Music beyond mainstream

Apps like Gaana and Saavn have more to offer than just popular fare. But do enough people know?


Artwork from Naezy’s new album, produced in collaboration with Saavn.
Artwork from Naezy’s new album, produced in collaboration with Saavn.

When I first heard about Junun (2015), a fusion album by Shye Ben Tzur, an Israeli musician who had teamed up with a band of Manganiyars (now called Rajasthan Express) and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, I couldn’t wait to hear it. A.R. Rahman had mentioned them at an interview I did with him a year ago. That Paul Thomas Anderson had made a documentary on the project just added to my curiosity. The obvious place to look for it was YouTube. It didn’t disappoint, and neither did the album. All the 13 tracks were hypnotic, exhilarating, unlike anything I had heard before.

A couple of days later, YouTube pulled it down owing to copyright issues. Next day, when I went for a walk with earphones plugged into my phone, I took a chance with Saavn, an app I tune into when I want to listen to Hindi film songs. Without any expectation, I typed out the name of the album. It was there, complete with album cover and artist credits.

My surprise would be shared by many others, who associate apps like Saavn and Gaana only with popular, mainstream music. Junun became the starting point for more discoveries on Saavn and Gaana—TV show soundtracks and Hollywood movie scores. Apps like Wynk Music and Hungama, too, have a vast and varied library.

This isn’t a new feature though. Gaana’s head of curation, Riya Mukherjee, says any music-streaming service absorbs the catalogues of every music label, Indian or international, that they tie up with. “Any music app is like a warehouse. You don’t go to a warehouse to just buy a shirt. A retailer has to put out everything. We make sure we have content that caters to the experienced, casual and hard-core listener alike,” she says.

Many Indian listeners are unaware of this, possibly because we are still getting used to consuming music over streaming services and aren’t sure of what to expect from them. Branding hasn’t addressed the issue—the immediate impression one gets is that the music on offer is Bollywood-centric. When you google Saavn, the first thing you see is “Stream your favourite Hindi songs for free online”. It doesn’t help that many think of it as “Saawan”—Hindi for monsoon. Based in New York, it actually stands for South Asian Audio Visual Network.

If you take a closer look, you will find the best of David Gilmour next to Ankit Tiwari on Gaana’s home page. Updates from Saavn include the soundtrack of the new season of Narcos and a notification about La La Land, when it won the Academy award for Best Original Score, besides a Rajinikanth special playlist.

Saavn recently launched Artist Originals with rapper Naezy; it will now be producing the work of South Asian independent musicians. “In India, mainstream music is correlated with film music, so most independent artistes are releasing their music DIY. With Artist Originals, we become a voice for India’s underground artistes, supporting and accelerating their growth, while allowing them the freedom to express themselves in their own way,” says Paramdeep Singh, co-founder and executive chairman of Saavn, which operates in 196 countries besides India.

Unsurprisingly, the number of users of these apps has grown exponentially since they launched in India around 2013. On an average, Gaana records 28 million users a month and Saavn, around 20 million. Unlike Apple Music, these services allow access to nearly their entire library without demanding premium subscriptions (which offer high-definition quality for the more discerning listener). Technological innovation ensures users stay with the apps. Gaana’s chief operating officer, Prashan Agarwal, talks about “dynamic bit-rate”, which ensures good audio quality in spite of fluctuating Internet connections. “If your connection hits a low patch when you are in a train, streaming won’t stop. There will be a drop in the quality for 10 seconds but it will recover to the original speed,” he says.

Gaana is breaking the clutter of weekly Top 20s with unusual podcasts as well. The Asha Verdict has Asha Bhonsle reviewing the latest Hindi film albums; in The Unheard, Shankar Mahadevan focuses on contemporary film music that isn’t heard so often.

Mukherjee, a radio professional, says data collected on user behaviour on music-streaming platforms is much more precise than the traditional research methods used in TV and radio, where figures are extrapolated from sample groups. It encourages experimentation with the programming, leaving little room for preconceived notions about listener behaviour.

“Had these shows not worked, they wouldn’t be around. We know they are successful because digital gives you accurate numbers. We aren’t guessing,” says Mukherjee. “This has helped burst the myth that people want the same old stuff”.

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