Music Mafioso

Palash Sen, the lead vocalist for the Indian music band Euphoria made a very startling revelation on Cell Guru today. According to him, inspite of having delivered four albums, the band has not got a SINGLE RUPEE in the form of royalty from the music companies. Savio D’Souza, the IMI representative, could not challenge him. He then went on to say that concerts are the only source of revenue for the band and as far as he was concerned, he only cared about his music getting popular because that would mean more concerts and more ticket sales. He landed the final punch when he said that the music companies were responsible for the state of affairs because they had a near monopoly on all channels of publicity – radio, television etc. And he called them the Mafioso. I was not surprised when I heard this because I have been following reports on this field for some time now, primarily through Ars Technica. I don’t think many people know what the fuss is all about. So let me try to clarify things, as I understand them.

Indian music (the saleable kind) is primarily divided into two broad categories – film and non-film. In the case of film music, the producer holds the rights to the music. He employs the music director, lyricist, singers etc and pays them a lump sum for their work. After that, the music is completely in his control. He then sells the rights to the music company that pays him the most (rights for every country can be sold separately). That is the end of it. Now, every time you buy a cd or ring tone, it is the music company that gets the money. And everytime a song is played on the radio or tv, the revenue flows to the music company. And this will continue till eternity or till the copyright on it expires, whichever comes first!

Now consider the second category – non-film music. This includes everything from pop music to ghazals to devotional songs to instrumental albums – basically everything that is not film music. Here, its a question of royalties. The music company has a contract with the artist which specifies the financial parameters – how the royalty will be paid, what expenses will be deducted etc. etc. So, more often than not, even when the records and ring tones sell like anything, because the artist and the music company do not enjoy the same bargaining powers, the artist gets screwed royally. I don’t know what artists like Hariharan or Jagjit Singh have to say about this. But I suspect that even they must be facing a similar problem.

Take the case of A.R.Rahman. He is the undisputed king of not one but two markets – the Hindi film industry and the Tamil film industry. Now, he was supposed to do the music for Om Shanti Om. But he wanted a royalty agreement instead of the lumpsum contract that film producers usually sign. And so he had to leave the film (because of T-Series, not SRK) and Vishal-Shekhar replaced him.

The IMI, PPL, IPRS etc seem to think that piracy and nonpayment of performing rights royalties (note that it is always the music companies that are very particular about this. T-Series, in fact, handles its own rights – check the back side of every T-Series audio cd – and is not, as far as I have skimmed the above sites, part of any industry organization) is the only problem that the industry faces, and if they make every listener pay, things will be great. But if the law is so unclear and if the people who really create the stuff (lyricist, composer, singer in that order) get a raw deal, isn’t this something equally big? I am sure there are many people who would like to see someone like Rahman get what is rightfully his. When I pay anywhere between 100-300 rupees for a music cd, why should the artists not get at least 50% of that sum? But as things stand today, I think no one is sure of what is going on, and probably no one cares. In sharp contrast, stands the US copyright law and US attitude (I have serious problems with things like DRM, but here I am only referring to the payout part). Follow these links to know more about it –
How Music Royalties Work
How Music Licensing Works
Unfortunately, while artists are treated much better over there, the problem, essentially remains the same. Its a question of bargaining power and lobbying and artists are not the ones who win in this contest. Rediff did a great article on this issue three years back. But things have not changed.

Music companies need to remember one thing – Rahman is an artist and can compose and sing his own songs, and has alternative revenue sources like concerts. Setting up a website and giving out their music for free and selling tickets side by side is something artists can do with ease. A music company is just the man in the middle – the one who takes the artist to the consumer through sheer marketing muscle. But this is the digital age, and the middle man might no longer be needed.

Listen to Rahman –
I won’t run to music companies in Mumbai for the rights for my songs every time I want to perform them at the concerts.

Music companies must recognise the changing ground reality. Today the conventional outlets for music sales are drying up. Soon all music will be free while the performers and performances will be paid for.”

An ominous warning, that.

Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  • Burgess Laughlin  On April 27, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Are there legal barriers to the creators of music forming their own companies for distribution of their own music?

  • aristotlethegeek  On April 28, 2008 at 1:32 am

    There are no legal barriers per se, but extra-legal ones do exist. In the West, artists and their albums have been the main source of music while film music comes a distant second. In India the situation is the complete opposite. The film industry, which is an extremely close knit group, is in absolute control, and artists – particularly the smaller ones – have no option but to give up the rights to their work in return for a one off payment. If you don’t follow the rules, you can be ‘kept out’ of the entire affair. There have been cases of composers, lyricists and singers living and dying in penury for lack of a regular source of income (royalty on their works). Some people have tried to unionize, but fighting a cabal is extremely difficult. And then there are personal rivalries that tends to make things more difficult.

