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When the market for music fails

December 20, 2003 13:32 IST

The last ten days of December are reserved for the observance of a largely western ritual, namely, continuous inebriation in the name of the impending New Year.

Therefore, before I forget, let me wish all those who read this column a 2004 that is better than 2003. And, genuflecting to the season let me also draw attention to something that is supposed to permeate the air at this time -- music.

A few years ago, my wife gave me one of those digital radio sets that receive their signals from satellites. From being unable to listen to anything except AIR, and some crackly short wave stuff, I suddenly had the choice of 30 channels of absolutely wonderful clarity.

There are the usual pop channels, of course, but also a dedicated American country music channel, a dedicated jazz channel and, altogether most importantly, a dedicated western classical music channel. There is a channel for Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil music as well, amongst others. The channels play for 24 hours. There are no advertisements.

Recently, Sahara has started four more Indian music channels, all based on film music but distinguished by the genre. Thus, there is a channel for old film songs, one for Indipop, some of which is quite wonderful, and two more for film music miscellany.

AIR, too, has a satellite channel for film music but plays the worst possible songs. But, sadly, there is no channel devoted to Indian classical music, either Hindustani or Carnatic.

Economic theory says that when there is free competition amongst radio stations, listeners' choice will actually diminish, instead of being enhanced.

This is because the competition for marketshare, on which advertisement revenue depends, will push all channel owners to air mass-market music only, namely, popular music. Those who wish to listen to classical or jazz and other types of non-pop will have to rely on their records, cassettes or CDs.

In the 1960s, until some clever chaps set up offshore radio station on ships, the BBC used this argument to justify its monopoly. And to be fair, it did -- and still does -- provide a lot of excellent choice. In India, of course, the government never needed to justify anything to anyone. AIR was modelled on the BBC. It had three channels, to which another, Yuv Vani, was added in 1968.

But there the similarity ended because AIR never quite provided the range of choice that the BBC did. Nor, with FM added now, does it provide much choice now. Even though it has the most amazing archival content and the money to run dedicated channels, it doesn't do so. A more stupid organisation would be hard, if not impossible, to find. After all, it thinks all bhajans are classical music.

FM in India vindicates economic theory. Rather like the TV channels, it focuses exclusively on pop music, often of the most doubtful quality because of the new tendency to pass off innovative sounds as music. Sometimes this technique works, as when Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sings rock versions of old qawwalis or Shubha Mudgal or someone similar soups up a raga. Mostly, though, it doesn't.

But that is in the nature of things. In India only one in 133 songs proves to be a genuine hit, which is not bad at all, considering there is only so much you can do with seven notes and the 4/4 beat on which popular music is based.

Since the notes are fixed, give or take a few more for the major, minor, diminished ones etc, it is the beat that must vary the most. That is where A R Rahman, taking his cue from his guru Ilaya Raja, scores. He is able to combine good melodies with unusual beats.

Be that as it may, the question remains: even if privately owned channels can be expected to dish out the same or similar fare, why doesn't AIR provide more choice? Since there is no commercial compulsion involved, it must have something to do with organisational rigidity.

Back in June 1997, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper by S T Berry and Joel Waldfogel (W P No. 6057) in which the authors analysed the issue of public vs private radio broadcasting in the US. Their starting point was that radio waves are public goods whose total value is equal to the value to listeners on the one hand and advertisers on the other hand.

But, because broadcasters can capture only a part of the value through advertising revenue, they say, this particular public good will always be underprovided. The gap has to be made by up by taxpayers who can either subsidise private stations to make a fuller provision or arrange to have their own radio stations.

One way or the other, the market failure has to be corrected by state intervention. But the tragedy in India is that although at the policy level it has recognised all this for years, at the implementation level it has failed miserably. The few hundred crore that are given to AIR are not used very efficiently, inasmuch as they do not correct market failure but only exacerbate it.

It is obvious enough that the market for classical music is small, not just in India but all over the world. In many western countries, the gradual withdrawal of state subsidies to orchestras is killing them off.

Mostly, though, classical music is itself to blame. The notes being fixed, it is only the arrangement and the rhythm (or beat) that can be varied. And since the further you go from the 4/4 ratio, the more bizarre the music sounds.

Melody can be a major casualty, which is another reason why most people prefer to avoid it. Classical music has not been able to overcome this problem. Musicians who try to do something about it are often looked down upon by the fundamentalists.

So when you look at the market for music today, you find that the dismantling of state monopolies is actually working in a direction opposite to that was intended, in two ways. There is the market failure problem of course but the attempts by a few to revive classical music through innovative sounds and beats is making the purists even more rigid, thus further reducing demand.

The solution has to come from the public broadcasters who must deepen the market for classical music by encouraging innovation via AIR's FM channels. Even one dedicated channel will do. Murli Manohar Joshi who is such a champion of Indian culture, should do something about this, instead of trying to muscle in on education.

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