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COVER STORY: Is Indipop Making a Comeback?

The pop industry in India is seeing its best days since the Nineties and music labels are betting big

Nirmika Singh Apr 05, 2019

(From left) Aastha Gill, Harrdy Sandhu, Akasa Singh and Badshah.

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Our April 2019 cover.

Unless you live under a rock or prefer to stay miles away from Hindi music, chances are that you might have recently enjoyed or even danced to a tune by some or all of these artists: Badshah, Aastha Gill, Harrdy Sandhu and Akasa Singh. None of these four artists call themselves a ”˜Bollywood singer’ ”“ a label that many a singer would have loved to proudly wear as a badge till as late as two years ago. None of these singers even have aspirations to become playback voices. What they do want, however, is to become music icons. While Badshah is inching towards that goal, it is just a matter of time that the rest of the gang will follow suit.

When I meet Shridhar Subramaniam, President, India and Middle East, Sony Music, he tells me the non-film music world is changing in a way it never has. The film music or what is called the ”˜soundtrack’ industry (comprising Bollywood and regional sectors), which in the past decade snuffed out the artist led/non-film ecosystem, is finally shape-shifting. “Pop is now a sustainable business. It’s not going to vanish overnight and it’s not going to have a bubble moment. We’re at the beginning of a massive expansion across genres, languages and demographics,” he says.

While Sony Music India might boast of having a stronghold in the non-film markets since it started out over 22 years ago (music maestro A.R. Rahman’s 1997 record Vande Mataram is the label’s highest grossing nonfilm album till date), today it finds itself in the company of competitive labels and multi-channel networks that are all vying for a piece of the pop pie.

Sanujeet Bhujabal, who is Sony Music India’s Marketing Director, connects this business dynamic to the increasing influence of a new kind of music icon ”“ the digital superstar. “The rise of digital platforms has democratized music. There are no gatekeepers now. I call it ”˜the loop.’ The loop is that the artist is on social media, reaching out to fans. The artist then creates content that becomes a hit, which in turn reaches out to a wider fan base. But the artist doesn’t stop there. He is also on ground ”“ which differentiates him from a movie star.”

Clearly, it makes business sense to invest in pop stars today than ever before. Apart from the four aforementioned artists, Sony Music India also manages singer/rapper/producer Sukh-E, lyricist Vayu and the alt-rock band The Yellow Diary. Just look at the numbers, insists Rohan Jha, Head of Pop Music at the label. “The parameters [of success of these pop stars] would be their numbers on the national radio and TV charts. Whenever there are major releases by Badshah and Harrdy, their songs are among the top three on the charts, showing they’re overtaking Bollywood or on par with it.”

That the Punjabi artists are ruling the roost is no surprise. The region has historically favored and supported homegrown talent that never really needed the support of the film industry. Whether it was the music legend Gurdas Maan in the Eighties or Yo Yo Honey Singh in the recent past, the Punjabi music industry remains a model for the rest of India. Says Pawenesh Pajnu, North Business Head, Sony Music India, “All the biggest pop stars that we see in Mumbai today are actually the older or the younger music stars from this region. The consumption of music has increased now ”“ I also credit it to the massive Indian diaspora.”

In a freewheeling chat with the four pop stars and the Sony Music business brains, we find out that the glory days of Indipop might be back again.

Has Indipop Reached A Tipping Point?

(From left) Badshah, Akasa Sing, Shridhar Subramaniam, Harddy Sandhu and Aastha Gill.

Why are we reporting this story of pop’s success when Bollywood still continues to rule the roost in music?

Shridhar: The right way to place it is by asking whether pop has reached a tipping point. It’s not really substitutive of Bollywood but we feel it has reached some sort of a critical mass that we believe is now sustainable. We have always had sporadic hits but now the industry is becoming vibrant and self sufficient in its own right.

