Spirit of Rangeela

The bad news is that Rangeela songs are not available on Spotify (my music streaming app of choice). The good news is that instead I turn to Youtube to watch them, and get the “full experience” instead.

It’s 25 years since Rangeela released, and Mint has done a feature on “25 reasons to love Rangeela“. Here are my own thoughts on why I loved the movie and why it had such a big influence on my life.

I remember the date when I watched Rangeela. 25th October 1995. It was the last day of an epic long weekend caused due to Diwali and a total solar eclipse. Two of my cousins were visiting us, and the previous day, after the eclipse had passed, we had gone to watch The Mask (along with my dad). On the 25th, we went to watch Rangeela.

I watched Rangeela in the theatre only once (sadly, in hindsight), and watched it sitting next to my dad (and cousins). I was nearly 13 years old. We had gone to Urvashi, which was then (and maybe even now) one of Bangalore’s biggest cinema halls. Urvashi had recently undergone a makeover, getting a Dolby stereo system in the process. And I had never listened to Rahman’s music before.

I remember it being a insane experience. It was so insane (in a positive way) that even today, 25 years later, listening to the songs rekindled the memory of sitting in Urvashi, and imagining Rahman’s sounds hitting my ears from all directions. And to combine that with the awesome visuals – remember that I had just hit puberty and this was one of my first movies after that event (The Mask, obviously, being another).

Watching the videos on Youtube now, I still think Urmila Matondkar looks stunning in the movie. Even otherwise, the cinematography is first grade, and the visuals are stunning. I can only imagine how the 12-year-old me might have felt looking at all that on a big screen back then (with my father sitting right next to me).

I have written here earlier about how the teens are possibly the optimal years of movie appreciation.  And it was influential for sure. For the next couple of years, Spirit of Rangeela was a fixture for choreography shows at inter-school cul-fests. Some of us little teenagers who assumed we were jilted in love sang (or whistled) Kya Kahe Kya Na KaheTanha Tanha, of course, was yet another level.

Sometimes I wonder, if the movie would have had the same effect on me had I not watched it on a really large screen, in a theatre with awesome audio. Maybe Rahman’s Hindi debut deserved that.

My apologies if this post appears scattered. I’ve been listening to (and watching) the songs of Rangeela on loop for the last two hours, and it has triggered all sorts of thoughts in me. And there have been too many things to write here.

Maybe I should’ve done a tweetstorm instead.

 

 

Jio, Amazon and Information Content

A long long time ago I had installed the Jio Cinema app on my Fire TV Stick. I had perhaps watched two movies on that, and then completely forgotten about it. This evening, I had to look for a movie to watch my the wife, and having exhausted most of the “compatible content” (stuff we can watch together on Netflix) and been exhausted by the user experience on Prime Video, I decided to give this app a try.

I ended up selecting a movie, which I later found out has a 4.5 IMDB rating and doesn’t even have a Wikepedia page. Needless to say, we abandoned the movie midway. That’s when the wife went in to put the daughter to bed and my fun began.

So Jio Cinema follows what I call the “Amazon paradigm for product management”. Since Amazon tries to sell every product (or service) as if it is a physical book, it has one single mantra for product management. “Improve selection and they will come”.

The user experience doesn’t matter. How easy the product is to use, and how pleasing it looks on the eye, and whether it has occasional bugs, is all secondary. All that matters is selection. Given that the company built its business on the back of selling “long tail” books, this is not so surprising, except that it doesn’t necessarily work in other categories.

I’ve written about Amazon’s ineptitude in product management before, in the context of that atrocity of an app called Sony Liv. The funny thing is that the Jio Cinema app (on Fire TV Stick) looks and feels pretty much exactly like Sony Liv. Maybe there is an open source shitty fire TV app that these guys have based themselves on?

In any case, I started browsing the Jio Cinema app, and I found something called “movies in 15 minutes“. Initially I thought it was a parody. The first few movies I noticed there were things I had never heard of. “This is perhaps for bad movies”, I reasoned. I kept scrolling, and more recognisable names popped up.

I decided to watch Deewana, which was released just before the start of my optimal age of movie appreciation, and which, for some reason, we didn’t get home a video cassette of.

