturday, November 27

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The Working-Class Musician

Many of you reading this might have come through from my social media. Many of you don’t know me at all. So to add any context to this article for first-time readers, I’d have to introduce myself. My name is Pratika (Pratika Evangeline Prabhune), often known as MC PEP (abbreviates my name) and I am a 28-year-old singer and rapper from Mumbai, India. Music for me came from playing piano, and singing in the Church choir for a year. Soon after, I started playing bass guitar in a metal band when I was 12 years old! I was in the band until it disbanded when I was still 17. 

As graduation drew nearer, I focused on college and getting a job that encompassed all my interests in one. I also came from a very average, middle-class family, and my parents were almost disowned from their own for having an ‘inter-caste’ marriage (Hindu weds Roman Catholic). Like anyone would, my parents just wanted to make sure we had a good enough education to stand on our own feet. Obviously, the goal was not only to earn money, but circumstances made it so that it became our prime motive. Maintaining a life as just a ‘musician’ was never an option for me, because taking risks was not an option. The Prabhunes were on their own. Not taking care of my family, or leaving them on pins was something I couldn’t do either. I was a part of the contribution to run the house, and that role was fixed. 

While this happened, my brother (Pritesh) who is seven years older than me, took up a job. He worked as a writer, and later went on to being the ‘backline guy’ from Furtados Music, progressing to the role of a stage technician. Visiting multiple events over time also threw him in a random situation one day where he had to man the sound console, and nine years later he’s a sound engineer travelling across the country and the world with Indian artists. His live sound journey started from a company called BAJAAO. 

Jobs, and Why!

The priority, for me too, was to work in a music company. Of course, I didn’t get that in the first try, but I landed a job in BAJAAO a couple of months after graduation. The company is India’s largest retailer of musical instruments and professional audio equipment online, and it also had an events division back then called BAJAAO Entertainment. The company was spearheaded by Ashutosh Pande, one of the most hardcore indie supporters early on. I’ll tell you why Ashu is important to this story in just a bit.

Earning a fixed salary has always been a prerequisite. For many parents and families, music in India is still seen as passion, and careers in fields like science, technology, IT, etc., are the direction most families see their children going in. Pritesh and I had to maneuver through this. ‘How are we going to do something we like and still be okay.. not struggling to make ends meet?’ We realised music was just not happening at the time. 

You cannot play rock, metal, or alternative music and make it a full-time career in India. Just let that sink in.

It discouraged us a lot, and I knew I’d never get over it until I did something about it. It was literally something we could see and support, but never touch. We were too stressed about how expensive it was to record and put music out there, and because of that we didn’t bother recording drums live, tracking vocals in a studio, and so on. We were probably somewhere not good enough either, but we were also averse to the idea of knowing how expensive it’s going to be. Finance scared us, because we never got to earn doing what we did. Many of our friends helped us with recording, like Sahil ‘Demonstealer’ Makhija of Demonic Resurrection, and Shezan Shaikh of former metal band Providence.

In the early days of metal, no one we knew had any family who understood or encouraged the genre. Rock music was still a little heard of, but yes, the typical idea of it being the ‘devil’s music’ was a blanket perception. No problem, we said, because there was Ashutosh Pande who started ‘N.O.C’ somewhere in 2006, which turned out to be India’s first ‘jam room’ or rehearsal space for musicians who couldn’t practice at home. We’d take the ‘noise’ somewhere into an industrial estate where NO ONE was bothered by it. The hustle was real! Metal, rock and indie musicians had a place to meet and jam together! It was revolutionary, and it encouraged more people to play the music they really wanted to. They would make their way there after work in formal office shirts, and lose a few buttons through the course of the rehearsal. 

Luckily, all of this transpired while we were still in a metal band, and we got to live that community feeling of the alternative musicians. Later on when our metal band disbanded, Pritesh (as a guitar player and drummer) and I would take up the occasional live cover gigs because those songs could be learned at home and performed on stage. Somewhere deep down, for me, I knew it was for the sake of it. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. The money was nothing much, but it was about playing live. 

Releasing your own music, now that I see it clearer, was not very difficult. However, over the years, there’s a standard you want to meet in terms of presentability to be noticed – music and production quality, a music video to go along with it, a month-long promotional plan before the release, and more. The entire ecosystem of having a manager, a tour manager, stage techs, a PR person, a social media whiz, etc., were purely if someone shared your passion or loved your music so much that they’d do anything! We couldn’t achieve it at the time. Sponsors or brands were not interested in endorsing or promoting this kind of music after they tried their hands a few times, simply because they’d get nothing out of it. Not in a country where Bollywood and the music from ‘musical’ movies were the only hits. 

The Facts About Indie Music in India

Do you make Bollywood music? No? Here’s where I begin to talk about how you’re going to have a tough time! Another question first – Does someone in your family already have a name for themselves in the industry, and does that make your life easier? NEPOTISM 101! 

