Chennai: This month, in 20 days, Charubala Natarajan and Suresh Gopalan will attend 45 Carnatic music concerts.

For each one, they will arrive an hour early and lug with them half-a-dozen mysterious bags and boxes. Then, even more strangely, they’ll sit with large headphones over their ears throughout the concert, trying to block out every note of music that comes out of the auditorium’s speakers.

Tuning in: Charsur founders Charubala Natarajan (left) and Suresh Gopalan in their studio in Chennai. SHARP IMAGE

The hour of extra time is to allow Natarajan and Gopalan to set up their equipment, running thickets of cables from their own trustworthy microphones into an eight-track mixer, plugging in an uninterrupted power supply system, and booting up recording software on a primary laptop as well as a backup.

Once the concert begins, Natarajan will pull out a book and start reading; occasionally she will murmur appreciation of the music, or communicate with Gopalan via sign language. Gopalan, for his part, will tinker with the settings on his software or hand off his headphones to neighbours to show them what he’s hearing: rich, warm sound, far superior to the speaker systems in any concert hall in Chennai.

The commercial release of live classical concerts is not new, but no Indian record label has worked its potential quite like Charsur, the label that felicitously combines the first syllables of Natarajan and Gopalan’s names. Its “December Season" imprint has become one of its most popular products, known for its imma-culately engineered sound and its distinctive, spare jacket.

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Recently, though, Charsur took live recordings one step further, with a move that could potentially ensure no concert need ever go unrecorded and unsold again. Of the 45 concerts this season, for instance, only a handful will make it to shelves as CDs, but the remaining will be offered for digital download via the newly launched Charsur Arts Foundation.

“There are really so many artistes out there, who are so good, but they aren’t being released commercially," Natarajan says. “Then there are old recordings that are with families or private collectors, and all these unreleased live concerts of the top musicians. With the Internet, we realized that there was finally scope to release it all."

Charsur then asked artistes to register with the Foundation and upload their unreleased music, and they asked families and collectors to bring in their (legally recorded) music as well. In four months, they were flooded with six Terabytes of music, enough to fill 75 80-Gigabyte iPods.

Three hundred musicians have now signed up, each with a user name and password, to track the number of times their music has been downloaded and paid for. “For music that we don’t own, we just take nominal taxes and credit card charges," Gopalan says. “The bulk of the income goes to the artistes." It’s also a way, he points out, for younger musicians to be discovered as their recordings gain popular traction online.

As a concept, the Foundation fits nicely into Charsur’s decade-long history of innovation. It was the first Indian company to offer music on iTunes. It produced the first ever Carnatic music video for MTV, with music by Bombay Jayashri. (“We spent lakhs on it!" Gopalan laughs now. “We just had no idea!") It was the first to market itself aggressively in the US, where the non-resident Indian community hungers for Carnatic music.

Charsur is still one of the very, very few Indian labels that focus exclusively on classical music; broader brands, such as HMV and Saregama, can cross-subsidize their classical products with bigger sellers such as devotional or film music.

“It makes a difference to work with a company that focuses this tightly on Carnatic music," says Sanjay Subrahmanyan, a leading vocalist. “With the big companies, I never even got royalty statements. To this date, I don’t know how much royalty I should be paid, how many CDs I’ve sold. But Charsur puts a lot of heart and soul into its business."

The niche nature of the Carnatic music market has not made it easy. “A label will have to make its peace very fast with the fact that they won’t be selling huge volumes," Natarajan says. “We run first prints of 500 copies, and if a CD has sold 3,000 copies over 10 years, we think it’s done brilliantly. This is why no big company has entered this space."

Charsur turned its first profit three years after it launched, and even today, every individual production becomes profitable only in the middle to long term. “Other record companies look at PPP—per project profitability—but that simply won’t work in Carnatic music," Gopalan says.

There were two ambitious tie-ups with recording giants, both of which ended badly. One of them, in fact, pulled out with such a memorable exit line—“Carnatic music nahin bikta," or “Carnatic music doesn’t sell"—that it has become a catchphrase for Natarajan, Gopalan and their friends.

“And yet you have to do each project well. Earlier, when I was a sound engineer at other companies, they’d (give) a classical studio album a recording slot from 9am to 1pm. Four hours to finish an entire album," Gopalan says. “Here, we take two-three months to plan, record, edit, mix and package a single album."

Charsur now has a catalogue of 200 products, and they release 30 new CDs every year. “But we still get the questions. Why do you record only Carnatic music? Why do you record anybody but the most popular singers?" Natarajan says. “But we wanted this genre of music to reach people. We wanted it to thrive."

This is the third of a series on Chennai’s music season. The first part was on bootleg audience-recorded versions of concerts, courtsey small mp3 recorders. Part 2 was on the new media innovations that have marked the Carnatic music co-mmunity over the last couple of years.

Next: The moveable feasts.