It’s basically a collage of scenes from the movie. It’s like someone has put together a “highlights package”, taking all the important scenes and then putting them together.

And for a movie like Deewana it works. The 15 minute version had all the necessary plot elements to fully follow the movie. It is a great movie, for 15 minutes. Maybe at 30 minutes as well it might be a great movie. However, I can’t imagine having watched it in the full version.

That was two hours back. I’ve since gone crazy watching 15 minute versions of many other movies (mostly from the 70s and 80s, though they have movies as recent as Jab We Met). It’s been fantastic.

However, I have one crib. This has to do with information content. Essentially, the premise behind “movies in 15 minutes” is that the information content in these movies is so little that the whole thing can be compressed into 15 minutes.  The problem is that not every movie has the same amount of information.

15 minutes was perfect for Deewana. It was also appropriate for Kasam Paida Karne Waali Ki, which I watched only because it gets referenced in Gangs of Wasseypur. Between these two, I “watched” Namak Halaal, and I didn’t understand the head or tail of it. I had to go to Wikepedia to understand the plot.

Essentially the plot of Namak Halaal is complex enough, I imagine, that compressing it into 15 minutes is impossible without significant information loss. And the loss of information was so much that I couldn’t understand the summary at all. Maybe I’ll watch the movie in full some day.

I’m writing this blogpost after watching the 15 minute version of Don. I guess whoever made the summary realised that the movie is so complex that it can’t really be compressed into 15 minutes – and so they have added a voiceover to narrate the key elements.

In any case, I’m feeling super thrilled. I normally don’t watch movies because the bit rate in most movies is too low. Compression means that I can happily watch the movies without ever getting bored.

I wish they made these 15 minute versions of all movies. Jio, all (your Amazon-style product maangement) is forgiven.

Now on to Amar Akbar Anthony.

Half-watching movies, and why I hate tweetstorms

It has to do with “bit rate”

I don’t like tweetstorm. Up to six tweets is fine, but beyond that I find it incredibly difficult to hold my attention for. I actually find it stressful. So of late, I’ve been making a conscious effort to stop reading tweetstorms when they start stressing me out. The stress isn’t worth any value that the tweetstorms may have.

I remember making the claim on twitter that I refuse to read any more tweetstorms of more than six tweets henceforth. I’m not able to find that tweet now.

Anyways…

Why do I hate tweetstorms? It is for the same reason that I like to “half-watch” movies, something that endlessly irritates my wife. I has to do with “bit rates“.

I use the phrase “bit rate” to refer to the rate of flow of information (remember that bit is a measure of information).

The thing with movies is that some of them have very low bit rate. More importantly, movies have vastly varying bit rates through their lengths. There are some parts in a movie where pretty much nothing happens, and a lot of it is rather predictable. There are other parts where lots happens.

This means that in the course of a movie you find yourself engrossed in some periods and bored in others, and that can be rather irritating. And boredom in the parts where nothing is happening sometimes leads me to want to turn off the movie.

So I deal with this by “half watching”, essentially multi tasking while watching. Usually this means reading, or being on twitter, while watching a movie. This usually works beautifully. When the bit rate from the movie is high, I focus. When it is low, I take my mind off and indulge in the other thing that I’m doing.

It is not just movies that I “half-watch” – a lot of sport also gets the same treatment. Like right now I’m “watching” Watford-Southampton as I’m writing this.

A few years back, my wife expressed disapproval of my half-watching. By also keeping a book or computer, I wasn’t “involved enough” in the movie, she started saying, and that half-watching meant we “weren’t really watching the movie together”. And she started demanding full attention from me when we watched movies together.

The main consequence of this is that I started watching fewer movies. Given that I can rather easily second-guess movie plots, I started finding watching highly predictable stuff rather boring. In any case, I’ve recently received permission to half-watch again, and have watched two movies in the last 24 hours (neither of which I would have been able to sit through had I paid full attention – they had low bit rates).


So what’s the problem with tweetstorms? The problem is that their bit rate is rather high. With “normal paragraph writing” we have come to expect a certain degree of redundancy. This allows us to skim through stuff while getting information from them at the same time. The redundancy means that as long as we get some key words or phrases, we can fill in the rest of the stuff, and reading is rather pleasant.

