The fifth edition of annual Indian conference All About Music that took place during the last week of September was, unsurprisingly, its second virtual instalment. It was also its biggest with over 240 speakers delivering keynotes, masterclasses and presentations, participating in conversations and panel discussions or conducting workshops.
With the film industry remaining on pause for much of 2021, the focus this time was on “regional, independent and non-film music”, the uptick in the uptake of which helped the industry tide through another difficult 12 months.
Unlike previous years when they were clubbed together in a single panel, there were separate sessions that put the spotlight on the workings of 14 Indian regional-language music industries. Here’s what we learned after attending almost all of what was on offer. (Disclaimer: This writer moderated a panel discussion at the event.)
Note: journalist Amit Gurbaxani and Music Ally Editor will be discussing the below topics in more detail in a podcast that will be published next week – if you have a specific question about the Indian music industry you’d like Amit to answer, please email email@example.com
In his conference opening keynote, Vikram Mehra, the chairman of recorded music trade body the Indian Music Industry and MD of Saregama, said there was a “silver lining” to the pandemic lockdowns that took away many of the sources of revenue for the country’s music business.
Mehra said, “People in their fifties, sixties and seventies” who were previously “very apprehensive about adopting digital technology” got “forced to start consuming content on their devices, not just music [but] short format video [and] long format video”.
This, he believes, is “great news, because remember, all the things that went wrong for us, gigs not happening, theaters not opening, public performance not happening, are all reversible. But the positive change that happened of older people coming to the digital bandwagon is an irreversible change”.
He also recommended that streaming platforms “understand that the product functionality and user interfaces for smaller towns” where the next round of digital consumers will come from “have to be different, keeping in mind the fact these are not the most digital savvy people. They’re not today’s 25 year olds. They may be a 50 year old in Ujjain.”
The panel discussion about ‘The Live Music Business In Times Of Uncertainty’ revealed that unlike tech-savvy musicians in large cities who reached out to fans by livestreaming performances during the last 18 months, those in smaller cities, towns and villages couldn’t connect with their audiences so easily.
“If you speak to Sanjoy Roy [the MD of production company Teamwork Arts] who works with a lot of cultural artists in Tier-II [and] Tier-III [cities], he said that earlier language [and] access was already a divide, now you’ve added a third layer, which is the quality of the internet, access to the internet [and] quality of the recording equipment,” said All About Music curator Roshan Abbas, who is the current president of the Event and Entertainment Management Association. “Sometimes we look at this democratisation from a very urban lens.”
The market share of international music is decreasing but its consumption is increasing in absolute numbers. According to Jay Mehta, the MD of Warner Music India, “Right now, international music contributes to approximately 13% of overall audio music consumption. Over the last three years, the contribution in percentage terms has gone down but in terms of sheer volume it has only gone up. With every new expansion into Tier-II [and] Tier-III cities, a new user consumes either Hindi or a regional language as their primary languages and English as a secondary language. There is an increase in consumption but not at the same intensity as it used to be.”
Mehta, who was part of a panel discussion about ‘Breaking India’, also attributed the rise in the listenership to short video sharing platforms leading to the discovery of older international songs as well as other socio-economic and cultural factors such as changing lifestyle trends including the proliferation of clothing and F&B brands and English medium schools across the country.
Thanks to India’s billion-plus population, even a small proportion of the audience equals substantial amounts. As per Padmanabhan NS, the head of artist and label partnerships at Spotify India, “If you take the top 20 artists in the world, you will find India in their top five or top ten markets.”
“Here’s the thing that’s interesting about India,” said Scooter Braun in his keynote conversation with Universal Music India MD and CEO Devraj Sanyal. “It’s this massive population that loves, loves, loves entertainment and music. I’ve never understood why you guys are able to create the studios and Bollywood and everything else but there aren’t enough great venues.”
“It’s very hard to tour properly a global superstar that you can see by streams, deserves to be there a lot more,” he continued. “The infrastructure is not set up properly every single time we come. It’s not like there’s not enough wealth there to do it. I’m waiting to see when that’s going to happen because I think you’ll see the global music market come there in a very different way when live is easier to do.”
