Media Talks Back: Ankur Malhotra
A media space rife with ad slots, paid content, and top tens, where content is often dictated by TRP ratings and mass viewership – can be a rather hostile environment for offbeat programming and independent art, music and film. In the environment of profit driven mainstream mass media, an independent artist can often find oneself struggling to find the appropriate space to express their craft – a craft that doesn’t necessarily fit into the predetermined structures dictated by the business models of mainstream television, print and radio.
Ankur Malhotra – cofounder and director of Amarrass Records, an independent DIY aesthetic record label, artist management company and festival organiser – has faced similar challenges when trying to get his independent artists airplay and coverage in Indian media. Founded in 2009 and based out of Delhi and the United States, Amarrass Records features an eclectic mix of programming and artists, with a focus on folk musicians from across India. It has released 8 albums to critical acclaim, and also organises the Amarrass Desert Festival – with the next edition happening in November 2014.
“Radio is a big issue in India,” says Ankur, “with little to no curation when it comes to the Indian ‘indie’ space, or anything that is not Bollywood or mainstream American/European Top 40 kind of stuff. Print media we have similar issues, with but a handful of publications, and with a very limited scope of coverage”.
However there is an alternative – the rising culture of blogging, community radio stations, and other forms of non-mainstream media platforms seem to offer independent artists a fitting outlet for expression. Ankur himself is on the board of directors and hosts a show on community radio station WRT-WORT FM, and also founded the Madison Music Review in an effort to support and nurture the local music scene in Madison, Wisconsin. I caught up with him about his work with different forms of non-mainstream media, and his views on the ideal relationship between the media and independent artists – both in India and internationally.
Nirupama: Can you tell me more about your involvement with WORT WORT-FM on the board of directors, and the nature of the radio show you host?
Ankur: I serve on the Board of Director at WORT 89.9FM in Madison, a listener-sponsored community radio station. This is my 3rd year as a Volunteer-Member Director (we also have Listener-Sponsor Directors, with a total of 7 on the Board). The radio station is one of the oldest community radio stations in the US, and is now in its 40th year of broadcasting. It is largely volunteer operated, with a small staff of 6 and an active Board providing management oversight, long term planning, financial control, fundraising and outreach. As a Board Member, I have served on several committees including Programming, Technology, Marketing and Events. I have been a DJ and occasional show host on the Friday 8 o’clock Buzz since 2007. The show has a talk show format, and focuses on current affairs, music and the arts (with a local/regional perspective). I am also a frequent guest DJ on two music specific programs at WORT – the Pan Africa Show, and Global Revolutions. These shows showcase the global music diaspora, and are well-established on-air programs, with a global listenership.
Nirupama: And what is the aim or vision of your radio show?
The aim/vision for the radio show (‘the Buzz’) is to create a better understanding and awareness of local and regional issues, art and culture.The music programs aim to create awareness and act as a platform for artists from various parts of the world to present their music, act as a channel to discuss and inform about non-mainstream music. We have artists in the studio for interviews or live performances on a regular basis, such as Lakha Khan’s live on Global Revolutions performance in Madison in April 2013 (while he was on a 9 city US tour).
Nirupama: Can you tell me about what prompted you to found Madison Music Review, and what its musical vision is?
Ankur: Madison Music Review was founded in April 2007 with the goal to act as a platform to discuss upcoming shows, releases and review music acts/performances happening in Madison. It served as a calendar of select upcoming shows (curated), reviews (with high quality photographs) of performances at local venues, a listing of performance spaces in the Madison area, as well as limited album and music reviews (largely due to the time constraints of the team).
Over time, the vision for Madison Music Review has evolved with the production of events, festivals and tours. These include Musique Electronique (July) and Willy Street Beats (September), two electronic music festivals that take place in Madison during the summer. MMR also plays an active role in artist bookings, PR and outreach for the four major street festivals that take place in Madison over summer – the Yahara/Marquette Waterfront Festival, La Fete De Marquette, Orton Park Festival, Willy St Fair. In addition, MMR serves as a music advisor to MMoCA (Madison Museum of Contemporary Art). MMR has also occasionally taken on the role of a booking agent for international touring acts (Lakha Khan US tour 2013, Luisa Maita (Brazil) – Road Manager Midwest Tour 2010, Bombino, Madison 2011/2012, Vieux Farka Toure, Madison 2013).
Nirupama: What do you feel is the scope of responsibility the media has towards independent artists and nurturing an independent music culture?
Ankur: The media plays a vital role in disseminating news, information and media. And this extends to playing the role of a speakerbox for independent artists. A ‘scene’ gets established when there is a buzz, a groundswell that gets created, and media is (or can, and should) be a vital tool for communication, for conveying the message and the momentum. Often, traditional mainstream media does not have the finger on the pulse of things, and this is where independent media can play an important role – to get there first, to get the message right, and to get it out there.