The thing with a tweetstorm is that each sentence (tweet, basically) has a lot of information packed into it. So skimming is not an option. And the information hitting your head at the rate that tweetstorms generally convey can result in a lot of stress.

The other thing with tweetstorms, of course, is that each tweet is disjoint from the one before and after it. So there is no flow to the reading, and the mind has to expend extra energy to process what’s happening. Combine this with a rather high bit rate, and you know why I can’t stand them.

Bad Apples

Nowadays, I keep apples in the fridge. Apart from remaining fresh longer, I like eating cold apples as well.

It wasn’t always this way. And I would frequently encounter what I call the “bad apples” problem.

You have a bunch of apples at home. They get a little overripe. You don’t want to eat them. You go to the market and see fresh apples there, but you know that you have apples at home. Because you have apples at home, you don’t want to buy new ones. But you don’t want to eat the apples at home, because they are too ripe.

And so they just sit there, getting progressively worse by a wee bit every day. Seeing them everyday makes you feel bad about having not finished them, but also reminds you to not buy new apples. And so you go days together without eating any apples, until one day you gather the courage to throw them in the bin and buy new apples.

I’ve become conscious of this problem for a lot of foodstuff. Apples, as I told you, I now keep in the fridge, so they last longer. The problem doesn’t fully go since you can have months-old wrinkly apples sitting in your fridge that you don’t want to eat, and which prevent you from buying new ones in the market. However, it is far better than seeing apples rot on the shelf.

Bananas and oranges offer the benefit that as soon as they are overripe, they make for excellent smoothies and juices respectively. I’ve become particular about finishing them off that way. Mangoes can be juiced/milkshaked as well. And I’ve developed processes around a lot of foodstuff now so that this “bad apples” problem doesn’t happen.

However, there is no preventing this problem from occurring elsewhere. Books is a prominent example. From this excellent interview of venture capitalist Marc Andreessen that I’m reading:

The problem of having to finish every book is you’re not only spending time on books you shouldn’t be but it also causes you to stall out on reading in general. If I can’t start the next book until I finish this one, but I don’t want to read this one, I might as well go watch TV. Before you know it, you’ve stopped reading for a month and you’re asking “what have I done?!”

It happens with work. There might be a half-written blogpost that you’re loathe to finish, but which prevent you from starting a new blogpost (I’ve gotten pretty ruthless at deleting drafts. I prefer to write posts “at one shot”, so this isn’t that much of a pain).

The good thing, though, is that once you start recognising the bad apples problem in some fields (such as apples), you start seeing them elsewhere as well. And you will develop policies on dealing with them.

Now I’m cursing myself for setting myself an annual target of “number of books to read” (on Goodreads). It’s leading to this:

the sunk cost fallacy means that I try harder to finish so that I can add to my annual count. Sometimes I literally flip through the pages of the book looking for interesting things, in an attempt to finish it one way or the other

Bad apples aren’t that easy to get rid of!

 

Social comedy

I’m reminded of this old interview with late actor and director Kashinath. I’ve forgotten which program it was on, so I’m unable to find the link. In that he kept talking about how as a budding filmmaker, he had been taught to “make films about social issues”.

And so in each of his movies, he made sure he incorporated one or the other social issue. Like I remember as a kid going to this movie called avaLe nanna henDathi  (which he remade in Hindi as “Jawani Zindabad”) – this was about dowry.

The thing with Kashinath was that while he made his movies about social issues, he made sure they were at least partly funny. Before we go ahead, I’d urge you to see this legendary song from anantana avaantara , made by and starring Kashinath (trust me, you’ll find it funny even if you don’t understand Kannada).

It’s not just Kashinath who had this mission that any movie should have an underlying “social message”. Go back to any 1990s comedy, and you will find that they follow the same formula. You might laugh for a total of 15 minutes through the duration of the movie, but the need for social messaging means that there are inevitable sad elements in the plot.

Also, a usual template of these movies (across languages) was to pack the first half with jokes and other funny things, and then let the serious stuff take over in the second half (you wouldn’t lose much entertainment by leaving at the interval).

