Toward a History of Consumption and Circulation of Media Content – Part One


This is the third research note from Rashmi M, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.

 

In my previous blog post [1], I spoke about the emergence and spread of ‘content business or trade’ in mobile phone services and accessories shops in Bangalore and the surrounding towns. In this post, I attempt to construct ‘a geographically specific history’ of consumption and circulation of media content [2]. Although content is available as a generic term for discussion today, constructing a history of its consumption and circulation will have to be imperatively divided up into an exercise of tracing separate social and commercial histories (of both consumption and circulation) of recorded sound, image and video. I discuss in the following sections the sources and strategies I used in attempting to construct such a history and present some preliminary findings from my interactions on the field.

Castells and Cardoso write in the introduction to the edited volume Piracy Cultures that from media industry perspective we often look at the popular interaction with content and its distribution channels as ‘relationships between media companies, organizations and individuals’ [3]. Most often it is viewed as a ‘commercial relationship of a contractual kind with accordant rights and obligations’ which does not capture the informal media relationships that people all over the world build outside institutionalized frameworks. Unlike a history of industrial production of media technologies and content which can be culled out of the institutional histories of big media industries, a history of the processes of consumption and circulation can only be constructed by piecing together biographical and experiential accounts of users of their consumption practices and tracing the career trajectories of intermediaries such as dealers, technicians, service shop owners, etc. (who facilitated the movement of media technologies and goods between producers and consumers). Informality associated with these processes is an additional challenge in terms of gathering sources and information. The strategy that I used in gathering data to construct a history of consumption and circulation is – speak to users whom I recognized as bibliophiles, audiophiles, cinephiles, videophiles and collect their biographical and experiential accounts of consumption of media content and trace career trajectories of technicians, repair shop owners and other intermediaries. In keeping with the scope of this project, I am not looking at book trade, its consumption and circulation practices leading up to the moment of e-book and downloads via the Internet [4]. I am only focusing on the consumption and circulation of audio and video. In this part I give a brief history of consumption and circulation of recorded sound from the days of radios and sound systems to the period of CDs and DVDs to situate the present moment of media content consumption and circulation via mobile phones, SD cards and flash drives. My focus as I mentioned earlier will be limited to Bangalore and surrounding towns.

Recorded sound

Before I proceed on to present the findings from the narratives I have collected, I want to highlight (right at the beginning) the importance of services and repair shops and the figure of ‘technician’ in such shops as a connecting thread to weave together different experiential accounts into a coherent story. From the days of radio and sound systems, technicians played a key role in facilitating media consumption. From public transmission of information to setting up of required apparatus to reach out to a large gathering during political speeches, staging of plays and other cultural events, technician and his support team were instrumental in producing any media experience in those days. In Mysore province in the decade of 1920s there were only five sound systems. They were established by technicians whose introduction to recorded sound was mainly through missionary officials. Most of them received training under engineers (who worked for Mysore maharaja). I spoke to two such owners/technicians (now in their eighties) who established radio and sound systems in Hassan, Bangalore and Tumkur. These technicians were important figures whose services were indispensable for organizing any public and cultural event in towns and taluks that needed sound system and amplifiers. These technicians were also the first people to start trading gramophone records in towns and cities of Mysore province. Chicago Radio, Himanshu and Company and Seetha Phone Company in Bangalore, Select Radio and Sound Systems in Hassan and Tumkur were such places. From early 30s to late 60s these technicians acquired dealerships (mainly of HMV) for selling gramophone records in Bangalore and surrounding towns.

Although there was an industrial division in terms of production between content and hardware, as a commercial practice, records and hardware were sold in towns at the same place (technicians’ shops) during gramophone era, and repair services were also provided at the same venue. From what I could gather from these technicians, records used to come mainly from Saraswati Stores in Chennai [5]. In those days only Madras had a recording studio and the negatives produced at Madras were sent to LP (Long Play) records plant at Dum Dum, Calcutta for mass production of gramophone plates through wax impression technique. Chennai thus was the cultural centre for the production of audio content as there were no recording facilities available in the province of Mysore. Technicians who used to source gramophone records of classical and popular Kannada film music used to travel often to Chennai and had links with the few distributors in that city.