To understand this change, we have to go back to two things in the past: The first one is the Nineties Magnasound/Crescendo period when there were artists like Daler Mehndi, Lucky Ali et al. This was a relatively stable and powerful time for almost a decade, starting 1995. And then it went bust overnight because it became too much and market couldn’t handle it. Then there was a complete lull for seven to eight years. Around 2010-2011, we started something called Live From The Console [a Mumbai gig series], we also started indie labels called Day 1 and Zomba [for hip-hop]. We put our foot into Punjab.

There are three things that have happened so far: First, the idea and concept of a celebrity and pop culture has gone beyond Bollywood stars. Bollywood stars today have a slightly different problem that they’re not putting out enough content. How many occasions does an actor get to engage with his audience? How many movies can he star in? In today’s social media world you need to be out there everyday ”“ which is so much easier for a pop star, because they are celebrities that are not bound by a film script.

We saw the early signs with Anirudh [Ravichander, composer/singer of “Kolaveri Di” fame], [rapper] Divine and [singer] Arjun Kanungo. But in the last three years, it has hit a whole new trajectory.

Some of these pop stars are virtually on par with Bollywood celebrities. Of course, there’ll be a degree of difference but it’s arguable how far they are from each other.

Second, how is music being consumed? How are the YouTube views of a Badshah track different from the views of a film song by Badshah? The consumption is changing and some of it is on a global scale. Third, the fact is that these are personalities with immense fan following not only on social media but terms of their abilities to do concerts. If you look at Neha Kakkar ”“ her consumption today is probably bigger than that of a Taylor Swift on YouTube. It is arguable whether she is a film person or a pop person.

Pop is now a sustainable business. It’s not going to vanish overnight and it’s not going to have a bubble moment. We’re at the beginning of a massive expansion across genres, languages and demographics. Yet, I feel we do not have enough female pop superstars. We don’t have superstars of older and younger ages. We don’t have a 15-year-old superstar yet. We don’t have bands and groups that are stars. There are so many areas that are missing but the foundation has been laid. Look at the amount of investment that has been going into pop overnight, and not just by our company. We have seen it with Universal Music, and the likes of multi-channel networks like Qyuki, T-Series, Zee, Times, Speed ”“ whatever they’re doing, they know they have to be in the artist economy, not just in the Bollywood ecosystem.

Label-Artist Relationship Is Changing

Resurrecting the ethos of the Indipop heyday in today’s time must take colossal investments. What have been the major challenges from the label’s side in ensuring these stars have long innings?

Shridhar: It takes two hands to clap. It’s not just the label but the combination of their own talent and dedication. The four people here are probably the hardest working people in the industry. And yes, it requires patience from our side. It’s a long journey.

The challenges were that initially, a lot of people did not take pop very seriously, but now in the last 18 months, things have changed and now fans are asking for more music from each of them.

It is not only the artists that have had to reinvent themselves over the years, but also labels. The role of the label today has moved beyond the traditional responsibilities and it is more creative than ever before”¦

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Sanujeet: If I look at the evolution of the music industry in the past four-five years, the first big thing has been that the industry has become more creative because we are dealing with the artists directly. It’s not like the soundtrack era which was more acquisition-driven. Second, once we get talent on board, it is all harnessing the personality and mapping their DNA to the fan base, to identify the things that the artist must do to reach out to the fans in a cohesive manner. Third, it’s about using the talent and the music to create things outside of music. Badshah is not just a music star”¦

Badshah, what did it take you to put together a formidable personality beyond that of a music star?

Badshah: I have always believed in teamwork. I know it sounds clichéd but all great things are clichéd because they’re great. It’s not only about creating art but also selling it, and making sure it reaches as many ears and eyes as possible. Apart from that, I had a vision before coming to Sony and I shared it with them. Luckily, we were on the same page. And although we are doing a lot of things beyond music, the centerpoint is music. At heart, I am into music and everything else is going to be an extension of that.

Historically, labels have always got a bad name. They are considered ruthless entities that care more about making money than promoting good art. Aastha, were you ever wary about this before signing with a major label?

Aastha: I feel very lucky to be part of this team. When I got into music, I too heard the same things about labels but I took a leap of faith. And so far, I have never at any point felt that they have treated me like a product. We’re all like family, and I feel secure.

Of course, there have been tiffs here and there but those are important.

Harrdy, in today’s changing times, what are the crucial things that an artist must expect from a label?

Harrdy: The most important thing is that the label and the artist must work together as a team. I started out in Punjab ”“ I got into music only in 2010 and before that I was a cricketer.

Badshah: He still remains a cricketer (laughs).

Harrdy: Yeah, so I have always played in a team!

Badshah: I tend to say ”˜we’ in Sony Music ”“ and our philosophy is very strong. It has to be a long-term association. Only then can you expect results. And apart from that, there’s a personal connect and that is the reason why have grown together.

“Whenever there are major releases by Badshah and Harrdy, their songs are among the top three on charts, showing they’re overtaking Bollywood or on par with it.”

Rohan Jha, Head of Pop Music, Sony Music India

Creative Democracy Thanks To Digital Platforms

 How has the overall business climate changed with increasing action in the digital space?

The Strategists: (From Left) Rohan Jha, Sanujeet Bhujabal and Pawanesh Pajnu.

Sanujeet: The rise of digital platforms has democratized music. There are no gatekeepers now. I call it ”˜the loop.’ The loop is that the artist is on social media, reaching out to fans. The artist then creates content that becomes a hit, which in turn reaches out to a wider fan base. But the artist doesn’t stop there. He is also on ground ”“ which differentiates him from a movie star. The song from a movie ends at the theater so there’s no loop/touchpoint for a movie star, which is here for a pop star. And that has emerged like a big thing. You’re constantly in the loop engaging with the fan, showing your personality and also being approachable.

Shridhar: Most of these artists ”“ even if you’re reasonably successful, you’re doing close to 100-150 shows. That’s a lot of time you’re in front of people. You’re not living in the ivory tower. Like when you go to the South, some of the stars are not even on social media!

Rohan: Just to add to what they’re saying, I think what we’ve also seen is how traditional media has warmed to non-film music and to non-film artists over a period of time. When we started with Badshah, Arjun and Divine, it was an uphill climb that songs broke on mainstream media.

Whatever we have done with TV and radio partners on the Badshah album, in terms of magnitude, is what we would do with a Bollywood project. They [traditional media] have realized the effectiveness that pop is bringing to the table.

Shridhar: The single biggest trigger for us was was this: till a year ago, artists would come and say, ”˜You guys are big in Bollywood, give me a Bollywood song. All the pop is fine but ultimately I need a Bollywood song to do well.’ Today, this is not their number one request. That’s the first sign ”“ artists now know that they don’t need a Bollywood platform to become a star.

Look at Harddy ”“ he has become what he has without Bollywood. It is another thing that Bollywood would suck him. Even a Raftaar, Guru Randhawa ”“ their identities are that of an individual.

Women Pop Stars Don’t Have It Easy

What does it mean to be a female pop star today?

Aastha: It’s a package of being a good singer, good performer, being fit and having lots of confidence.

Akasa: It was always my dream to be this! Growing up watching Indipop stars, I often wondered how amazing it would have been to have been born in those times of Alisha Chinai and the likes…

I always knew I didn’t just want to be a playback voice to an actor on screen. I always wanted people to not only hear me but also watch me. I love performing! But being a pop star does come with own pressures ”“ there’s not a sure-shot success and you have to push people to listen to independent music.

Akasa, people often say women pop stars have shorter innings than their male peers. Plus women have the extra pressure to behave and look a certain way. As a woman artist in a Bollywood and male-dominated industry, what are the additional things that you feel you have to pack in?

