India may not appear to have been proactive in promoting its music abroad, barring limited instances when individuals have done so. Pandit Ravi Shankar is certainly one of them through his association with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and, more importantly, with The Beatles guitarist George Harrison through whom Indian instruments, especially the sitar, made inroads into Western pop music in the latter half of the ‘60s. However, there is one genre that really does not require any kind of proactiveness to generate exposure or enhance consumption if one follows current musical trends abroad regarding Indian devotional music.
Before getting into specifics, we need to acknowledge another musician who has undertaken unprecedented service in promoting Indian music abroad- A.R. Rahman. This is especially true with his innumerable successes. In 2002, he composed the music for his first stage production, Bombay Dreams, which was commissioned by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
In 2009, he received two Academy Awards for the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire. On May 20, 2011, Rolling Stones’ vocalist Mick Jagger announced the formation of a supergroup, SuperHeavy, featuring Rahman, and, on December 15, 2019, Irish rock band U2 featured Rahman during a live concert in Mumbai performing their joint collaboration, Ahimsa.
Music Transcending Boundaries
With musical cultures crossing international boundaries, it is no surprise that music is transcending barriers of language, an occurrence that has been ongoing since the days when India liberally imported the sounds of Didi (Khaled), Macarena (Los del Mar) and, more recently, the likes of Gangnam Style (Psy), Despacito (Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee) and K-Pop, which have become huge successes in India. However, no one has been speaking about the musical exports from India, not even in whispers, although devotional music has been growing at an exponential rate.
One primary reason for the enhanced consumption of content – including devotional – is the penetration of handsets globally and, despite a year-over-year decline of [-] 13% this year vis-a-vis, Q1 2019 due to the ongoing pandemic, global mobile phone shipments still managed to reach a healthy 378.5 million units globally in Q1 2020, of which smartphone shipments were 295 million units.
Nevertheless, it is obvious that the smartphone market is resilient; smartphones are perceived by consumers as essential. However, amidst the pandemic, aside from replacing a broken phone, purchases have turned discretionary and, therefore, sales have been delayed, effectively extending the rate of replacement. The resulting contraction in the market is undoubtedly short term and is expected to immediately recover once the worst of the outbreak passes, which would further enhance the growth of the market for devotional music globally.
“Devotional music is growing by leaps and bounds abroad,” agreed Rajat Kakar in an exclusive conversation with Music Plus, while he served as CEO and managing director of Phonographic Performance Limited [PPL],
an organisation that he worked for from January 2018 to April 2020 where Kakar grew the music industry’s business by the monetization of public performance and income from the radio.
“Consumption is finally coming into its own through not only smartphones but, irrespective of the continuing popularity of Bollywood music, also through various digital platforms and cable channels providing the facility of live streaming of devotional content.”
“That is not all,” added Kakar, “audio players like Saregama’s Carvaan and Shemaroo’s Shrimad Bhagavad Gita [and its Bhakti Bhajan Vaani speakers] have also become popular, with several Indians travelling abroad providing these devices as gifts to family and friends.”
“In fact,” admitted Kakar, “devotional music remains an aberration for PPL as it became extremely difficult to identify the song as stand-alone devotional music or as film music as several music labels have utilised traditional songs in soundtracks [writer’s note: this is an obvious ploy to gain copyright on songs that would have otherwise remained in public domain].”
Where’s the Market For Devotional Music?
Key markets for devotional content outside India are the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand with Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia being predominant players for consuming Islamic content generated from India.
T-Series [Super Cassettes Industries] is the main player in the Indian and global devotional music market, and other key players include Shemaroo Entertainment, Times Music, and Saregama, and regional players like Ultra Media & Entertainment in Marathi Music, and Aditya Music in Telugu and other south Indian languages. While T-Series and Saregama did not speak to Music Plus in spite of innumerable attempts to connect with them, market indications say that these two major music labels control at least 65% of the devotional space around the world.
Meanwhile, Shemaroo Entertainment entered the devotional music space in 2010 with regional devotional content distributed across the popular mobile platforms by producing CRBTs [Caller Ring Back Tones] and, later, extending distribution through online digital platforms such as iTunes, among others. In addition to the digital devotional music catalogue, in 2019, Shemaroo re-entered the organised retail space with pre-loaded devotional speakers through Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Bhakti Bhajan Vaani, and AmritBaani, which are now retailing across multiple online channels and through both large format retail stores and smaller ones numbering 3,000 brick-and-mortar stores pan-India.
“Indians are always highly inclined towards devotion compared to other countries,” says Shemaroo Entertainment’s COO Kranti Gada on the ongoing popularity of devotional music abroad.
“Our belief system is much stronger than other parts of the world which have a huge diversity of religions. Therefore, devotional music has become a key string to connect the divine feeling with Indians abroad, who feel connected to their motherland and their moral values with this [genre of] devotional music and, hence, its popularity among Indians staying abroad. The society in India has a strong engagement with music across ages and platforms, says a study, with 80% of surveyed internet users identified themselves as ‘music fanatics’ or ‘music lovers’, a figure higher than the corresponding global average of 54%.”
