Abhinav Agarwal
Ashoka Fellow since 2019   |   India

Abhinav Agarwal

Anahad Foundation
Abhinav is creating and reviving the diminishing folk music industry in India by creating self-reliant models that generate livelihoods, pride and dignity for stakeholders connected to this art form. 
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This description of Abhinav Agarwal's work was prepared when Abhinav Agarwal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019.


Abhinav is creating and reviving the diminishing folk music industry in India by creating self-reliant models that generate livelihoods, pride and dignity for stakeholders connected to this art form. 

The New Idea

Abhinav is creating a demand and value for cultural folk music through building respect, recognition, identity and self-confidence of folk musicians, and in parallel creating a self-sustainable economic environment where an artist can distribute their productions directly to the public without an intermediary. In doing so, Abhinav is helping create a Folk Music industry that is a sustainable art form and an industry that is musician led.  

Abhinav adopts a comprehensive and unique approach to empowering folk musicians in paving their pathway for a livelihood. He sees three critical pieces; respect, recognition and identity, and self-confidence as core to a musician's success and strengthens these fundamental elements. Paving the way to their self-reliance, Abhinav helps them own their production process and hence proving economic viability, build their unique identities, protect their legal rights and enables them to collaborate to create newer forms of music that could be consumable by the rural and urban public. Next, to further incorporate folk music as a sustainable art form, Abhinav is creating a knowledge base that is institutionalised into academics, by enabling the study and research of ethnomusicology, folk music and other relevant topics into Universities. Finally, to make his model fully independent, Abhinav is building the community capacity to sustain and grow the industry on their own. As a result, Abhinav is completely shifting this dying industry to one that is flourishing, garnering respect and creating stronger communities, self-identity and opportunities for thousands of artists. 

The Problem

In India today, 26.4 million people living under the poverty line identified as being artists and out of these, 8.7 million are folk musicians. While 70% of the entire Indian music industry compromises of folk music, less than 2% of its total revenue goes to them.  Most of the folk musicians in India come from rural or tribal communities and rely on music and other art forms for their livelihoods. The reality, however, is that many of these musicians are unable to earn an income, as a result, they find it hard to gain the respect and recognition they need from their communities. In addition to that, the caste structures in India associate folk music practitioners as coming from a lower caste. This adds another layer of marginalization which prevents them from various rights, opportunities and services that should have been normally available to them. Folk Music has also traditionally been seen as a powerful vehicle to promote social cohesion around problems in the community, this has slowly been diminishing as lesser people engage in the art form.  

Exacerbating this, musicians possessing the skills and talent to create their own music, don’t have the means to record high-quality compositions, are unable to access the market to sell their music, and find it difficult to produce new and original compositions. A big reason for this is also the oral tradition of Folk Music that is tied to ancestral and community history, hence the songs that are sung are often old and do not generate the opportunity to earn an income outside of live performances. In addition, the rapid growth of information technology and digital platforms in music has widened the gap further between the mainstream music industry and the folk/tribal music, which makes it even harder for musicians to compete against newer forms of music. As a result, musicians often migrate out to find work in other fields, leading to folk music slowly eroding across newer generations and cultural heritage being lost.   

According to the law, folk music which was written more than 70 years ago is categorized as a public property. As a result, the musicians cannot get performance royalties out of the music which is performed. In addition, they are exploited because of a lack of know-how of intellectual property rights which mainly includes recording label and copyrights. Where there is Folk Music being produced and recorded, middlemen often exploit these artists and it leads to further alienation from the system.  

Given the absence of a record label, most folk music artists rely on live music to earn an income. In most cases, the artists are totally dependent middlemen organizations to scout and get them live shows. This powerlessness and dependence often leads to large scale exploitation that is the norm for folk musicians in India today and they are not free to demand their due of income for the shows they do. This drives even more people out of the sector and the industry to further diminish. Most of these organizations ignore the fundamental elements of an artist’s career and focus on the aspect of fame and money, which leads to a lack of development of the musicians themselves. 

The Strategy

Abhinav realized that in order to create a self-generating ecosystem for Folk Music that is tied with dignity, aspiration and respect, it must be ultimately led by the community themselves. In doing so, Abhinav takes a three-pronged approach through his organization, Anahad Foundation; firstly, to demonstrate that the music form can be used for economic viability, secondly so that the music form can be imbedded into institutions that foster research, innovation and capacity building and lastly ensuring that there is community capacity that is being built at all stages of his process so that the impact can be self-sustained. 

Abhinav started by first mapping out and studying where artists were located across the country (mostly unidentified), different forms of instruments, different art forms as well as various Gharana’s. Equipped with this knowledge and understanding, Abhinav started to establish networks in communities across the country, where he identified a number of challenges that prevented folk music to be practiced, preserved and used as a form of livelihood. Once these connections are built, Abhinav addresses the problems according to each need's assessment of the communities. Recognizing that folk music is the preferred method of livelihood generation, Abhinav upskills and trains folk musicians in getting them into performing and enabling them with instruments as well as other resources. Abhinav, documents these identified folk groups in three formats, audio-video-lyrical translations. The documentation and its production is done in highest quality possible with the help of an highly advance portable, wireless and battery operated studio set up designed by Grammy engineers exclusively for Anahad.

