COVER STORY: Look Who’s ARRived!
A.R. Rahman is on the hunt for India’s most authentic voice with his new talent show, in the company of Clinton Cerejo, Vidya Vox and Shaan
Somewhere in the first episode of ARRived, one of the contestants, the Lucknow-based Shivam Mishra receives a video call that will determine whether he makes it to the bootcamp in Mumbai or not. When A.R. Rahman’s face appears on Mishra’s phone screen, the moments that follow encapsulate the dreams of any aspiring singer in India: the 26-year-old’s hands that are holding the phone up begin to shake with nervous excitement, leaving the renowned Oscar-winning composer on the other side to see only a blur of a face. In a whirlwind of goosebumps-inducing incredulity, a mother is hastily summoned to see for herself that “Rahman sir is on the phone.” The good news is conveyed amidst priceless pleasantries that both Mishra and Rahman would cherish for a long time.
ARRived is a digital reality show helmed by Qyuki and YouTube India. (Qyuki is a Mumbai-based digital media company Rahman co-founded with filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and entrepreneur Samir Bangara in 2013.) A one-of-its-kind series on the video streaming platform, ARRived claims many firsts: it’s the first time Rahman is spearheading a singing hunt. It also marks the India launch of YouTube Originals, which is part of YouTube’s premium programming service. ARRived has also managed to bring together a jury that is as diverse in expertise as you can imagine: joining Rahman are playback singer Shaan, composer/producer Clinton Cerejo and YouTube sensation Vidya Iyer, popularly known by her online monicker Vidya Vox.
A ‘real’ reality show
ARRived was launched online in September with a call for entry across India. From the thousands of auditions received, 30 were shortlisted by the jury for the bootcamp in Mumbai. A painstaking voting process would thereafter lead to the selection of 10 singers—the finalists.
Rahman is certain of what he’s looking for on this show. “We want to find voices that have magic. The way you say a particular word, the way the voice modulates—these are the things I would like to see.” He adds, “When I listen to a voice, I think about what a composer would do with that voice which they can’t do with another. The flaws [in a voice] also make the personality. Sometimes singing something wrong becomes a style. Not everybody has to be perfect; but not out of tune, of course.”
If there’s one thing that the makers of ARRived take pride in, it is the fact that the series is the antithesis of a typical reality show. Expect no soppy backstories, jury clashes or theatrical walkouts. Bangara says the melodrama that TV reality shows are synonymous with, and which gets them TRPs, doesn’t work on digital, especially for the millennial audience ARRived is targeting. “Today’s young viewers don’t have the time to go through the dramatic stuff, they want to get to the meat of it. If you saw the TRP-driven TV content online, would you sit through the back story or would you skip to the actual song?” he asks.
“The flaws [in a voice] also make the personality. Sometimes singing something wrong becomes a style. Not everybody has to be perfect,” says Rahman.
Pegged on authenticity and realness, ARRived might signal a new era of digital shows, but it took quite some convincing on Bangara’s part to get Rahman on board. “The first time I asked him was in 2013. And he said he didn’t want to do it.” Rahman quickly adds, “Yeah, even before he could finish the sentence I walked out!” But Bangara admits that maybe 2013 was too early. “For A.R. to engage, the show would have needed to be at a certain scale which we didn’t have at that time, but we are there now. It’s taken five years, but it’s okay.”
What makes the show a dream platform for any singing aspirant is the winning prize: a playback stint in Zero, the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan-starrer and Red Chillies Entertainment production, among other opportunities. Says Bangara, “A lot of shows have winners and they win prize money. What we wanted to do was launch a career, and what better way to launch the career of a singer in India than offering them a playback opportunity in a mainstream Bollywood film.”
He feels a significant playback opportunity also seals the sincerity of the show as the bulk of Indian YouTubers do what they do—release cover songs, mashups etc—in a bid to clinch a film song. “We wanted to make a real contribution,” adds Bangara.
The discussion among the jury as witnessed in the first two episodes is something viewers are likely to relish. Every debate is enriching and aimed purely at adding value and sharing knowledge rather than proving a point. All four experts are at their human, regular best—interacting like how a group of friends working on a project would—least bothered to wear their star personalities on their sleeves.
