Exploring notions of creative ownership among contemporary musicians in Bangalore

Abstract: This research project is geared towards exploring how musicians in India relate to their own creative output. Over the last two decades, with the economic liberalisation of India, musicians in India are having to negotiate, in a day-to-day manner, the implications of a system of ownership of creative material that is new to them. Do they look at their creative work as merely property? Or are there other relational perspectives at work between a musician and his art?

Bio: Rajesh Mehar is a musician and writer living and working in Bangalore. He writes on topics related to music and musicians, especially rock musicians in India.

Email rajeshmehar @ yahoo.com
Blog http://community.livejournal.com/whosemusic/

Presentation Overview: Understanding Notions of Creative Ownership Among Contemporary Musicians in India

By Rajesh Mehar
Review of Proposal

The proposal for this project outlined a few key questions to be explored among which, the following two questions have resulted in the most interesting responses:

1. In India, music education is still largely unregulated, ranging from the individual instructor to semi-formal institutions that impart arbitrarily designed ‘curriculum-based’ training. Certification (open only to classical musicians) is restricted to examinations conducted by the various state education boards. Indian English musicians operate under even less organised scenarios with no formal education and no opportunity for certification.

o How is music education imparted in India? How does this affect an Indian musician’s sense of assimilating, interpreting and creating music ?
o What are the implications of using oral traditions rather than written/textual traditions of imparting and assimilating musical education?
o How does the culture of learning by imitation and copying inform the sense of ownership of creative material of musicians in India?

3. Relatively new concepts of ownership that inform the contemporary musician in India (through the media) are largely borrowed from the West, and gaining in prominence and aggressiveness as the entertainment industry renews its crusade against piracy. However, musicians in India are also affected by other traditions unique to their context.

o Does the musician in India approach ownership as merely possession of (and hence exclusion of others from) a creative work? Can the understanding of ownership be explained differently, by a relational proximity of the musician to the musical work?
o How do Indian musicians relate to their work of art in terms of ownership?
o Do musicians in India approach their work from a purely possessive perspective? If not, what are the implications of ownership and the exclusion that this brings with it on this understanding?

One of the planned work-products in the proposal also took on a life of its own and made it necessary to devote a much larger chunk of time and effort than initially planned:

(1) Oral histories – Histories of Indian classical music are already available readily. From personal interviews and online resources, I plan to generate oral histories of English music in India, documenting the important musical groups/bands/artists that have shaped and popularised Indian English music, and the centres in each metro/small town where English music was available in the grey/black market; access to new content is a big part of who creates new material and how this material spreads.

Overview of Main Findings and Presentation Plan

The Musician’s Learning Process

Almost none of the musicians interviewed cited musical instruction as the main catalyst in their learning process. The common theme running through what most of the musicians identified as the most critical part of their learning curve is an Ekalavyan tradition of learning by observation and imitation. This observation spans across the visual and aural realms, involving ‘watching’ more experienced players perform and ‘assimilating’ the work of popular musicians of the West. The process can be likened to reverse engineering, with the accurate imitation of the results facilitating an intimate understanding of the act of composition itself. It then follows that the music one listens to for the purpose of “… absorbing the music… will obviously reflect in your playing.”

In contrast, there have been landmark cases in the West involving the construction of the idea that an act of composition has to be sufficiently dissimilar to all other acts of composition (even of the musician in question) to be considered unique. These cases have also brought into focus the idea that music that a musician listens to repeatedly makes its way (consciously or unconsciously) into music that is then created by that musician.

I will play sound recordings of the interviews of musicians, which relate to this aspect of the learning process, and juxtapose them with excerpts from documents relating to the cases mentioned.

The Early Creative Process

An interesting pattern across different musicians’ interviews emerges with them recalling their first act of composition as being an act of imitation. As Bruce Lee Mani, lead guitarist and vocalist for Bangalore-based band Thermal And A Quarter, describes his first composition, “… for me it was interesting enough, when I was listening to this music, to try and create something, y’know, similar to it.” However, there is a clear distinction made with such ‘premature’ imitation and eventual ‘mature’ composition, which relies on ‘growing up’ out of the mimic phase.

I will play sound recordings of sections of interviews pertinent to this theme and examine them in the context of existing theories on the mimetic faculty.

