Next Stop, Indie: The Future of India’s Post-Bollywood Music Scene

by Srishti Das

India’s music has always sparked curiosity in the minds of people around the globe, mostly through the dramatic songs, colorful videos and complex choreography of Bollywood. But this music is largely rooted in the past; the future will comprise a dynamic mix of Bollywood, regional, indie and underground music, and that is what I am most excited about.

Over the last decade, India has seen the rise of a plethora of musical movements that have broken away from Bollywood, and even influenced the Bollywood monolith itself. Be it the rapidly rising regional music culture or a slowly but persistently growing underground music movement, the Indian music landscape is changing and it will be a pleasant surprise to those who still imagine it to be a film music-only country.

Right now, the entire music industry in India is raving about indie hip-hop, thanks to the success of Bollywood feature film Gully Boy. Roughly inspired by local hip-hop artists Divine and Naezy, and featuring Delhi-based producer Sajeel Kapoor (Sez on the Beat) on the soundtrack, the scene has started getting closer to big-time acts in its commercial and cultural influence. A few years ago, these artists were restricted only to medium sized clubs that were frequently sold out, but their popularity hit the music industry so intensely that it led to an entire Bollywood movie around their careers.

Post-Gully Boy, we saw the Red Bull-sponsored Gully Fest that featured Divine and his band Gully Gang, along with many other important names in hip-hop, reggae and dance music in India. This was followed by BUDx Boiler Room’s second edition in India, which hosted only hip-hop and dance music. Divine also became the first Indian performer to be featured on BBC 1 Radio, which in turn has brought more attention to indie hip-hop labels such as Azadi Records, expanding the horizons of younger generations wanting to enter the independent music scene.

On the other end of the spectrum, music cultures have become a huge trend around Urban India, which accounts for more than 400 million possible consumers. The rise of such large music communities in India can easily be pointed to domestic festivals such as the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, an annual, multi-city music festival in India that started in 2010 and was conceptualised, produced and organised by the premier Indian Management company Only Much Louder (OML Entertainment). But in recent times, smaller organizations such as Boxout.fm – a local internet radio based out of New Delhi has reshaped the way urban music lovers are consuming music. With their combination of art, culture and independent music, they are giving a birth of a strong knit community of artists and fans. Further, projects like Sofar Sounds and rise of many House concerts in the metropolitans has only added towards providing a platform for non-mainstream music hogging fans in India. It’s like the gold rush, or should I say ‘The Music Rush”.

The Contribution of Telecommunication to Music

India has always been a land of many languages and traditions, but until recently was largely unable to access the wider scope of its own cultural diversity.

According to the World Bank, 34% of the country lives in urban areas, while the rest of the population resides in smaller, more rural towns and villages. For rural India, entertainment was an important social gathering. Many towns would often have community TV’s that would usually broadcast the Doordarshan Channel [DD], an autonomous public service broadcaster founded by the Government of India. They would often show Sports, News and Bollywood movies at the time. Subsequently, urbanisation and technology started seeping into these remote areas, increasing the exposure to other kinds of Entertainment through the Internet and streaming services. Before this accessibility, Rural India was dependent on the Radio, Television and Movie Theatres, where they could not pick what they wanted to listen to or watch. The number of internet users in rural India has shown tremendous growth over the years, almost doubling between 2014 and 2019.

With the introduction of Government initiatives like Digital India, spearheaded by Jio Telecom (owned by Reliance) in 2018, India started heading towards a digital environment for all stratas, to connect far-off places and bring people and cultures together. For the first time, Tier 3 to Tier 6 cities in the country have access to Internet data and Smartphone prices are incredibly nominal, allowing them to enjoy many types of entertainment. A Jio phone with an internet connection and call and text capabilities can cost as low as $15. The streaming service Jio Saavn is believed to be the fast growing application in the country today, which comes free with the Jio mobile connection you purchase.

