2020 Jun 1
“Back then, even to get our hands on a cassette tape or a CD, was so hard! It wasn’t easily accessible and even if it was, it was expensive, especially for teenagers who weren’t working…we would go to these Record Bars around Colombo with an empty cassette tape or CD and a list of songs that we’d like to listen to. They would check to see if they have the tracks of the songs that we are looking for and they record it into the cassette or CD and give it back to us in a week.”
– Anil Balasuriya.
Can you imagine what your life would be like without music? Imagine how your life would be, if you didn’t have a song that you’d dance around in your room to, when you’re happy If you didn’t have a song that makes your relationship with your partner extra special? If you didn’t have a song that you listen to when you’re down, while delving into a tub of ice cream or a large pizza? I’m sure that imagining life without music would have sent chills down your spine, because we all know that life without music is not worth living.
Music holds a special place in all of our hearts. It speaks a language that all of us can understand, in our own unique ways. It’s a no brainer that our little island has a rich musical history. Back when the most important jobs in the country were in the sectors of farming and trading, farmers and traders used to sing goyam kavi and karaththa kavi to relieve themselves from boredom and help them stay awake while they work. Later on, after many variations, these kavi evolved into songs.
Generations later, music is still an important part of all our lives, in a much more broader spectrum. We at Pulse spoke to the woman who made history in Sri Lanka for being the very first female metal soloist to release the first metal album in the country, Shehara Jayatilaka, as well as Director, Songwriter and Musician Anil Balasuriya, with hopes of obtaining insight as to how the music industry in Sri Lanka has evolved over time.
Throwback to the 80’s and 90’s
While some musicians back in the day used local instruments like the thammattama, gataberaya and the bata nalawa aka the flute to produce music, western instruments like the guitar and the piano soon became every musician’s holy grail. Anil Balasuriya spoke to us about how bands would play live music back then and how so many people would come to watch them. Most bands back then didn’t have to promote themselves as much as they did now. People would know them from live gigs and would continue to support their music by coming to watch them play.
Even after the radio and television made its way to Sri Lanka, significant emphasis was given to music through TV and Radio shows, back in the 80’s and 90’s.
“There used to be a show called Variety Fair hosted by Leon Bennett. He used to get all these bands into a studio in Rupavahini and record them playing live. Some of the bands were called Apple Green, Cardinal’s Outburst and Purple Rain. These videos will be playing all the time on the channel” said Anil Balasuriya. He also spoke to us about how hard it was back then to listen to english music that was produced internationally. He told us about how he would tune into a radio show called the ‘Pop Showcase’ that was played on the SLBC Radio Station, from 8 pm – 10 pm, which played 2 hours of english music that was popular worldwide. And that was all they got, until the private radio stations were born.”
Anil Balasuriya painted a picture for us, on how music was not easily accessible back in the 80’s and 90’s and the struggles they had to go through, in order to maintain a collection of their favorite tracks.
“Back then, even to get our hands on a cassette tape or a CD, was so hard. It wasn’t easily accessible and even if it was, it was expensive, especially for teenagers who weren’t working. We used to go to little places called Record Bars, which had a collection of music. I still remember Lucky Weeramanthri, he had an amazing collection of music. So we would go to these record bars around Colombo with an empty cassette tape or CD and a list of songs that we’d like to listen to. What they do is, they check to see if they have the tracks of the songs that we are looking for and they record it into the cassette or CD that we bring and give it back to us, in a week or so. I remember, we used to dream about the day that we would be able to get our hands on the cassette from the Record Bar, even a week seemed like a long time. And when we go to collect it, we would be so happy.” Anil gushed.
“Back in the day, there were so many bands playing live, making a good career out of it. Every week or so, there would be musical shows showcasing many talents. There used to be beat shows, where these bands and artists would cover English music that were produced internationally and they used to cover them so well. Bands like Purple Rain, Sohan and the Experiments and many more, would cover popular english songs at the time, in school grounds and at venues like BMICH. They used to even have these Rock series of concerts called Excursions organised by Keerthi Fernando. Tons and tons of people would come to watch these shows.”
