COVER STORY: Sanam, The Digital Superstars
With their unbeatable social media numbers and onstage sass, there’s no stopping India’s biggest music sensation
It’s rare to find a non-mainstream Bollywood artist speaking of fans and fandoms as matter-of-factly as Sanam do. When was the last time you saw an indie rock band even use the word ‘fan’ in a social media post or on stage, unless they were laughing at the lack thereof? If you’re a band from the scene, chances are you’d stay away from anything that smacks of self-aggrandizement lest it cost you your coolness quotient. But Sanam, arguably India’s most popular band right now and legit digital superstars, have every right to narrate fan stories. Just because they’ve had so many!
The most bizarre one has to be from a New Year’s Eve gig a few years ago. Bassist Venkat Subramaniyam recounts, “A guy randomly walks up on stage and feeds me a grape! It was crazy.” Another time, a girl in the audience who was standing at the edge of the stage held on to guitarist Samar Puri’s shoelaces and wouldn’t leave them. Frontman Sanam Puri has been the awkward recipient of 34 roses handed to him one by one all through the night by a smitten fan at a private gig. But the band say it’s their manager Ben Kurian Thomas who is probably the most severely hit of them all: in a bid to ‘save’ the boys, Thomas is often always left with scratches and nail marks courtesy fangirls. Drummer Keshav Dhanraj recounts how a girl used to cut herself and write letters in blood addressed to the band, and even post it on her Instagram. He says, “The good part about this was that all our fan groups got together, contacted this girl and helped her. We have some really amazing fans!”
How it all happened
Sanam have had a career trajectory unlike any other band in India. Firstly, they’re India’s first Internet-created music stars who owe their fame entirely to YouTube. And if it wasn’t for the digital outlet, the outfit—that started out as a cover band—wouldn’t have experienced superstardom in such little time (under five years.)
The band, with its current lineup came together in 2010 when they won a Times Music-run talent hunt Supastars. Back then, they called themselves The SQS Project. Two music videos and an album release later, the band seemed to have had an epiphany around 2013. The consumption of cover songs on YouTube was rapidly increasing (Shraddha Sharma had already had a homespun viral hit with “Main Tenu Samjhawan Ki”) but the Internet was crying for a megastar. Says Thomas, “When I met them as SQS, I couldn’t believe there was a product line like that [band] which wasn’t tapped. Where would you get four guys with such good looks and such great talent?”
With their first cover music video, “Jee Le Zara” from Talaash, Sanam had arrived. The very next month, they had another video ready, this time in collaboration with Jonita Gandhi, who just a few week ago had featured alongside Sanam Puri in composer Clinton Cerejo’s brilliant Coke Studio episode, on “Pinjra.” The following two years saw Sanam cracking the cover song game like pros. Every month would witness a new video and a substantial jump in subscribers. Today, the band boast of a total of 920 million video views and over 5 million subscribers on YouTube.
Cracking the digital game
One of the reasons for Sanam’s resounding success is their USP as a band. This four-member identity is their biggest asset and makes them stand apart from their peers, who are all solo YouTube stars. Samir Bangara, Co-founder and MD, Qyuki, explains, “This strength also reflects in the quality of the content they produce because the skills of all members as musicians come together in the arrangement and composition of songs.”
Qyuki, a digital media company, has partnered with Sanam since 2014, when their channel boasted 150k subscribers. The quadrupling of their subscribers in just four years is no mean feat and a direct result of an impeccable digital strategy. Since YouTube and music labels in India have not yet arrived at a licensing arrangement, most cover artists in India are exposed to being guilty of copyright infringement which can cost them their channel. Enter Qyuki here which licenses music with top labels so that the Sanam YouTube channel doesn’t stand that legal risk. (Last year, in a bid to avoid copyright conflict, YouTube superstar Vidya Vox deleted from her channel the cover videos of all the Bollywood songs whose rights belonged to T-series.)
Apart from licensing, Qyuki takes care of distribution, marketing, brand partnerships, and optimizing Sanam’s YouTube channel. “If you type ‘Gulabi Aakhen’ on Google, Sanam’s video is the first to appear,” says Bangara, who also credits the band’s stupendous rise to a few other rare qualities. “They’re very disciplined in terms of the consistency of the content they release, and there’s cohesiveness among the band. They have stuck together, and are extremely grounded and down-to-earth. Their ‘good-guy, pop band’ image works for them.”
