At around 7:30 pm on a cold December evening, three young men stepped onto the music station of Tune and Bite, a music restaurant in the capital's Wari area. One sat before the drum set, another picked the bass guitar and then the one with sharp piercing eyes placed himself before the vocalist's mike.
Md Nur Ul Islam Moon and his band have been performing at Tune and Bite from the beginning of its journey in 2014.
According to the band, for beginners, performing at a music restaurant is a good option as it gives them a platform to pursue their passion along with the chance to earn some money as well.
"I never had formal music training. I followed my passion but like any other enthusiast, I never got a platform to perform. And for beginners like us, music cafes and restaurants are amazing opportunities," Moon told The Business Standard.
If you Google music cafes in Dhaka, you will find more than 25 places in Dhaka city that claim to be music restaurants. But if you look closer, only five or six restaurants are still operating - as music cafes. Tune and Bite Music Cafe at Wari, Thirty 3 restaurant at Bailey road, Autograph Live Music Cafe at Dhanmondi etc are some examples worth mentioning.
According to the restaurant owners, the Covid pandemic has forced them to discontinue the music segment from their restaurants as they can no longer afford it. SM Ranjan, the manager of the Dark Music Cafe and Restaurant of Dhanmondi informed TBS that the restaurant has to spend a minimum of five to six thousand taka per show, which is a big deal for the struggling restaurants in the city as the pandemic has affected people's buying power.
Other cafes including Cafe C minor, Flavours, etc. also came up with similar explanations.
But that is not the only reason the music cafe or restaurants have struggled in this country.
Why the music cafe culture is not working out in Bangladesh
Like jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder, played by Ryan Gosling in the Oscar-winning Hollywood movie La La Land, music-loving Bangalis have also dreamed of having music cafes and restaurants in this country. Although Sebastian becomes a successful jazz club owner named 'Seb's Takeover', the collective dream of Bangladeshi music enthusiasts has yet to come true.
"It was around 2005/ 06 when cafes like Cafe Thirty3, Cafe Fahrenheit started their journey as the capital's first generation of live music restaurants, but it was around 2015 when such restaurants got popular", Rashedur Rahim, the manager of Tune and Bite, told The Business Standard.
A music enthusiast himself, Rashedur has had this place for the last seven years and as an experienced music cafe owner, he suggests, "You need three things for a music cafe- a big space where it will not echo, proper equipment to ensure sound quality and a good environment ensuring, the performers' as well as the customer's comfort."
According to Rashed, music cafe restaurants do not work in Bangladesh because the owners do not quite understand the business. "At the end of the day, it is a food business, where music is a part of the service, you are selling the ambience with food."
The business owners said that there is a fine line between business and passion if you are thinking about setting up a music cafe.
But the musicians have another explanation regarding the state of the business. Some of them were almost blaming themselves.
As Moon and his bandmates added that nowadays anyone can claim to be a musician with the vast amount of tutorials available on the internet. As a result, there is already a range of 'so-called' bands and the restaurants can even hire a band for Tk 500 to Tk 800 per show which brings the rates down for other musicians as well.
"It takes a lot of effort and pricy equipment to create professional music. We take five to six thousand taka per show if it is a restaurant, which is the bare minimum if you calculate the expenses. And we can afford to do that because every one of us in the band has other full-time jobs. Amidst this, it is some of us who are bringing the already low pay down even further. It is as if we are digging our own graves".
And they blamed the restaurant owners as well to some extent. For the last seven years, Moon and his band have performed in several restaurants in the capital and what they have noticed is that "..most of the owners do not know about music, how it is performed. It is not just a small corner where anyone can sit with a guitar and sing. They do not want to pay much as well."
Rashed, on behalf of the restaurant owners, agrees that there are a lot of bands and 'musicians' that want to perform and "we have to take auditions to choose from them. I must say, some of them lack professionalism, but as we cannot afford big bands or musicians, it is the small local bands and musicians that we opt for."
While the big bands charge in lakhs per show, small bands are available for Tk5,000 to Tk10,000, Rashedul informed this correspondent. And there is no particular policy or rule regarding the remuneration of the musicians, which is a problem.
Abdur Rashid, manager of the Dark Music Cafe and Restaurant, said, "We have the Hotel and Restaurant Act- 2014 and also Hotel and Restaurant Rule- 2016, but none of these includes any rules for the music restaurants. This is problematic for both the restaurant owners and the musicians."
But what do the customers say?
Apurbo Ibrahim and Asma Akter, a newly-wed couple who went to Tune and Bite Restaurant recently said "Although the music was a nice touch, the food was a bit overpriced." They also felt the restaurant environment was on the noisier side.
Mohammad Sifat, a young journalist based in Dhaka, also felt the food was relatively expensive. "Normally, an average platter costs Tk 200/250, but here you will have to pay 350 for a similar platter. And the packages are set in such a way that if you want to dine by yourself, you will have to pay a lot."
But Rashedul Rashid, the owner of the restaurant said, "The fact that we are a music restaurant, does not add up to the food price. It is entirely for the entertainment value that we want to serve our customers."
And about the interior being noisy, Rashed said, "Our live music starts at 7 pm and ends at 10 pm. For the rest of the day, the restaurant is like any other dining space."
Milon Mahmud, the manager of Thirty3 restaurant informed us that, "Our patrons mostly comprise of the youth and young families. In the evening these groups come to the restaurants. That is why we have music shows primarily in the evening."
According to the businessmen, if it is the music that you are passionate about, you probably should establish a 'performance space' rather than a restaurant. And on the other hand, if you think music will bring overnight profit to your food business then you should spend the money on the quality of food and interior rather than on music. Because setting up a proper music cafe or restaurant requires a passion for music.