It is also important to remember that these people do not speak or understand much more than their regional language. Although English is widely spoken around the country in the metropolitans, India still recognizes 28 regional languages that are spread widely across the country, 19 of which are popular in the streaming ecosystem. Now, they can use applications like YouTube with ease and play what they want to. Regional Music is also growing rapidly in popularity with the launch of Jio as the Rural Consumer is now a part of the streaming majority.

Why Bollywood will ALWAYS be Important

Bollywood in India originated around the early 20th century and eventually rose to popularity, producing over 200 films a year by 1930. Since then, it has been one of the most predominant forms of entertainment in India – not only the Film Industry, but also in the way people accessed any kind of music, along with small mercies from the All India Radio (A government sponsored Radio Station). For this reason itself, Bollywood is a part of almost every Indian citizen’s life, whether or not they actually enjoy or actively seek it.

Before the Entertainment Industry was exposed to the West, Bollywood was mostly inspired by Indian Classical Music. Through the ages, many International Music Movements influenced Bollywood and this spawned  many Disco, Folk and Indie-pop inspired songs and soundtracks: From the psychedelic soundtracks of the 60’s to the party anthems and remixes of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Many big industry Music Producers in India took a lot of inspiration from the sounds of the West, scrambling together whatever import cassettes and vinyls they could get to just have a chance to listen to what was happening outside their circle.

The songs they then created caused quite the uproar, but made huge rounds throughout the country. Some of these songs included “Mehbooba Mehbooba” from the blockbuster movie Sholay (1975), which was a rendition of Demis Roussos’  “Say You Love Me” (1974); “Om Shanti Om” from the film Karz (1980) taken from “Om Shanty Om” by Lord Shorty (1974); “Koi Yahan Naache Naache” from the movie Disco Dancer (1982) taken from “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles (1980), and many more. Although the sounds were foreign, the earlier Indian Classical influence seeped into these sounds and made them relatable to a wider audience.

The late 80’s and 90’ saw the rise of not only a shift from Indian Classical Bollywood to a Western Bollywood but it also began to see music that was outside the film industry. Many popular singers like Sonu Nigam, Usha Uthup, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan etc. rose from their Independent Pop Music roots and jumped into the Film Industry, thus creating an alternate realm for music from the late 80’s onto the early 2000’s and beyond. As Mandar Thakur, COO of Times Music exclaimed at the Midem 2018 Conference, “Bollywood is not a genre of music, it just represents the current running musical taste of the masses.”. It is the collection of Indian mainstream music and we know where there is a mainstream, there is an underground.

Scope for a Growing post-Bollywood movement

Fast forward 20 years. Post the major Economic Reforms in the early 90’s and the boom of technology and the Internet, today the masses in 2019 are very different to their Bollywood consuming counterparts. People have started traveling around the world and accessing pop culture through the Internet, Magazines and all sorts of avenues.

Firstly, it is clear that Bollywood is struggling with originality. In 2018, off the Top Ten most songs streamed on Saavn, 7 were Bollywood songs with only two of them being originals, whereas five of them were remakes/remixes of old popular songs.

Secondly, streaming data shows that Bollywood listenership has stopped growing. There are more and more users moving onto more Regional and Independent Music. The streaming service Gaana claimed that last year, Regional Music multiplied sixfold in the languages of Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu. Music Streaming Application ‘Wynk’ also claimed that 2017 saw the rise in the listenership of Regional Music. The rapid-fire growth of Performing Artists and Singers like Badshah, Diljit Dosanjh, Bohemia, DIVINE, Ikka, Naezy has made regional Punjabi Hip-hop and Street Hip-Hop an immensely growing trend.

In the last decade, we have also seen many Electronic acts (both mainstream and underground) take on the country, as well as find place in the global market. Jalebee Cartel was the first act that single-handedly put India on the International Dance Music map during the 10 years that they were active. Comprising of four members, Arjun Vagale (groove and mixing), Ash Roy (vocals and percussions), Ashvin Mani Sharma (synths and FX) and G-force Arjun (bass guitar), Jalebee Cartel disbanded in 2014, although each member has continued their own solo projects henceforth. We have also seen the rise of many international faces like Nucleya, Zaeden, Lost Stories and many more. It doesn’t stop there. Courtesy of companies like Slick!, Nightvibe and many other booking companies, almost all of the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs have come to India in the last five years. This is a clear call out to the rise of underground movements because the country hasn’t seen half as many mainstream international acts visit here in the same time frame.

