Bootleg baloney: It’s music to the ears

Seasons’ greetings to all of you! It’s that time of year again. For a small but devoted section of Indian classical music aficionados, this is the time to head to Chennai where the annual ‘music season’ is in full swing.

Celebrated during the lunar month known as ‘Margazhi’ in Tamil (mid-December to mid-January), the season has the city reverberating to the drone of the tanpura and the lilt of the mridangam in music concerts organized by the many ‘gana sabhas’, or music academies, across the city. (Although this has since diversified into a month-long classical arts festival covering dance and the visual arts as well; music, especially the Carnatic style, remains centre-stage.)

For the music fan able to make the annual pilgrimage, as it were, Chennai is heaven on earth. For those unable to attend the concerts, all is not lost: the access route lies in bootleg recordings.

A bootleg recording is an audio and/or video recording of a performance that has not been officially released by the artist. Until some years ago, bootlegs meant raspy recordings hurriedly made on hand-held ‘walkmans’, physically bulky to carry around, on magnetic tapes with limited time capacity. And then the digital audio revolution happened, making it incredibly easy to record, store and share music files of huge sizes.

And it’s not just Chennai where bootlegs are made. There is a very strong chance that the next concert you attend, wherever in the world you are, will have the odd bootlegger somewhere in the audience, with her digital audio player in hand, diligently recording the performance for posterity.

Although it doesn’t explicitly refer to bootlegging, Indian law is fairly straightforward on this. Making any sound or visual recording of a performance without authorisation from the artist is an infringement of the performer’s rights, except when such a recording is made for private use (Articles 38 & 39, Indian Copyright Act). Similarly, both the Berne Convention and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty state that the rights to authorize recordings are with the artist.

But with the digital audio player, often synonymous with the mp3 player, the idea of a recording made for ‘private use’ no longer exists. The ease of ripping an entire concert and uploading it means it is available to anyone in the world who wants it within hours of the performance itself.

Most bootleggers are aware of the infringement, and yet persist. Several listeners download these files, effectively taking the private out of ‘private use’. Most artists, too, are aware of this, and conveniently turn a blind eye. (Although some of the more techno-savvy ones, notably T M Krishna and Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, have begun to assert their rights and request users to not upload their performances online).

Why is there such a conscious indifference to the law among artists and listeners alike? To me, this has at least two aspects to it: firstly, artists rarely make their concerts commercially available in the public domain. So, for a music fan of an artist who has less than ten studio-recorded albums in the market at a given time, but performs publicly twenty times a year, it is extremely tempting to record/distribute/access the performances. Secondly, as an artist, this is the easiest and inexpensive way to popularize your work, usually with the implicit assurance that dedicated fans will not attempt to profit from these recordings.

In addition, there is the preservation-of-culture argument that holds true for Indian classical music: the nature of this music is essentially improvisational; making it slightly different from forms that rely on static melody. The musical composition usually takes backstage to the performer’s interpretation of the raga, effectively making every performance unique, not replicable by even the performer, and very valuable.

Trading bootlegs in Indian classical music does not seem to have caught on commercially, the way it has in popular forms of music (e.g., Beatles bootlegs are legendary). But there is no telling when it might catch on. And perhaps this is where performers (and organizers of performances) can nip things in the bud.

Performance contracts usually contain reproduction and recording rights. But these need to be designed in ways that ensure the concert recordings come to market as soon as possible. Things are changing in India, but very slowly, and not everywhere:

  • A Coimbatore company holds the rights to the recordings of the Madras Music Academy, and has made some of them available.
  • The Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi began releasing some of its concerts a few years ago, but they are not marketed very well.
  • The Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata has a fancy website, but no information about recordings.
  • The Tansen music festival in Gwalior is broadcast by Prasar Bharati annually, but no commercial recordings are available.
  • ITC, which hosts ‘sangeet sammelans’ every year in various Indian cities, has put up a selection of its archive online, but does not release commercially.
  • The Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune has tied up with a local record label, Koel, to release some of its concerts, but there’s a treasure trove left to be unearthed.
  • All India Radio itself, which is a storehouse of 1-1.5 hour concerts (perfect for those TDK magnetic tapes, no?), has after decades brought out an infinitesimal selection in a poorly curated collection, which can be improved drastically.

Perhaps all of these groups/organisers can take a cue from the Living Media/India Today group, which brings its performances to market within months. It may be easier for Living Media because it has its own music label (Music Today), but I believe that is a lame excuse. Performers too must assert that their concerts be made publicly available at the earliest.

Surely, an aggressive attempt to market these performances will not only dissuade bootlegs, but also help counter that perennial complaint of not-preserving-Indian-culture, ensuring that the art form doesn’t dwindle into obsolescence. And of course, the music fan will go home a happy listener, with the assurance of a much better quality recording than could be hoped for with a hand-held digital audio device!


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1 thought on “Bootleg baloney: It’s music to the ears”

  1. Suresh Vaidyanathan

    I have seen in every concert I have accompanied them, T V Sankaranarayanan and N Vijay Siva pause during a rendering to insist the video or audio recording to be stopped. Vijay Siva also acted swiftly to issue notice to an “up-loader” of our concert on internet and inform co-artists that the up-loading was not at his behest and actionbeing inititated. Two things are expected from the artistes’ side too. One, not to enjoy the added publicity they get through a third party uploading. Two, to realize the worth of their music being larger than the narrow benefits they derive by third party “handling” or mishandling. BUT DOES ANYONE KNOW HUNDREDS OF HOURS OF MUSIC IS BEING SYSTEMATICALLY RECORDED IN HIGH PROFILE VENUES (SABHAS) IN CHENNAI EVEN TODAY WITHOUT A WORD OF INFORMATION (LEAVE ALONE PERMISSION) TO THE PERFORMER? ALSO THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO HAVE MADE AS WELL AS COLLECTED SUCH UNAUTHORIZED RECORDINGS AND “DONATED” TO THE LIBRARIES AND ARE HAILED AS “GOD SENT SAVIORS OF CARNATIC ARCHIVES”!

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