These technicians’ shops were frequented by music enthusiasts and collectors of records. Technicians themselves doubled up as connoisseurs and collectors (updated with all market information on what is available on records) besides being technical experts who offered advice while buying gramophones and offered services if something went wrong with the device. The period saw an evolution in gramophone technology from hand winding players to a range of interesting devices such as electric motor run gramophones, record changing gramophones, jukeboxes, radiograms, etc. Though recorded sound reached the masses through gramophones and upset the traditional artists because it democratized esoteric arts, as a personal device it was only restricted to the elite and the rich who could afford to pay close to Rs. 60 for a gramophone plate (in those days it was equal to a month’s salary of a high school teacher).

Business of gramophone records started declining only by mid 70s although a few imported tape recorders were seen here and there by mid 60s.The sale of gramophone records almost stopped by 1975 in Karnataka. Gramophone as a device became an antique piece that people kept in their houses. Seetha Phone Company in Avenue Road, Bangalore was one such place which turned into an antique shop after gramophone records went out of circulation [6]. The period leading up to 1975 is marked by many regulatory injunctions (such as barring the making of audio cassettes from gramophone records) that reflect the commercial interests of gramophone and records traders. Most traders who had gramophone records’ dealership shifted business and started selling imported goods such as photo goods. A few got into assembling radios and were instrumental in significantly bringing down the price of radios. Radios during those days were manufactured mostly by foreign companies such as Murphy, Bush, etc. Technicians who did repairs and servicing soon had the expertise to assemble the radios from spares imported for servicing. The assembled radios were sold for a lesser price. Raids from the excise department temporarily stopped such practices, but never fully, as there was a huge demand from the customers for assembled products. Most technicians sourced spares from electronic shops in S.P. Road, Bangalore which was just beginning to grow as a major centre for electronic goods in the city. There were nearly ten to twelve shops which sold imported spare parts of radios by mid 70s. Tape recorders of all major companies such as Philips, Murphy, Bush, etc. were already in the market by late 60s. The cost of a tape recorder in the regular market during this time was somewhere close to Rs. 450 but the smuggled goods of the same quality (sometimes better) were available for Rs. 100 or Rs. 150 less. Tape recorders manufactured by Japanese companies such as Panasonic were in huge demand and by the end of 70s Panasonic became a household name even in the small towns. Technicians and traders mentioned that the restrictions on imports and high customs duties till Rajiv Gandhi’s period put all imported electronic goods such as radios and tape recorders beyond the reach of masses. Assembling them or buying them in informal markets was the only way to procure those objects at affordable prices. The emergence of grey markets such as Burma bazaars during late 60s in Chennai and a few years later in Bangalore can be seen as the direct offshoot of the regulatory injunctions which put severe restrictions on the import of electronic goods.

The decade of 70s also witnessed a division and specialization in terms of commercial practices associated both with media technologies and media content production. Separate markets emerged for the sale of media technologies and devices (regular and individual dealership markets in all towns and district headquarters and big grey markets such as Burma bazaar in the city of Bangalore). Content production also became a highly specialized trade with big cassette recording companies such as Sangeetha Cassettes and Lahiri Cassettes emerging on the scene by late 70s and early 80s. Along with Kannda, Hindi and other regional film and classical music radio plays were made into cassettes. Different region specific music genres such as bhavageethe, janapadageethe, bhaktigeethe becamee available as records by 80s and 90s [7], heralding the most creative phase of music production in Karnataka. Production became affordable with small companies putting up makeshift studios to record local artists. During the same period, a specialized market also emerged for the wholesale trade of blank cassettes and spare parts of tape recorders in S.P. Road. Parallel to this, the technicians who shifted to cassette business realized the commercial value of content (when separated from the cassette and copied onto another) and started catering to the demands of growing market. Outside the institutionalized channels of distribution, they covertly popularised the mixed tape phenomenon while continuing to hold the dealerships of major recording companies. Many technicians I spoke to held dealerships of recording labels such as HMV, Sangeetha, Lahiri, etc. But they also did customized recordings catering to specific needs. This was a very popular practice and also generated a substantial amount of profit as against selling cassettes mass produced for circulation by big recording companies. Most customers did not want to pay for the entire cassette when they needed only specific songs from an album. Customers and technicians/small dealers together were successful in overcoming the restrictions put in place by media industries regarding distribution of audio content. There was a lot of improvisation and tweaking happening during this time both in media technologies and content trade. The period was also marked by another shift with respect to the social profile of traders who were into media technologies and content business. During gramophone era, the commerce of media technologies and content centred on the figure of technician. These technicians/traders/collectors were from the upper castes (mostly Vaishya, Brahmin and Lingayat). With the coming of cassettes, we could see Muslims and Marwaris dominating the trade (especially the trade of media technologies and devices) in big markets. By mid 90s Marwaris started emerging as major dealers of electronic goods even in small towns. The figure of technician still remained central to media business even in the cassette era but the trade of media technologies and devices moved out of the shop of the technician/trader/collector while content trade (selling cassettes and recording services) still remained with the technician. I want to flag this shift as it can partly explain the contemporary nature of content trade as seen in mobile phone services and accessories shops.