This highlights a need for a more dynamic nature of the industry. It’s simple economics: if there is a demand, there has to be a supply. And how can upcoming artists take advantage of the growing trends in music aside from film and Bollywood?

Using Trends to break out in the Music Industry

A pertinent way to look at it is that brands today are looking for more and more Independent Music than the usual popular celebrity faces. Brands like Absolut, Budweiser and Red Bull are heavily invested in more community based underground music events. Local alcohol brands like Bira, Kati Patang etc are also investing a sizable chunk of money into live music shows that involve close knit music communities – be it the rockers or the ravers. You also see many alcohol brands sponsoring properties like Boxout.fm, Budweiser bringing in Boiler Room and much more. This shows that not only are brands taking the plunge into the Independent Music Scene in India, but that their constant involvement over the last 5 years obviously means sizable returns. Where cricketers were once the face of these brands, today music has become a primary source of brand recall. We’ve seen Puma collaborating with Indian Hip-hop artists, fronted by DIVINE and Naezy or Redbull promoting Electronic Artists like Blot!, Sandunes etc. The world famous Clothing brand Levis opened up a venue in Bombay (The Levis Lounge) to promote Independent Music and has globally used Independent music for it’s promotion.

With all this in mind, it is all the more important for an artists to understand their consumer –  how they behave, what they like and most important, what they will pay for. The old days of flyers and record stores are gone, yet unless you have a tens of thousands following on Social media platforms, it is unlikely that the digital streams will lead to a lot of revenue. Given this situation, live music, brand partnerships and music supervision will help a long way. Back when Bollywood was pretty much the only source of music in the country, artists did not require to sell their music to the masses, instead the movie would sell and the artist would just have to follow orders of the music director. Today things are different, an artist needs to make their own niche and sell to the fans directly. Independent and underground music has always seen a loyalty that has never shifted because of the ‘direct-to-fan’ model.

Artists and their management need to work harder to identify their niche and find a way to involve themselves into the communities and activities their followers relate to. Music for today’s Indian youth is a lot about expression and belonging. Make them a part of your family, let them be yours.

Also, it is interesting to note that India today is a land full of streaming applications competing with each other. This year saw the launch of Spotify and YouTube Music. Leading Trap & Bass artist Su Real (Suhrid Manchanda) pointed out very well that we had all the applications in the world currently residing in India with focus on the T-series catalogue. It’s a rat race for the same mass consumption catalogue. Recently at a meetup with Terry Weerasinghe, CSO Beatport we learnt that Beatport receives 5 million views from India every month. This can only mean a good sized number of fans that know and understand dance music.

Initiatives like NEXA by AR Rehman, Aloft Star by Universal Music have also started to pop up, providing a more entertainment based/mainstream exposure to the independent scene. The future of the Indian music industry will grow to be more dynamic and I strongly believe inclusive Independent Communities are only here to grow. The Urban youth today loves both its domestic and international artist.

Moving forward and beyond

I am still recovering from the after effects of Boxout Weekender, which was a 3 day festival in Delhi in celebration of the internet radio turning 2 years old. The festival took place in two of Delhi’s most popular venues – Auro Bar & Kitchen and Summer House Cafe. They showcased 70 local artists over these three days and sold enough tickets to see the 600+ capacity venues over sold on all three days. This is a great time for growing and establishing independent musicians but also a fantastic time for the fans of non-mainstream music. The landscape is changing and the niche is excited. All artists need to do is take a chance and innovate their craft and ways of reaching their fans. Hopefully, a rapidly growing and innovating underground and indie culture will only involve more global players taking an interest in India’s musician expression.

I’m waiting to see Indian talent across the globe, I think the time is near!

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