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UMG’s new venture shows the power of independent Indian hip-hop


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Universal Music Group made a very interesting move in India yesterday, with its Universal Music India (UMI) subsidiary teaming up with artist and entrepreneur Nas’ Mass Appeal Records to launch a new label called Mass Appeal India. Its focus will be on Indian hip-hop, and its first signing is one of the most high-profile artists in that scene currently: Divine.

“Mass Appeal India will leverage UMI’s marketing and promotion teams within India, whilst Mass Appeal will lead release strategy within the US and Canada,” explained the announcement. “All releases from Mass Appeal India will be distributed exclusively via UMG worldwide, with additional support across its network of more than 60 territories for select artists and projects.”

What’s interesting here is the partnership: a global major label and a US independent co-founded by a prominent artist, making their first signing an Indian rapper whose independence has been key to his recent rise. Earlier this year, Divine launched his own company Gully Gang Entertainment, having exited a previous deal with Sony Music to capitalise on the popularity of the film ‘Gully Boy’, which was inspired by his career.

“I wanted to do things on my own, and do it better I guess,” said Divine in an appearance at the Midem conference in June, reported on by Music Ally at the time. “I was shooting my own videos anyway, and I had my own style of rap… I thought why not go out alone? Sony was good, it was not bad. They were there, but I thought that I could just go out there and be on my own, get more opportunities and work with more brands.”

Clearly, UMG and Mass Appeal have since made Divine an offer that trumps going it alone. But what’s interesting too is the bigger picture here: of the shifting music trends in India that’s less about ‘major’ versus ‘independent’ music, and more about the traditionally dominant ‘film-music’ (a better term to use than ‘Bollywood’ since the latter is just one part of the Indian film industry) versus ‘non film-music’. Strange thought it may seem, artists making non-film music who are signed to the likes of Sony and Universal are in the plucky independent underdogs role in India. Although perhaps not for long.

“It’s the non-film music that’s breaking boundaries. Non-film music in India has been at a constant rise in the last two years. It has definitely eaten into the massive pie that Bollywood once had,” Roochay Shukla, marketing manager at music-industry services company Outdustry, told Music Ally in the wake of yesterday’s announcement. Shukla added that non-film music is now taking a close-to-50% share of the radio and TV charts in India.

“The mass has just discovered the Indian hip-hop scene and there is ample opportunity here for the Indian hip-hop artists to create their mark in this space. It is the perfect time even for the labels to realise the boom in this space and they should very well leverage the potential it has to break the borders in becoming the next big sound from India… By joining hands with global partners, the sound has the potential to travel far and wide,” they added.

That’s a key part of Mass Appeal India’s plans: to break tracks and artists globally well beyond India itself, with global platforms like YouTube and Spotify likely to play an important role in that. For now, this is all ambition, however: the coming months will see Divine and his debut album-proper become an eagerly-watched case study to see whether those ambitions can be delivered on.

In the meantime, read this primer on the independent Indian hip-hop scene that journalist Amit Gurbaxani wrote for Music Ally in September 2018, and stand by for dispatches from the All About Music conference in Mumbai next week, where the Mass Appeal India launch will surely be a topic for discussion.

Stuart Dredge

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