By 90s the cost of cassette players and cassettes significantly came down so as to be within the reach of middle class. Services and repair shops which sold blank cassettes and offered recording services started appearing in almost every taluk. People who have seen this phase say that there were atleast two or three cassette shops in every taluk. Players with multiple recording options which can simultaneously record four cassettes from one cassette are evidences to show how profitable a business mixed tape phenomenon was during those times. Cassette shops played a central role in revolutionizing and democratizing the access to the recorded sound on cassettes. From audiophiles to collectors to school teachers (who used to organize cultural events for annual and sports day in schools) became regular customers to these shops. A technician I spoke to has a collection of 4000 and odd cassettes from which he generated multiple customized copies. By late 90s most middle class houses owned a tape recorder and a few cassettes. Hybrid devices with radio and cassette playing options also became popular. Walkman (first device to give music mobility) became popular with the college going youth. Cassettes continued to rule the scene even after the advent of digital sound and the arrival of CDs and DVDs. Songs burnt on expensive CDs were recorded onto cassettes by the same technicians at cassette and services shops until both CD and DVD players and CDs and DVDs that store content became affordable by mid and late 2000s. Both CD players and CDs were priced more than cassettes in the late 90s. Digital sound recorded on a CD used to cost more than the analog sound recorded on the magnetic tape. The technology to convert analog sound into digital was many times more than the simple play back and record options available on cassette players. The practice of making audio cassettes from CDs was hugely popular and relatively easier during this period and it was again done at these small cassette shops. It was only during mid 2000s that CDs and DVDs became affordable and the urban English educated crowd in the city of Bangalore started consuming different genres of music created all over the world. Specialized media markets such as National Market emerged to meet the needs of such customers. The traders in such markets used to procure popular Western music from foreign tourists, hobby collectors (with whom they often had a quasi friendly and transactional relationship) or directly sourced it from South East Asian markets of Singapore and Malaysia. One album (a master copy) procured was enough to make several copies. I have given a broad picture of media markets which sold CDs in 2000s in my earlier post and also about their transformation into mobile phones and accessories trade by the end of the last decade.

In the second part of this post, I attempt to trace a history of video consumption and circulation practices in Bangalore and surrounding areas and I begin with the advent of VCR. Though it is necessary to speak about television as a device that provided ephemeral media experience before discussing the arrival of VCR as a time shifting and a recording device, I will do it only in the final paper.
 

Notes

 

[1] M. Rashmi, 2014. On that small mobile phone shop in your street corner. Sarai. Retrieved from http://sarai.net/on-that-small-mobile-phone-shop-in-your-street-corner/.

[2] This is still a work in progress and the gaps need to be filled with more follow up interviews. This post just provides some pointers.

[3] Castells, Manuel and Gustavo Cardos (Eds.). 2013. Piracy cultures: editorial introduction. In Piracy Cultures: How a Growing Portion of the Global Population is Building Media Relationships Through Alternate Channels of Obtaining Content. California: USC Annenberg Press.

[4] As I mentioned in the earlier posts, the focus of the project is users with limited technological access and economic means. The social entities such as services and accessories shops that mediate the consumption of content among these users mainly trade songs and videos. Books are not part of this mode of transaction. Books take a different trajectory altogether.

[5] For more information on media production in Madras see: Hughes, Stephen Putnam. 2007. Music in the age of mechanical reproduction: Drama, gramophone and the beginnings of Tamil cinema. The Journal of Asian Studies. 66(1). Pp. 3-34.

[6] Seetha Phone Company was one of most important shops to sell both gramophones and records.

[7] This development is similar to the north Indian scene described by Peter Manuel: Manuel, Peter. 1991. Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Published on: September 13, 2014


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