Authorship and the Process of Creation

Most of the musicians interviewed had spent a considerable part of their musical careers performing in groups or ensembles. One of the points of focus was an attempt to understand how the creative process and the authorship of the material composed differed between a solo compositional effort and composition within a band/ensemble structure. Different answers emerged to questions of how much ownership could one member claim over a song that was composed together and how attribution could work in such a setting.

I will play sound recordings of relevant sections of interviews and contrast them with excerpts from Anne Baron’s essay titled Copyright Concepts and Musical Practice: Harmony or Dissonance?

The Source of Creation

When speaking about the creative process, some of the musicians clearly identified an early phase of imitative composition and distinguished this with ‘mature’ composition that was not clearly identifiable as inspired by the music they consumed. This evaluation of two kinds of creativity, externally inspired and internal, and the positing of one as better than the other presents an interesting dichotomy. While musicians used words such as “influences”, “assimilating”, “internalizing”, and “absorbing” when it came to listening to their favourite music, they also used words such as “find your own voice”, “not just a copy”, “create from within”, and “unique” when referring to composition.

Sound recordings of relevant sections of interviews will be played and examined in the context of the emergence of the narrative of creativity as emerging from within rather than without.

Two Different Worlds

When the musicians interviewed spoke about the creative process, they frequently explained the act and the incentives behind it in social and cultural terms. Aspects ‘nurturing’ of a public knowledge, channeling some energy that was around them, and ‘expressing’ themselves took on great importance. Simultaneously, there was a distinct property context in discussing the finished product of the creative process, along with the attendant connotations of exclusion that this context brings with it. This contrast between the societal and cultural aspects of creation and the proprietary aspects of the commerce of music provides an interesting point of discussion.

I will play sound recordings of relevant sections of interviews to bring out this contrast.

Alternatives

If there was one thing that was unanimously agreed upon, it was the ‘evilness’ of record companies and their control of the creative output of musicians. There was a simultaneous expression of the desire of the creator to connect with the consumer without the involvement of ‘middlemen’.

I will play sound recordings of relevant sections of interviews and examine the alternative forms of production and distribution emerging around the world.

The HiStories of Rock

In this section, I will lay out a few interesting highlights of the stories of rock music in India:

o The experiences of the first beat music (the preferred term of the time for the music we call retro-rock now) band in India to release a record back in 1969.
o India’s first female lead-guitarist, Farida Vakil, a guitar-toting diva of her times.
o India’s pioneering Raga Rock band, The Human Bondage, playing raga-influenced rock music back in the 70s.
o The Junior Statesman, the only chronicler of the history of rock music in India?
o The Indus Creed story.
o Indian rock music’s latest hopes: Pentagram, Thermal And A Quarter, and Indian Ocean.

18/1/06

Hi all,

This is the customary first post by me, Rajesh Mehar, one of the fellows of the Sarai Independent Fellowship, 2006. I am both nervous and flattered to be a part of what has come to be a crucial stepping stone for quite a few people. I live in Bangalore, am 25 years old, have a corporate MNC day-job, and fantasize about returning to my fulltime-musician lifestyle of 3 years (2002 to 2005).

The title of my research research project is Exploring notions of creative ownership among contemporary musicians in India. I will reduce the burden on your inboxes by pointing you to the blog that I’ve created to track my thoughts and findings through these next 6 months.

You can find a short description of the project itself at the userinfo page –> http://www.livejournal.com/userinfo.bml?user=whosemusic

You can find the actual posts themselves, within the journal –> http://www.livejournal.com/community/whosemusic/

I will leave you with a point to ponder about, related to the area that my research hopes to delve into:

If there was one (and only one) name that you could associate with the song, All Along the Watchtower, who would you choose, and why? (http://www.livejournal.com/community/whosemusic/696.html)

That’s it for now. Have a peaceful month.

Regards,

Rajesh.

19/2/06

When discussing creative musical work, we often use the terms original, copy, remix, cover version, and so on, loosely. These terms are thrown about as if there were neat categories into which every song can be categorized. Through the discourse of the popular media, some of these words, like original, and more recently, remix, have positive connotations. Some others, like copy, have negative connotations associated with them.

This week, I will leave you with the links to two posts on my blog for this research project, dealing with:

1) Reflections on where these mystical boundary lines lie. How do tags get assigned to material, calling them originals, ripoffs, copies, remixes or cover versions?

(http://community.livejournal.com/whosemusic/893.html)

2) The DJ Danger Mouse story. (http://community.livejournal.com/whosemusic/1265.html)

More later.

–Rajesh.

20/2/06

I am reading a great book I think a lot of you would find interesting: Haunted Weather. Music, Silence and Memory, by David Toop. It looks at creativity in music in the age of electronics and laptops.

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina

On 2/19/06 10:47 AM, “rajesh mehar” <rajeshmehar@yahoo.com> wrote:

When discussing creative musical work, we often use the terms original, copy, remix, cover version, and so on, loosely. These terms are thrown about as if there were neat categories into which every song can be categorized. Through the discourse of the popular media, some of these words, like original, and more recently, remix, have positive connotations. Some others, like copy, have negative connotations associated with them.

This week, I will leave you with the links to two posts on my blog for this research project, dealing with:

1) Reflections on where these mystical boundary lines lie. How do tags get assigned to material, calling them originals, ripoffs, copies, remixes or cover versions?

(http://community.livejournal.com/whosemusic/893.html)

urrent mood: weekendy

Current music: Phish Live 10/05/1990

Entry tags: cover, original, originality

Shades of Grey

One of the debates that has emerged in the Indian ‘rock music scene’ is the original vs cover debate. Many bands pride themselves on being an original-only band. This is in opposition to bands that have a repertoire consisting mainly of cover music, or music composed by someone else. Often, there is a bit of bravado on both sides of the fence.

Cover bands usually develop a repertoire focussing around a particular artist or genre. And the complexity and cool-factor associated with this artist or genre comes into play at this point. Bands that play very complex music—progressive rock band Dream Theater comes to mind as a popular example—pride themselves on being able to replicate the sound and the inherent complexity that gives these bands their identity.

On the other hand, bands that base their identity around their original music (the phrases ‘own composition’ and ‘original composition’ seem to have died a much awaited death) often look down upon bands that simply mimic a popular international artist. Even when they do perform covers, there is a leaning towards personalizing these songs to make them sound ‘different’. The emphasis clearly is on moving ‘beyond’ imitating a famous artist, and showcasing one’s ‘originality’.

Despite which side of the fence you choose to be on, for me the interesting question is where does this fence lie? Where does ‘cover’ territory end, and where does ‘original’ territory begin? More importantly, how do musicians percieve this line, and where do they perceive it?

(Post a new comment)

[info]sriramb

2006-02-20 07:39 pm UTC (link)

There’s a lot of questions in your post. Here’s my take:

Bands that start out do covers to get into the limelight, then switch to original compositions once they have a fan base. If they don’t suck, they cross the chasm over to the next stage.

You’ll see improvisation more in jazz and the blues than in rock. I gues the genre lends itself to covers and improvisations. Besides, the riff/melody in rock is shat makes the hit, so it is tough to have a cover version do as well as the original.

There are some interesting experiments that seek to produce surprises. Give Paul Anka’s “Rock Swings” a listen. Imagine “Smells like teen spirit” and Jump” sung inPaul Anka style. I don’t know how i would classify his attempt.

(Reply to this) (Thread)

Nice

[info]fatmuttony

2006-02-22 05:32 am UTC (link)

Well, I was talking about the lines within rock itself. Playing a cover just like the original, ie, sounding like the CD, still needs a lot of effort. And then there’s playing someone else’s composition, but tweaking it, either because you can’t pull off the original, or because you think you can make the original better. My point was that the line between original and cover itself is blurred. Like the Grey Album (see this post), which has Jay Z’s vocals layered over samples from the Beatles’ White Album. You could say that not much ‘original’, new sound is being created, but my contention is that there is more effort and creativity involved in this album than the average ‘original’ album.

BTW, I would like to get some music from you. You think I can meet you some time and get some music from you? The Buddy Guy version of AATWT for one. And these Paul Anka songs… Mail me at fatmuttony AT yahoo DOT co DOT in.

(Reply to this) (Parent)

2) The DJ Danger Mouse story. (http://community.livejournal.com/whosemusic/1265.html)

Shades of Grey – Part 2

Carrying on from my previous post, Shades of Grey, this post is about one of the seminal acts of creativity that challenged accepted notions of ownership and creativity. The Grey Album, released by DJ Danger Mouse, still largely remains a surprisingly underground story, but it has become a legend of gigantic proportions in some circles.

