It’s a debatable opinion but one that warrants consideration in the Indian music industry in 2019: is Bollywood slowly but surely losing its dominance?

Major Indian labels such as international heavyweights Sony and Universal and local biggie T-Series are increasingly releasing what they term “non-film music”, a loose if somewhat nebulous term used to classify commercially-oriented, mainstream sounds that don’t belong to movie soundtracks. 

It’s a genre that’s understood to be different from more niche forms of independent music, which are typically released without a label and often, if not always, performed in English. Industry suits say non-film – along with regional language and international – music is taking up a larger share of the music consumption pie, previously dominated by Bollywood.

For a quick estimate of how big non-film music has gotten in the last couple of years, we need only look at the top 10 most viewed videos on the most subscribed YouTube channel in the world, that of T-Series, which is said to have around a 75 per cent share of the market for Bollywood soundtracks.

Four of the label’s highest-played videos are Punjabi or Hindi non-film songs: “High Rated Gabru” (2017) and “Lahore” by Guru Randhawa (2017), “Vaaste” by Dhvani Bhanushali and Nikhil D’Souza (2019) and “Nikle Currant” by Jassi Gill and Neha Kakkar (2018).

“Vaaste” in fact was one of two India releases on the list of the 10 top streamed music videos on YouTube during the first half of 2019. The other track was the Tamil song “Rowdy Baby” from the movie Maari 2. On the video-streaming platform’s weekly India music charts, which were launched in mid-September, two out of the three to tracks to hit number one on the Top Songs and Top Music Videos surveys so far aren’t from Bollywood films. ‘Pachtaoge’ is a rare non-film release by India’s most popular playback singer Arijit Singh, and ‘Lehanga’ is Punjabi pop star Jass Manak’s newest chart topper.

Similarly, on this week’s radio chart, only four songs are non-film tracks: Of the top 20 most played songs in the country, according to national radio broadcast monitoring company AirCheck, four are non-film tracks. On JioSaavn, more than 25% of the 40 most played tunes on its all-genre Global Top 50 chart are not Bollywood hits. They include Hindi, English and Punjabi pop and Telugu film smashes.

To put things into context, there was a thriving Indian pop market in the 1990s, which emerged and thrived with the advent of music television channels in the country. During its brief heyday, artists such as Adnan Sami, Alisha Chinai and Daler Mehndi shifted millions of copies of their albums. However, by the middle of the ‘00s, most pop singers had turned playback singers, MTV had long pivoted to airing mostly Bollywood music and then reality shows, and the scene eventually fragmented and faded. 

The difference this time around is that the democratisation of music distribution through streaming services has meant that acts working outside of Bollywood now have a new way to find and prove their audiences.

Says Bhushan Kumar, the chairman and managing director of T-Series: “Today all the platforms have realised that the days when only a big (movie) star can sell music are gone. If the music is bad, a big star can’t do anything for it. If the music is by any artist with a good voice and a good personality, even if it’s by a newcomer, it’s working big time for us.”

At T-Series, the majority of the dozen or so vocalists and songwriters exclusively signed to the label, such as Bhanushali, Randhawa and Kakkar, sing and compose for its many soundtracks and release non-film songs.

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Bollywood is generating fewer hits and even less new music

Chief among the factors behind labels adding more and more non-film music into their mix of offerings it that Bollywood just isn’t delivering as many hits as it did before.

“The real answer to Bollywood losing its shine is that not enough great songs are coming out; regional gaining real dominance; non-film making a decided dent and international is continuing to grow,” says Devraj Sanyal, the managing director and CEO of Universal Music India. 

Bollywood’s hit ratio has fallen for a couple of reasons. Storytelling formats have changed over the last decade and filmmakers have been moving to using songs in the background instead of presenting them as elaborate dance sequences. As a result, fewer songs are being composed overall and movie producers are compiling soundtracks the way Hollywood OSTs are put together, using multiple music directors in a single film. Often, they buy the rights to recent hits in a language similar to Hindi such as Punjabi or Gujarati.  

At the All About Music conference in Mumbai this year, both Vinit Thakkar, senior vice president at Universal Music India and Prashan Agarwal, the CEO of Gaana, estimated that Hindi film soundtracks generate an average of 100 hits a year, which is simply not enough in the consumption-heavy streaming era. 

The problem is compounded by the fact that for the past half-decade, the Bollywood music industry seems to have been experiencing a creative crisis of sorts, with most film producers relying on “recreations” to widen their chances of landing hits.

