Musicians, know your rights

Although most Indian classical music composers identified their works with a clear watermark, a signature phrase or word, the act of claiming credit was considered disrespectful to not just the sanctity but to the universality of music. Today, however, given the highly commercial nature of music dissemination, copyright is a topic of urgency. And one that performers must grapple with — especially with concerts having gone online.

Musicians, know your rights

“Nothing in our talim (training) prepares us to negotiate today’s music world of royalties, contracts, licensing etc. The moment you say, ‘here are the terms; please put them in writing,’ you will be met with hostility, and comments like ‘Even Pt. Ravi Shankar played for us. He never asked us for anything’,” said Hindustani vocalist Shubha Mudgal, talking at Stop Record Play, a recent webinar on recording contracts, copyright and creative hierarchy in classical music.

Viveick Rajagopalan

Viveick Rajagopalan  

Organised by Mridangamela, an initiative by mridangists Viveick Rajagopalan and Anantha R. Krishnan, it was a key webinar for these times. As Viveick explains, “The object was to make the classical music community aware of their rights and get them to start asking questions. Our music is cloaked in bhakti, and rightly so, but if it is only that, why do music labels ask for legal rights for performances from the artistes? Artistes have substantial rights, actually.”

The other panellists were Sandhya Surendran, entertainment lawyer; Jataneel Banerjee, founder and artiste, Grand Philharmonica Orchestra in the U.K.; and Aishwarya Natarajan, founder, Indianuance, a production and consulting organisation representing musicians. The idea was to remove the discomfort around legalities. As Anantha says, “We wanted artistes to know that it is within their rights to ask about these issues.”

Anantha R. Krishnan

Anantha R. Krishnan  

One key legal distinction discussed was that between ‘underlying rights’ — which refers to the lyrics and the melody; and ‘sound recording rights’ — which means the performers’ arrangement of the same.

Claiming royalty

Sandhya pointed out that it is only in 2012 that singers were also given equal rights under the Copyright Act. Today, singers as well as composers and lyricists are entitled to get a share of the royalties when a piece is performed. “In classical music, lyrics are often assumed to be ‘traditional,’” said Aishwarya. This means the composition is not proprietary. There is, however, no legal definition of what makes a lyric traditional.

And this is where the problem arises. In Hindustani music, for instance, there are many compositions that are extracted from literature and many don’t have a clear signature, compared to Carnatic music where most composers have identified themselves within their compositions. The vague definition leads to piquant situations. As Shubha said, some of her compositions have been referred to as ‘traditional’ by some performers.

The best route for vocalists who have cut albums is to join The Indian Singers’ Rights Association. The website,, is a government-recognised society that can license recordings and distribute royalties. Though its current membership seems to be mostly drawn from playback singers, nothing precludes classical singers from joining.

Instrumental recordings

What about classical music instrumentalists? Sandhya explained that here, copyright would be possible only if the instrumentalists are acknowledged as composers. Otherwise, since there is no registered copyright society in India for non-vocalists, their performer rights are currently non-enforceable.

The confusion that prevails today can be gleaned by the fact that Shubha was once sued for singing her own composition. It has been a bitter experience, she said. “Some of the biggest exploitation comes from the most celebrated and awarded artistes in the country, who often have not bothered to pay any part of their fee to their co-artistes.”

Contrasting the system with that in the U.K., Jataneel said that in the U.K., the position is crystal clear — the label and the performers divide the proceeds of recordings equally. The performers’ part is further divided among the featured and non-featured performers. There are associations like Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) in the U.K. and Sound Exchange in the U.S. that undertake collective rights management of their members’ sound recordings.

The Indian classical music world has another problem. Given its deeply hierarchical nature, can younger artistes playing with senior musicians ask questions about what they are signing up for without being pulled out of the concert. This is something performers must come to terms with. As with the issue of sexual harassment, new norms that challenge hierarchies need to be created.

As Shubha said, exploitation exists, and it is important to be aware of it and be forearmed.

The important thing for artistes is to be aware of exactly what their obligation is. Is it just the concert alone one is signing up for? Is there going to be recording? What will the recording be used for? Will there be a further income stream?

Said Aishwarya, “If you are an accompanying artiste, ask the featured artiste if there are any agreements with the organiser beyond performing at the concert. Is there going to be any further commercial exploitation?” These could include a commercial release later, using part, or all, of the concert for other purposes, etc.

Option to share

Every artiste has the right to decide whether or not they want a recording publicly shared. Even for online performances (such as on Facebook Live), Aishwarya’s advice is to ask for them to be taken down within a specified period in order to prevent later misuse.

Underscore Records ( has free, downloadable model contracts and letters of agreement, that both soloists and accompanists can use when entering into agreements with organisers.

The question need not always be whether or not the artiste intends to charge a fee for a particular use of a performance or how much to charge. The more important question is that all artistes be aware, ahead of performances, of all the uses of their work.

As Shubha said, “We really don’t want to be a litigious community known only for contracts and agreements to the detriment of music. However, we should be conscious of what we are signing up for and how much we are willing to give away.”

The author writes on classical

music and musicians.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2020 2:24:57 PM |

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