“Since there are many Indians living abroad,” supports Mahendrabhai Shah, Head of Content Licensing, Ultra Media and Entertainment, “their next connection with family in India is devotional music, which continues to bind them with their culture and roots.”
Ultra Media and Entertainment, in its earlier avatar, was known as Ultra Distributors, initially established as an Indian film production company in 1982. Commencing business in the field of Home Video – does anyone remember VHS, VCDs, and DVDs? – Ultra eventually expanded its business line to involve film production an theatrical distribution, now including a library of over 1,500 titles of award-winning and blockbuster feature films, TV dramas, and animation, and an audio catalogue of over 25,000 tracks of which the devotional catalogue, launched in 2001, has resulted in the creation of 13,000+ tracks in the languages of Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, Rajasthani, Tamil, Bengali, and Punjabi and, hence, the large international reach for Ultra content.
“There is a huge population viewing devotional content mainly in the U.S.,” adds Shemaroo’s Gada.
“According to ‘Digital Music Survey 2019’, devotional music is in top 10 genres preferred by listeners outside India. We are able to capture nearly 15% of the total [devotional listening] population as our market share, through the launch of various devotional offerings including our very own OTT platform, ShemarooMe, along with other online platforms including Gaana, Saavn, Spotify, and iTunes.”
YouTube provides its own merit to Shemaroo as the music label’s Bhakti channel has 5.36 million subscribers, attracting between 35 million to 40 million views every month, and Shemaroo’s app that boasts itself as a platform hosting “everything of bhakti on digital” provides live darshan from 30 popular temples across India, as well as providing online facilities for donation, mannat, pooja, and prasad, all innovations that commenced a year and a half ago. And, in case, Shemaroo’s passion for all things devotional was restricted only to these facilities, think again. Shemaroo is well represented with DTH operators through exclusive channels, Shemaroo Bhakti’ and Shemaroo Ibaadat, encompassing the entire digital gamut for Shemaroo’s devotional content across religions.
For those talents who believe that singing could well be their career, Shemaroo offers a platform, Bhakti Studio, for singing devotional songs. Ultra, meanwhile, says that 60% of all Indians living abroad consume their content. “Almost all Maharashtrians and Gujarati people living there,” prides Ultra’s Shah, “are familiar with our catalogue.”
While the focus in the recent past appears to be on the devotional music genre, the market has always existed outside India. If one can view the bands that exist – or had existed – it is a quaint mixture across continents but all with an underlying focus of being connected with Indian devotional music. Some of the more critically popular ones include – Rasa, a musical duo – Hans Christian is a German-born cellist and multi-instrumentalist, and Kim Waters is an American vocalist and devotee of A. C. Bhakti Vedanta Swami Prabhupada – formed in San Francisco in 1998, who perform bhajans with Western derivatives. Rasa has several albums released through independent labels such as Hearts of Space Records, and New Earth Records.
Dedicated to Devotion
There is Satnam Kaur Khalsa (born 1972 in Colorado), an American singer, songwriter, and author, who performs new-age Indian devotional music with kirtans, having had her debut album released on Spirit Voyage Records.
Aradhna is a band formed in 2000 that fuses traditional bhajans and bhakti geet with other religious themes, composed primarily in Hindi, but is also known to feature the languages of Nepali, Bihari, Bhojpuri, and Braj Bhasha in their compositions. Band members include – or have included – Chris Hale (lead vocals, sitar), who assumes primary songwriting duties on account of his fluency in Hindi, Peter Hicks (acoustic guitar, sitar), and Travis McAfee (bass), with tabla player Jim Fiest, often playing with the band.
Meanwhile, in May 2020, the IFPI – The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, a non-profit members’ organisation that represents the interests of the recording industry worldwide – launched the latest edition of its Global Music Report, an annual compendium of what the worldwide recording industry earned last year.
It showed that, in 2019, India’s total wholesale market (i.e. the money paid to labels) rose 18.7% to US$181.4 million, thanks largely to a hike in ad-funded streaming revenues. Yet, within that $181.4 million, subscription audio streaming revenues increased by just 5.3% to US$43.8 million. Little wonder then if critics have begun questioning if India, currently the world’s 15th largest recorded music streaming market, can “meet its goal of becoming one of the world’s top 10 music markets by 2022.”
Nevertheless, some of the Indian labels are still optimistic about achieving this challenge with more than a little help from devotional music – notably mantras and stotras – in support. Some have tied up with local Indian community centres to promote the genre abroad and, at the same time, have also tied up with Indian consulates for reaching out to the Indian diaspora. Then, again, social media has been another potential tool for promotion, focusing on the youth by ensuring that the devotional music labels focus on younger singers – Ash King, Javed Ali, Zubin Garg, Harshdeep Kaur, and Richa Sharma, to name a few – with traditional sounds provided a twist through contemporary instrumentation, arrangements, and beats, with a clear and present target to appeal to millennials; an experiment that appears to gain traction with time.
These figures notwithstanding, while some of the key exports from India include oil, gems and precious metals, machinery, organic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, iron and steel, and clothing, among others, it is time to add devotional music to that list as it is obvious that it is an only divine musical intervention, during these trying times, that could indeed help to make the world a better place, and deservedly so.