Composed amidst chaos: how Indian musicians in the US are riding out the pandemic

A music recording in progress   | Photo Credit: Capitol

Composer Salil Bhayani, 31, established in United States' crowded music composing space for nearly a decade, sees a sort of humour in the description he fits into in the eyes of the American government. An O1 visa holder, he falls under the category of “aliens with extraordinary abilities and achievements”. “You either have to be able to levitate or know how to operate the [timeship] Tardis to somehow remain in character,” he jokes. But with the pandemic halting many cogs in the music and film industries, one wonders if there are other skills he might have to pick up.

Salil Bhayani

Salil Bhayani  

Fortunately, Bhayani has been busy scoring for movies as well as video games. The alumnus of Berklee College of Music draws from Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at University of the Arts, London, where the author talked about making good art regardless of circumstances. “With a medium like film, at least half of the story is conveyed through sound and music,” says the composer, explaining why his work is essential. Bhayani is currently working with American director Carson Einarsen’s adventure/drama film The Silent Beat, has produced for singer-songwriter Andrea Stankevitch’s song ‘Last Thing I Do’, and is lead composer on the video game Under a Porcelain Sun, created by Gujarat-based game developer Studio Oleomingus.

Looking for collabs and workshops

Each year, several Indians, like Bhayani, go to the US in pursuit of a music degree at prestigious schools such as Berklee or the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. In the last academic year, Berklee — across campuses in Boston and Valencia — had a total of 70 Indians enrolling (UG and graduate courses). This is the fourth highest amongst non-US countries, behind China, South Korea and Canada. These students are currently hustling and doing what most musicians have taken to during the pandemic — teaching, conducting workshops, and assisting other singers with songwriting. Clint Valladares, senior managing director in global engagement for the Middle East and India at Berklee, points out that by virtue of what they do, musicians improvise a lot. “In the current situation, this helps them to be nimble; one needs to take leadership, be entrepreneurial and think about music innovatively,” he says.

Prateek Rajagopal

Prateek Rajagopal   | Photo Credit: Studio Synths

Prateek Rajagopal, a new graduate from the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, lost the final three months of his screen scoring course, critical for networking. While he did recently provide the score for a short film called Just a Father, OTT platforms have provided succour. He assisted on a score for a Netflix show slated for 2021, but admits that times are “extremely difficult”, adding, “Most of my friends here are doing whatever they can get their hands on, but it is not at all smooth for any of us”. Jumping from project to project, Rajagopal says he is luckier, because he is an Omani native, which makes gaining work permits slightly easier than it is for Indian nationals.

New Delhi-bred singer-songwriter Abhilasha Sinha who is looking to work in music publishing, sync licensing and music tech, says there is only a “miniscule window of opportunity” for a visa. She would only be able to hold on to such a job for 10 months at this point unless there is a company sponsor “which is highly unlikely”. Following her recent graduation in music business at New York University, she has taken up ‘artist relations’ at music/tech start-up Reveel in the city. “It doesn’t matter how much of a presence you have in your home country, you need to start from the ground up, unless you have label backing or international agency support,” she says. That said, there is no indication if things are better in either India or the US. And while touring has resumed in parts of Europe, graduates from Berklee Valencia have said they’re just about getting by.

Abhilasha Sinha

Abhilasha Sinha   | Photo Credit: Deeksha Rathore

Live events and physical interaction are what most musicians and students count on to make inroads. Sinha, for instance, rues missing out on networking at one of the biggest festivals in the country, SXSW in Austin, Texas. However, the chance for gaining the attention of bigger artists is higher now. “Many high-profile artistes now have time to reflect and look at collaborations,” explains Valladares.

Never giving up

Pune-bred artiste and Berklee grad Karan Pandav was in a different kind of predicament — he had returned to India to get his O1 visa stamped, but the three-week stop turned into a six-month wait due to the global lockdown. Online classes, especially for a practise-based course like music, make it tough to justify the living expenses, he says. While some classmates have returned to India, for some relief from the high living expenses abroad, Pandav has taken the leap of faith. “I am currently in the process of moving to Los Angeles for production and songwriting projects, and will continue to work remotely in India.”

Karan Pandav

Karan Pandav  

Navigating the ever-changing visa and work permit maze, musicians are still optimistic about work opportunities in the US, as projects continue to show up on their radar. This is largely due to pre-Covid networking and leveraging contacts. Many like Bhayani are willing to put in the hours of research to create ideas out of abstracts. “A composer is part artiste and part entrepreneur,” he says. Valladares adds that earlier, musicians were going from gig to gig without having time to reflect and think about the trajectory of their career. “Young, talented musicians have reinvented themselves, looking at how they can create more content, without seeing it as a pause in the industry,” he concludes.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2020 2:56:12 PM |

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