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Non-Film Music of the 2010’s



By 2010, the Indipop wave was long over and done with. In the first decade of the 21st century, only a handful of pop artistes like Adnan Sami, Shaan and Kailash Kher did well in album sales. There were no new superstars, and the industry’s focus went back to Hindi film music. But did it last long enough? In the previous episode of this series, we discussed five major trends and developments in Bollywood music in the period from 2010 to 2019. This time, we shall talk of the non-film side of things.

Before proceeding, a clarification is necessary. Many people broadly refer to anything that isn’t film music, classical, ghazal or devotional as ‘indie’. However, that may be a misnomer.

The term ‘indie’, as different from the ‘Indi’ in Indipop which comes from ‘Indian’, is derived from a western concept describing music released independently, without the support of the big labels. Since many of our artistes are simultaneously involved in film music, or are backed by big record companies, they technically don’t fall under the ‘indie’ bracket. Thus we shall use the term ‘popular non-film music’.

Today, popular non-film music is back in a big way. One reason is the dismal quality of film music over the past decade, as discussed in the previous part of this series. Another is the increase in artistes who want to do things their own way, without being restricted by film situations and needs of music directors. Thirdly, big companies like Universal Music, Sony Music and Times Music are backing this segment once again, and smaller labels are getting into the act too.

This episode will focus on trends and developments in popular non-film forms. However, there shall be a small reference to the niche forms too.


1 The live circuit

With increased streaming and downloading, sales of physical products like CDs and DVDs fell rapidly, and by the middle of the decade, many music retail stores shut down. For artistes, specially those in the non-film circuit, the main source of fame and income was through live performance.

In Mumbai, Blue Frog hosted many such acts. A number of festivals catered to this segment – popular ones being NH7 Weekender, Magnetic Fields, SulaFest, Ziro Festival, Kasauli Rhythm and Blues Festival and Paddy Fields. Many non-film artistes were given exposure and some of these events included foreign acts too.

Sadly, Blue Frog shut down, but the festivals still attract audiences in large numbers. The popular genres here are pop, Indian rock, desi hip-hop, electronica and folk-fusion. Acts like Parvaaz, MidiVal Punditz, Prateek Kuhad, Divine, the Local Train, Nucleya and Brodha V built up a strong fan base, and Indian Ocean continued to expand on its popularity. The idea has been to cater to an audience looking for a blend of Indian and western sounds, something that’s different from staple Bollywood fare.

2 Shift to singles

As long as retail stores existed, listeners accessed a sizeable chunk of music through CDs and DVDs. Most purchases were done through personal visits to stores, but slowly, people began buying music online. There was simultaneously an increase in the number of downloads in the first half of the decade, specially with people saving hundreds of songs on their computers or USB drives.

With retail stores shutting down, there was no point in releasing CDs. Because of the popularity of YouTube and the mushrooming of online streaming platforms like Spotify, JioSaavn, Apple Music, Gaana and Wynk, most musicians decided to put out individual songs – or singles.

In 2019, some like Divine, Parvaaz, Ahmer Javed, Anurag Mishra and the Shubhangi Joshi Collective released full-length albums, whereas others like Sharma And The Besharams and Hanita Bhambri came out with ‘EPs’ of four or five songs.

But the examples were few and far between. The focus was on singles, or a series of singles to build up an album or ‘EP’ (which again is a weird term as it actually refers to physical units). This is a sharp contrast to the West, where most artistes are still releasing full-length albums, sold online or through limited edition vinyl records.

What’s happening right now is that too many people are releasing singles, and because of the clutter, very few artistes are getting noticed. The shelf life of most singles is short. The following year will be crucial in determining whether this route is working or not.

3 Changing market scenario

During the 1990s Indipop wave, music companies concentrated heavily on artistes and repertoire (A&R). Through specific managers, they would scout for talent, and build the artiste’s brand.

With the decline of Indipop in the early 2000s, this role became redundant. Today, with non-film music gaining recognition again, A&R is making a comeback. Yet, choosing the right artistes remains imperative. With the market being cluttered with a mix of solid talent and wannabe acts, the scene remains tough.

Another major change is the shift from television to online platforms as a means to promote artistes and songs. Previously, music videos were splashed on TV, and the artiste got a fair amount of exposure. However, with online streaming platforms and YouTube taking over, the effort is to get maximum mileage through these media, often by sharing links on Facebook or WhatsApp. As against CD sales, the number of views is being used to determine a song’s success. One doesn’t know whether someone viewing a song has heard it at all.

Unlike television, where a large section of people could see a video simultaneously, YouTube is dependent on personal choice. Someone may forward you a video, but you may just skip it. Likewise, with online streaming platforms, it isn’t necessary for listeners to go through everything. This restricts the scope of promotion.

4 The hip-hop fad

One interesting trend noticed during the decade 2010-19 was the increasing popularity of Indian hip-hop among youngsters. Not that it was anything new. Baba Sehgal and Bali Brahmbhatt rapped in the early 1990s and Blaaze became known a few years later. Many remixes of old Hindi film hits would have a rap stretch to make them sound different.

Yet, desi hip-hop didn’t grow much till Yo Yo Honey Singh, Raftaar, Badshah and Divine consistently released albums or singles from 2012-13. Abroad, Hard Kaur represented the Indian hip-hop scene. For some years, it remained an underground movement. But the release of the 2019 Hindi film Gully Boy, based on the lives of rappers Divine and Naezy, made the industry look at the sub-genre with new focus. The Indian industry woke up two decades after hip-hop became a craze in the West.

Other artistes like Emiway Bantai, MC Prabh Deep, Raja Kumari, Brodha V and producer Sez On The Beat attracted a following. MC Kash and Ahmer Javed made Kashmiri hip-hop reach out across the nation, writing songs of protest. In 2019, both big and small labels pushed local rappers.

The question, of course, is whether this fad will last. In terms of sound and lyrical content, Indian hip-hop attracts only a segment of young listeners, who have other tastes like electronic dance music, western rap, metal or Bollywood. This is unlike 1990s bhangra-pop which could appeal to different age groups and people from different regions. At the moment, it’s best to make hay while the sun shines.

5 The niche genres

There has always been an audience for Hindustani classical, Carnatic, ghazals, Sufi, regional and devotional music. Not much has changed in these fields. The same artistes continue to perform at the same festivals year after year.

Yet, during the decade gone by, there have been significant developments in specific genres. Carnatic music and ghazals have seen the arrival of many youngsters. This is interesting because the audience at these concerts is usually dominated by the older generation.

Sufi music has seen a rise in the number of female singers, many of who have been inspired by Pakistani doyenne Abida Parveen. Simultaneously, there has been an increase in mystic music events which attract a devoted audience. Thematic and curated concerts have increased in these genres.

There is obviously plenty of good music available, and lots of talent to provide it. Some of the music caters to the masses and some is meant for those with refined tastes. Either way, the emphasis should be on developing artistes in a much bigger way. One hopes this is done more seriously in the next few years. At the moment, it all seems like one big experiment.


Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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