Ask the band about how it feels to be a product of the digital revolution, and they shrug. Says Sanam, “It only feels [that way] when you say it like that… we actually don’t even think about that—that we are digital superstars. Our main thing is to just compose music and perform, and make sure we spread love through our music—that is our main intention, and everything else is happening around it. We honestly never thought we would be at this stage. And the other thing is that there’s so much more we want to do and we are not even close to that.”
Covers vs originals
The one thing all four members really want to do right now is release more originals. “We always wanted to do more right from the start,” says Dhanraj. “And then we started doing more renditions. So we want to get back and start composing, you know!” Thomas reminds that the decision to do covers was to get “eye balls and footfalls” so that in the future the band could afford to do whatever they wished creatively. “It was long-drawn process over five years that has worked out,” says Thomas.
For Subramaniyam, now that the band has tasted sweet success, it’s their growth that matters most. “It’s very important for artists to evolve now… When we started doing originals, we had a certain way of composing, a certain way of ideating on how to arrange songs. Now it’s totally different. And in the midst of it all, we are rearranging classics and exploring regional music, all that stuff. So when it actually comes down to what we actually set out to do—we never intended to put out renditions. It was just music that we had written [ourselves].”
Sanam have a fair share of #SanamOriginal songs but the number is yet to match the #SanamRendition catalogue, which tends to attract wider shares and appreciation online. Oh, and gigs. Loads of gigs! Informs Thomas, “We play as many gigs as a mainstream Bollywood act and are the only band in India who do ticketed concerts around the globe.” Sanam’s ever-expanding repertoire of classic and contemporary Hindi songs make them ideal entertainers for everything from a corporate show to a wedding gig. Says Dhanraj, “We always wanted to do concerts and create a nice experience for the audience. We are slowly getting into that space— we’re doing a lot of concerts, a lot of international shows and we’re having a lot of people coming out to watch us. Right now we’re going to Amsterdam and then Suriname, and we want each gig to be different.”
Within the band itself, the musical influences range from B.B. King to Boyzone.
While Sanam admits he hardly listens to music now—“It’s been three-four years since I have listened to music,” his inspirations have largely been pop. “Like Westlife and those boybands, also rock bands like Audioslave and Linkin Park. A lot of what I like is actually Western classical music, and opera—I used to sing that as well. Western classical is what I learnt. But now, I prefer listening to soft music. I can’t take noise and volume any more. Other than hair volume, of course (laughs).”
Dhanraj swears by Michael Jackson. “He is the only artist I have been followed the longest. I really like his grooves, his melodies, his performances, everything about him.” What about his favorite contemporary artists? “There are lots of them. Nowadays, because of Instagram, there are drummers all over the world who I am following. They all might not be playing with big artists but they’re just so good and they all have something new, something unique… These new guys are doing such different stuff; some of their ideas are just crazy!”
If you’ve been tripping on the guitar-heavy sound on the band’s original songs, blame it on Samar’s love for bands like U2 and Radiohead. Subramaniyam, on his part, is a blues baby. “I grew up listening to all kinds of music but my main source of inspiration is blues. Back then music channels were big and they actually played music. And there were cool VJs who were tastemakers, who I think are very important for people who follow music. Because tastemakers would tell you, ‘Hey, this is good stuff.’ Not everybody has time to figure out. Today, there’s so much new music—how are you going to find that [which you love]?”
He adds: “But apart from blues, I like neo-soul, and I also like Arabic pop. I really like R.D. Burman because his music has a lot of theatrics, like there’s something always going on—there’s tension and release all the time. I also like Bryan Adams, Eagles, Beatles; you cannot get better songwriters than the Beatles. And Prince! Man, this list will go on… oh and Led Zeppelin. Then, Nineties music as well—Boyz II Men…”
The one common thing that Sanam the band enjoy together is good pop. Says Subramaniyam, “And pop today is trap music!” Sanam laughs: “So now, we’re trapped!”
Photos: Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India
Wardrobe: Numero Uno
Art director: Amit Naik
Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Watch Sanam’s video for “Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai” below: