Maestro Bickram Ghosh's Ode to Life and Learnings

The world-renowned tabla player talks about his entrepreneurial journey as a musician, the ups and downs, the learnings, and what aspiring musicians should know before choosing music as a career

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People may think that the life of a famous musician is all about champagne, Learjet, and a steady flow of royalty payments to pay for it all. This is certainly true for some, but there are also those who have reached the upper echelons of mega stardom, only to lose it at the blink of an eye.

Virtuoso Bickram Ghosh’s blend of Hindustani classical music and innovation with fusion has helped pioneer entirely new soundscapes. The Indian music director and classical tabla player has also collaborated with a wide range of artists—from George Harrison and Greg Ellis to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Sonu Nigam—in his illustrious musical career and has dabbled in a vast repertoire of genres from classical and rock to new-age and film music.

In a webinar organized by Entrepreneur India, the maestro discussed and deflated the taboo of not having it all.

So Then-Where’s All the Money?

“I realized in my late 20s that as a musician I would not only have to bring to the stage a huge amount of talent, dexterity, aesthetics and all the other qualities that make you a great musician. Those qualities, I realized were not the end game but you have to have those qualities to be in the game and having imbibed those qualities, it was important to understand how you can take it to the wider audience, to wider spectrum and then, of course, amongst other things to make a comfortable living for yourself,” said the table player.

The value of the work is the key phrase here. The process of democratization and ease of dissemination of music have both contributed to the questioned value of the work being done. It is so easy now to create and distribute one’s music; people believe it can’t be worth much, so it must be free. What is lost in this equation is the years of craft it might take to get to a professional level of musicianship and songwriting craft: years in the field, a lifetime spent in the trenches.

Getting That Music Played

“Through the process one has to keep an eye on the bigger picture because every musician has dreams of leaving behind a legacy. How is that legacy to be created? How do you create an area of musical influence? How do you attain money?” he said. As a word of caution, he added money is an extremely important factor—though a lot of people will make others believe that if one is into the musical field—and one should not have a mindset that money is not important.

Ghosh believes that the search of a musical ideal is a blessing and there is no contesting that.

“If you are to do something that veers into newer territory then it’s important to have some kind of backing of money, of people, of patrons, of sponsors so that you can actually end up doing the work that is inside your head. Otherwise, it’s impossible to do any project which is of some scale to give it a body or a voice. So after this realization dawned, I made up my mind that I had to be an entrepreneur and had to take into account a musical business model.”

“I figured 25 years back that I had to create an area of influence. There has to be a certain amount of fame and not just quality and without the fame you are not supposed to use business terminology. So, first you have to have a fantastic product which you would be introducing in the market. The next part of the challenge is that how would you see the product because people tend to box you in a fixed category. Audience takes time to accept something that’s out of the box and of ordinary scheme of things,” Ghosh continued.

In the future, musicians and songwriters will continue to ply their craft as they have in full face of the diminishing horizons before them. Perhaps some music will return to a form of digital kitchen party where musicians play for the enjoyment of it and do not expect a financial return for their gift of music—the gift of music without the expectation of return. Except for some, it will unfold as it did in the 19th century when painters were gob smacked by the introduction of the camera. They thought their day was over but came back with a new and liberated approach to the canvas. Similarly, in the 20th century, the theatre community suffered an extreme setback with the birth of the film industry.

The story of musician’s conflicts with the forces of industry is more like a novel than a long-division exercise, teeming and unpredictable, and rich with iconoclastic characters.

Writing nearly two decades ago, Courtney Love touched on a few other points that seem at once soothsaying and sadly out-of-touch in a culture constrained by trickle-down streaming economics. She argued that artists are not just brands: “Don’t tell me I’m a brand. I’m famous and people recognize me, but I can’t look in the mirror and see my brand identity.” That music is not a product: “It’s not a thing that I test market like toothpaste or a new car. Music is personal and mysterious.” That art is not content: “The problem with artists and the Internet: Once their art is reduced to content, they may never have the opportunity to retrieve their souls.”

More artists and audiences, the people who make the music and the people who pay for it with their ad views and subscription dollars, their smart devices and hard wires, should feel emboldened to speak up for the intrinsic value of their art. “Or else no one will be getting their money’s worth,” the maestro concluded.

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