By design, Abhinav requires all the musicians that he works with to have a registered bank account, have national identification and register their details such as their living address, tax information and so forth. He has cognizant chosen to only work with Folk Musicians who live under the poverty line and does a needs assessment to filter through who he will work with. As well as this, it is mandatory for all artists to engage in localized workshops that teach them about Intellectual Property Rights, Copyright Rules and so forth that empower them with their legal rights as an artist. The idea for Abhinav to attach these set of rules and formalize his engagement is to open up more doors for these communities for access to credit, to access social services and to gain other benefits from being mainstreamed into society. This indirectly brings a layer of self-worth, identity and respect to these communities as they see for the first time that this career option is enabling them to access credit through formal channels for example.  

Recognizing that it is impossible to operate through a centralized structure of recording himself, Abhinav quickly realized that he needs to create a solution that is bottom up and community driven, both to empower an ecosystem of folk music to be revived and to make his solution viable and scalable. He started working with Grammy winning engineers and famous producers to develop technology solutions, that led to the ‘briefcase’ studio, a battery run, light weight, state of the art recording studio that provides DIY instructions for artists to record themselves. Once the recording is done, the music will be sent through wireless connection to a centralized hub where the music will be converted to digital forms and ready for distribution. Abhinav also realized that it doesn’t just end by producing the music but there needs to be a brand built around these folk musicians in order for them to be able to compete with other music forms that are dominating the industry, given the advent of technology and the internet. With this insight, Abhinav also helps these musicians build their own website, digital streaming pages (Youtube, Spotify etc) and other platforms to be able to showcase their art form to a larger audience, leading them to be able to build their own portfolio slowly.  

Abhinav’s briefcase studios will be being rolled out in conjunction with partnerships with State Governments through their skill development programs. Without burdening the communities to purchase and own the asset themselves, he is setting up community studios that allow musicians to record their music at these studios. Further to build the capacity of communities, Abhinav is working to connect Folk Musicians with award winning artists and urban singer/songwriters, to foster environments of collaboration and bridge the urban and rural divide. He has created a popular Youtube steaming series called ‘Equals Sessions, where folk musicians from across the country are closely collaborating with each other and more contemporary artists to produce new styles of music and reaching mass audiences. To finish the loop, Abhinav will be working with these communities to generate demand, both through ‘music tourism’ and also self-organized music festivals. As many of the areas where Abhinav works are hubs for tourists, there is a natural audience that can be directed towards music festivals that local. 

Abhinav also intends to set up a Performance Rights Organization (PRO), to ensure that all musicians who take part in the process are given IP rights that enables them to royalties for their music when it is bought across digital platforms as well as physical platforms (festivals, concerts and so forth). In order for these communities to become fully independent, Abhinav plans to operate under a Hub and Spoke model where he is establishing community recording studios, that are run, operated and driven by the local community themselves, thus shifting Anahad’s role to supporting and enabling rather than being tied into the process itself. As there is community ownership, the folk musicians are much more likely to continue the growth and preservation of the art form even without Anahad’s support. Another reason for Abhinav to set up this PRO is to overcome the advent of corruption within the music distribution system, where record labels sit between artists, distributors and music publishing platforms (such as Apple Music and Spotify). Abhinav is directly connecting Artists through to the distributors and cutting off middle men through his PRO, thus ensuring that the artists get a higher percentage of their royalties. 

Abhinav also realizes that there is a complete absence of research, innovation and work that is being done to preserve the art form. In fact, there is also no talent that is being produced in this field either and hence the art form is diminishing. Abhinav is addressing this in a number of ways. He has tied up with the Indian Institute of Technology, which is one of the largest, most respected and influential bodies of Universities in the country to promote research in ethnomusicology, folk music, instruments and other areas of interest. By institutionalizing research, knowledge and information on the music form can be preserved well into the future. Abhinav has also created the first of its kind Fellowship for youth interested in music to engage in the Folk Music Industry. By creating engaging roles in music production, research, distribution, among many other things, Abhinav is paving the way for a new cadre of cultural changemakers to be born that take an interest in the Folk Music industry.  

To finish the loop in knowledge creation and preservation, Abhinav through his own channels and networks is creating a large database of knowledge and recordings that preserve music, research and documentaries about folk music. Abhinav is open sourcing this database of resources through channels such as YouTube and websites. As well as this Abhinav is creating spaces for new and contemporary musicians to engage with folk musicians to build common understanding of each other’s music and promote possibilities of collaboration and learning.  

