Spotify CEO Daniel Ek recently told Music Ally that he believes “100% that we’re going to see a rise of Bollywood and new types of Indian music making it into the global scene in the very near future”.
As an Indian journalist who’s been covering Bollywood and other types of Indian music for two over decades, I only half-agree with Ek. I don’t believe Bollywood is going into the global charts any time soon, and I’ll tell you exactly why. But first…
Indian pop quiz time!
Q1. Who’s the most streamed artist on Spotify in India?
A1. Hindi film playback singing superstar Arijit Singh.
Q2. What’s Arijit Singh’s rank on Spotify overall?
A2. At the end of January this year, his 8.78 million monthly listeners were enough to place him at No.500 in the world.
Spotify doesn’t display artist rankings below that position and last month, even though Singh’s listenership grew to more than nine million users, he fell out of the top 500.
In other words, even being the biggest name in Bollywood doesn’t automatically mean that you’re among the most popular singers on the globe. This is not to take away from Singh’s talent or success. His emotive voice has the ability to elevate the most pedestrian love ballads and his dominance of the Hindi film music industry is the kind that comes once in a generation.
It’s not Singh’s fault that he’s asked to sing pretty much the same song in thousands of different ways. Singh’s decade-long reign has coincided with a corresponding fall in the levels of creativity within mainstream Hindi film and music. Consider the five most streamed Bollywood tracks on Spotify in 2020. Either the song or its parent film is a remake in all but one case.
No.1: ‘Shayad’ from Love Aaj Kal – the film is a remake of its director Imtiaz Ali’s own 2009 romcom of the same name.
No.2: ‘Ghungroo’ from War – the song is based around the chorus of a popular ghazal released in the 1980s.
No.3: ‘Tujhe Kitne Chahne Lage Hum’ from Kabir Singh – the film is a remake of the 2017 Telugu movie Arjun Reddy.
No.4: ‘Makhna’ from Drive.
No.5: ‘Illegal Weapon 2.0’ from Street Dancer 3D – the song is a remix of a 2017 Punjabi pop hit of the same name and the film is an unofficial threequel of the Any Body Can Dance series of movies, which follow similar plots.
In a beautiful irony, the only tune that’s neither a remake nor from a film that’s a remake, is an original work by Tanishk Bagchi, the composer behind the highest number of identikit remixes of Bollywood classics released over the last few years.
I ranted about Hindi film music’s creative crisis two and a half years ago, and not much has changed since then.
Things are no different in the “non-film” – aka commercial pop – space where potential hits are shaped in the sonic template patterned by Bollywood. So in a sense, most non-film music is already a soundalike.
In a troubling trend, a few of Indian major label T-Series’ recent pop releases have been covers: ‘Nayan’ is a reworking of a famous Gujarati ghazal; ‘Pehle Pyaar Ka Pehla Gham’ is a modern-day makeover of a 1990s Hindi film cut; ‘Main Jis Din Bhulaa Du’ is a fairly faithful rendition of a Pakistani soundtrack smash from the 1970s; and ‘Lut Gaye’ is an update of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qawwali that dates back at least to the 1980s.
Even when the compositions are brand new, there’s barely anything fresh about most non-film output. If the track is a ballad, then the aim is to capture an old vibe: that of the lyrically melodramatic love songs that dominated the Bollywood OSTs of the 1990s, before a more modern, western-influenced style of music arrangement and production became popular towards the turn of the century.
If the tune is uptempo, the music is more contemporary, but once again it’s decidedly derivative. Countless Hindi and Punjabi electro-pop releases of the last three years have borrowed their beat structures from reggaeton.
Things have gotten to a stage where increasingly, Hindi film composers are launching their own labels so they can work free of commercial pressures and make the kind of music they want.
Maybe I’m overstating the facts but the point I’m trying to make here is that as long as they keep repeating themselves, Bollywood and Hindi pop songs are unlikely to find a fresh audience abroad.