Akasa: You’re right ”“ there is an additional something we have to put in, but thankfully, as women, we possess those skills naturally. For example, if we are good actors or dancers, we can feature in our own music video. The reason people call us pop stars is because we have added those elements in. People don’t just listen to music, they watch it.

The industry is a rat race and it is difficult no doubt, but by going that extra mile””be it training yourself to dance or to face the camera, or in my case, writing my own stuff””you can create a USP for yourself. I know a lot of singers who feel no need to add that extra bit”””˜I am not an actor, so why do I need to look fit or work out in the gym,’ they ask. But I feel your personality as a pop star is as important as your music.

If you look at global pop stars like, say, Rihanna ”“ apart from listening to her music, girls also follow what she is wearing.

Aastha: Thankfully, there is no pressure from the label’s side to change our personality. If I have a tomboyish-jhalla [sloppy] side they have never asked me to mask it. I think that is why the audience connects ”“ because they find it relatable.

Are Indipop And Bollywood Neck And Neck Today?

If I look the metrics of success of Bollywood sountracks today ”“ one of your biggest films Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) did a billion views each on video and audio. Have we experienced anything comparable in non-film yet?

Shridhar: If you look at it cumulatively ”“ yes. With ADHM, you’re taking it as a full album but with Badshah, you’re taking “Mercy” as a song. If we add five of Badshah’s songs, I think it would come to a billion.

Sanujeet: The numbers of a super hit pop song and a super hit Bollywood songs are coming neck and neck. The only difference is that Bollywood is not a genre, it’s a vehicle. I remember that in 1995, the Bombay soundtrack and Alisha China’s Made in India launched on the same day and in the wholesale market, it was neck and neck.

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Is it mirroring that era today? Is this the onset of that pop heyday?

Rohan: The parameters [of success of these pop stars] would be their numbers on the national radio and TV charts. Whenever there are major releases by Badshah and Harrdy, their songs are among the top three on charts, showing they’re overtaking Bollywood or on par with it.

Shridhar: It’s also important to see the YouTube trending views. In the music space, you will find the top trending video to be most likely a Punjabi songs or a Bollywood track. Since we don’t have physical copies or CDs anymore, the only metrics we can look at today is radio plays, stream counts and chart positions.

Sanujeet: There is no pre-judgment cost ”“ previously soundtracks would get priority.

Shridhar: Just look at Gully Boy.

But that soundtrack became so big precisely because it was part of a mainstream Bollywood film.

Shridhar: In the case of Gully Boy, the film has made a genre accessible. And on the back of urban hip hop, you’re building stars and personalities.

But all this didn’t happen minus the Bollywood tag”¦

Rohan: With Divine, from the time we launched “Mere Gully Mein” and the rise of his fans has gone from fanatics to enthusiasts. The numbers have grown exponentially since then.

But the point we are making is that the film became a rocket launcher for them.

Shridhar: I feel Bollywood just sucked a rising trend and amplified it. The fact that this began four years ago is a sign of a niche genre being accepted and these new distribution platforms enabling the artists to connect with fans. Bollywood has lent an amp effect, it hasn’t created the scene

Sanujeet: Bollywood always maximized a trend. Whenever you reach out to a producer, they always ask what the flavor of the season is.

Shridhar: For example, with even themes like patriotism and sports machismo ”“ Bollywood has taken these nuggets and amped them.

The North Indian Phenomenon

Pawanesh: In my region, up North, film soundtrack was never at the forefront, it was always the non-film music, what we call pop. All the biggest pop stars that we see in Mumbai today are actually the older or the younger music stars from this region. Now consumption of music has increased ”“ I also credit it to Punjabis going overseas and the massive diaspora consuming the music.

Sanujeet: In the Nineties, when we were interacting with the artist, it was all about a recording deal. But today we look at them in totality – the personality, the brand and the music, and how all that can be maximized by the label. It’s not the just about the music but selling the brand story of an artist ”“ that’s artist development.