Since they didn’t have easy access to music, purchasing music came with a significant price and the wait time to obtain music was excruciating, he expressed that music was valued in a much more crucial manner. He mentioned how piracy started in the early 2000’s and how pirated music in CDs were sold at a much lesser price. Soon afterwards, the download culture also came into effect and music was downloaded free of charge, from different websites. When this culture started becoming a norm, he expressed how most bands and artists were suffering without an income to grow.
Artists nowadays have different methods of garnering an income for the music they create.
Fast forward to the 21st century, many technological revolutions later, with the birth of the internet, social media platforms and streaming platforms like Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube, access to over a million songs with just one tap on a mobile device, became a reality. And because of these technological advancements, artists could not only aim for wider reach within Sri Lanka, but internationally as well.
“Artists mainly make an income through the events and gigs that they perform at. Yes, the ticket sales happen but half the time, the ticket sales end up being used to cover the costs for lights, sounds, the venue etc. Through streaming platforms, you only get a miniscule amount, like a couple of cents per stream. So, unless there are like a million streams, you don’t really get much from there. The easiest way for artists to get an income is for them to sell merchandise and physical copies of their work” explained Shehara.
She spoke to us about how merchandise is a new method that generates income for artists, one that didn’t exist back then. Merchandise are goodies that are branded with the logo and other designs unique to the band or artist, that might pose useful for fans, for example, T shirts, mugs, button badges, caps etc. Most loyal fans purchase merchandise, as means of expressing their love and support for the artists and as a memento that they hold close to their hearts. Shehara also expressed that most Sri Lankan fans still purchase the physical CDs of their work, even though they stream music online, as means of support and to also own the album booklet and to skim through the lyrics of the songs, creating a nostalgic connection with the album.
How can potential artists enter the local music scene?
“Most artists ideally release singles before the album comes out and to release a song or an album in Sri Lanka, an artist must first meet with a proper producer, write the lyrics to the songs, get the songs recorded and the tracks laid out. Afterwards, the song or album must be launched. Official photoshoots need to be conducted, album artwork needs to be done and artists should also get the licenses for the launch. The artists should then promote the launch, get sponsors for the launch and get the physical CDs printed. They should also get their music out on other streaming platforms” Shehara explained.
After meeting with producers and getting the songs recorded, most aspiring artists could now promote their work by themselves, via social media. By creating Facebook and Instagram pages and by running advertisements on these social media platforms, targeted audiences could be reached with minimum effort to promote their music. Since many aspiring artists now-a-days start their musical journey by producing covers of popular music, maintaining a YouTube channel to post covers and utilising the IGTV feature on Instagram could also be a great way to dig your roots in the Sri Lankan music industry.
Supporting local artists the right way!
It goes without saying that unique talent is a gift that many of our fellow Sri Lankan brothers and sisters possess and striving to support our local artists can help to make our nation shine, in many ways.
In our hospitable, lankan-to-the-last-drop fashion, let’s all support local artists by:
- Purchasing their music
2. Sharing their posts and help them reach a wider network of people
3. Watching their YouTube videos
4. Buying their merchandise
5. Stay updated by checking up on their social media platforms / websites
6. Provide valuable feedback which they could use to improve their music.
7. Watch them perform live and cheer them on!
Shehara has recently created an online platform that sells music created by local artists for just LKR 140, with hopes of providing more means of income that’ll help our music industry blossom. You can pay www.sh3hara.com a visit to purchase locally produced music.
On another exciting note, Pulse also organises an event called ‘No Covers Allowed’, that encourages local artists to perform their original music that was produced and created by themselves. This event is solely dedicated for local solo artists and bands to showcase their talents, their passion for music and to let their voices be heard amongst our fellow Sri Lankans.
Our Island Pulse online radio station also features English music produced by our local artists from time to time, creating a platform for their music to rise to popularity. Until next time, let us all roar for our Lankan artists and support their talents like the lions we are!