Copyright Others

Char-Surly Tales of Carnatic Music Labels

Disclaimer: I’ve been specifically requested not to use names of those who I am quoting or whose experiences I am highlighting. Hopefully at the end of this article, you can understand why.

This is going to be a very different SpicyIP post. First, we are going to deal with copyright in Carnatic Music, a topic we’ve rarely blogged about except here and here. (I would recommend the reader to read both those posts in order to get an understanding of the intersectionality between Copyright and Carnatic Music.)

Second, this is also an attempt to shine the spotlight on some scant-discussed matters regarding the plight of Carnatic music artistes, particularly at the hands of Carnatic Music recording studios/labels. Spoiler alert: They’re not much better than their cinematic counterparts. As James Boyle said, “It is almost as hard to take seriously the record industry executives who moralistically denounce the downloading in the name of the poor, suffering artists, when they preside over a system of contracts with those same artists that makes feudal indenture look benign.”

About 5 months ago, while I was still in the U.S of A, I was having a discussion with a young Carnatic musician. She was explaining to me how Carnatic music is probably one of the most cerebral forms of music out there. I conceded that probably explained my lack of appreciation for the art form, despite being surrounded by fervid fans of the same. She agreed. While the art form still remains an unknown language that I just cannot have translated, through the course of our conversation, I found Carnatic music to be a fascinating case study for any Intellectual Property Rights enthusiast. Now we were speaking my language.

It starts with the lyrics and musical compositions. Most of the lyrics and musical compositions have been in place since the 14th or 16th Century thanks to composers such as Purandara Dasa and the Trinity of Carnatic music (Trimurthigal as they are respectfully called). This means that the Carnatic music industry operates in the public domain: the underlying musical compositions and lyrics are free for all to use. When I mentioned to my friend how Carnatic music was an example of a ‘negative space’ in IP, she was bewildered. “I don’t recall any of the Trimurthigal ever claiming a ‘copyright’ in their music when they were around. One, probably because there wasn’t a legal mechanism then to protect their rights, but also, because the music was meant to be free and enjoyed by all with no monopoly over the same”. When I asked her if it still worked the same way with more recent composers, she unbeknownst to herself, elaborated the workings of the waiver principle, “Absolutely! In fact recent composers want more people to sing their songs, so that more people listen to their songs and appreciate the same. At the end of the day, it isn’t the money, it is the love for the music that drives these composers to create. If the composer was the only person singing the songs, not many people would listen to it, would they?” An artist creating art for the sake of art? Spreading music and joy as widely as possible without an overbearing profit motive? Where were the licensing agreements? What about the indemnity clauses? I needed to get out of this bizarro world as soon as possible.

Cut to 4 months later, back in good ol’ Chennai. I was once again engaged in a conversation with a different up and coming Carnatic musician, and the conversation (un)naturally veered towards the impact of Intellectual Property in Carnatic music. He had a slightly different story to tell. “Although copyright law has historically not had a role in Carnatic music, I think that is changing, especially with the entrance of these recording labels and the Carnatic music recording market.” He was talking about the modes in which Carnatic music is commercialized by labels in different ways. The first, is the more traditional form. You invite an artist into your recording studio, sign an agreement that puts bonded-labor agreements to shame, give them a catalogue of songs to sing from, record them, make CD’s or songs available for digital downloads, market and distribute the same.  The second, is to record the actual live performance, and upload it on a website/platform and commercialize the same. The one thing that both these methods have in common? They do nothing for the intended recipient, the artiste.

It goes without saying that for the impecunious Carnatic music artist, particularly junior artists, the second option is one of the few options available to eke out a living. Realizing this, these labels have started to engage in what can only be described as contractual goondaism. “So I was getting ready to perform at a Sabha, when I was suddenly approached by a representative of the online label who was organizing the event. They asked me to quickly sign the contract, renouncing my performer’s rights. I didn’t even know what performer’s rights were, much less that I had them!” After I briefly explained to him what the contours of the performer’s rights entailed, he said, “But they didn’t even explain any of this to me. I had exactly 5 minutes to go for my concert and signing a bulky legal contract is the last thing I wanted to do. Besides, it was a situation where I either had to sign the contract or pack up to leave.” I asked him if the representative said so in those express terms. “No, but he told me to sign the contract so I can focus on the performance. Pretty self-explanatory don’t you think?”

Tough to argue with that logic. In fact, when I inquired with a bunch of other junior Carnatic music artistes, they all had similar grievances.

A: “I know that you are not supposed to sign a contract without reading it, but the labels know you are not going to just walk away. You’ve invited your family, friends and most importantly, your guru. We are in a catch-22 situation,” one artiste lamented.

B: Another artiste colorfully said, “It felt like informing the bride, 5 minutes before the wedding, that she has to sign over all her assets to the Pandit or the marriage is off.”

Me: Brutal.

C: “The worst part is that there isn’t much competition in the Carnatic music label market. Additionally, if I refuse to sign the contract, there are at least 50 other junior artistes who’d make a deal with the devil,” She added.