Since Billboard magazine launched a pair of Global charts in September, barely any Indian singles have made the top 100 portion of the list, and they’ve done it on the strength of the domestic audience for those songs on YouTube. It’s common now for Indian MVs to be the most watched music videos in the world in any given week, but on average more than 80% of their views are from within the country, as opposed to Latin music hits whose play counts are more widely spread.
Quite simply, the music isn’t crossing over in a significant way, and to me the reasons go beyond the language barriers, which are also relevant. Despite the oft-quoted size of the Indian diaspora, Hindi and Punjabi are far less familiar to foreign audiences than Spanish. Instead, for decades now, Bollywood and bhangra and even Indian classical have been treated less as music to listen to and more as background sounds used for working out and meditating.
This remains the status quo despite repeated attempts to break Indian pop artists in the US or UK. Because thus far, these attempts have essentially been the equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle. Major labels have played it far too safe with Bollywood stars when taking them outside of Bollywood.
A few years before she got her big break on American television, Universal Music tried turning Priyanka Chopra into an international singing star. The plan fell flat because though they teamed her up with Pitbull and will.i.am, who were at their commercial peaks around that time, there was absolutely nothing unique about those efforts.
We’ve seen it happen over and over again. When Badshah and Sony Music made a big play for international success with ‘Paagal’, they mistakenly thought the best route was by re-exporting reggaeton. Last year, Arista Records signed Indian playback and pop vocalist Armaan Malik. If you were to listen to his English material without knowing who was singing, there’s a high chance you’d think it’s Charlie Puth.
Spotify itself has tried and failed to get Bollywood to cross over. During its first year of operation, the India team experimented with seeding Hindi film hits into global playlists. The skip rates were so high that the placements did the artists more harm than good. In fact, it’s had better results with including Indian independent acts in niche genre-specific playlists such as Lo-Fi House and Progressive Metal. To a numbers-obsessed industry, where there’s no greater metric of success than YouTube streams, this might seem topsy turvy.
And it’s not like the Hindi film industry is short on the singing talent. Arijit Singh and Armaan Malik are two of several first-rate playback vocalists to have emerged over the last ten years. On the other hand, the last truly clutter-breaking composer to break out of Bollywood was Amit Trivedi, who arrived over a decade ago. Perhaps there are deeper socio-cultural reasons for this. Music education is not part of the curriculum at most Indian schools where rote learning as opposed to critical thinking is the norm.
In contrast, each of the main Hindi general entertainment television channels in India airs its own American Idol-style reality singing competition on which contestants’ skills are judged on their ability to cover other people’s songs. The most talented among them land film projects. Arijit Singh, incidentally, started out by participating in one such show. But there are no such series seeking out the country’s finest composers.
To find genuinely ground-breaking Indian music, you’d have to look towards its vibrant and varied independent music scene, which has birthed such new genres as “gully rap” pioneered by the likes of Divine, “desi bass” popularised by Nucleya, and “Hindustani dance music” fashioned by Ritviz.
They’re all among the most streamed indie acts on Spotify in India, with monthly plays in the millions. Their stream counts maybe a fifth or less of Arijit Singh’s but they’re the ones changing the musical landscape. Not Bollywood, which has for too long presented the same line of defence when questioned about its lack of risk taking.
Music companies say they’re so burdened by the exorbitant costs of acquiring the licensing rights to film soundtracks that they’re left with no choice but to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Maybe we should stop asking ‘When will Indian music cross over?’ and start questioning why it hasn’t happened yet. Do I believe there will eventually come a day when an Indian song reaches the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100? For sure. But I’m not sure if it will be a one-off sparked by a TikTok trend. Or if it will come in the form of a collaboration with an established international act. Or if there will be a wave of hits from a sub-genre that lifts a whole group of artists across to foreign shores.
However it happens, I’ll be surprised if the sound that finally resonates is a facsimile from Bollywood.
Music Ally’s next Learn Live webinar will help you understand what’s required for artists to thrive in new international markets!