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How covid muted India's music industry

With independent artistes gaining access to the global stage via online platforms, there has been a resurgence in the Indian pop industry— a boon for artistes such as Badshah whose music video Paani Paani has received a good response globally. (Photo: Sunil Ghosh/HT)Premium
With independent artistes gaining access to the global stage via online platforms, there has been a resurgence in the Indian pop industry— a boon for artistes such as Badshah whose music video Paani Paani has received a good response globally. (Photo: Sunil Ghosh/HT)

  • Films are at a standstill, live events are on pause, and audio streaming pays little. What’s in store for musicians?
  • The advent of audio streaming platforms may have led to easier discovery of music and musicians, but it has barely resulted in fair value for those who create content

Earlier in May this year, singer Sona Mohapatra landed in the hill town of Darjeeling along the Sikkim-West Bengal border just before the lockdown was imposed in light of the second wave of the covid-19 pandemic. With plenty of time in her hands, the singer doubled up her efforts and decided to be her own stylist, make-up artist and hairdresser. And then, Mohapatra shot a song called Aise Na They on her phone with the help of a tripod that she had lugged along with her.

The do-it-yourself (DIY) video got picked up in July by the Swedish streaming service Spotify as part of its “EQUAL" initiative that aims to provide greater exposure to fresh female voices. Recently, Mohapatra was featured on a billboard at New York’s Times Square as Spotify’s artiste of the month, putting her in the company of big names such as Zoe Wees of Germany, Natalia Lafourcade of Mexico and Duda Beat of Brazil— all of whom have been bestowed a similar honour in the past.

But this recognition on the global stage is in marked contrast to the reality back home. India’s music industry has always been dominated by a handful of powerful labels and the shift towards web streaming has done little to change the status quo. For long, successful musicians have relied on live shows and concerts to pad up their earnings. But the pandemic has brought that segment of the music industry to a grinding halt, with no sign of a revival at least for a year or two.

The fact that several artistes, who do not make film music, have emerged fan favourites in the past few years proves that one no longer has to wait all their lives for a film break.
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The fact that several artistes, who do not make film music, have emerged fan favourites in the past few years proves that one no longer has to wait all their lives for a film break.

The only game in town is audio streaming, where estimates put the earnings of song writers and singers at about 10-15% of total revenues after the music label and the platform take their respective cut. The boom in the web streaming business has also put an end to music launches and associated events that traditionally went hand-in-hand with film releases. Cinema itself is changing, with slice-of-life films on OTT (over-the-top) platforms cutting back on songs in general. Put it all together and it’s not difficult to see why creators of melodies are a bit morose these days. To be sure, the music industry had its own set of challenges even before the pandemic, which happens to be the latest of its problems. Traditionally, film producers have engaged music composers to create the soundtrack for their projects. They, in turn, bring singers and lyricists on board. Over the past few years, as the compact disk (CD) and cassette industry gave way to the rise of music streaming platforms such as Gaana, Wynk, and Spotify, a viable model that works for everyone involved—the platform, the label, and the artiste—hasn’t really emerged.

The few who try to disrupt this existing model by releasing a single music score through social media quickly end up realizing that these ad-supported platforms don’t bring in much in terms of revenue. “The biggest challenge is that we don’t have a culture of paying (for content) in this country. Essentially, we think it’s okay to pay for coffee but not for a song that we want to listen to," Mohapatra said.

Understandably, the music industry is in for some tough times over the next year or two. Overall revenues are expected to touch a meagre 2,320 crore by 2023, compared to the film industry’s 24,400 crore.

Exposure without fair value

The advent of audio streaming platforms may have led to easier discovery of music and musicians through a legitimate channel, but it has barely resulted in fair value for those who create content.

Currently, while streaming platforms pay around 5 paisa per stream to the label that owns the song, YouTube pays around 1-2 paisa. “In tier-two and tier-three towns, these services are in direct competition with social media and short video apps like Moj, MX Taka Tak, etc.," said Shahir Muneer, founder and director of Divo Music, a south Indian music and media company.

Explaining the contradiction wherein the rise of audio streaming platforms during the pandemic exists in tandem with lower earnings of artistes, Tarsame Mittal, founder of TM Talent Management that manages several celebrities including Arijit Singh, Amit Trivedi, Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani in the music industry, said that over 95% of the users listen to music for free. “If a label brings out 100,00 songs per year, only 50-60 (of them) cross the mark where they manage to make any money," Mittal, who also owns the label TM Music, said.

Internationally, the norm is to put all premium content behind a paywall, Rakesh Nigam, CEO of the Indian Performing Right Society (IPRS) said. It is only reasonable for the industry to ask for a fair compensation because that will trickle down to artistes and creators, he added.

A Spotify spokesperson said that in the near future, India will continue to remain a free-tier market, wherein most users may not be willing to pay for audio streaming unless they start seeing real value in it.

There are also other roadblocks to building a more equitable and thriving music industry. For instance, the Indian Music Industry (IMI) had said in a 2019 report that despite the music industry supplying songs to the radio industry, thereby, driving the latter’s audience base that result in ad revenues, the music industry receives paltry compensation in return—only 2% of the latter’s top line. A deficit that could range from 163-225 crore continues to be denied in terms of royalties to the music industry, thanks to the archaic laws that were introduced when radio was at a nascent stage.