A recreation is an Indianism used to convey a remake of a classic or regional language tune, often with additional or new lyrics but retaining the original melody. Currently, Bollywood producers and music composers’ two main sources of inspiration for these recreations are retro Hindi film and contemporary Punjabi tracks. 

As a consequence of streaming services gaining customers in Tier-II cities and towns, the consumption of regional language music, especially Punjabi, has been rapidly rising. On Gaana for instance, regional music now accounts for 35 percent of overall listenership and 15 percent of this is for Punjabi music alone.

Similarly, on JioSaavn, Punjabi recently overtook English as the second most consumed language. The third most subscribed Indian music channel on YouTube, incidentally, is from the label Wave Music, which features songs in the Bhojpuri language. Collectively these demonstrate the influence of regional language music across the main platforms. 

Notably, a number of the top Bollywood hits over the last three years were Punjabi pop smashes before they were “recreated” for a Hindi film. One of 2019’s biggest soundtracks, that of the film Luka Chuppi, is comprised entirely of remakes of previously released material. Its five tracks were versions of three recent Punjabi hits, a year-old Hindi pop tune and a 1990s dance ditty.

Another advantage non-film content has over Bollywood: its success is not tied to box-office results. “It’s difficult for a film song to survive if the film does not do well,” says Rohan Jha, director of pop and promotions at Sony Music India. “For pop songs, it’s a slightly longer life cycle. The main interface is the artist and the artist is usually active through the year.”

The risks and rewards are much greater for Hindi film music, making non-film music a much safer proposition. “What we do for one Bollywood project is technically equivalent to what we do for four or five pop projects in terms of the investment,” says Jha. 

The return on that investment is quicker as well. At All About Music, Anurag Bedi, the business head of Bollywood-focused label Zee Music Company, said it takes an average of “between three and seven years” to recover the investment on a Bollywood soundtrack. In contrast, Sanyal said that Universal looks “at a two to three year horizon” for their non-film releases.

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Non-film is another name for Indian pop (and a little bit of hip-hop)

Genre-wise, pop and hip-hop are the dominant styles. Sony’s roster includes bi-lingual rapper Badshah, Hindi pop singers Aastha Gill and Akasa Singh, Punjabi pop vocalist Harrdy Sandhu and Hindi rap collective Artisttaan. 

Additionally, it has two hip-hop imprints, Awaaz, run in collaboration with US-based entertainment company Desi Hip Hop, through which it promotes south Asian from around the world, and Big Bang Records, a joint venture with India-headquartered talent management firm Kwan whose marquee act is Hindi rapper Naezy. The major also produces the 7Up Madras Gig Series, an initiative to build a Tamil pop music market in south India, where film music has thus far maintained its stronghold. 

Universal Music’s most active division is VYRL Originals, which has a roster of 13 exclusive artists, such as pop singer Arjun Kanungo and rapper Ikka. Via VYRL, it also works with big names such as Bollywood composer Tanishk Bagchi and YouTube sensations, pop-rock group Sanam to release one-off singles. 

On the hip-hop front, Universal serves as the base for Mass Appeal India, a multi-channel partnership with Nas-owned company Mass Appeal, whose first signee is Hindi rapper Divine, who along with Naezy, was the inspiration behind the Hindi film Gully Boy

The third segment of Universal’s non-film endeavours is The Sterling Reserve Music Project, which is bankrolled by Indian whisky brand Sterling Reserve. Universal describes The Sterling Reserve Music Project as a language and genre-agnostic platform for non-mainstream music that was created for the “kingdom of artists who are never going to become commercial,” says Sanyal.

On its roster are two finalists of the American Idol-like Indian English-language reality TV singing competition The Stage, on which Sanyal was a judge. For a bit of perspective, know that Universal aims to put out ten Sterling Reserve Music Project tracks and 100 VYRL Originals releases over the next year.

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A means for streaming services to differentiate themselves

Producing non-film content is also a way for streaming services to distinguish themselves from competitors. Gaana for instance launched Gaana Originals in 2017 and claims to have generated over 120 streams from the batch of 12 tracks released in “season one” and over 220 million from the nine tracks from “season two” in 2018.

This year, they’ve expanded the series to a range of styles, namely “love”, “party” “Punjabi” and “Sufi”. The series has generated two big hits, “Tera Ghata” by Hindi pop singer Gajendra Verma, which has accumulated over 450m views on YouTube across its official and lyric music videos, and the aforementioned “Lehanga” by Jass Manak.

