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Indie Downloads Slowly Paying Off

After years of making their albums available for free online, indie bands find a small, yet steadily growing market online

Dustin Silgardo Sep 25, 2012
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Photo: Abhimanyu Ghoshal

For the past decade, the global music industry has been grappling with the problem of staying afloat in a time when music can be shared on the internet and downloaded for free with relative ease. The Indian independent music industry finds itself in the interesting situation of having not really been floating at all in the pre-Napster era. Consequently, most contemporary Indian bands see the ability to share their music on the web as a convenient way to expand their small, yet growing audience. But can they actually turn digital downloads into a revenue stream? Is the concept of selling music even alive, or will the independent music scene in India continue to be mainly driven by live gigs and a loyal, niche following?

The sale of independent Indian music online has received a fillip in 2012. Flipkart’s digital download store, Flyte, tied up with independent music platform NH7.in in July to promote indie music. In August, Flyte also inked a deal with artistaloud.com (Hungama’s independent music arm) to make artistaloud’s catalogue available on their site. August also saw the launch of two new websites ”“ Ok Listen! and musicfellas – which will exclusively sell indie bands’ albums.

Some of the better-known indie bands have been racking up an impressive number of plays on streaming sites like SoundCloud.com ”“ The Raghu Dixit Project and metal band Scribe both have more than 10,000 plays for at least one of their songs on MySpace, while Skyharbor have had approximately 30,000 plays for each of the two songs they have put up on SoundCloud. But the concept of paying for music online has not quite caught on. On Flyte, for example, Skyharbor’s album Blinding White Noise: Illusion And Chaos was downloaded 300 times in the two weeks after it released in April, while Swarathma’s new album, Topiwalleh, has about 120 downloads after a 360 degree marketing campaign by both Flyte and NH7 encouraging fans to buy the digital album.

Predictably, the digital music platforms insist that there is a growing market for indie. According to Sameer Nigam, vice-president (digital) at Flipkart, 30 percent of the downloads on Flyte are of non-film (i.e. non-mainstream) music, of which independent music is estimated to contribute around 10%. Until now, Nigam says, the digital music space inIndiahas been dominated by mobile phones, where the telecom companies control what caller tunes and ringtones are available, thus skewing the figures towards mainstream music and underestimating the market for indie music.

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But is that market big enough for bands to actually start looking at it as a future revenue stream? “It will take an effort from both us and the bands to promote music, but people are willing to pay for music, and, with innovations in the payment method making it easy for them to do so, the digital space could be profitable for bands in the near future,” says Nigam. Shreyas Srinivasan, co-founder of NH7, says that he expects bands to be able to offset the cost of making an album purely through digital downloads within the next six months to a year.

Most bands, though, still view the digital space as a way to promote their music rather than as a revenue source. Swarathma vocalist, Jishnu Dasgupta, says a band like Swarathma cannot sell purely music anymore. “Since everything is available for free on the internet, you have to do something extra to get people to actually pay for music,” says Dasgupta. His idea is to encourage a consumer to download an album by offering something more, perhaps a place on the guest-list for a gig or some signed merchandise.

Parikrama’s keyboardist and manager, Subir Malik, says digital downloads probably contribute no more than 0.5 percent to the band’s income, despite them being one of the first bands to have their music up on artistaloud.com, in 2010. This is because Parikrama have always seen value in making their music available for free. “We were probably one of the first bands to give our music away for free on the internet; we did it in 1997,” says Malik. “In fact, Peter Gabriel’s record label, Real World, later asked us how we predicted that giving away music free on the internet was an experiment worth trying. For us, it seemed like the natural thing to do because we knew we had a small audience and we wanted them to be able to listen to our music. If we stopped giving away our music free, maybe digital downloads would contribute about 10% to our revenue. But we’ve always been a live band.”

Mayank Thakur, chief operating officer of Times Music, reckons there is a market for digital downloads of independent music, but it will be some years before it is big enough to be profitable for either the platforms or the bands. “People in India still discover music mainly through the radio and television,” he explains. “It is encouraging that there are now services which allow consumers to search for independent bands and discover new music, but it will take many such services to target different regions and create a market. They will need to do something different, as well, to promote the music, perhaps offline events,” he says.

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What Flyte has done is create a one-stop shop where consumers can come to download their favourite film songs, but also discover new music by independent bands. The idea of placing indie bands’ music next to Bollywood hits is what drew NH7 to tie up with Flyte. “We could have started our own online music store, but we tied up with Flipkart because we wanted to reach a larger audience,” says Srinivasan. “Flyte’s home page gets around 800-900,000 unique views a week. We select a few bands to promote on the home page, so they get huge exposure.”

Websites like OK Listen! and musicfellas.com will be restricted to a smaller audience, as they have positioned themselves as being platforms exclusively for indie music, but they could play a role in helping lesser-known indie bands gain traction. Ok Listen! has been around for less than a month, but already bands like Bengaluru-based Hindi blues-rock outfit Parvaaz and Mumbai-based jazz-fusion band Colaba Point, who are struggling to reach four figures in SoundCloud  plays, have found buyers off the new site.

Ok Listen!’s founder, Vijay Basrur, says his idea was not necessarily to create a new market but service an already existing demand for independent music. “We didn’t do much research on the market size, but we felt there was a problem when I saw this tweet from a fan, asking the band Them Clones how he could listen to their music because none of it was available online,” says Basrur. Mayank Jain, founder of musicfellas, has a similar tale of how not being able to find music by Silk Route convinced him of the need for a social platform where fans can interact with each other and bands to discover and listen to indie music.

The digital download numbers are still small for indie bands, and a fair way away from contributing to their income. However, the increasing number of platforms for indie bands to sell their music represents a growing sentiment in the industry that independent music is in demand and needs to be brought out of the shadow of the mainstream fare.

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