Nirupama: Do you believe the media in India is doing enough to promote/nurture the independent arts?
Ankur: There are definite challenges with getting mainstream media to promote/discuss independent arts. There is a whole range of ‘alternative’ media channels in the western world e.g. NPR, and at a more local level community radio stations such as WORT, college radio stations that provide a speaking board and listening platform for independent artists/arts.
Nirupama: In terms of media interest and support – do you notice a great difference between the way the Indian media supports offbeat independent musicians and artists, versus the international media?
Ankur: Well in terms of the notion of the response yes – Lakha Khan for example, 11 shows in the US, standing ovations, radio stations wanting to have him come and perform, from Chicago Public Radio, to WRT in Madison and a few other places. But it’s a struggle here in India when you’re trying to get folk music out there, because it doesn’t fit a particular genre or style – so best of luck trying to get it played here in India. And again I think we’ve made some inroads and successes here, Hit 95 is an all English channel, one of the most popular radio channels in Delhi, and we’ve had 10 plus gigs of musicians from India, from Africa, from Turkey, come and perform live on radio, and it doesn’t matter what language they’re singing in – because it is world music, for lack of a better word for it.
Nirupama: With respect to your artists – do you notice a disparity trying to get support and funding for Indian artists in their own country, as opposed to when you take it internationally?
Ankur: Sadly, there still is a big disparity – take the example of Lakha Khan, he’s 65 – and it was up to us, a young record label, to produce his first ever international tour. And the billing is Lakha Khan – it’s not music from the desert, or music from the dunes, which doesn’t do anything for the artist – because people enjoy the music but then they go back thinking they’ve listened to ‘Dune’ music or Rajasthani music. Its not potatoes you’re going to buy in the market, or listen to, you’re going to listen to an artist. And that’s the way it’s been billed in other countries – I mean you don’t have ‘Malian’ musicians performing, you have Vieux Farka Toure performing, you have Fatoumata Diawara performing. These are names. And sadly that had been missing in the Indian context for the longest time. You know, when we started our label, we’d scratch our head and try to figure out who are the great folk, blues artists of the country? And it’d be hard to find that information because they’re not billed that way and they don’t tour – the whole notion of touring really didn’t exist in India, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon.
Nirupama: According do you, how do non-mainstream forms of media – blogs, community radio, the online space – fit with the ethos and needs of the independent artist more effectively than mainstream forms of mass media?
Ankur: I think part of the reason why blogs and spaces like Tumblr have been so immensely successful is because a lot of individuals have this pent up desire to want to express themselves. And there’s a reason why it’s called mainstream media – it’s because they’re focused on the top ten kind of stuff. So blogs and independent media channels play a critical role – and community radio stations, they play a hugely important role. And the fact that they’re non-commercial – for example WRT is a non commercial radio station, and is listener supported, so what that does is it allows them to present music that will never see the radio airwaves elsewhere. Or if the host or DJ wants to play a track for sixty minutes, he or she can do it because there are no restrictions like in commercial radio space where you’ve got to play 15 minutes of ads for every ten minutes of music – but that is their business model. In the blog space it’s often reaching out to music for music’s sake.
Nirupama: What is the way forward – for the ideal relationship between the media and independent artists?
Ankur: More opportunities for engagement and interaction need to develop between artists and the media, channels for engagement need to be created. Independent artists (or their managers) do not have resources or a network to reach out to, to help provide coverage or act as channels for outreach. As ‘job-specific’ roles such as those of artist managers and PR agents evolve and develop in the Indian music industry, I see stronger networks and lines of communication being established.
Nirupama: What are your overall observations of music journalism in India – positive and negative? Where is there scope for improvement?
Ankur: Mmmm.. We have very few music journalists in India. It is a struggle for me to come up with a handful of names in the music journalism space in India, which is a problem when you are a music label and supposed to know the people that review music. Radio is a big issue in India, with little to no curation when it comes to the Indian ‘indie’ space, or anything that is not Bollywood or mainstream American/European Top 40 kind of stuff. Print media we have similar issues, with but a handful of publications, and with a very limited scope of coverage. Online has been a promising space, with several publications/e-zines covering a wide range of music – eclectic and mainstream. Television has also been a tough space to crack, especially when it comes to regional/international music (especially when it is in a non Hindi or English language, requiring additional translation work and post-production headaches). The lack of community access/public access channels and providers is another challenge, which makes it harder for radio/TV market penetration by independents. Scope for improvement – plenty – radio maturing could play a more important role, and licensing of community radio station channels (200+ being licensed in India). The Internet will continue to play an important role, and will possibly evolve to incorporate models that also involve commerce – for example through streaming, and downloads.
For more on Amarrass Records visit www.amarrass.com