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Friday Review » Music

Updated: April 3, 2013 15:21 IST

What is the yardstick?

BALA SHANKAR
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AIR has grades, sportsmen are ranked, IPL is market-driven. What about musicians?

There is an oft-quoted saying in the corporate world – ‘If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it. (Lord Kelvin).’ In all fields, including sport and creative arts, there are measures of performance. When it comes to music, this has proven to be tough. This is true for all forms of music. Some of the surrogate measures that are popular are sale of albums, attendance at concerts, ticket pricing of concerts, remuneration paid to artists, invitations for performing at prestigious festivals, etc. These are not very different from the norms followed in the film industry.

In the sports world, apart from individual or team performances and results achieved, prices of players (soccer) and independent rankings (tennis, badminton) are commonly used. The recent trends in “audience ratings” for reality shows in music and dance have provided an avenue to assess relative performances, from among those who compete.

Carnatic music (Hindustani as well) suffers from lack of any objective or independent assessment of performance and ratings. While some would argue that there is no need for it, it maybe worthwhile to initiate a dialogue, especially since the industry’s commercial circumstances have transformed dramatically in a decade. If it is indeed a Rs. 20-30 crores Season (as is rumoured), it begs the question – how do we match rewards to performance and how do the paying public (and sponsors) have a say in it?

Examples from other fields do offer points to ponder. There is, for instance, a grading of local teams in cricket – first division, second division, etc. Teams need to achieve a certain win rate to stay in a division or be promoted to the next one. The analogy of “time slots” employed by sabhas is worth mentioning here. If an artist is performing in the afternoon slot, when does he or she move up? What is the basis of such an upgrade? Is it audience attendance or quality of music or something determined by an unknown group in the sabha based on unknown criteria?

The criterion

There is another moot question. Would it be current performance or the past performance that would count as the main criterion? A parallel in tennis is useful to consider. A players’ draw is determined by the current ATP ranking and the performance in the previous edition of a tournament. If the ranking slips, the player gets into a more challenging draw. Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar had to stand down when their current form slipped badly.

Musicians, like politicians, seldom retire. Given that age can slow down the performance of a Carnatic musician (vocalist, for sure) and of course, voice infirmities, how do we adapt such a rule? Would the “past” star accept such a new “normal,” as it could tantamount to a demotion?

The problem is even more important to address for a new comer. If there are 20 exceptionally talented youngsters on the scene, how do you select the four or five whom you want to feature? The current process is very opaque. Those who are in the know speak of “word of mouth” recommendations or guru’s good word or prizes won in competitions, and in some cases, even lobbying. Shouldn’t there be an entry criteria system, which aspirants are clear about? If you do not know how a student is selected to study at IIT, how do you prepare or position yourself? Such criteria would also extend to promotion opportunities.

AIR has a system of grading artists – A top, A, B-high, etc. It is one way to consider, even if sometimes, the objectivity of such grading is challenged. In other creative spaces such as “art,” an artist can get rated or ranked based on prices that their paintings fetch.

Authors of books have a clear barometer – number of copies sold. Can we imagine a situation where a Carnatic musician is rated based on sale of CDs? Would that directly reflect the performance quality or is it a function of other extraneous factors? Of course, not everyone is into the business of CDs.

The IPL auction set a new paradigm in price determination. It is a bizarre but market-determined system. Are there seeds for a similar idea to be adopted in the music world? How do you account for accompanists in such a situation?

One cannot also ignore the argument concerning “artistic musician” or a “musician’s musician” as crowds cannot be used to appraise their quality – a scenario not very different from art films, many of which actually go on to win Oscars.

My grandmother, now 94 years old, has had the privilege of listening to live concerts for 70 long years, from 1929. She popped a question to me the other day: “Who would you say has improved this year?” I had no answer to give, except some of my own observations, unscientific at that. She of course, claims that she can judge if there is improvement!

In a lighter vein, I am reminded of the legend GNB’s reported quip to a sycophant rasika who told him after a concert (readers may please imagine this conversation in Tamil): “Sir, your concert today was one of the best from you.” GNB replied: “Not really! Last year too I sang like this. Perhaps your knowledge (gnanam) has improved!”

I have managed to throw only questions. The orthodox establishment and the modern rasikas must find ways to debate this without rancour. We owe it to the scores of existing and emerging musicians who are giving the best part of their lives in their pursuit and to the countless rasikas.

(The author is a music lover based in Singapore).

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