What It Takes To Organize A Music Festival During A Pandemic

This year, India’s music festivals have moved away from Arunachal Pradesh’s valleys, Goa’s beaches and the large outdoor venues of Pune and Bangalore to cosy living rooms and laptop screens.

Earlier this month, the Bacardi NH7 Weekender — which showcases independent artists — announced its decision to go virtual in the wake of Covid-19. The festival will be streamed online on December 5 and 6. To create buzz, artists held a few live music sessions on Instagram in March and April. Since then, they’ve shot sets in the form of music videos across India, which will be showcased at the virtual music festival. Anuv Jain, a 25-year-old independent artist performing at the Weekender for the first time, shot his at a studio. When Chai Met Toast, however, went a step further. The Kochi-based band rented a friend’s farm house and shot on the top of a cliff against the backdrop of Kerala’s Varkala Beach. Singer Taba Chake, from Arunachal Pradesh, shot at the lush Potin Tea Estate. Each artist got 45 minutes to play, reduced from the usual set limit of an hour to 90 minutes.

The company has also created a virtual portal, similar to its three-stage on-ground venue. “At the Weekender, visitors find it very easy to navigate our stages. We wanted to create a similar experience online. We’ve created multiple tabs for our stages so that listeners can switch from the Dewar’s Stage to the Bacardi Stage and the Breezer Vivid stage seamlessly to watch different artists,” Arya adds. Through virtual private rooms, visitors can interact with the performers, including indie singer Prateek Kuhad and American-Indian rapper Raja Kumari.

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The switch to virtual performances may seem fun, but When Chai Met Toast misses being on tour. “We used to be on the road for at least six months. But this year has been very different,” says guitarist Achyuth Jaigopal, over a call from Jaipur, where the band is playing one of its few first live events since the lockdown lifted. The band has also played almost every edition of the Weekender since 2016. “The lockdown did give us a lot of time to focus on our music, improve our instrument playing skills and create new songs. But we want to get back on the road,”he adds.

After announcing that it was doubtful about holding events in September as it usually does, the Ziro Music Festival also decided to go the online route this month. On November 21 and 22, virtual attendees participated in treasure hunts and listened to the audio of songs from the festival’s lineup, which included artists from India and Wales such as folk band Tetseo Sisters and indie music group Kidsmoke. Registrations were free, but limited.

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Not every music festival is finding the transition to an online platform easy. After the state government withdrew its permission to organise the electronic dance music-focused Sunburn in December, the festival’s online edition still hasn’t confirmed its artist lineup or built a virtual platform, says Karan Singh, chief operating officer of Percept Ltd, which created the fest. He adds that the budget for this year’s edition is just 20% to 25% of last year’s.

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The Bacardi NH7 Weekender has a different set of problems. Its budget is more or less the same as last year’s despite OML not having to pay for an on-ground venue, stage setup or crowd management staff. What the organisers did have to shell out a lot for are the lush videos that the musicians shot for the festival. Still, Arya remains optimistic. “We sold more than a thousand tickets in the first week. We don’t have the exact number yet but it’s definitely high.”