Released in 2004, the album layered vocals of Jay Z’s Black Album over samples and mixes from the Beatles’ White Album. While Jay Z’s acapella vocal version of the Black Album had been released freely to spawn exactly this kind of remix, EMI was not in the mood to let DJ Danger Mouse use samples and mixes from the Beatles album. Eventually, DJ Danger Mouse, and others offering copies of the album, were ordered to stop issuing copies of the album to the public in any way. Of course, there are still ways of getting it to a computer near you even now.

Though the remix culture never caught on in India, bands have been covering and reinterpreting international bands and artists for a while now. Legality apart, I am very interested in questions like:

1) How do bands choose which artist to cover?

2) What is their definition of a cover? Is it an accurate imitation of the original, note for note? Or is it a reinterpretation of the original song?

3) Is the process of doing a cover different from writing and producing an original song?

4) Have bands thought about recording and selling cover versions of songs? What are the issues that surround this?

More later.

–Rajesh.

21/3/06

Hi all,

This last month has been about trying to trace the history of rock music in India; one of the planned outcomes of my project is a compilation of such a history.

More here –> http://community.livejournal.com/whosemusic/1389.html

The (Un)Forgotten History of Rock

One of the primary aims of my research project with Sarai has been to compile a history of rock music in India through whatever sources can be found.

Fortunately or unfortunately, a large part of this information is contained in the heads of people; many musicians have contributed to ‘the scene’ in different ways. However, many of these musicians have also moved on to do other things. There is an easy enough path traceable to the few bands that have ‘made it big’, bands like Rock Machine/Indus Creed and Indian Ocean. There is a lot of information around about the bands that have grown with the electronic age, bands like Thermal And A Quarter, Parikrama, Pentagram, and Skinny Alley. The next couple of months are going to be spent interviewing as many musicians and fans as possible to try and compile this untold history of rock music in India.

Another source for information in this area is the internet; websites such as Gigpad and RSJ Online offer users the opportunity to participate in the ‘forums’ hosted by the site. While many discussion threads in these forums usually degenerate into spats about which band sucks the most, some threads often touch upon areas of the rock-music universe that are easily overlooked.

Gigpad in particular seemed to have a vibrant forums section with many users trying to maintain focused discussions on a variety of topics. One such thread, started in April, 2001, was titled The History of Rock in India… and contained a variety of inputs from users within India and others that had travelled abroad but kept in touch with ‘the scene’ through the Internet. Unfortunately, Gigpad is in the middle of a renovation effort and this valuable information was not accessible. Because of the nature in which these forums were stored on the servers, internet archival resources like The Wayback Machine don’t have complete copies of each individual forum page. After scouring The Wayback Machine for many hours, I have only been able to retrieve a couple of pages of this discussion thread, which was iswas probably the only existing repository of this information. Now, I plan to contact the original maintainers of the discussion thread and ask around for a copy, if such a copy exists.

If anyone can point me to people or any other resources that can help in this effort, please email me.

Cheers,

Rajesh.

25.04.06

You mean there was a rock music scene in India before Rock Machine?

1) A post about the Junior Statesman, a youth magazine belonging to The Statesman, Calcutta: http://community.livejournal.com/whosemusic/1710.html

2) A post about the Savages, one of the first bands in India to record and release their material on vinyl: http://community.livejournal.com/whosemusic/1866.html

India’s Rolling Stone?

While in Bombay recently, interviewing musicians, I managed to find my way to the archives of the Junior Statesman magazine. Fortunately, Mr Ralph Pais, himself a member of the seminal Indian band, The Savages, happens to be a very high-ranking employee of the Statesman in Bombay. The Junior Statesman (JS for short) archives have been bound and preserved for the past three and half decades and my job has become a lot more interesting after discovering these archives.

