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How the Coronavirus is Impacting Audio and Video Streaming in India

Music suffers a surprising lag while video draws in unprecedented traffic as the nation goes into lockdown

Jessica Xalxo Apr 07, 2020

COVID-19 has had a tangible impact on streaming. (Clockwise from top left) A still from ‘The Forgotten Army,’ a still from ‘Asur,’ dream-pop duo Parekh & Singh, a still from ‘Never Kiss Your Best Friend,’ a still from ‘Maska,’ singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad and hip-hop artist Raja Kumari. Photos: Parizad D (Parekh & Singh); Netflix (‘Maska’); Sambit Biswas (Prateek Kuhad); Rohit Gupta for Rolling Stone India (Raja Kumari).

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Reports of the coronavirus, particularly its most common strain COVID-19, first emerged in December 2019 and over a period of over four months, we started to see a tangible effect of the disease on the entertainment industry worldwide. Amidst WHO’s declaration of the disease as a pandemic, events around the globe stood canceled, while shoots were stalled and tours postponed.

With India officially under a 21-day lockdown from March 25th to April 14th in order to contain the spread of and recovery from the coronavirus, what’s the outlook for remote-friendly forms of entertainment such as streaming (both video and audio) look like? 

A recent Nielsen report found that the rise in people staying put at home could potentially lead to an almost 60 percent increase in the amount of content they watch and Tarun Katial (CEO, ZEE5 India) notes a spike in consumption across key metros with audiences continuing to view a variety of content in 12 languages. “Interestingly, we have seen a significant jump in consumption on connected devices. This could be attributed to people working from home in the past week[s],” he tells Rolling Stone India. While a spokesperson from Netflix India declined to comment, Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos spoke to CNN late last month, revealing that “people are certainly watching a lot more Netflix” while not divulging numbers. He also explained that the company works far ahead of its upcoming releases, delivering all episodes of its shows at once. “We don’t see any disruption in our output over the next few months. [But] maybe later in the year, if this progresses long, you’ll start feeling some of that as the physical production is not operating,” Sarandos said about titles still left in the loop.

On March 18th — a week prior to national lockdown — when the number of coronavirus cases increasingly climbed in India, Cellular Operators Association of India’s (COAI) director general Rajan Mathews told The Print that overall mobile data traffic had increased by 20 percent as compared to mobile traffic from seven days ago, noting that slow internet speed would be a natural consequence. The COAI then made a written appeal to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and to 11 content streaming platforms on March 21st, urging them to reduce streaming quality and replace advertisements with PSAs in order to quell the amount of data being consumed as well as to spread awareness about the coronavirus. 

Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 8 p.m. address to citizens on March 24th during which he announced the three-week lockdown, a remote meeting amongst key stakeholders in the digital space (Star and Disney India, Sony, Google, Facebook, Viacom18, Amazon Prime Video, Zee, Tiktok, Netflix, MX Player, Hotstar) culminated in a unanimous decision to offer content only in SD (standard definition) across all cellular networks, with the bitrate not jumping higher than 480p as an “exceptional measure” in India until April 14th, the end of the national lockdown. “The digital industry has decided to act immediately in the larger national and consumer interest and to ensure the robustness of the cellular network,” they said in a joint statement. Mathews from COIA, in a statement to the PTI, noted that the demand for data witnessed an increase between 20-30 percent in a few days, following the announcement of the lockdown.

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What does an uptake in data consumption mean for new players in the Indian streaming market? While spokespersons from Amazon Prime Video (India), ALTBalaji and Hotstar declined to comment, Ferzad Palia (Head – Voot Select) tells us that the month-old service has seen almost three times the estimated number of subscribers join the platform over the past few weeks. He factors in Voot Select’s debut titles while maintaining that “how much of the growth should be genuinely attributed to the current situation versus the fact that the content is working is anyone’s guess.” Palia predicts an increase in viewers owing to the coronavirus lockdown but particularly due to television shoots being halted in light of the spreading virus, meaning new episodes won’t be making it on to the idiot box anytime soon. “If the current situation continues for a prolonged period of time, it will lead to people gravitating towards new content on OTT platforms,” he says. 