This largely changed after 1999 (or so), when the film industry got “industry” status, bringing in corporate money and formal production houses. The need for sending out social messages went out with socialism, and so the quality of movies in the 2000s became (on average) better. Funny movies could afford to be entirely funny rather than spending one half sending out a social message.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I watched shubh mangal zyaada savdhaan (starring Ayushmannnnn Khurrraannnnnaa), a movie about a gay couple trying to gain acceptance from one of their families. The movie seemed to be a straight throwback to the nineteen eighties.

The first half was funny, with a laugh a minute. All the classic elements of Indian film comedy were present in this half. And then came the intermission (yes, that was indicated even though I saw the movie on Prime Video). And the movie, in 80s style, went off into social messaging mode.

The last 40 minutes was an absolute drag. The story refused to move as the characters went about extolling diversity and inclusion. Whatever was remaining of the story was rather predictable. There was no “information content”. And that left me a tad disappointed.

There is a reason that Ganeshana Maduve remains my all-time favourite Indian movie. Despite being made in 1990, it is an out-and-out comedy, with no social messaging thrown in (the director Phani Ramachandra, who later made the sitcom daNDa piNDagaLu, was a bit of an outlier).

The best part of the movie, in hindsight (ok I’ve watched it at least 50 times) is that it ends rather abruptly. The comedy goes on till the very last moment, and when you think that you’re facing a boring scene, all characters get into one frame (the standard ending of 1980s movies) and “shubham” or some such appears on the screen.

If you haven’t watched the movie, I might remind you that it is available in full on Youtube (unfortunately there are no subtitles, so you’ll need to know Kannada for this one).

 

I really don’t know why this genre of comedy didn’t catch on, and instead we have filmmakers continuing to proselytise us with social virtues.

How Mani Ratnam Ruined A Generation Of Indian Men

If you fall in love, you might be falling in love with a terrorist. In the arranged marriage market, you’ll find a hot girl who asks if you’re a virgin

I had recently written about how the ages are 13 to 16 are “peak movie appreciation age”, and about how I got influenced by several movies in that period in life. One of them was Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998).

Of course, the most influential thing about this movie was the idea of dancing on top of a moving vehicle. I clearly remember our school picnic (on October 31st 1998), when responding to a challenge, a friend and I (later joined by another friend) clambered on top of the picnic bus and started dancing. I got a 2 litre bottle of Pepsi (presented by the friend who joined us later) for my efforts, which was duly shared between the rest of my class.

Dancing on top of a bus was fun, though it could get dangerous if the bus moved well-at-a -faster rate (I don’t think too many people copied that). The more dangerous thing about Dil Se was about the sort of ideas about arranged marriage that it presented.

Dil Se happened to be Preity Zinta’s debut movie (she was earlier mainly known for this Cadbury’s Perk ad) (it wasn’t technically her debut but I think it got released before the other movie she had shot).

Ten years back, when I was in the arranged marriage market, I wrote this series of blog posts called “Arranged Scissors“. One of them was a hypothetical letter I’d written to a prospective father-in-law (I don’t think I’ve got my actual father-in-law to read it). That included:

During the interview, I’m going to ask your daughter if she is a virgin. If you think she is the type that will be scandalized at such questions, you need not shortlist me.

I must admit that wasn’t an original. It was inspired by this movie released more than ten years before I wrote that.

Preity Zinta plays the role of this Mallu girl whom the protagonist (played by Shah Rukh Khan) meets in the arranged marriage market. They break out to a side room in the house for a chat. The first thing she asks him is if he is a virgin (that also happened to be Zinta’s first line on-screen, helping her set herself an image of a no-nonsense actress).

It fit into the story, so it was all fine. But for a generation of teenage boys watching Dil Se in 1998, it gave the perfectly wrong idea of what arranged marriage was like. It was almost like how Mani Ratnam was telling us that “if you fall in love, you might be falling in love with a terrorist. In the arranged marriage market, you’ll find a hot girl who asks if you’re a virgin”.

And some of us influential boys bought it. It didn’t help matters that just three years later, in Dil Chahta Hai, the Saif Ali Khan character finds that he can find himself a good match in the arranged marriage market (that occurred after my optimal age of movie appreciation, but Preity Zinta in Dil Se had influenced me enough that I bought the tripe anyway).