For those like me, who came in late (literally!), The Statesman, based in Calcutta, used to run what was probably India’s first ‘youth magazine’ way back in the late 60s. Led by Desmond Doig and a skeletal team of reporters, the magazine spoke to a section of India that had never been acknowledged till then, the Indian youth. Not adults, not children, the people in between. Dubby Bhagat, one of the writers associated with the magazine, has written a mood-piece about the rise and fall of JS for the Himal Southasian magazine, based out of Kathmandu. Whatever else the magazine may have wanted to do, it definitely documented the small beginnings that rock music was making in India at the time. The Savages and Bashir Sheikh were beginning to make waves, Bangalore’s Human Bondage was also creating its own ripples from Down South, the north-east was also beginning to see some activity.

Curiously, what we summarily call rock music (or retro rock, or classic rock) today was fondly called Beat Music back then. I guess BeatleMania was at its highest, and the acid-drenched sounds of two of the three Js, Janis and Jimi, were releasing Flower Power among the middle and upper classes of the Indian metros. Thankfully, JS captured it all. Interviews with musicians, chronicles of JS events and music competitions (the forefathers of the Great Indian Rock competitions?), band bios; all kinds of features were executed with a vision that was perhaps ahead of the era the magazine inhabited.

Unfortunately, such a treasure-house of information also needs a lot of time for exploration. The two half-day stints that I managed felt like a well-mixed first drink. I’m itching to go back for more. But, the history of rock music in India is only a small portion of what I have undertaken to study. Other choices must be made before a second pilgrimage can be organized.

Current mood: peaceful

Current music: Interview recordings

Entry tags: history of rock in india, savages

The Savages

My starting point in tracing the history of rock music in India was of course the musicians that I have played with and watched concerts of. Strangely enough, I kept ending up at Rock Machine/Indus Creed. Everyone story led back to, “It all began with Rock Machine…” There were passing statements along the lines of, “Of course, there were bands before that but they did covers. They played club gigs but no one remembers.”

Luckily for me, some memories did stretch longer. The first band that I discovered beyond the seminal work of Rock Machine was the Savages. Founded in 1967 by Bashir Sheikh, the Savages went beyond playing cover versions, and started writing their own material. Back in the days, there were earlier variants of the rock competitions that we see today. One of these was the Simla Beat[1] contest, sponsored by Simla cigarettes, an ITC brand. The Savages won the 1967 edition of the Simla Beat contest. Another prestigious Bombay festival was the Sound Trophy. The Savages won the Sound Trophy for Best Composition and Best Band in 1968, and in the process snagged a recording deal with Polydor India Ltd. [2]

Even though the Savages had been recording their first EP with HMV in 1967, the first album that came out of this Polydor contract was titled The Savages, Live, containing mostly cover versions, and one original composition titled PIO. The most consistent and well-remembered line up of the band was stabilizing at this point of time with Bashir Sheikh (drums and vocals), Ralph Pais (bass guitar), Hemant Rao (lead guitar), and Prabhakar Mundkur (keyboards and vocals).

Various line up changes happened in the years after this with Hemant Rao leaving for Dubai and replaced by Russell Perreira. However, one of the crucial line-up changes featured the inclusion of a young architecture student, originally from Goa, named Remo Fernandes. Remo played with The Savages for a year and a half during his architecture course in Bombay. An album was recorded at this time, titled Remo and The Savages. Featuring some of the first few original compositions by Remo, the album sounds like a delicate blend of retro rock, folk rock, and early acid rock.

After Remo left the Savages, another line-up shuffle found Joe Alvares singing for the band. Notable for his booming tenor voice, Joe sang on the next Savages album, titled Black Scorpio. Though the album itself was mostly populated by cover versions, Prabhakar Mundkur had also taken to songwriting and the Savages frequently performed 7-8 instrumental originals, and 3-4 originals with vocals in the many shows that they played during these years. Joe Alvares left the band in 1974 for personal reasons and the band briefly tried to recruit another vocalist. At about the same time, Nandu Bhende’s band, The Brief Encounter, was also faced by the prospect of some members leaving. Sensing an opportunity, the two combined to form The Savage Encounter.

[1] The music that we refer to as rock music, or retro rock nowadays, was called Beat Music by the musicians and audiences of the late 60s and early 70s. From reading articles out of the Junior Statesman archives, I noticed that there is also a transition to Acid Music, characterised by sounds similar to Jimi Hendrix, and the Janis Joplin bands.

[2] Polydor India later went on to become Music India Ltd, and seems unconnected to the more famous German Polydor label that merged with Philips to form Polygram.

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