Interestingly, video and music streaming seem to be going in different directions with reports noting a slump in song plays as countries such as Italy, the U.S., U.K., India and more grapple with the coronavirus and its crippling effects on healthcare, hospitality, retail, transport and other industries. When Italy went into lockdown on March 9th, analysts at Quartz found that Spotify’s streaming figures took a hit during the pandemic, dropping from 18.3 million total streams per day (top 200 most-streamed songs domestically) in February 2019 to figures that have not topped 14.4 million streams since the national lockdown was announced on March 9th, 2020. Additionally, a 23 percent drop in streams was also noticed a week after (March 17th) when compared to numbers from a weak before (March 3rd) Italy’s lockdown. In the U.S., Spotify streams declined to 77 million on March 17th as cases of COVID-19 rose, leading to a decline of almost 14 million streams when compared to the previous week’s count.

According to Quartz’s senior data reporter Dan Kopf, the sudden practice of national self-isolation could have played a major role in the dip of music streaming. Kopf noted that the most popular days for streaming are Friday and Saturday, days when there’s a high likelihood people will venture out. “It appears listeners are more likely to stream songs when life is more normal and they are looking to have some fun,” he wrote. Overall streaming in the U.S. too took a hit during the week from March 13th to 19th (dropping by 7.6 percent to a figure below 20.1 billion) when most bars and eateries across the country closed, leading more Americans to take to self-isolation. 

In India, streaming platforms are beginning to pull on emerging data to monitor business closely. While representatives from Apple Music (India), Amazon Music (India), Spotify (India) and the newly launched Resso declined to comment, a spokesperson at JioSaavn told Rolling Stone India, “While India data is still [in] early [stages], we have begun to see smartphone streams declining during commute hours and in the middle of the day.” JioSaavn has found streaming numbers to remain relatively consistent at night while observing an expected growth in desktop streams due to all non-essential job holders adapting to working from home. “These patterns will continue to evolve in the coming weeks and months. We are also adapting JioSaavn to enable artists to reach audiences with their live performances,” said the spokesperson. The streaming service also noted an almost 50 percent decrease in U.S. streams, first in the state of California and then in New York City (now the epicenter of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak). 

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Gaana has observed a growth in traffic on the app over the last two weeks, particularly from tier 2 and 3 cities in the country. Gaana CEO Prashan Agarwal links this development to the number of people working from home, noting that listeners are streaming more than just music on the app. “Non-music genres like podcasts and shows across comedy, storytelling, self-help, meditation and devotion that can comfortably play in the background throughout the entire day [are] receiving significant traction,” he says. There’s a good chance that streaming numbers will take some time to level out as India ticks off almost two weeks of its three-week lockdown and we’ll see more streaming platforms — both video and audio — in the country release information that goes beyond preliminary data.

In order to help the music industry as it continues to buckle under fallout from the coronavirus, Spotify announced the global Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief project last month in order to provide financial resources to those most affected in the music community. The streaming giant will soon launch a new ‘Spotify for Artists’ feature enabling artists to fundraise directly from their Spotify artist profiles. The project also offers concessions for programs that are part of ‘Spotify Creator Tools’ such as music talent marketplace SoundBetter and cloud-based audio recording platforms Soundtrap and Anchor. On the homefront, JioSaavn launched Live Anywhere earlier this month, a gig series featuring independent artists that will be recorded through Facebook’s live video feature. The audio stream from the series will be made available on the JioSaavn app with 100 percent of the generated revenue going directly to the artists. Netflix recently announced that it will contribute Rs. 7.5 crore to the Producers Guild of India (PGI) Relief Fund in order to help daily wage earners in the country’s entertainment industry working across television, film and web productions. This is part of the $100 million fund the company set up to help the hardest-hit in the global creative community.

While it might be premature to make conclusive predictions about the future of streaming in a rapidly changing climate, the coming days will present many new learnings about how art continues to be offered, adapted and consumed in the digital age.

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