Rival JioSaavn started Artist Originals, which it describes as “an in-house label for global south Asian artists”, also in 2017. There are two big differences between Gaana Originals and JioSaavn’s Artist Originals. Gaana does not deal directly with artists but liaisons with them via their labels and has for the most part, worked with Hindi film and Punjabi composers who already have successful careers.

JioSaavn, on the other hand, has put out over a dozen singles, EPs and albums across a spate of languages and genres by both established and upcoming acts including bilingual singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad. Its most prominent success so far has been “Bom Diggy” by the UK-based south Asian pair of Zack Knight and Jasmin Walia, which was minimally reworked and synched in the 2018 Bollywood film Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety. The video for the remake is among T-Series’ top ten most viewed of all-time.

Meanwhile brands, which have historically sponsored live music events, from festivals to band competitions, are also backing non-film content. In addition to Sony and Universal’s tie-ups with 7Up and Sterling Reserve, there’s Chinese smartphone manufacturer OnePlus’ Playback series of video releases on YouTube. Songs by Hindi and Punjabi pop acts such as Randhawa and Kakkar and rappers Divine and Naezy have been part of the series, which began in 2018.

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But film music isn’t going to lose its top status any time soon

For all the hype about non-film, movie music, which includes soundtracks in 16 other languages apart from Hindi, still makes up 80 per cent of music consumption. As streaming platforms penetrate more cities and towns, this share will continue to grow albeit at a slower rate.

“In terms of the sheer consumption that you see, the absolute number of new listeners coming on to streaming services is increasing by the day and the majority of them come for Bollywood,” says Jha. It’s growing but at 5 per cent whereas pop, which has 10 to 12 per cent market share, is growing at 20 per cent.”

One of Bollywood’s recent success stories has been the record label Zee Music Company, which is part of media conglomerate Zee Entertainment Enterprises. In the five years since its inception, the label has become the second most subscribed Indian YouTube channel in the world, thanks to the success of such soundtracks as Baar Baar Dekho, Veere Di Wedding, Gully Boy and Kesari.

Then again, there is a long-held view that Bollywood is not a genre but a vehicle that’s also a great co-opter of genres and styles that are trending at any particular time.

“The answer to whether Bollywood is losing its dominance is ambiguous because Bollywood is a vehicle that’s also giving a ride to pop and hence pop is getting bigger,” says Jha. 

The reverse also seems to be true. VYRL Originals, which is helmed by Thakkar and Hindi film director Mohit Suri, are stated to have a sound “in line with contemporary Bollywood music with great production values, albeit without the canvass of a film”. At All About Music, Soumini Sridhara Paul of digital distribution service Artist Aloud said that “65 percent of the non-film music we upload sounds like mainstream Bollywood music”.

Radio and TV are finally embracing non-Bollywood music

As a result, label execs say that non-film music is getting the same promotional push as Bollywood, with marketing campaigns across streaming services as well as traditional mediums like music television channels and radio stations, which have gradually raised the amount of pop music they play. “Over a period of time, radio, TV and OTT platforms have realised that ultimately, the audience has an affinity towards content and not the source of the content,” says Jha. 

“The deliverables they would only give a Bollywood film is now also a privilege for big pop releases. Music channels like MTV and MTV Beats, radio channels like Mirchi, Fever, MY FM, Red FM, all of them have very aggressively started supporting non-film or independent music.”

T-Series’ Kumar said he finds that even now, traditional mediums such as radio and TV aren’t giving pop tunes as much love as they deserve but is optimistic about the future. “If I make a song and put it any film, they will run it ten times,” he says. “If the same song [was released outside of] a film, they would say, we will run it only two times. Now it has come to six to seven times. I think soon it will come to the same level [as film music].”

The days of Bollywood producing a slew of superhit soundtracks seem to get more rare with every passing year. Over the last 12 months, only one OST, Kabir Singh has enjoyed a 100 percent strike rate. Each song from it has become a smash. “If there are four films like Kabir Singh in the next 12 months, things might change,” says Sanyal. “But it’s unlikely you’re going to have 15 great, incredible tracks when your biggest hit was a remix.”

Sanyal is referring to “Aankh Maarey”, the 1996 song that was “recreated” for the 2018 movie Simmba. It’s T-Series’ most viewed film song of all-time.

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