“With Jim Beam, we did a ten-part series where we were getting Indian artists to perform their rendition of their favourite international artists’ music,” said Varun Khare, the business head of Live Entertainment (IPs and Partnerships) of ticketing platform and promoter Paytm Insider, at a panel discussion called ‘Streaming Concerts Live – A Zero Sum Game?’.
“One of the reasons we pivoted to an idea like that in the first place was because it was incredibly tough to sit across the table with publisher-labels in India. When we went through the international publishers, yes it did come back to these same label heads in India but we saw success. We managed to negotiate a rate across the board that gave us rights for not only the livestreaming but also a year’s worth of time on YouTube.”
“[To] nail down ten artists, it also meant that we went out to get rights for about 25 artists. In a couple of cases we went back to the [performing] artist to say, ‘Sorry this isn’t your favourite artist [but] we got rights for this artist’. The structure is so different from the West in India because the publishers are the labels.”
“It’s like an open secret. Everybody knows it. If a song is good, what’s wrong in giving a little push to it?” said Anand Chabria, partner at regional language record label Anand Audio when asked about increasing the longevity of songs in the Kannada music industry.
“For example, ‘Pogaru’ from [the 2020 film] Karabuu, that actually was promoted. About seven or eight million views were pushed on YouTube. Today that song is sitting on 256 million views. We cannot spend 256 million views, right? But that initial push was required. Just the first seven-eight million views were paid. Once YouTube picked it up, the other apps picked it up and automatically the shelf life increased.”
“[Recently] I’ve had at least four Telugu non-film music recordings,” said playback and pop singer Rahul Nambiar who performs in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, during a discussion about the Telugu music industry. “People are trying stuff. [For] songs that are not part of any movie but have been recorded by professional artists, TV serial artists and upcoming actors [have] been part of the video. That’s a trend evident even in the Tamil industry.”
“Earlier, artists used to want their entire song to be very good, from the start to the end,” said Haryanvi rapper and singer KD Desi Rock on a panel discussion about the north Indian regional language’s music industry.
“If a song was great, it would become popular by word of mouth. Now there’s only one medium of promotion, mainly Reels. Since then, every artist, whether they’re writers or singers, thinks, ‘Fifteen to 20 seconds of my song should be good, I don’t need anything else. If the song gets picked up on Reels, it will do well on YouTube.’ There are many tracks that are huge on Reels but when you watch them on YouTube, there’s no life in the rest of the song.”
He also lamented the tendency of Haryanvi artists to showboat. “If I spend Rs3 lakhs on promotions on Reels, another artist will spend Rs4 lakhs on his next song,” he said. “The labels suffer. It’s most detrimental to new artists. Labels invest in artists [who have] already [proven themselves] in the market. When artists with dreams of becoming famous are faced with the prospect of needing Rs3 lakhs for promotions, it hurts their morale and they feel this field isn’t for them.”
Though short video apps have become an essential part of most artists and labels’ marketing plans and budgets, many are only thinking of them as another distribution platform rather than as tools to increase their own celebrity, believes Soumyajit Modak, director of music at MX Takatak.
“Music creators are looking at short video platforms with a very limited lens,” he said during a panel discussion titled ‘Short Format Means Big Business’. “They’re just looking at it [for] releasing music and helping non-music creators pick it up and make [it] viral.
“What they don’t understand is that they themselves can become really crazy creators. [Like, for] example, Yashraj Mukhate. Last year, he made one video and today, he’s graduated from being a musician to being a music creator. That is a case study for all young musicians [who] need to do much, much more with their music. While distributing [it], how do you become that star? [If your music is] in the background, you’re like a playback singer. At the end of day, if it’s Shah Rukh Khan [performing] to your song, it’s Shah Rukh Khan who’s getting the fame.”
“We play a lot of [Indian independent] artists who make music in English [who] are not going to get their songs [on stations] in Mumbai and Delhi. These artists from the national scene will find their home in small stations in Shillong and Aizawl where their music gets played three-four times a week,” said K. Mark Swer, executive producer and music manager for national radio network Big FM in the north-eastern Indian city of Shillong.
His station airs a drive time show six days a week, which is dedicated to introducing indie music from seven of India’s north-eastern states and across the country to listeners within the region.