india panel

India has long been one of the most interesting music markets in the world, and one that dances to its own rules, particularly with the influence of the Bollywood film industry. So how is the Indian market evolving in the streaming age?

A panel at Music Biz and Music Ally’s NY:LON Connect conference in New York this January offered some thoughts on that.

The panel included Priyanka Khimani, who leads the Mumbai-based practice of law firm Anand and Andand & Khimani; Neeta Ragoowansi, SVP of business development and legal affairs at NPREX; Gaurav Sharma, COO of Saavn; and Tom Rettig; VP of product at Gracenote. The moderator was Outdustry’s Ed Peto.

Peto outlined the key recent trend in India: the driving down to almost zero (and zero in some cases) for the price of mobile data, which has spiked mobile usage for services and content of all kinds. He also highlighted recent legal issues: police raids of label offices as part of an investigation into royalty payments, and licensing back-and-forth for local collecting societies.

Khimani talked about some of these issues. “The relationship between an artist and a record label in India is almost always largely work-for-hire contracts,” she said, adding that there’s also a lack of differentiation between labels and publishers.

“Almost always it’s the same entity that controls both… So most of our contracts are only works-for-hire.” The idea of authors owning even a portion of their work is almost unheard of, in other words.

Khimani added that these issues may have just come to the forefront, but unrest over the situation has been brewing for around five years.

“Transparency? A word that I think record labels absolutely hate! And more so in India,” she said. Royalty cheques for music creators are often accompanied just by a covering letter, with no indication of how they have been calculated, and from which sources.

“Somebody has got to get to the bottom of it: these are millions of dollars of un-disbursed dollars that we are talking about,” she said. Khimani added that in the last five years, the music companies have been striking licensing deals with digital services, while all this is looming in the background.

Ragoowansi suggested that this brings opportunities for technology companies like her own, with NPREX offering a platform for direct licensing of performing rights.

“We’re trying to create direct business relationships between creators, copyright owners and licensees,” she said. “There’s definitely an appetite for it. There’s a technologically-savvy emerging independent creator and copyright-owner market… There’s this mentality of ‘we haven’t received anything, we haven’t been paid anything, we need a better way’.”

Peto expanded on this theme of India as a legacy-rights industry where digital is “slowly starting to expose some of the issues there, and providing some direct-to-market options which offers power to the artists”. But as Ragoowansi pointed out, as in western countries, missing publishing metadata is one of the barriers to unlocking some of the unpaid royalties.

Metadata, of course, is Gracenote’s stock in trade. Rettig have his company’s view on some of India’s unique aspects in that context.

“A huge amount of the most popular music is released in coordination with movies, so they come out as movie soundtracks, and there’s lots of consumption around movies,” he said.

“We’re looking at how to rethink how metadata is done. In much of the rest of the world it’s centred on artists… but in India, it’s very video-driven. It’s really important that there’s a link between releases and movies, between songs and actors.”

Saavn’s Sharma offered a streaming service’s perspective, with the company having started by building a product to stream all that Bollywood music. But five years ago, he said that Saavn noticed that the top iOS app in India was Apple’s GarageBand, indicating a thriving community of grassroots musicians.

“There are all these independent artists, very western-influenced, Indian rappers, singers, electronic musicians, all fighting for a voice… we started seeing over the course of the last five to six years, the market share for film music going from 90% – 95% of our service [usage] to a point where it’s normalising around 60%,” he said.

“We feel we can creatively bridge that gap between where the market is moving creatively – which is definitely much more democratic: artist-driven composer-driven – and Bollywood.”

Until now, the majority of Saavn listening has been in the biggest Indian cities, but now a second tier is “coming alive” which in turn is generating new patterns of listening to music that’s popular in those areas. For example ‘devotional’ songs.]

Khimani talked about how some Indian artists are taking commercial control of how their music is released in response to all this.

“Some of the biggest recording artists and composers that we represent in India are increasingly creating their own independent music to put it out there,” she said. Why? “Probably to connect with fans or reach out to a wider audience, but rarely for money… For the bigger artists, digital is just another means of doing more PR and reaching out to their audiences.”

Khimani also warned against the music industry expecting big things for music subscriptions in India, based on its experience of young smartphone users in the big cities.

“The largest Indian population, even today, is in villages where you don’t even have a consistent flow of electricity or water. But all you have today is data! How are you expecting those people who are not educated, who are only just learning to use a device… that audience is not sophisticated enough to go online and pay for a subscription,” she said.

Sharma talked about how piracy has traditionally operated in India. “People are going to little shacks in their town, city, village, and doing things like sideload: having someone in the shop sideload MP3s onto their phone for a fee. That is a subscription service! What we are doing is a service to compete with that,” he said.

Saavn is actively working with those store owners, giving them commission on signing up people to a Saavn subscription. “There is a change in the tide.”

Peto raised what he described as the elephant in the room: whether YouTube has become the default platform for many Indian people to listen to music. Is that a problem for musicians and the industry there?

“It comes down to the content. For us, it’s about creating a network effect with our artists, where we’re building an ecosystem where artists can monetise far more than they can through YouTube,” said Sharma, of Saavn’s attempt to offer an alternative to YouTube.

“It’s about monetising through merchandising, through ticketing. As we can create an ecosystem for artists to actually make money for the first time, and as they choose to make Saavn the home for their content, that’s where we can separate ourselves. But YouTube is absolutely the largest music-streaming platform.”

Ragoowansi said that many Indian artists aren’t even using YouTube properly yet, in terms of making the most of their work on the platform. She suggested that more multi-channel networks to help educate musicians would be a good idea.

“YouTube does ultimately become a stepping stone to other avenues, other methods of increasing your income,” said Khimani.

“What happens is, because a lot of the talent in India are using YouTube as a method to connect with their fans and to drive subscribers, and because we as an audience are used to watching a lot of Bollywood-driven content, a lot of the YouTube creators end up creating covers… And they’re never going to be able to monetise that content on YouTube, because you don’t have a covers licence… 100% of all the revenue on that video is being claimed by the label.”

The final question: could Indian artists break worldwide, at some point, thanks to the scale of global streaming platforms? Could we see an Indian equivalent of ‘Despacito’ in the near future?

Saavn is trying: it works with musicians to create ‘Artists Originals’ tracks, then distributes those to digital services outside India – recent hit ‘Bom Diggy’ being one example.

“The vehicles are in place for it. I would be surprised if we don’t have an Indian breakout artist at some point,” said Rettig, agreeing with Peto that in the absence of Spotify (in India) that YouTube might be the platform to do it.

“There are some huge Indian music channels on YouTube from a global consumption viewpoint,” said Rettig.

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