While many artists have entered the Bollywood film and music industry on pure nepotism, many of them are actually talented, so there’s no taking that away from them. However, it’s quite difficult to make it in Bollywood without having the right link, or a ginormous stroke of luck. Even niches in demand like ‘female rapper’ and ‘rock-sounding vocalist’, with a bunch of demos and experience, don’t make the cut sometimes. I’m one of the people available to do those kind of vocals, because using my talent in some way to earn money is the only way to profit from it in any aspect. I’ve seen far less talented people reach the top faster. What they did right was, they chose to make music that would appeal to the masses. 

For me, music wasn’t about becoming popular. It was about me speaking my mind, and relating to people with the truth. And that didn’t give me any sustenance.

I wasn’t among the popular musicians. My talent would stay where it was because my musical tastes always leaned left. I was just a rare sighting, one of the few girls who visited metal and rock gigs. Almost ALL my musician friends have day jobs including myself – as managers, architects, coders and tech dudes, doctors, or some job or the other. WE KNOW it’s always going to be tough here. Making a climate where all kinds of music exists is almost impossible, owing to the monster companies focusing on the ‘massy’ shit. There are notable Bollywood producers like Ram Sampath, Amit Trivedi, even Sneha Khanwalkar, who are constantly trying to break that norm, but somewhere or the other it boils down to what has been force-fed to the masses all these years, what they’re familiar with, and what’s the music trend their favourite celebrities are following. Monkey see, monkey do. It’s easier that way! Less time spent thinking, right?

 

So then, you ask, 

How do some musicians and singers STILL survive on music?

Sessions

5 – 10% of my musician friends do ‘sessions’ for Bollywood artists, which means they are a part of their live band, and sometimes track instruments in studio sessions. Each show pays them decently enough, and shows during season give them a good opportunity to earn enough and more for sustenance. Some of them have bought cars, houses, and are living the life! Sometimes it makes me wish I could just join a Bollywood band as a singer or a backing vocalist, but I don’t think my ego would let me until it came as an opportunity! I cannot imagine singing someone else’s music and compositions forever.
*Some information is subject to no existence of the pandemic! No one has live shows to thrive on right now.

 

The Risk

Then there’s friends like Anand Bhaskar (of Anand Bhaskar Collective), who worked so hard and took every risk to be just a singer and composer. These are rare stories, but shine hope on all of us nonetheless. I respect and find his efforts very commendable. It’s tough to make your way and sustain through your music, and lending your voice to the commercial work (because payments are a bitch, and there dangles the ‘uncertainty’ factor again), but I am so glad it’s working out for him. I’d still say much of his music is very relatable and pleasant to anyone who hears it. 


Collaborations

Lastly, there’s ‘collaborations’ – a word overused by the music, and now the ‘influencer’ industry globally. We all have our second thoughts about these, wonder why all collaborations don’t come for free, and how fair division of revenue is important.

I’ll tell you reality. Sometimes, when I’m low on money, I cannot afford to put the pieces and elements of my releases together. For example, I always found it tough initially to get someone to do artwork and pay for it. Later on, I decided to have a collaborative effort with rapper friend and Won Tribe crew mate Krantinaari. The deal was to help her with promotions and playlisting for her music, or make her a basic music video, and she helps me with artwork in return. 

When you don’t know anyone much, you want to put on a face and and pitch the need to ‘collaborate’ with people. I honestly don’t see what’s wrong with that, morally or otherwise. Both get the equal amount of exposure from the effort if promoted right. As long as all gains from the collaboration are divided equally, it is a creative effort that will fruition with time, or not. And you will both take an equal hit for it. Yes, there are artists who’d prefer to be paid upfront for collaborations, and I’ll tell you why. Many of them have also made many investments in music, like studying it for example. Professional courses and degrees now exist in India, with curriculum that is up-to-date, and uses good supporting technology like True School of Music, and even basic long-distance levels of Trinity exams through Furtados Music. If you’re applying a skill set where someone (you’re not necessarily interested in working with) thinks your voice is perfect for a track, you have every right to ask for money for it! That’s one of the very few ways musicians make money, really. 

 

I made a life in understanding whatever I could about the music ‘business’. I didn’t hone the musical skill first hand for money or fame. But I don’t regret it one bit. I’ve worked at some of the biggest Indian music festivals, and with some of the biggest artists in the world. My forte has been hospitality, artist and stage management, along with tons and tons of social media activation and digital marketing. Thankfully, my experience at all companies from BAJAAO and Furtados, to 4/4 Experiences and Azadi Records, has made me efficient at managing and releasing my music. My anxiety has dropped because life is not as hectic as it used to be. I got better, started earning better, and the pandemic gave me ample time to manage life, while setting hours aside to make and record music. I record more commercial jingles now because I am well-facilitated, and who knows…

 

Maybe someday I still can become a musician and singer, full time, playing music that comes from my heart. 

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Written By

A singer, rapper and musician from Mumbai, India and host at Ticket Fairy (India), I've worked in the music business for over 7 years now, specialising in music marketing, public relations, social media, event management, hospitality and stage management.

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