In the first seven parts of this series, we covered the main developments and trends in Indian music during the 20th century. We now wind up with two columns looking at the period 2000-19.
Why have we clubbed a 20-year span in one article? The first reason is that too many things have happened during this time frame and each subject would otherwise need separate pieces. So we have kept it to the point. The second is that a lot has been written about and discussed trends over the past few years. Those following the industry are aware of the happenings.
It is impossible to mention each artiste or cover each and every trend. Thus, we shall stick to the main factors that have influenced the current state of the music scenario. In this part, we shall talk of technological changes, besides the two main industry drivers of Hindi film and popular non-film music. Next week, we shall conclude this series by mentioning other genres like classical, regional and international music, and then wind up with a summary.
The consumption of music
The biggest change has arguably taken place in the way people listen to music. For this, rapid changes and innovations in technology are responsible. Many of these began in foreign markets, but soon had an impact on the Indian scenario.
At the turn of the century, compact discs (CDs), music channels, radio, and live performances were the main form of listening. The digital video disc (DVD) had replaced the video compact disc (VCD) as a means to watch concerts and music documentaries.
Over time, music channels like MTV and Channel V turned into youth entertainment channels, and their programming focused not only on music but increasingly on youth lifestyle. Eventually, the priorities changed, music was given less footage and some channels even shut down. Radio, on the other hand, grew in popularity, thanks to availability on mobile phones, and the habit of listening to it while driving.
The CD market attracted buyers for a few years. However, the first big change was noticed when the iPod, Apple Inc’s line of portable media players, became popular around 2003. On this small device, people could save hundreds of songs, and carry them wherever they wanted to.
Mobile phone handsets had ringtones and caller back tunes, which helped both the service operators and labels earn some, though not huge amounts of, revenue. However, digital audio file-sharing formats like Napster and Kazaa gave listeners a chance to access free music. These formats attracted cases of copyright violation too.
Soon, the laptop became a preferred tool for consuming music. Besides playing CDs and DVDs, one could also store songs and play at will. To some extent, this affected the iPod’s market. Through the Internet, one could go on to YouTube, with its huge library of songs. Today, it’s become a common practice to send YouTube links to social media or WhatsApp friends, who further send them to others. Old Hindi film gems and rare classical footage were discovered. All for free.
In the first half of this decade, these factors had a negative impact on the industry’s revenues and on organised retail. The latter was also affected by the online shopping trend, where people would directly buy music from Amazon or similar online stores. Major Indian retail stores like Music World and Rhythm House shut down, Planet M began selling mobile phones and gizmos, and Landmark drastically reduced the size of its music section.
Today, in the era of smartphones, many people stream music by subscribing to platforms like Apple Music, Spotify, JioSaavn, Gaana, and Wynk, which offer many of the latest albums and older releases. These obviously don’t provide the same sonic experience as listening to music on a good CD player. But convenience and instant access are the keys.
In terms of physical music, vinyl records have made a resurgence, especially among collectors and older aficionados. Many buyers order them online. But this market is limited by the small number of stores, high prices and the fact that only a small percentage of people own turntables. As for those who built a CD collection, they are wondering what to do with them.
The Bollywood music paradox
Hindi film music was in a fairly decent shape in the year 2000, with a good number of successful soundtracks. Music director A.R. Rahman was on top of the popularity lists, beginning the decade with Saathiya, Pukar, and Lagaan.
Many new music directors came up around this time, notable ones being Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar, Pritam, Himesh Reshammiya, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Salim-Sulaiman. In 2009, Amit Trivedi had a completely new sound in Dev D.
Among singers, the biggest find was Shreya Ghoshal, who made her debut with the 2002 version of Devdas. Till today, she and Sunidhi Chauhan, who debuted in the late 1990s, maintain their consistency. The rest of the 2000s saw the arrival of many singers, but barring Arijit Singh, nobody has been really prolific. Even Arijit has had his critics, as a section of people didn’t find him as appealing as Udit Narayan or Sonu Nigam.
In the lyrics department, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Prasoon Joshi, Swanand Kirkire, Irshad Kamil and Manoj Muntashir did some good work but were in some cases limited by the subjects of the films.
Over the past few years, the quality of Hindi film music has dropped tremendously. This year, the only three soundtracks to create a dent are Gully Boy, Kabir Singh, and Kalank. There are far too many singers and composers, and filmmakers in general focus less on music.
Even the launch strategy has changed. Earlier, songs were released a couple of months before the film’s release. This gave adequate time to build up the music. Today, only a few songs are put out two weeks in advance. So there is a shorter time frame. Yet, film music accounts for the largest listenership, as people are curious about this genre out of habit, and often like to check out songs from films with big stars or banners.
The worst part is this trend of remakes. Yes, remixes began in the late 1990s, but most of the film fraternity stayed away. Today, many films have recreated versions of old songs. And in most cases, classics are butchered beyond recognition.
Luckily, the audience for old film music has remained intact. Radio stations have allotted a good amount of time to retro programming. Saregama India launched Carvaan, a portable digital audio player with a massive catalogue of old songs. This innovation has kept that market alive, and given the label a much-needed boost.
The uncertainty of non-film music
In the late 1990s, Indipop gave stiff competition to Hindi film music, and many stars were created. Many of them were supported by television channels and concert organisers.
However, the early 2000s witnessed a clutter, as too many people wanted to become pop stars, whether or not they had the talent. With music channels changing priorities, the avenues for promoting new artistes became fewer.
Very few pop albums succeeded. These included Shaan’s Tanha Dil, Kabhi To Nazar Milao by Asha Bhosle and Adnan Sami, and Kailasa by Kailash Kher. All-girl band Viva was launched with much hype by Channel V after a talent hunt. It didn’t last too long.
Many pop singers turned to Bollywood. And those who stayed in Indipop focused on live shows. There were many attempts to create superstars through over-dramatised reality television shows, but most winners were forgotten soon, despite tie-ups with record labels. Abhijeet Sawant won Indian Idol in 2005, but nobody remembers him today.
Slowly, Indipop faded. Magnasound, the biggest Indipop player, shut down, and other labels reduced their focus. With no real competition, Bollywood music attracted audiences, despite the erratic quality. Music companies turned their attention to ‘indie’ music, but that term in itself was confusing. It was meant to represent artistes who released albums independently but soon encompassed musicians of any genre, including some promoted by big labels. Jazz, Hindi rock, pop, folk-based music, Sufi, Rajasthani, and Punjabi songs were all broadly covered under the indie umbrella.
There are many talented artists in this non-film segment. But for a long time, there has been no proper direction for them. With Bollywood music in the doldrums, many promoters are looking at indie with more seriousness. But very few songs have been able to make it big, and there are no stars in the mold of Alisha Chinai, Daler Mehndi and Lucky Ali, who cut across age groups and had a following across India. Artistes like Divine, Badshah and Yo Yo Honey Singh may be touted as huge successes, but their audience is restricted to a select category of listeners.
The trend in India these days is to release singles and in some cases ‘EPs’ of four or five songs. This may work out cheaper in terms of investment and also help one focus on individual songs. The problem is that too many artists are releasing new material simultaneously, and the chances of breaking through are low. Songs just come and go.
The next year will be crucial for both film and non-film music. A few hits may turn the tide. Regular flops will have a terrible impact. We shall look at some of the other genres in the next and final part of this series. Stay tuned in.