Many years later, many of us came into the arranged marriage market looking for Preity Zintas and Sonali Kulkarnis, only to find that it was an admission of failure, where you could at best look for a “common minimum program”, and which was overall a dehumanising experience (I’m glad I met my wife when I did, and she bailed me out of the market).

Now, we look back and curse the filmmakers. All because we happened to watch these movies at our most optimal movie appreciation age.

The Optimal Age of Movie Appreciation

My wife tells me that it’s a “family tradition” in her family to watch Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G) whenever it is playing on TV. I’ve always found it (both the movie and that it’s her family tradition to watch it so many times) absurd. However, a conversation from earlier this morning makes me appreciate why her family appreciates the movie so much. It has to do with the “optimal age of movie appreciation”.

This morning, I was talking to “Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley” (RSJ). “Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley” is a pseudonym. The author told me that he had named himself in honour of two influential movie characters from his youth (both played by Aamir Khan) – Raghu Jaitley from Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin, and Sanjay Lal from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.

While I have watched both movies (at home, on VHS tapes, soon after they were  released), I don’t remember much of either movie, at least not enough to know the full names of the lead characters. My defence is that I was way too young when I first watched these movies, and too old when I rewatched them, to find them influential.

This brings us to the “optimal age of movie appreciation”, which I define as between 13 and 16 (give or take a year or two either side). At this age range, you are old enough to fully appreciate the movie and get involved in the story, and also young enough that you can get interested or obsessed about just about anything.

You don’t remember much of movies that you’ve watched before you were 12-13. And once you are past 16, and headed to college, you start making fun of the absurd bits in movies. Actually the optimal age of movie appreciation ends when you start watching movies with groups of people your own age -in such an environment, there is positive feedback to any fun you make of the movie, and you are encouraged on the margin to not buy into the movies.

So, in that sense, my golden age of movie appreciation lasted from Rangeela (1995) to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (late 1998). That was the period in life when I both understood and got totally involved in the movies I was watching. And I could watch just about anything.

KKHH was the end of this, as I clearly remember us talking in school (I was in class 11) making fun of the concept of the movie. And then movie watching was never the same again (it didn’t help that a lot of my movie watching during undergrad years was at the Open Air Theatre in IIT Madras, where movies were accompanied by constant chatter of people making fun of them. We only made an exception for Life Is Beautiful). Now I’ve gone to the other extreme where I hardly watch movies.

Not everyone swings the other way as much as I do (for example, both my wife and RSJ remain movie fanatics), but once you are past 16, you can never get influenced by movies in the way that you did before.

RSJ is a few years older than me, so he was in this “golden age” when Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar came out. My wife is a few years younger than me, so she was in this golden age when K3G came out (her sister was 11 at the time, but I guess that is borderline for this purpose). She doesn’t, for example, get what the big fuss about Rangeela is (as an aside, I think it helped immensely that I watched Rangeela at the massive Urvashi Theatre which had then newly gotten a Dolby Sound System).

What do you think your most influential movies were, and at what age did you watch them? Do you think this 13-16 age band makes sense?

Super Deluxe

In my four years in Madras (2000-4), I learnt just about enough Tamil to watch a Tamil movie with subtitles. Without subtitles is still a bit of a stretch for me, but the fact that streaming sites offer all movies with subtitles means I can watch Tamil movies now.

At the end, I didn’t like Super Deluxe. I thought it was an incredibly weird movie. The last half an hour was beyond bizarre. Rather, the entire movie is weird (which is good in a way we’ll come to in a bit), but there is a point where there is a step-change in the weirdness.

The wife had watched the movie some 2-3 weeks back, and I was watching it on Friday night. Around the time when she finished the movie she was watching and was going to bed, she peered into my laptop and said “it’s going to get super weird now”. “As if it isn’t weird enough already”, I replied. In hindsight, she was right. She had peered into my laptop right at the moment when the weirdness goes to yet another level.

It’s not often that I watch movies, since most movies simply fail to hold my attention. The problem is that most plots are rather predictable, and it is rather easy to second-guess what happens in each scene. It is the information theoretic concept of “surprise”.

Surprise is maximised when the least probable thing happens at every point in time. And when the least probable thing doesn’t happen, there isn’t a story, so filmmakers overindex on surprises and making sure the less probable thing will happen. So if you indulge in a small bit of second order thinking, the surprises aren’t surprising any more, and the movie becomes boring.

