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Has the Absence of Bollywood Soundtracks during Lockdown Helped Indie Musicians?

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Between the end of February and the end of May, Raghav Meattle’s plays on Spotify India grew a whopping 790 per cent. Meattle is one of a handful of Indian independent acts whose stream counts have grown substantially on the audio-streaming service since the country went into lockdown in the last week of March. The others include his fellow singer-songwriters Dhruv Visvanath and Mali whose listenership has gone up by over 100 per cent.
On May 29, the day he re-released his 2018 song “Pause”, Prateek Kuhad was featured as the face of the platform’s popular New Music Friday playlist. Even some relatively unknown artists are enjoying success on the DSP; up-and-comer Anchit Magee’s single “Laparwah” has crossed 87,000 streams so far.

On the surface it does appear that the lack of new film soundtracks, which make up roughly 70 per cent of the consumption on audio OTTs, has cleared the way for Indian independent music to get more traction on the services. The country’s indie acts are certainly seizing the opportunity. In India, the number of releases put out through digital distributor CD Baby increased by 270 per cent in both April and May this year, compared to the same period in the previous year.

This surge in output is very likely a consequence of the lockdown. Live gigs, the main source of income for indie musicians, aren’t likely to recommence until the end of the year. While a number of indie musicians have embraced livestreams and perform regularly on Instagram or Facebook, it’s not possible to monetise those social media channels in India as of now.

The initial interest that brands showed in bankrolling some of these events dipped considerably in May, and though a handful of artists are experimenting with selling passes for such shows through ticketing platforms such as Insider.in and Skillboxes.com, there doesn’t seem to be a business model just yet.

All this has compelled indie acts to reconsider streaming revenue as a significant component of their various avenues of income. Rahul Sinha, the founder of artist management company, Under The Radar, whose roster includes Ritviz, says that over the last few months, the proportion of the electronic music producer and singer’s income from streaming has doubled from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Ritviz is the only Indian indie act to have as many as six tracks simultaneously on Spotify India’s Top 200 chart.

Meattle, who will probably get a larger sum for the current quarter, thanks to the success of “City Life”, the single he put out in April, says he has “started making decent money through streams”. However, the amount he received “across all platforms, most of it from Spotify and JioSaavn” for the first quarter of 2020 was less than half of what he makes from one gig. Thankfully, he still has a day job.

Across the board, musicians say that Spotify, JioSaavn and Apple Music are the audio-streaming services that most extensively and actively playlist and popularise Indian indie. Each of them is slowly but increasingly giving more real estate to the genre.

In May, Spotify India launched Radar, its “global emerging artist campaign”, through which it will help provide “a stepping stone” for acts “to work with an established music label, or even for the Indian film industry”, according to a press release. In addition to the three rising stars initially chosen for the programme, singer-songwriters Mali and Taba Chake and pop-rock band When Chai Met Toast, the service now plans to put the spotlight on a different artist every month. Vocalist-composer Sanjeeta Bhattacharya is the face of the Radar India playlist for June.

In April, Apple Music, which frequently works with indie acts for exclusive releases, brought its Stream Local campaign, already present in some African countries and Australia, to India. Indie exponents such as Sameer Rahat and The Earth Below were among the artists featured alongside their mainstream counterparts Armaan Malik, Badshah, Darshan Raval and Neha Kakkar.

Since April, JioSaavn has been hosting a series of Live Anywhere livestreams featuring the likes of Meattle, Tejas and Chake on its social media channels. The series, a spokesperson told us, “stemmed from a desire to support the indie community” at this current time. The artists were paid a token fee for the performances, which were staged in collaboration with Dolby, and will receive all the revenue from the live EPs, comprising the songs they presented, that have been uploaded on JioSaavn.

Sadly, the fact that Gaana and Wynk Music don’t figure in most acts’ scheme of things, means that their reach is somewhat limited.

“In India, if somebody has to make an impact, it has to be JioSaavn, Gaana and probably Wynk – as these make up more than 70 per cent of the market,” says Vijay Basrur, the founder of digital music distribution company OK Listen!.

When it comes to engagement however, the leader is Spotify. Despite having a far larger user base than Spotify or Apple Music, the plays for Indian independent music are relatively lower on JioSaavn. For instance, Chake’s “Shaayad” has over 32,000 streams on the platform, on which it’s his most-listened track, but more than a million on Spotify. However, even within Spotify, it’s rare that an indie star will crossover into its biggest playlist, Top Hits Hindi, which has over two lakh likes and is based on the most streamed songs overall (Ritviz’s “Thandi Hawa” and “Liggi” are both currently on it).

The scarcity of film soundtracks has however led to more independent artists being featured in another of Spotify’s most-followed playlists, New Music Hindi. Magee, Gaurav Tophakhane, Lakshya Bhatnagar and Osho Jain are among the fresh talents whose tunes are on the playlist. They are all singer-songwriters with a pop-leaning sound, indicating a preference for a certain kind of Indian indie act among the editorial teams of audio-streaming services. Hip-hop holds its own on the DSPs; the genre also figures among the top indie playlists on both Spotify and Apple Music. But pop and rap are just two segments of the indie scene, which includes electronic music, rock and metal and several other styles.

And while streaming revenue is growing, it remains small for the average indie artist. Tejas, whose Spotify plays have shot up 3.5 times during the last few months and who was part of JioSaavn’s Live Anywhere concerts, said his income from streaming has thus far been “negligible”. “More money comes in from sales through Bandcamp and OK Listen!”, he says.

No single audio-streaming platform can presently match YouTube in terms of audience size. Because revenues from it are about a quarter of those from audio OTTs, most independent acts see YouTube and video platforms like Instagram and TikTok as promotional tools. At least some of the extraordinary rise in Meattle’s Spotify streams can be attributed to Late Night Cone-versations, the series of virtual open mics he stages on Instagram almost every night. The series has gained a cult following and has given more than a hundred aspiring singer-songwriters, including the aforementioned Magee, a chance to showcase their skills to a dedicated viewership.

As for YouTube, Sinha says that because Ritviz doesn’t upload content on a daily or weekly basis on his channel like a typical creator, Ritviz and he made the call not to run ads on a music video for the first three months after its release.

“While the money “is miniscule”, “YouTube” is what contributes to my audio streams” says Sinha.

He cited the example of Ritviz’s recent remix for American pop star Lauv’s single “Modern Loneliness”, which saw a spike on Spotify after they added the audio track to his channel, where it was also promoted through the new lockdown-inspired web series Cabin Fever that Under The Radar has created in collaboration with Jugaad Motion Pictures.

Then there’s rapper Emiway, who boasts 11 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, and for whom it’s “a key part of our profile and becoming significant on the revenue front”, his mananger Kshitij Nilkanth told us. Emiway has unveiled around a dozen tracks in the last two-and-a-half months, including remix collaborations with Snoop Dogg and Macklemore.

Industry experts strongly believe that the frequency with which an indie artist releases new music can make a big difference to their play counts on both audio and video streaming services. To build a following on YouTube,

“the main things are belief, consistency and DIY spirit,” says Nilkanth.

“That’s the way to grow your audience and subscriber base.”

According to Basrur, the more tunes you upload, the higher the chances of you being heard.

“One thing that’s happening for sure is that a lot of the audio-streaming platforms now, from an algorithmic perspective at least, are giving some amount of importance to the regularity of the content you put out,”

he says,

“If your next track comes after a gap of two years, it will be less indexed than a new song by an act that puts out music every four months.”

Top Indian Indie Music Playlists

Spotify India
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The article is written by Amit Gurbaxani

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