Investments In Bollywood Vs Indipop

Do you guys continue to buy a lot of Bollywood soundtracks, given that the space is now dominated by sharks like Jio that seem to have unlimited supply of money to buy in bulk?

Sanujeet: We see the India market growing. All the aspects ”“ the soundtrack and pop are growing. From the acquisition perspective, our budget will mirror what is happening in the market. If the market is growing, of course you will invest more. If pop is showing an emerging standalone category, we will invest in it more. It’s not to say we won’t invest in soundtracks. Both are different categories.

Shridhar: Just view it as a pie. Bollywood/soundtracks is a big chunk of that pie ”“ 60 percent of the market (it has come down from 68 percent). The balance is English music and pop of which the artist economy is around 13-14 percent tops (it has gone up from seven to eight percent). Assuming the Indian market is growing by 25 percent, in the pie one segment will grow greater. The artist economy might be growing at 40-50 percent year on year.

As far as our company investments are concerned ”“ nobody is going to vacate the 60 percent and put everything in the 14 percent. But yes, we will increase investements proportional to the overall pie and in that there will be increased allocations. So to reply ”“ we have doubled our investments in pop year on year, whereas the sountrack investement have gone up by 20-25 percent for the last three years.

How nasty has the soundtrack acquisition pie become now, especially when with players also owning streaming platforms? Does it even make business sense in this scenario to keep competing in this space?

Shridhar: It is not like that. Yes, they have unlimited resources, but more than that, they have an unlimited appetite. They want a lot ”“ whether they are able to get a lot and do a lot is a separate issue. Their ability to convert their desire to action is not yet proven.

The issue is that when you’re a behemoth ”“ label, streaming platform, broadcaster, you would want everything around the film ”“ digital rights, broadcast rights, music rights, negative rights, remake rights. Which maybe a good thing for some producers.

Other producers may say, ”˜Hey no, I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. I want a separate music company, a separate broadcast company etc”¦ I will maximize my value by breaking up the rights, working with different people and playing one against the other.’ These are two different philosophies.

And there are too many moving parts. But of course it causes escalation, disruption, panic and flutters.

The point is our messaging to our partners is very clear: ”˜We are a music company, we know how to market music. We will also help you with the music.’ And that is beginning to become an important thing. And we are totally not in competition with you on anything. We are not even like another music company who makes movies. We are singular and we are simple about what we want and what we do. And believe me, there’s a lot of people that resonate that idea.

We have a different problem today ”“ we are saying more nos than yeses. There is not a single person today who doesn’t want to do a deal with us.

Sanujeet: We are very selective with the kind of brands and production houses we work with. We like to focus on projects where music is the focus. Our is not a volume-based approach. It’s very targeted.

Shridhar: We don’t do six to eight projects in a year, but in the Tamil industry we might do 30-35.

Sanujeet: The differentiator is our transparency in data reporting is a hallmark in the industry.

Rohan: This is rare to find ”“ when we are on the same wavelength with the producer.

Shridhar: When you’re also a streaming platform ”“ you are asking for exclusivity on the platform, you’re are asking for exclusivity on video now for a few hours or days and audio for three to six months.

If I am producer, I need as many people to hear my music. I am not interested in the platform suddenly being the driver here, right? So now, I need mass reach.the driver here, right? So now, I need mass reach.

So that’s why the exclusivity goes against them. It is a deterrent. Out of the 100 million people, if it will reach only a 20 million people, even if you give me banners on 20 million people, it means nothing because there is akready 80 milllion people outside.

I’ll tell you how we’re going to win this, or how it will pan out:

First thing, pop will increase the supply infinitely. Anybody can be a pop star. You can be from Jharkhand and be a pop star; nobody can own it. I can own Bollywood ”“ it owns 500 films and I can buy all of them ”“ but nobody can own pop.

Photographer : Rohit Gupta
Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Assisted by : Aabha Malhotra
Hair and Makeup by Jean-Claude Biguine

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