Super Deluxe establishes pretty early on that the plot is going to be rather weird. And when you think the scene has been set with sufficient weirdness in each story (there are four intertwined stories in the movie, as per modern fashion), the next time the movie comes back to the story, the story is shown to get weirder. And so you begin to expect weirdness. And this, in a way, makes the movie less predictable.

The reason a weird movie is less predictable is that at each scene it is simply impossible for the view to even think of the possibilities. And in a movie that gets progressively weirder like this one, every time you think you have listed out the possibilities and predicted what happens, what follows is something from outside your “consideration set”. And that keeps you engaged, and wanting to see what happens.

The problem with a progressively weird movie is that at some point it needs to end. And it needs to end in a coherent way. Well, it is possible sometimes to leave the viewer hanging, but some filmmakers see the need to provide a coherent ending.

And so what usually happens is that at some point in time the plot gets so remarkably simplified that everything suddenly falls in place (though nowhere as beautifully as things fall in place at the end of a Wodehouse novel). Another thing that can happen is that weirdness it taken up a notch, so that things fall in place at a “meta level”, at which point the movie can end.

The thing with Super Deluxe is that both these things happen! On one side the weirdness is taken up several notches. And on the other the plots get so oversimplified that things just fall in place. And that makes you finish the movie with a rather bitter taste in the mouth, feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.

That the “ending” of the movie (where things get really weird AND really simplified) lasts half an hour doesn’t help matters.

The high cost of “relaxing” activities

So I have a problem. I can’t seem to enjoy movies any more. I’ve written about this before. My basic problem is that I end up double-guessing the plots of most movies that I watched (how many storylines are there anyways? According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are six story arcs).

So as I watch movies, I know exactly what is going to happen. And just continuing to watch the movie waiting for that to happen is simply a waste of time – it adds no information content to me.

The result is that I’m extremely selective about the kinds of movies I watch. Some genres, such as Westerns, work because even if the stories may be predictable, the execution and the manner of execution are not, and that makes for interesting watching.

Then, of course, there are directors who have built up a reputation of being “offbeat”, where you can expect that their movies don’t follow expected story arcs – their movies have enough information content to make them worth watching.

And most “classic” movies (take any of the IMDB Top 250, for example) have stories that are told in an extremely compelling fashion – sometimes you might know what happens, but the way things are built up implies that you don’t want to miss watching it happening.

Now, all this is fine, and something I’ve written about before. The point of this post is that while I feel this way about movies, my wife doesn’t feel the same way. She watches pretty much anything, even if the stories are utterly predictable.

For example, she’s watched at least a 100 Telugu movies (though, admittedly, during a particularly jobless stretch in her MBA when she was watching loads of movies, even she got bored of the predictability of Telugu movies and switched to Tamil instead!). She likes to watch endless reruns of 90s Kannada movies that now appear rather lame (to me). She especially loves chick flicks, which I think have excess redundancy built into them for a very specific reason.

I don’t have a problem with any of this! In fact, I’m damn happy that she has a single-player hobby that enables her to keep herself busy when she’s bored. The only little problem I have is that she believes it is romantic to watch movies together. She might sell video for Amazon for a living, but she surely is a fan of “netflix and chill” (more the literal meaning than the euphemistic one).

And that is a problem for me, since I find the vast majority of movies boring and predictable, and she thinks the kind of movies I like are “too serious” and “not suitable for watching together” – an assessment I don’t disagree with (though I did make her watch For a Few Dollars More with me a couple of months back).

I’d prefer to spend our time together not spent in talking doing other activities – reading, for example (reading offers significantly higher throughput than movies, and that, I think, is a result of formats of several lengths being prevalent – newspaper articles, longform articles, books, etc.). I’ve offered to watch movies with her on the condition that I read something at the same time – an offer that has been soundly rejected (and I understand her reasons for that).

And so we reach a deadlock, and it repeats every time when we have time and want to chill. She wants to watch movies together. I initially agree, and then back out when presented with a choice of movies to watch. Sometimes I put myself through it, thoroughly not enjoying the process. Other times, much to her disappointment, we end up not watching.

Clearly there are no winners in this game!

 

 

Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.