Why Arijit Singh is king of Bollywood playback

Arijit Singh has dominated the playback world of Bollywood for nearly a decade, ever since Tum Hi Ho from Aashiqui 2 became an instant chartbuster. (Photo: Facebook/TM Talent Management)
Arijit Singh has dominated the playback world of Bollywood for nearly a decade, ever since Tum Hi Ho from Aashiqui 2 became an instant chartbuster. (Photo: Facebook/TM Talent Management)


  • The surge in digital platforms may have provided ample space for independent voices, but diversity in Hindi film music is at an all-time low.

New Delhi: In June, a few days before the release of romantic drama Satyaprem Ki Katha, a film whose soundtrack rights it had acquired, music label T-Series decided to play its final marketing card: it launched Pasoori Nu, a recreation of Pakistani singer Ali Sethi’s much-loved single, sung by Bollywood favourite Arijit Singh.

The move didn’t quite pay off, with music composer Rochak Kohli, who was credited with rebooting the song, stating in interviews that it aroused “a lot of hatred". The rants on social media followed a few common templates; users were miffed that a Pakistani single had been reused in a Bollywood film, underlining the fact that music composition in Hindi cinema has lost all originality.

Another factor for some, put simply, is that there is far too much of Arijit Singh on offer today. To be sure, the voice behind multiple hits over the past few years (including recent chartbusters like Apna Bana Le and Kesariya) is popular and has an army of fans across the globe. But some listeners are tired of hearing him sing just about every other Bollywood song.

Singh is the highest paid singer in the industry today, making upwards of 25 lakh just on a single (that isn’t a part of a film). He is also among the rare playback singers to get a share in the profits that labels earn from digital and other sales.

A reality show find, the 36-year-old didn’t even win when he first appeared as a contestant on Fame Gurukul (Sony Entertainment Television) in 2006. He began his career in Mumbai as a music producer, composing pieces for ads and radio stations, and as a music programmer working with composers such as Pritam, Vishal Shekhar and Shankar Ehsaan Loy. His first big hit as a playback singer—Tum Hi Ho from the film Aashiqui 2—came only in 2013. He has dominated the playback world of Bollywood ever since.

No risk appetite

The perception that Singh is everywhere is partly true, conceded Rahul Balyan, head of music, Spotify India. The gap between him on the one hand, and all other voices, on the other, is huge, he pointed out. Late in August, Spotify’s list of top 50 tracks (which is updated daily) in India, for example, was peppered with Singh’s hits: Heeriye; What Jhumka?; Chaliya; Phir Aur Kya Chahiye and so on.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t enough singers vying for attention. While around half of all trending tracks are sung by Singh, the other half has more of a mix than ever before—from AP Dhillon and Vishal Mishra to Darshan Raval and Diljit Dosanjh.

Singh’s share of voice in the total number of songs made and released is tremendously huge, say music label and audio-streaming platform executives. “That’s because labels and film producers have no risk appetite anymore and tend to gravitate towards successful formulas and voices. With Arijit, you know you cannot go wrong. With others, it’s somewhat of a risk," said a senior executive at a streaming platform.

Plus, unlike earlier, when a film album used to be one composer’s baby, it is common to now have multiple composers on one movie. Each, in turn, needs to prove his mettle and help the producer de-risk the project further, so that he’s seen as a viable proposition himself.

“Music rights have become so expensive that you really can’t afford to mess around. If I’m paying a producer 30-50 crore for a film album, I need an assurance on returns," said a senior executive at a music label. With someone like Singh, for instance, that is inevitably the case because his fan base helps immensely on the distribution and marketing front, especially at a time when most Bollywood stars themselves are losing ground and don’t have a following large enough to ensure a good buzz and openings for films.

Any of his tracks can help retention and sampling for a new song, and consequently film, within 24 hours, the person added. Even if a single sung by Singh is not part of a film, there is a guarantee that the cost of investment will be recovered thanks to brands and other collaborations.

The decision of selecting the right song for a particular singer is a collaborative effort between the producer and the music composer, while the music company also contributes a little to the conversation, said Kumar Taurani, managing director of Tips Industries Ltd. “Undoubtedly, there’s a general inclination among producers to have Arijit lend his voice to at least a couple of tracks in each film, because of his popularity. Given the immense fan following he enjoys, there’s a reduced struggle for both the producer and the company in this regard," he added.

A questionnaire sent to Singh’s team remained unanswered.

Lack of diversity

The surge in digital platforms and audio streaming may have provided ample space for independent voices and unconventional music to emerge, but diversity in the Hindi film music scene, which easily dominates all music consumption in India, is at an all-time low.

Hindi films increasingly feature fewer songs and studios and labels do little to market them. And no new talent has really come to the fore in the past decade. Music labels buy music rights in advance, providing initial funding for production. Composers and producers, therefore, are forced to work only with the names labels prefer. Consequently, new singers find it hard to break in, no matter how talented they are.

Things have come to this pass because the pressure to crank out an instant hit in the cluttered market is immense, ensuring fewer risks are taken. The large pool emerging from talent shows or social networks is often bound by strict contracts and relegated to the live show realm. On the other hand, because there are so many voices doing independent work, on social media and short-video platforms, it becomes easy to get lost in the crowd.

