Musicians embrace some aspects of digital technology while decrying others. Carnatic music has had its own unique love-hate relationship with emerging technologies. In the midst of a raging debate about ‘recording' and ‘reproduction', many musicians have begun teaching over Skype in the last 6-7 years.

A few weeks ahead of next year's Margazhi music season, India would commemorate the 110th anniversary of recorded music. Right from that era in which the gramophone was a near mythic device, through the days when .mp3 proliferated, and to the modern world of digital bits and live streaming, newer technologies have always possessed the ability to be disruptive. They have constantly posed tough questions to those who are part of the status quo.

Carnatic music has had its own unique love-hate relationship with emerging technologies. In the midst of a raging debate about ‘recording' and ‘reproduction', many musicians have begun teaching over Skype in the last 6-7 years. Much outrage is reserved for all the free-to-view performance clips that are uploaded on to YouTube and other video sharing sites. But concerts are increasingly being live webcast (for free in quite a few cases). From just a few organisations last year, the webcasting bug has bitten many more this Season.

Such conflicting strands — embracing some aspects of digital technology while decrying others — are only going to surface more and more in the coming years. It is essentially not a conflict between what is free and what is paid for, between the legal world of Copyrights and the seeming impunity of those who ‘pirate', between those who dedicate their life to an art form and an audience that does not want to pay to enjoy it. The digital economy is a bit more nuanced.

Gurukulam to Skype

The transformation in the way music is taught — from gurukulavasam to Skype students — offers some important pointers. Sowmya Acharya, who runs www.acharyanet.com, an online guru referral service, says “Live webcast and video-on-demand are going through a big boom right now. Online learning and collaboration is happening in every other field. Carnatic music should not lag behind.”

Her website hosts a number of free video lessons, featuring well-regarded Carnatic music exponents, which can be downloaded and shared. But for anything more, one has to pay. “Going forward, we want to look beyond individual lessons and start introducing structured courses,” Sowmya says. Such attempts may be increasingly relevant, especially in a context where existing college-level formalised music education is far from the best.

But there is a larger lesson here. Those who are currently paying for online music classes are after all children of the Napster-era, a generation that has been stereotyped as freeloaders who relish downloading music off the Internet for free. The more accessible we make our art, young Carnatic vocalist Vikram K. Raghavan says, and offer it in ways that consumers like to access it; we open ourselves to newer audiences.

A web developer himself, Vikram's site kutcheris.com provides a searchable database of the Season's concert listings. What used to be available as booklets is now also provided in a searchable format. In the digital realm, giving away some things for free makes people come back and buy what they truly value. ‘Free' is a business strategy on the web. Google makes $30 billion a year by giving stuff for free. “Not just Carnatic music, but the entire audio industry has had to rethink how it makes money,” Vikram says. “It is a question we have to raise because the world is changing. Besides, new forms of music distribution would supplement, not replace what we already have. It will expand, not constrict existing audiences,” he adds.

“It is up to each and every one of us to use the Internet beneficially,” says young musician Rithvik Raja. He plans to launch a website dedicated to Indian classical arts (avartana.com) next month. The students section will offer a wide-range of lec-dems for free.

Feature films based on the lives of forgotten legends would be streamed every fortnight — again for free.

Stuck in another era

Vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan says that in many ways, we have not learnt to change with the times. “We still completely rely on selling music CDs off the shelf.”

He points to the quirky example of the British comic group Monty Python that put up most of its hugely successful shows for free on YouTube in 2009. “We want something in return,” read an accompanying banner. “None of your drivelling, mindless comments. Instead, we want you to click on the links, buy our movies & TV shows and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years.” Sales skyrocketed, with a recorded increase of 23,000 per cent on Amazon.com alone.

Another interesting example is the English rock-band Radiohead, which has released many of its albums on their official website under a Pay What You Want model. Audiences had the choice to pay any amount they thought was appropriate, including nothing. The model eliminated the role of record labels such as HMV or Sony, thereby ensuring artistes connected directly with their fans. Besides, doesn't giving audience the power to judge the intrinsic value of a composition sound a bit like ‘music democracy'?

“The ultimate objective of Carnatic music is to ensure more people come and listen to performances since we have a limited audience,” says Sanjay. “It is difficult to know what model will work in the digital era. Unlike the West, we do not have any reliable data or statistics on online engagement. But somebody has to get in and play the market. Once you have a success story, everyone else will follow.”

And Carnatic music is extremely lucky to have an army of tech-savvy practitioners who will be at the vanguard. Some of them do believe that they are just temporary trustees of a musical tradition. A few novel attempts may work, others may fail. But one thing is certain: analog mindsets won't work in the digital age.

Ultimately, why can't the Carnatic music world move away from rigid positions on copyright? Why can't artistes look at recordings as a representation — one that is just an image of their effort, skill and patience — and liberally allow its non-commercial usage? Why can't a streaming Internet-based radio station dedicated to Carnatic music come into being? While it should purely be left to artistes to make these choices, they must keep in mind that they would be making these decisions on behalf of music lovers. It would decide how Carnatic music would grow and evolve.