Moreover, revenue leakages due to piracy are a regular occurrence, with music industry losses totalling up to nearly 1,500 crore annually. At 76%, piracy rates in India remain the highest in the world, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). “In India, piracy will take a mid- to long-term effort—whether it’s about making music easily accessible and increasing the awareness about legal alternatives (that are) available to listeners or winning over hesitant users with curated content and recommendations," the Spotify spokesperson quoted above said.

The music industry in India is also losing about 200 crore in revenue annually as short-video apps bypass payments and access libraries of music labels illegally. Services such as Moj, owned by ShareChat, and Chingari have signed deals with music labels such as T-Series and Zee Music. However, there are many who flout copyright rules. Bhushan Kumar-owned T-Series had sent copyright infringement notices to content sharing mobile applications such as Roposo, Triller, Taka Tak, Josh, Mitron, and Snack Video for using the label’s music without permission last year.

“The usual explanation would be that the platform showcases only user-generated content, and the user is responsible for whatever they’re putting up," Blaise Fernandes, president and chief executive officer of IMI, had said in an earlier interview to Mint. Using music illegally is par for the course in India, Fernandes said. Inaction against most apps can be attributed to a combination of expensive legal bills and the lack of adequate infrastructure to pull down violating content, he added.

New opportunities

While streaming and social video platforms might be facing the music industry’s ire globally in recent years, in India at least, labels still retain enough power to make or break destinies. However, new opportunities are opening up, even if they don’t come with the added benefit of a steady source of income yet.

“Earlier, the film producer or the director would play a role in music creation. Now, the labels pick the names that they want to promote and insist that they be signed under contracts," Mohapatra said, adding that it saves the studio or the producer the added expense of music promotion, which is instead taken care of by the label in the run-up to the film’s release. If done right, it can create significant curiosity around a film and draw crowds to the theatres.

But the fact that names like Prateek Kuhad or several Punjabi artistes, who do not make film music, have emerged as new favourites among listeners in the past few years proves that artistes need not wait for all their lives for a film break, Mohapatra said.

"The music industry had remained in the shadow of films for the longest time. Earlier, you would search for songs based on the name of an actor or perhaps a composer," said Mandar Thakur, chief operating officer at Times Music. With the advent of streaming platforms and low-priced internet data, the mobile has become the ubiquitous medium for music discovery, Thakur added.

“There have been no new film songs in the past two years since there were no shoots or releases. That meant that independent singles were topping the charts on YouTube, with nearly 30% of the space being taken up by non-film music," said Vinod Bhanushali, former president, marketing, media and publishing at T-series, adding that the youth today want to listen to specific artistes.

Take the case of Emiway Bantai, a rapper and independent musician who started his career on YouTube and has recently launched his own record label— Bantai Records—and has signed popular artistes such as Loka, Swaalina and others.

“With independent artistes gaining access to an unparalleled global stage for their music, there has been a resurgence in the Indian pop industry," said Pawan Agarwal, director, music partnerships (India and South Asia) at YouTube. “Badshah’s recent single, Paani Paani, was the number one music video globally (for some time). Access to diverse and wide audiences is also generating huge success for regional and non-Hindi artistes," Agarwal added.

But while opportunities have undeniably expanded, income streams and royalty contracts have not. While social media giants such as Facebook and Instagram have reached agreements with IPRS (as part of which the federation’s members receive a statutory royalty for the exploitation of their work), smaller streaming services and short video apps do not recognize the differences underlying in existing rights—some rights are owned solely by the label and others, by labels, composers, singers and lyricists—and, therefore, have not started paying the latter.

Bad to worse for creators

Even as the discovery of talent has become easier, the journey of celebrities and voices who have emerged from social media platforms and reality shows is still far from easy.

Some get trapped in onerous contracts, others try to fend for themselves and end up going back to their home towns to try their luck with live shows and college fests—an ecosystem that has been severely hit by the covid-19 pandemic. Media experts say that the busiest names in the music industry could do about eight shows a month and 40-50 a year, making anything between 60 lakh to 1 crore per show. That has now dropped to zero for most musicians.

To make things worse, the monetization of virtual events continues to be a challenge. Organized events is a 10,000 crore industry, according to a report by EY-EEMA (Event and Entertainment Management Association). With government-imposed limits on congregation size for public events and the preference for virtual entertainment options among people, the events industry is anticipating only 30% of its pre-covid business to come back in the foreseeable future.

The pandemic has made music creation hard in any case. “You need to be at peace to make music. These times are not conducive for creativity. You need to be around and interact with people. It can’t be done on Zoom calls," Bhanushali of T-Series said.

It’s not all smooth sailing even for those who get opportunities within the realm of cinema, said lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, known for songs like Channa Mereya and Gerua. “The way we perceived music is going through a transition and attention spans are getting shorter. Cinema has veered towards a more realistic slice-of-life approach, which means a lot of songs get butchered by either being used in the background or in the end credits as a promotional number. I don’t need a seven to eight-track album, but the thing is, unless my song gets conveyed properly, my work will be hampered," Bhattacharya said.

The only other avenue—social media and individual YouTube channels—is already overcrowded, with limited upsides in terms of income. “Even if it’s a good song, do people have time to discover and listen to it anymore?" Bhattacharya said.

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