Imagine being in a (virtual) room full of people who love the same music as you, and sitting down together to replay nostalgic songs, discover new tracks, react organically to each fresh lyric. Platforms like Discord and Twitch are making this possible, even during a pandemic
“Everyone was there for the music.” In the days before lockdown, it would take an exceptionally intimate, carefully curated setting for an independent musician to say at the end of a gig.
But this time, the context is different.
When Anand Bhaskar, frontman of Mumbai-based Anand Bhaskar Collective and music composer for web series Mirzapur says those words over phone from Mumbai, he does not mean that his audience focussed more on his song than on their food and drinks… or that the music was uninterrupted by inside jokes and raucous laughter from that one (invariably) distracted gaggle of friends.
He is talking about an online session with his band, and his surprise is at the absence of trolls.
A few weeks ago, Anand Bhaskar Collective was invited to a listening room organized by A Humming Heart. What struck them was the deliberate focus of all the dozen-odd people in the “room” on the purely music-based discussion. So encouraging was the vibe that, when the audience asked to be introduced to their latest (not yet publicized) song, the band obliged. As the audio streamed live to everyone who was logged in, reactions were flowing in realtime, in the chat room. The band got to read what their music — lyric by lyric, note by note — was invoking in listeners.
This was three weeks ago, but Anand is still struck by the positivity of the entire evening. “There were no trolls at all,” he says, adding that the choice of social media is probably what made the difference. “On any Instagram live, there are at least one or two trolls. But Discord as a platform is more difficult to figure out [than Instagram],” laughs the 40-year-old. On Discord servers, somewhat similar to the chat rooms of old, one has to click on an external link (like Spotify) to hear the music and use the chat option to hold a conversation, either by voice or text.
Sukanya Agarwal, who co-founded A Humming Heart, says over the phone from Delhi, “There are two aspects we keep in mind — discovery, and appreciation. We’ve played music by influential artists who have played a role in shaping the Indian independent industry, and we’ve also played music from artistes whose work may not be very well known. It is really heartwarming to see that both kinds are equally attended and enjoyed. We try to keep it diverse in terms of languages and genres. Beyond that, it’s just us (me, Aakriti Mehrotra — fellow founder and Joseph Sebastian — co-founder whose brainchild this server is) picking music that we’ve personally enjoyed.”
She adds, “We started the server [named] The Scene in July 2020, around the same time when we published our half-yearly lists of best independent music that had been released until then. We hadn’t done anything like this before the lockdown. The restrictions of the situation made it more crucial than ever to feel a sense of connection and the shared love for music just brought everything together.”Each session by The Humming Heart’s server draws in musicians, and fans both old and new. It is a space safe enough for a user to confess that they have not heard of the musician of the night, and friendly enough that the same user would immediately be besieged with information, sample tracks, and even more names in the genre to check out.
Chennai-based Maalavika Manoj aka Mali, who has also been part of these sessions, deftly sums up the vibe in one word: “wholesome”. It helps that there is essentially just one chat box where all the interaction takes place — everyone’s ears are on the music, and eyes on the chat. As Mali puts it, laughingly, “The most visual element is probably the GIFs people send as reactions.”
While Discord is the medium of choice for A Humming Heart, Delhi-based musical artistes platform REProduce Artist prefers a more visual medium: Twitch. Unlike Discord servers, Twitch offers a one-way flow of simultaneous video and audio.
Says REProduce founder Rana Ghose over the phone from Goa, “Twitch is actually a gaming programme, but it seemed tailormade for what I was trying to do.” What he was trying to do, is essentially improve the “production value” of the live streams already happening on Instagram, while retaining the inherent democracy in these spontaneous, organizer-bereft broadcasts.
“Musicians were streaming from their bedrooms, with their phones, sometimes looking like a body moving along with a camera, setting it down, walking away from it, walking back to it when the performance is over. I asked myself why there can’t be multiple camera angles from multiple phones, since many households in India these days do have multiple phones. A mobile phone is also a server, in the sense that it can send things to the Internet. But doing multi-camera broadcasts from home is not easy — you need an intermediary to consolidate all the different screens in one place, and then switch between them in real-time.”
That was the job Rana took upon himself, while his guest performers — from Mumbai-based Lifafa to Lahore-based Umme Farwa Hassan Rizvi — only worried about their music. The best part? REProduce got about 150 people to listen in online, as many as would have walked into their actual, physical listening rooms in a non-pandemic year.
For A Humming Heart, the numbers are impressive. Says Sukanya, “In about two months, we had over 1,000 members on the server. Now, we’ve got quite a few members who come by regularly for our listening sessions. It has become a self-driven community with the members even conducting their own listening sessions on a daily basis. On any given night, you’ll find at least 15 people actively listening to the music and chatting in any given audio channel on our server. We also have a channel where we play Indian independent music 24/7. For the sessions where we bring in the artistes, the numbers, as well as the engagement, significantly shoot up”
After 25 episodes between April and May, REProduce gave its listening rooms a hiatus. Though currently in Goa for the edits of multiple film projects, Rana plans to restart the sessions soon.
He says, “What makes live video totally unique is that people are drawn to the vulnerability of it. You cannot rehearse it; you cannot let anyone know what’s going to happen in advance.”