A: Tack on to that, the fact that the Carnatic music world is a world of egos and contacts. So if they find out that I refused to sign over my soul to the online label, they’d blacklist me too. Getting a concert is already an uphill task, this is the last thing I need now.

Me: Who is the ‘they’?

C: They. Secretaries of Sabhas, treasurers, proprietors of different events, heads of art foundations etc. I don’t think you really understand how widespread the use of influence is in the Carnatic Music industry is. These individuals who form part of the cartel are some of the leading industrialists, editors, businessmen, and yes, even lawyers in Chennai, maybe even India. It is not easy to break the stranglehold they have.

(Yes, I did find it amusing that they made Carnatic music mamas sound like the Cali Cartel, but my amusement was short lived)

Me: Well, at least you get to have some of your work showcased on these sites. I mean everything else might be borderline coercion, but at least you get something in return for signing the contract, right?

(They all just stared at me, wondering why they even agreed to do this interview in the first place).

B: It has been a year since I performed and the video still hasn’t been uploaded on the site.

A: I see your year and raise you by half a year.

C: I’ve honestly stopped expecting the video or my bank account to go up.

Me: And I presume that you wouldn’t want to issue a legal notice for payment of dues, or non-performance of obligations?

(I finally understood what a ‘quizzical look’ meant)

A: We don’t even want you to use our names for this interview. Look, the Carnatic music “society” is fractured and fragmented, but at the same time the only thing keeping it together is fear. I need to worry about everything from who I go out with, to where I go out to, to how I dress. Else, it sets the rumor mills running and poof, bye bye career.

C: They have some immense control over us.

B: (Anticipating my question) Yes, same “they”. We really don’t have time to concentrate on Intellectual Property, when we are worried whether our decision to do music full time was the right option.

Me: How did we get here? From IP having no significance in Carnatic Music to IP being used as a tool of oppression?

B: I think people in India do not want to pay for content. That’s been clear. This problem is only intensified when it comes to a field like Carnatic music where, since there is a religious leitmotif attached to the music, charging money for our concerts is deemed to be heresy.

A: Yeah, it feels like people do not understand that we are a conduit for the music, and unless you actually pay the artists themselves, particularly the junior artistes, you will be in a situation where you want to hear Carnatic music but no one wants to sing it.

C: And when you do make a demand, you are deemed to be a heretic. Is it really so wrong to be paid a nominal amount to sustain ourselves?

At this point, I believed that any further comment on my part would be superfluous and unnecessary, like the use of the word ‘unnecessary’ after the word ‘superfluous’. I leave it to you, the reader, to make out of this situation what you will.

P.S: When I asked them whether like wine, it gets better with age in the Carnatic music industry, they were all reluctant to provide me with a clear answer. They all felt that while the pay does get better due to more concerts, and more private events (Weddings, corporate events, festivals etc.) that does not necessarily mean that it gets easier. In fact, they felt that the more senior you become, the bigger your problems.

I thought they were embellishing the difficulties faced by senior artistes. I was under the impression that when you had established a brand for yourself, you could refuse to sign ludicrously one-sided contracts, pick and choose your concerts and live your public life with impunity without fear of backlash from the cabal. It was only after I was approached by a senior Carnatic musician bearing legal doubts, that I realized how wrong I was.

In part 2 of this post, you too will understand why.


Harshavardhan Ganesan

Harsha is a peripatetic lawyer. He finished his law school from ILS Law College, Pune, where he was awarded the Best Student Award for the Class of 2015. He then went on to finish his LLM from the University of California Berkeley, with a specialization in Intellectual Property and Technology Law. A self-described Rawlsian, he has some pretty strong views regarding, inter alia: using Open Access as a weapon of the counter culture (Rage against the Machine!), Art and Cultural Property Law (#GivebacktheKohinoor), TK, James Boyle’s Internet Threat (His book on the Public Domain is a must read), and Robert Merges’ Mid-level Principles (The best Professor to grace Boalt Hall, period.) Dank memes are welcome. He can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter: @harshgana28.

One comment.

  1. AvatarSwaroop MV

    I’m a Carnatic musician (I am sure that A, B and C – or at least some of them – are known to me) and a copyright lawyer, and I can vouch for the fact that the copyright scene in Carnatic music is dangerous. I’m sure you’ll cover the problems that senior musicians face in Part 2, so I’ll save those stories for then.

    But there’s a different kind of problem.

    One label produced a CD of a ridiculously rare recording of a live concert of the teacher-student duo TR Mahalingam and N Ramani. I am a student of Ramani Sir, and he told me that he had heard of such a CD and gave me money to buy it for him. Basically he paid for his own music. And he said he was sure he never signed any agreement allowing the recording of the music. Sir didn’t want to go legal because he said, “I must’ve gotten paid for that concert. And it’s okay. The label has found this recording and has published it. Otherwise it would be languishing somewhere.”

    The CD itself was riddled with errors. Songs and ragas were identified wrongly. The sound quality was downright horrible. There was no information on where the concert was held, who the accompanying musicians were, nothing. If the label had contacted Sir, all the information would be available.


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