    Its not that people are paid badly – the top composers and singers are paid sums that are cannot be termed as small. In fact, it is those who are involved in non-film music – and depend on royalties for income – who are suffering the most.

    Ideally, in the creative field (arts), all contracts should be royalty based and they should be unbiased, but that doesn’t happen. The US laws are pretty bad in that respect because they have been designed to favor music companies (they did lobby) in relation to artists. The Indian law doesn’t get into specifics, but consider what Sec 38(4) of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957 (as amended in 1999) has to say on the rights of a performer

    Once a performer has consented to the incorporation of his performance in a cinematograph film, the provisions of sub-sections (1), (2) and (3) shall have no further application to such performance.

    One can argue that the consent has been taken under duress and hence the contract is not a valid one under the Indian Contract Act. But I seriously doubt if anyone will try that. So artists working for films don’t seem to have any other option but to necessarily follow the present system, unless they want to beg for work.

    Rahman has a couple of points:
    1. If he is the one who has provided the music for a film, why does he have to go to the music company to get the rights to perform the same in his concerts or include the same in his albums?
    2. (Since his music sells hugely, even years after they are first released) He prefers royalties to a one-off payment.
    And he is not wrong. The system is currently loaded against people like him, but he knows what he is talking about and he can see how things are going to move in the future.

    As it is, some musicians abroad have started releasing their music (or part of the same) for free while they make money from shows. This might turn out to be the things that frees artists from the clutches of unscrupulous producers and companies. A website, some good music, a web store, and a forum where people who appreciate their music can discuss things should set the ball rolling. They might not need to form their own companies (in the traditional sense) after all.

  • Burgess Laughlin  On April 30, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    The conventional meaning of “mafioso,” as applied to particular individuals, is membership in mafia. The term “mafia” conventionally names a kind of shifting and loosely structured organization, one in which:
    1. Membership is secret.
    2. Income flows from two illegal sources: (a) the sale of banned goods such as tax-free cigarettes and heroin; and (b) aggressive activities such as extortion of proper businesses.
    3. Protection from police enforcement of laws against banned products and aggression is secured through bribes or threats or both.

    In what ways do the owners, managers, or employees of “music companies” in India qualify as mafia?

    Or was Palash Sen using “mafioso” as either a smear or an anti-concept?

    (The Ayn Rand Lexicon has an entry on “Anti-Concept” for anyone new to the idea.)

  • aristotlethegeek  On May 1, 2008 at 1:24 am

    I don’t think the Indian Music industry is a “mafia” in the exact sense of the term. From the consumer’s perspective, cds are priced reasonably, don’t have the DRM nonsense, and as long as you are not indiscriminate in your taste, you really have no reason to complain. But from the artist’s perspective, there might be problems.

    Sen only mentioned the royalty issue, but who knows he might have faced some problems from his current or former labels (T-Series did file a cheating case against Euphoria some time back). So, when he used the word mafioso, I think he was talking about their general way of functioning. I can’t deny outright the use of threats by companies (a singer did complain of receiving death threats a while back), but non-film music is too small a market for such tactics to be applied, as far as I can say. Sen’s anguish was apparent when he talked about his band’s case. Who knows?

    Now comes the film industry- music industry relationship, which is a different cup of tea altogether. Indian music companies and the film industry share a symbiotic relationship – one cannot exist with the other – and so they cannot be considered separately. The film industry has had a history of dealings with shady characters from the Bombay underworld. Things seem to be getting better with corporatization, the industry being granted ‘industry status’ by the government (which helps them tap legal sources of money such as banks and other financial institutions). But the threat still remains. Films have been financed by mobsters; producers, directors, artists have been threatened and attacked because demands were not fulfilled – there is no end to the mess. Gulshan Kumar, who founded India’s largest and most powerful music company T-Series (which began as a company that sold audio cassettes – with hit songs from movies, but sung by different singers – at dirt cheap prices) was assassinated in 1997 most probably because of his dealings or refusal to meet demands of the mob. More recently (couple of years back) T-Series was threatened by a mobster who ran a pirate operation to stop acting against piracy of their films.

    There is another interesting story here. The music companies were paying big money for rights. So some of them decided to get into the film production line so that they could gain control of the rights for a pittance. Not to be left behind, some film producers began their own music labels. Don’t know how much heartburn there is over such cases. There are no parallels here to anything Hollywood and the US music companies do.

    All this might make it sound like the industry is the victim. But that is definitely not the case. What seems more likely is that people from the industry itself take the mob’s help to intimidate their opponents, get artists to sign contracts at lower prices, threaten producers to sell music rights cheap etc etc.

    Satya, one of my all time favorite movies, by master director Ram Gopal Varma, offers a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the Bombay underworld with a few elements of what I talk about thrown in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s