Record labels in Bengal have witnessed vast changes in the past decade. The transition from physical sales to digital downloads and now to streaming has forced the record labels to shift their strategies in disseminating music. Online media has augmented audience reach and increased music consumption thereby, helping recorded music make money again.
Last year, Indians spent 145 million hours streaming music online, a 2.9X growth compared to 2017. The time spent listening (TSL) also increased by 22%. West Bengal saw a 3X growth in both, the number of streams and TSL in 2018.
The owners of record labels in Bengal agree that the Bengali music business has expanded over time. However, piracy and insufficient revenue generation hinder the growth of the label business.
“We have a long way to go in terms of doing great business. The music streaming apps these days have a number of Bengali songs which are helping us make a mark with our content. But there are some streaming platforms who are not aware of how vast the Bengali market is, thereby affecting our growth,” commented Mahendra Soni, Co-Founder, SVF Music.
SVF Music, one of the biggest record labels in Bengal makes approximately 4-5 Cr each year. Soni believes that their growth is meagre when compared to other vernacular industries like Tamil and Telegu.
Soni opines that with 300 million Bengali speaking people worldwide, the diaspora is sufficient enough to support Bengali music. However, consumption of music does not guarantee sufficient returns.
“Every industry has its limitations, but if you look at our artists like Arindam Chatterjee and Anupam Roy, they have flourished well. We are open to promoting new talents and creating a space for their growth,” said Soni.
Relationship of artists and record labels in Bengal
Anupam Roy, the Singer/Songwriter, has been associated with the label since 2010. He approves of Soni’s statement made on emerging talents.
“If the artist shares a good relationship with the record labels, they are bound to flourish,” said Roy.
But not all artists are comfortable working with labels. When asked, Roy clarified,
“The artists who do not want to associate themselves with record labels are insecure. They are always apprehensive that someone is going to cheat them. Also, the artists can’t be blamed entirely because in the past there have been instances where record labels have actually cheated and treated artists unfairly,”
Independent musicians, however, do not correspond well with the statements made by the record labels. The artists feel that the labels are discerning and non-supportive.
Mahua Lahiri, MD, Asha Audio Company, negates all the statements foisted on the record labels and says,
“Asha Audio holds a good non-film repertoire. We are building a catalogue of non-film genres and have already worked on building a nonchalant niche for upcoming artists and helping them get a firm foothold in the industry.”
Asha Audio in the past created a musical web series called ‘Fine Tune,’ a fusion of atypical music genres. They have promoted local bands and artists on various occasions too. Currently, they are working on the second season of the series.
Although they are open to launching independent artists, record labels in Bengal are still apprehensive of entertaining someone who might not be able to bring in money.
“Revenue generation is meagre. Although there is a huge consumption of Bengali music, the returns are hardly palpable.The scenario in Kolkata is not as good to help artists earn a lot of money, unless they are playback singers. To make a difference, Asha Audio will soon venture into publishing.”
Soni and Lahiri both feel record labels in Bengal are unable to generate expected revenue. The gap in expenses and returns hamper launching new artists. Although there are no losses, the progress is very slow.
“It is a tiring situation but we are hopeful. In any case, we need to be patient to reach the acumen we desire,” says Lahiri.
The flip side of the record label business
Renowned singer-songwriter, National Award-winning film director and actor Anjan Dutt during his conversation with Music Plus helped evaluate the artist point-of-view.
“I released more than 10 albums under HMV/Saregama. The last one came out in 2012. Since then, I have been doing music independently.” says Dutt.
Dutt has refrained from associating himself from any record label after Saregama. When asked why, he affirms,
“The record labels don’t do anything. They are exploitative.”
Dutt’s statements shatter all norms set previously by the record labels in Bengal or the artists representing the record labels and vice versa.
“If I am associated with a record label, as an artist, I will be putting in more work than them. The writing, composing, creating will be my effort, so the record label taking a bigger share for my work is exploitative. I should be the one taking 70% but does that happen? No!” exclaimed Dutt.
Roy, on the other hand, believes that every artist gets an opportunity to clarify and comprehend deals that record labels offer. He believes an artist is given a fair chance to negotiate before signing a contract.
“The transparency varies from artist to artist. In my case, my label has been very honest and generous to me. As far as deciding who retains how much money can be put in the clauses of the contract and according to what suits the artist best,” says Roy.
Dutt to which gave a strong reply,
“Record labels will only make those contracts that favour them more and never the artists. The record labels will retain more money and underpay the artists through whom they make money in the first place. Unless you are a superstar and can keep the bulk of money, chances of 50-50 are thin.”
We asked playback singer and vocalist of the band Somlata and the Aces, Somlata Acharyya Chowdhury to give her opinion on the narration.
“Record labels have taken a back seat these days. It might be due to a decline in physical sales and audience being limited to online music streaming.”
Her music career has been a balance of working with record labels in Bengal and independently. Nevertheless, she acknowledges her qualms on associating herself with a record label.
“I am pursuing my work as an independent artist. Choosing to work according to our ways or as per our terms makes us comfortable. Working independently offers us that space. Independent Bengali music hasn’t caught up as much as the movies have and that worries me,” expressed Somlata.
Chowdhury isn’t wrong when she mentions the rise of Bengali movies. SVF itself produced the movie ‘Amazon Obhijaan’ with a budget of INR 20 crore. It was successful and earned about INR 50 crore making it the highest earning movie in the history of the Bengali industry.
Music contrarily does not require such heavy investments but as Lahiri puts it,
“We do not find investors. Nobody is willing to invest in the music space. They are too scared to face results. Online streaming brings in 8-10 paise for a song. That is not enough.”
Need for a pragmatic approach?
The tussle between the record labels and artists is not new. As 77-year-old Seymour Stein, co-founder of Sire Records and the former Vice-President of Warner Bros Records, says “It has never been easy for artists to thrive.” With the ease that technology brings, it has become even more difficult to rise to the top, thanks to the massive competition. Though artists can face this competition all by themselves, Seymour advises them “not to venture solo”, at least at the start of their music career.
That said, artists shouldn’t approach just any label.
“Working with record labels will definitely help newer artists to find a place for their voice to be heard above the noise. There are great Indie labels all over the world. You don’t need a major label to rise to the top. Find the one that fits you the best and the rest will follow,” he signed off.