MUMBAI – With the number of diagnosed cases of the coronavirus inching up every day, India is moving swiftly to avoid a major outbreak, actions that are taking a great toll on the live music industry.
Last week, the Indian government said it was suspending visas for nationals from all countries, effective until April 15. In a matter of minutes, all the gigs with visiting DJs, producers and bands that were scheduled to play in Mumbai over the next two months had been canceled.
In any given month, about two dozen electronic music artists, along with a handful of rock and jazz acts, travel through Mumbai to perform at the city’s bars and nightclubs.
The government’s actions also affected Delhi and Bengaluru, which along with Mumbai form the country’s touring circuit for most international acts. Patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in each of these cities. As of Monday, India’s infections had topped 140 with three deaths, spread across 15 states and union territories.
Last week, the Maharashtra government announced the closure of schools, colleges, cinemas, malls, gyms and swimming pools across the state, until the end of the month. Unlike Europe and parts of the United States, restaurants and bars, which serve as the main venues for weekly live music performances, have been allowed to remain open in India, at least for now.
More than 1,000 of the events currently listed will be canceled over the next two months, estimates Shreyas Srinivasan, CEO of Insider.in, one of India’s two biggest online ticketing platforms. These include those related to sport, comedy, film, food and music, with the music sector accounting for 30% of the 25,000 events it sells tickets for annually.
While the virus has struck India towards the end of the music festival season – the bulk of the country’s 300-plus large-scale music and outdoor events are held between September and April – it has already had a severe impact on the live music industry, which is estimated to have a value of Rs1,280 crore (approximately $175 million), according to a 2019 report published by Deloitte and trade body the Indian Music Industry.
So far, scrapped or postponed events include the Road To Ultra shows in Delhi and Hyderabad, which were to be headlined by KSHMR, as well as R&B star Khalid’s tour stops in Mumbai and Bengaluru. A few festivals, including BUDX in Mumbai and the hip-hop-focused Bira 91 April Fools’ Fest in Delhi, were pushed even before they were announced, sources tell Billboard.
Venues are reducing the number of gigs they’re programming or voluntarily calling them off for the next two weeks. The nationwide Social chain of bars, which is present in six Indian cities, initially planned to restrict shows to weekends then decided to stop hosting events until the end of month. That’s bad news for booking agents whose business is dependent on volumes. “If we’re losing half our bookings, it just doesn’t add up economically because it’s not like our overheads are going down,” says Tej Brar, the founder of Third Culture, a Mumbai-based artist management and booking agency that works with Indian-American rapper Raja Kumari.
In the current environment, staging gigs and selling tickets in advance are not guarantees that fans will actually attend. “There’s no way for us to tell if people are going to show up or not,” says Yama Seth, an artist manager at the Delhi-headquartered Big Bad Wolf whose roster includes singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad. Given that most venues and promoters depend on robust F&B sales to earn a profit, a poor turnout could entail additional losses.
The industry is optimistic that things will be back to normal soon, which is why the majority of promoters have chosen to say they’re postponing events rather than canceling them. “We’re hoping that while it causes a dent in the cash flow, it’s not going to affect the overall scheme of gigs because these shows should happen at a later date,” says Himanshu Vaswani, the co-founder of event production and consultancy company 4/4 Experiences, which manages the annual All About Music conference in Mumbai.
But some opportunities have been lost for good, says Big Bad Wolf’s Seth. February to April is peak events season in northern Indian cities such as Delhi, Chandigarh and Jaipur. “Now is the best time for outdoor gigs,” she says. “It’s going to be the height of summer by the time we start organizing gigs again.”
There’s also a fear that it’s only a matter of time before government officials prohibit all large gatherings. “The world over, they’re recommending social exclusion,” says Srinivasan.
There’s uncertainty about the 2020-21 festival season as well. “The general feedback we’re getting from agents is: We’re not booking anything right now,” says Brar, who is the promoter of the Neon East Fest. “That’s a huge disadvantage because we want to lock our headliners early to help leverage sponsorships.”
Like the Khalid show, most international bookings for Indian festivals are built around larger tours of the Middle East, Southeast Asia or Australia, so a lot of them are contingent on the entire region being virus-fee by the fourth quarter of 2020. “If India isn’t a worry but other countries on the route are, then there’s a risk of our date getting pulled too,” says Munbir Chawla, the co-founder of Wild City, one of the organizers of the Magnetic Fields festival in Rajasthan.
If things don’t turn around by June, some firms may have to shut down, says Dev Bhatia, who runs Unmute, a Delhi-based EDM-focused artist management agency, whose roster includes the company’s co-founder, Indian techno stalwart Arjun Vagale. “We can go two-three-four months more,” he says. Bhatia’s counting on “content projects” such as synch deals and work commissioned by brands to help pull through the live music falloff.
In the case of a ban on live shows, promoters are contemplating staging “digital events and live streaming experiences,” — as China, Spain and South Korea already are — says Dharam Saraviya, senior business manager for live at OML Entertainment, which stages the annual Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Meghalaya and Pune. “There will be some innovations that will come out of this,” adds Brar.