In order to expedite the management and regulation of folk music, Abhinav is also building Artists Unions that is helping to gently standardize norms that can prevent exploitation artists and can help assist in maintaining a sense of discipline among the artist community. In the town of Jaisalmer, artists have started to come together as collectives and create a corpus fund so that they can establish their own community studio and reap the benefits of their income as a collective. This community realised the importance of unitedness and thus decided to form a union which shall incorporate uniformity and standardisation amongst the artists’ fees, shows, utilities, expenses and so forth. As a part of the self-built rules, these artists have agreed committed to strengthening the creative culture by providing direct support to local artists and increasing the visibility of folk art in their community. In every endeavour, they pledged to strive to unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change their region. The community has now started to believe that folk music can be a vehicle for social change and greater civic engagement.   

To date, Abhinav has worked with 1200+ artists from 46 different community groups and recorded 96 music videos across 5 different states in India. This has led to an increase in the income of these artists on average of 7-fold and a 4-fold increase in the demand for concerts. Artists have also started to enterprise on their own with many now establishing folk music schools and other forms of local business to pass on the skills to newer generations. Abhinav has also launched a first of its kind folk artist’s directory that includes more than 1200 artists. He is using the media and other global networks with musicians to spread awareness about these musicians and their talents. Since launching this, majority of them have received invitations for shows and concerts both within India and globally.    

Moving forward, in order to reach every community and enable them to showcase their music, Abhinav is looking to work through partnerships so that self-reliant, decentralized models can be created (with the technology and localized community centres) so that these artists can continue to generate a livelihood, innovate and preserve their art forms.    

The Person

Abhinav grew up in Bulandshahr, a small village in western Uttar Pradesh. The village was known for its rich culture, embedded in folk music, which was used to welcome new seasons, during celebrations and to express connection to nature. Being surrounded by nature, music and folk tales from generations before him, Abhinav picked up his first instrument when he was 4 years old, learnt Hindustani vocals and table, not long after and from very early on had the support of his parents to pursue music.  

A big influence in Abhinav’s life was his mother, who always promoted values and activities that were communal in nature and with the idea of being aware of one’s surrounding. Influences such as yoga, meditation and activities in nature were common activities that Abhinav grew up around as well as attending a school cum NGO that his mother ran from their house. Abhinav thus was influenced by community service from very early on in his life.  

Abhinav always felt strongly towards preserving culture and folk music. Since a young age he advocated for cultural preservation, and he understood that music and nature are intertwined. When urbanization came to his village during school time, he noticed how nature and culture were getting lost, and how as a result, the gathering of folk musicians stopped periodically. During the same time, he saw a water contamination problem in his village which was affecting nature, and thus culture. As a young teenager, Abhinav self-organised youth in his community to develop a water filtration system to address this issue. He won a national science competition for this solution he came up within 8th grade and it was subsequently included as suggested guidelines in the town planning for Greater Noida when it was being formed.  

Realizing that urban planning is an effective way to preserve culture, Abhinav went on to study Landscape Architecture so that cities and villages could be designed in a more sustainable way. His time studying architecture instilled the skills and knowledge of how adaptiveness through design has a close link to opening up opportunities for many people across many domains in life. Abhinav at the same time continued to develop his multi-faceted skills in music and took part in many bands and deepened his understanding of the music field. He spent his weekends in Bhopal jumping on trains and meeting Folk Musicians across the country to understand more about their lives, their connection to music and to understand the barriers that existed in the adaptation and preservation of Folk Music.  Abhinav knew that at one stage he needed to work to establish a Producer Responsible Company to ensure royalties and benefits from music performances and production reach these musicians, but he founded Anahad Foundation in 2013, while he was in 3rd year of his graduation in college.   

Realising that he needed a deeper exposure to the Folk Music industry, Abhinav pursued a master’s in music business administration from Berklee College of Music, where he persuaded the Dean to give him the scholarship to study at their Valencia Campus. Abhinav slowly realised that the way that Music Production and Distribution was being taught was all about business enterprises and there was no input or expertise at all into how social impact intersects with Music. Abhinav convinced the College to bring in a specialised instructor to teach on these aspects so that he could develop his understanding, knowledge and capacity of the system that was undermining the Folk Musicians in his country.  

As a part of his thesis, Abhinav explore the hypothesis of technology empowering folk musicians in India. While recording a song with his Band at college, the lead vocalist who was also one of Abhinav’s close friends unfortunately passed away before the completion of the song. Abhinav decided to dedicate the song to hereby integrating it with Folk Music by recording and remixing Chaiti Folk. By doing so, Abhinav realised that traditional Folk Music can be integrated with contemporary music.

After arriving back in India, Abhinav thought that he would work with Folk Musicians from the point of view of Intellectual Property and creating market access. He realised that the first problem in place wasn’t access to market and Intellectual Property but that of access quality recording that prevented the production of music that could be competitive.

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