From Rahman’s music philosophy that favors potential over preparedness (“It’s always better when they have their own personalities. We will nurture them”) to Cerejo’s educational inputs (watch him demonstrate the chest versus head voice in Episode 2), the exchanges in the panel of judges is a far cry from the shouting matches and hyperbole TV audiences are used to.
Sagar Gokhale, COO, Qyuki, believes that a show like ARRived works best today because there is a new kind of digital audience that is genuinely invested in watching a contestant’s journey over the course of time. Witnessing the mentorship of mammoths on the jury makes it an insightful experience for all. He says, “The music industry rewards people that try hard and put in the hours in the studio, and the format of this show supports that. The mehnat (hard work) that contestants put in is the most important part of the show.”
Which is why the ARRived set is unlike anything you might have seen on a reality show. Instead of a throne-like seating for the panel of judges, the latter watch performances from an elevated control/recording room—much like a real-life studio—while the contestants perform on the stage that can be likened to a beautiful singing booth, backed by a band comprising some of India’s most brilliant session musicians.
“We wanted a recording room and a performance area separated by a glass section—this sort of dynamic has never been done before. Initially, we were not sure whether this would work, whether the conversations would flow, but I think it has come out nice!” says Gokhale.
Global teamwork for glocal content
For an online show, ARRived stands unmatched for the teamwork it boasts across geography, scale and intricacy. The operations involve YouTube Originals (Los Angeles), YouTube India team, Qyuki and Banijay, the production house, not to mention the machinery behind the talent. There are more participants and processes than you might find in a regular reality show where a TV channel and a production house are the primary players. Says Bangara, “In terms of QC (quality control) and legal clearances—that sort of coordination has taken a lot. My emails are blowing up, we have like 50 WhatsApp groups and we are all pushing 20-hour days. There are people who have worked in broadcast shows and they are learning 20x of what they have on TV.”
“What better way to launch the career of a singer in India than offering them a playback opportunity in a mainstream Bollywood film,” says Bangara.
On the flip side, there’s a reason why YouTube picked this show to introduce YouTube Originals in India. Unlike in the other countries where YouTube Originals is available on YouTube Premium (the ad-free subscription streaming service), in India, its first content series—ARRived—premiered on its regular, advertisement-funded platform. “We wanted to focus on something that had a broad appeal,” says Satya Raghavan, Head of Entertainment, YouTube India. “We built ARRived on top of the insight that almost every day, somebody takes that first step to putting their video on YouTube with the hope of becoming famous or getting their talent noticed by the world. So we thought why not accelerate that journey a bit.”
“The music industry rewards people that try hard and put in the hours in the studio, and the format of this show supports that,” says Gokhale.
ARRived also gets another unique glocal identity thanks to the LA-based Vidya, who, in turn, owes her digital success to YouTube. At 5.1 million subscribers and over 500 million video views, Vidya is an idol to most aspiring YouTubers. The Indian-origin singer might have built her online empire entirely on her own but she doesn’t discount the value of a show that can serve as a springboard for artists. “I always say that YouTube is so great, you don’t have to wait for anyone to give you a chance. But being on a show like this, with big names like Rahman, Shaan and Clinton, I think it really helps to get that coaching even if you don’t make it to the top,” she says.
Need for mentorship in India
As much as India boasts exceptional talent in every nook, it also houses parochial cultures among artistic communities that hinder knowledge sharing and mentorship. Even in the Bollywood music industry, which is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut, there are zero formal mentorship programs or apprentice opportunities that a talented aspirant can vie for. Many composers boast of music schools but these institutes of learning do not necessarily function as incubators.
Why does the music scene suffer from a lack of mentors? “Because the intention is different,” says Rahman. It could be true that most composers think of mentoring as a cumbersome task. Rahman admits he too had his misgivings at the start of ARRived. “When I was going through the auditions, I thought whether was worth my time but during the finals, it has been a revelation. The contestants have just transformed,” he says, adding, “When you give them love, attention and encouragement, they transform. This transformation is the most amazing thing about this show.”
“Everyone is so good, how do you even find faults!,” says Vidya Vox.
Cerejo, on his part, says he feels a certain responsibility to help nurture young artists. And the reasons are beyond moral—the contestants will join the same industry he is part of, probably even work with him in the future, and hence it is in his interest to make them as competent as possible. “At the same time, kids today have the Internet, so we have to make sure that we are giving them the right information. We have to make sure we are being a positive influence and ensure every singer is a better singer than when they started,” says the composer, whose work spans Bollywood and non-film composition and production, as well as advertising. “I feel everything rests on our shoulders and if we don’t do it, who will!”
