"All songs recorded in a makeshift bedroom studio in Kolkata." This line from the back cover of city band Whale in the Pond’s recent release, Dui, sums up the winds of change that have been steadily blowing through Kolkata's music scene in recent times.
Once upon a time, musicians had to rely on work afforded to them by the Tollygunge film industry in order to reach the broader masses and make a living. With the arrival of Kabir Suman, Nachiketa, Anjan Dutta and the rest of the jibonmukhi generation in the '90s, an alternative to the Tollywood model was established where the purchase of physical albums by a listening public served as a source of income for musicians.
However, with the advent of streaming sites, just how viable is this model today?
Tell me a musician who’s got rich off digital sales. Apple’s doing pretty good though, right?
“We don’t depend on streaming for revenue. It is still the sale of physical merchandise that helps us sustain ourselves,” says Sourjyo Sinha of Whale in the Pond.
Dui is the band’s second offering containing two songs with Sylheti lyrics immersed in the lush, acoustic environment the band has come to be associated with.
In contrast to the fresh, dream-like soundscape, the lyrics refer to governments selling off public sector utilities, the social chains that bind people, and Kanai, an underachieving child whose very birth has brought ill-luck to his ambitious parents.
Whale in the Pond (feat. Dolinman) - Dofon
Sinha sees the purchase of band T-shirts, posters or booklets as a “goodwill gesture” by appreciative listeners towards the band, since their music can be found quite easily on free streaming platforms. Sinha says it is easier for bands to generate revenue from souvenirs created around music than the recorded music itself.
Anik Bhattacharya of the Diamond Harbour-based acoustic, instrumental trio Dot Three, which just released Hiraeth, rues that he does not have much hope of generating revenue through streaming platforms, even though the release of their title track has earned critics' plaudits. Dot Three’s experimental, flamenco-infused ambient music has made their sound recognisable in a city bustling with musicians all trying to go “viral”.
Hiraeth, by Dot Three
Asked about the band’s motivation for releasing their music online, Bhattacharya says, “Music is the only thing that truly feels ours. Plus, there is also a need to document our musical journey.”
Both Bhattacharya and Sinha say that based on their digital releases, they have received offers for shows where they present their original material to new audiences. While Bhattacharya is pursuing a part-time position as a photographer, one of his bandmates is involved in running a grocery store and the third member is giving tuitions.
Last year, Dot Three were supposed to go on a multi-city tour following their successful tour of the Northeast to promote their upcoming album, Fireflies, but the pandemic laid waste to those plans.
Rivu a.k.a Subhagata Singha, a solo artist working across genres, also saw the lockdown coming into effect days after he released The Incident, the second instalment in the non-linear conceptual album arc which began with The Incredible Journey of Light.
Experimental, synthwave, guitar driven, cyberpunk — these are some words Rivu uses to describe his work.
Tracks from the The Incident contain samples of Donald Trump’s speeches, Azaadi chants from protest rallies and even a few seconds of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s voice.
Talking about streaming services, Rivu admits that his bread and butter comes from the advertising and theatre industries, and hence he does not have any monetary expectations from his solo work as an artist.
Singer-songwriter-guitar player Surjo, who just released Ya, Sure, Why Not? which was completely produced in a bedroom studio, has a different take.
Our Song - Surjo
Surjo, who is from Jamshedpur, has made Kolkata his home and insists on using only his name, argues: “See, we have a romantic notion of the past. All previous successful bands have had active PR campaigns behind them. Things are not that different now.”
He is clear that streaming services do not exist to generate money for artists, but they do provide a platform.
The contemporary model of bedroom production and streaming has certainly opened up creative avenues as is evident from the work of Whale in the Pond, Dot Three, Rivu, Surjo — and many musicians working away at their art from the confines of their homes and beaming it out to the world.
It is up to the listeners to step up if they like what they hear.