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The track not taken

Track singers are the muted voice of the music industry. They toil to perfect a tune, only to have it replaced by a star singer's voice. Few succeed in catching Dame Luck

Pallavi, who sings tracks for Kannada films, has cut a couple of private albums where she is the main singer *Photo: M Shreedhara Murthy They are the first to sing any song. But you won't find their names on album covers or in the movie credits. Neither do producers and journalists hound them. They labour for hours with music composers, record the songs, and are then forgotten. Track singers, who double for celebrity playback singers, are the unheard voices of the music industry.

Track singers provide the blueprint for star singers. Every song is first recorded by the track singer under the guidance of the composer. The playback singer listens to the song recorded by the track singer "to get a feel" of it. He then renders it in his voice and the track singer's version is erased. The advent of multitrack recording gave birth to this new profession. Earlier, the singers had to sing every note themselves, and do as many retakes as required. But new technology allows them to mix their voice after all the hardwork has been done -- the orchestra recorded, the words written, and the tune sung by the track singer.

Why do we need track singers?

"Playback singers are stars. They are too busy to spend time with the composer trying to get a tune right. We work on the rough draft and they polish the song with their voice and add their star value", says Pallavi, who sings tracks for Kannada films. The situation is the same in all languages, although the bigger film industries may be a little more generous in paying track singers.

Many track singers are trained in classical music, or are exceptionally good at grasping a tune. "In track singing if you have a good ear and the ability to produce exactly what the composer needs, it is enough", says Kusuma, who started her singing career at the Karnataka Youth Choir and now has more than 100 film songs to her credit.

Track singers supplement their income by performing at weddings and cultural evenings during the festival season. Ganeshotsava and Rajyotsava, festivals that prompt huge public celebrations, are the peak season for such programmes. Some track singers also cut private albums.

"Singing at weddings is very educative. There we can experiment with tunes unlike in track singing where we have to strictly follow the composer's directions", says Pallavi.

Kusuma however believes that there is lot of homework to do in track singing. "Some music directors tell you, 'swaragalu bandre saaku. Mikkiddu main singer nodkothare' (It is enough if you get the notes right. The star singer will look into the rest). This can be very discouraging for a track singer", she says.

A track singer singing for an album earns Rs 500 a song. Strangely, track singing for films doesn't pay as much. Here a singer is paid something like Rs 300 a song, but it could go up by a couple of hundreds if the producer is big.

Why are singers attracted to track singing?

"We feel it is a stepping stone to fame in the film industry. Each of us nurtures the hope that one day we will get a break and make it big. But very few such success stories happen", says Kusuma.

Playback singers like Kavita Krishnamoorthy, Rajesh Krishnan and L S Shastri began their careers as track singers.

"The transition from track to playback is very difficult. If you are an established track singer, music directors prefer you to sing track even if you are capable of playback", says Sunita, who has been singing dummy tracks for over three years.

"Sometimes a track singer's version is as good if not better than the playback singer's rendition. It is never retained because a star singer's name has its own brand equity. Popular names sell in the industry, not talent", says another track singer.

However, one known exception is Hemant Kumar, a young singer who sang the track for the Kannada film Preethse, a remake of the Hindi hit Darr. Udit Narayan, the Mumbai star who sang the final of version of the song, couldn't get the words right and Hemant's rendition was retained. The song became one of the biggest hits in recent times.

What rapport do the track and playback singers share?

"Among artistes there is a lot of respect for good work. A few playback singers compliment us when they like what we have sung. That is the only recognition of our work", says Kusuma.

How does it feel to be anonymous?

"We are anonymous only to the public. Music directors need us. If they know your worth, it's enough to keep the work and money coming. We are the sub-editors of the music industry", says Pallavi.

Sarita Tukaram

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