YouTube’s contribution in nurturing amateur talent is noteworthy here. Since the platform thrives thanks to creators, Raghavan says his team’s basic job is to help them grow their influence. “At the heart of it, YouTube is precisely that. At any given time, someone or the other is engaged with them on a one-on-one basis or through workshops etc, helping them grow by sharing with them basic insights.”
“We have to make sure we are being a positive influence and ensure every singer is a better singer than from when they started,” says Cerejo.
The ambit of this sort of mentoring isn’t restricted to YouTube alone, he adds. The whole idea is to build communities and supply them with resources. “Once they are influential on YouTube, it helps creators monetize and engage with their communities outside of YouTube. When we focus on our creators—for us it is obviously their journey on YouTube [which is important], but we also help them in doing things beyond that, in little ways,” says Raghavan.
On ARRived, the winner doesn’t take it all. The show’s finalists will also stand a chance to bag digital career launches by Qyuki. Informs Bangara, “We will scale people’s YouTube careers since discoverability is very hard to achieve. We wish to empower a lot of people and that is the reason the show is constructed to be more inclusive.”
Shaan brings his expertise as a playback singer to mentor contestants on ARRived. He is the only judge on the show who has had previous experience in judging/hosting talent hunts on TV.
Rahman feels an additional commitment to nurture because the hegemonic nature of certain yesteryear singer-composer cliques no longer exists. Which means that while there are a lot more opportunities and access, there is also fierce competition. “It’s so difficult now. Those days there was a monopoly. It was SPB (S.P. Balasubrahmanyam) or Chitra. I come from the olden school… And nobody else [singer] could enter. They would come and get humiliated because they wouldn’t be able to get everything together: they would forget the tune or go out of tune. And then all the musicians would start cursing, ‘Why don’t you get Chitra…’ Today, singers don’t have such challenges. They have to be unique in many different ways.”
Given the jury’s focus on voices that have a character, does it mean the show compromises versatility—a virtue for playback aspirants? “Not everybody needs to be versatile,” argues Rahman, “Why does a Mercedes need to be a lorry too? But the understanding of music dynamics, notation, pitch and feel is very important. Ultimately it’s art—how you emote and influence a person, and I close my eyes and listen to the voice.”
In the past decade, India has witnessed several TV reality shows, which have run into several seasons and created winners after winners. First, how many of those winners do audiences remember after the shows runs their course on television; second, how many of those go on to assume successful careers, whether as playback artists or digital stars.
“Every day, somebody takes that first step to putting their video on YouTube with the hope of becoming famous or getting their talent noticed by the world. So we thought why not accelerate that journey a bit,” says Raghavan.
The Internet’s biggest blessing, Bangara says, lies in the fact that the content lives on forever. “That’s the beauty of digital versus TV where a show comes and goes. Here it will only grow and grow; it’s their (contestants’) permanent showreel. And it’s sitting on A.R.Rahman’s channel. And that’s a huge calling card. The entire show is launched on his channel,” he says.
Rahman hopes maybe some composer will discover a voice from ARRived long after the show is over. “I still get people that tell me, ‘Oh I saw your MTV Unplugged episode and I loved it.’ When I ask, ‘Which one?’ they say, “From five years ago!”
Biggest challenges and learnings
ARRived serves as a window not just to the brimming talent in India but also to the changing aspirations of young artists today. All the judges point towards one common thread among contestants: their confidence levels. Vidya says, “Everyone is so good, how do you even find faults! It was very nit-picky by the end of it. It was all about the feeling, the arrangement and all of that.”
For Rahman, witnessing the evolving “Hindi world” was refreshing.
He says, “I am in different worlds —I am in the Western world, the South Indian world etc. So for me, coming here was learning so much—the existing world of Hindi music, which I don’t listen to much; it’s nice to see what hit songs the kids pick up. Some of them are 17-18 and they sing like they have 10 years of experience, and if you mold these people, they could become the next star.”
The Slumdog Millionnaire-composer feels being on a show like this has only reaffirmed his belief that success can come to anybody. “You can’t typecast anyone. A winner can become a loser. A loser can become a winner. And it’s easy [to win]. If they put their mind to it, they can do it.”
All photographs by Kunal Gupta.