Changing landscape

In the 1950s, the Bollywood playback ecosystem was dominated by names such as Shamshad Begum, KL Saigal and Noor Jehan. That expanded to Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Mukesh in the 1960s, to Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey in the 70s, Shailendra Singh, Shabbir Kumar and Anuradha Paudwal in the 80s and Udit Narayan, Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik in the 90s.

“In the 2000s, however, as modes of music consumption changed, one saw names from the pop music circuit making it to films, be it Shaan or KK (Krishnakumar Kunnath), and then reality show finds such as Shreya Ghoshal and Sunidhi Chauhan came up. Now, you have an even greater variety, after Arijit," said Padmanabhan NS, head of artist and label partnerships, Spotify India.

A spokesperson for Airtel, which owns audio streaming app Wynk, agreed. “Covid led to a trend in music consumption as the industry witnessed the release of more singles by new, independent and established artists given the dearth of movie releases. This trend continued post-covid’s pandemic phase, too, and some of these, like King, Darshan Raval and AP Dhillon, have a strong fan following for their songs, independent of whether they are a part of a Hindi movie or not," the spokesperson said.

Wynk’s user data insights back this trend. Among the top 100 songs on the platform, over 40-45% are singles and not part of a movie. The ‘New Hindi Songs’ playlist, which has both non-film and film releases, is one of Wynk’s top performing playlists. “While these independent artistes have seen their fan base grow, the pace of this growth has been slow as they faced a great challenge getting discovered on music platforms by listeners," the Airtel spokesperson said.

Labels under pressure

While they call the shots, it’s not smooth sailing for labels either. According to a recent Mint report, music labels such as T-Series, Sony Music and Saregama, among others, have seen film soundtrack acquisition costs spike by five to eight times over the past year-and-a -half. Filmmakers who feel audio streaming is bringing significant returns for music companies are demanding massively high rates, with most deals being struck in the early stages of a movie’s lifecycle, when the music hasn’t even been put together.

While these deals are signed based on the reputation of the production banner and music composer besides the lead cast, labels say they are at a serious disadvantage given the quality of Hindi film music lately—it is not gaining traction—and the fact that the number of songs per film has reduced significantly.

Meanwhile, southern producers are also asking for higher rates based on the increasing pan-India popularity of their films.

The music rights of a big tentpole (big budget movies that are expected to get in huge revenues for their studios) Bollywood film today are sufficient to fund the entire production cost of a small-budget, non-star film, say music industry experts. But the more serious issue is that labels are paying more for fewer songs and more compact soundtracks as Hindi films have given up the template of full-fledged musicals with six or more songs.

A blockbuster such as Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan, released this January, only had two tracks, of which Singh sang one. Two of the six tracks in the season’s latest hit, Gadar 2, are recreations, with multiple versions and reboots of the same by disparate voices thrown in for good measure. Zara Hat Ke Zara Bach Ke, a small-budget Hindi film released this June, with a popular soundtrack, has the rare distinction of having four songs, including one by Singh.

Indie singers struggling

Indie artistes are getting a lot of exposure and attention thanks to digital platforms, but most of them tend to be one-song wonders. There is no traction on their second release," said the music label executive cited earlier. A song by an indie artiste is not going to help sell your movie, explained a film producer. “If I suggest one of those names to a music label, they will immediately ask me to reduce the licence fee," the person added.

The same clutter impacts singers from reality shows who have to enter a breeding ground already inhabited by independent artistes, where the supply far outpaces the demand.

Further, the standard procedure in shows is to find voices that can sing known tracks, making it difficult to gauge if they can carry a new tune. The end of these shows leaves them at the mercy of film producers and the live event circuit, which is dominated by Punjabi singers who have managed to craft a pop star persona better than most others.

“The singers who participate in these shows perhaps lack sufficient support from the platforms themselves. If the management of these companies fails to adequately nurture new talent, the potential remains largely untapped," Taurani said.

That said, several singers and musicians point to the changing dynamics and criteria of what may make for a successful playback voice. “The profile of a playback singer is no longer based on the popularity of their songs alone but also their social media fan following and Instagram numbers," said singer Clinton Cerejo.

On that front, however, Singh does not compare well with some of his contemporaries. For instance, he only has 8.4 million followers on Instagram, compared to Badshah’s 12.3 million, Shreya Ghoshal’s 28.1 million and Jubin Nautiyal’s 10.4 million. However, things are different on audio streaming platforms. Singh has 37.9 million monthly listeners on Spotify, compared to Nautiyal’s 19.7 million, Ghoshal’s 33 million and AP Dhillon’s 15.4 million.

Many believe the playback landscape has changed today because of the changing dynamics of the industry itself. When corporate houses begin to take calls, be it film studios or music labels, everything is profit-driven, said singer Aditya Narayan. “The success of a song is based on YouTube views and streams. This wasn’t the case when producers would spend their own money on films and music, and quality was of utmost importance," he added.

All in all, the over-reliance on Arijit Singh today mirrors a global phenomenon, says Tips Industries’ Taurani, noting: “When a singer attains popularity, the audience wants to listen to more songs from him or her, and on repeat mode. This strategy is pragmatic and is a practice that has persisted over time."

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