Tuesday March 3, 2015

The state of Indian non-film music business – preamble to Madhav Das and Atul Churamani’s interview

Posted by Karthik

Update: A note by Atul, via Facebook, in response to my post, appended at the end.

First, the video that kickstarted these thoughts in my head.

This video is interesting for multiple reasons. Let me list them all!

1. It is hosted by Madhav Das, ex-founder of Magnasound, the label that introduced international music to a LOT of Indians, back in the 90s. I have fond memories of buying droves of Magnasound tapes. They looked visibly different, with their plastic covers (something that Pyramid eventually imitated with many Rahman soundtracks). I had a lot of tapes in their Everlasting Love Songs series, besides a whole lot of other tapes.

In my earlier days, when I was a mad, blind fan of Rahman (I’d like to believe I’m just a fan now, not mad and blind), I was mighty pissed with Madhav when he repackaged Set Me Free and re-released it with A R Rahman’s name in the cover, with Malgudi Subha relegated to the 2nd place, unlike the first release which had the reverse order and the composer’s name being Dilip. Rahman himself mentioned that he was disappointed by this opportunistic decision and that he wasn’t informed of this.

Looking back, now, I think it was an astute business decision by Madhav, though he could have perhaps worked with Rahman on this, together. But that album was horrendous, by any standards, and under any name – Dilip or Rahman.

2. There are 2 people in the Indian music business (music ‘business’) that I really look up to – one is Atul Churamani (ex-Saregama) and the other is Shridhar Subramaniam (Sony Music). I have been tracking their work for a L-O-N-G time and in a recent 3 day office event in Jaipur, I had the opportunity to meet Shridhar personally. In my fanboy moment, I blurted something out in a silly way and never connected with him after that 🙂

Atul now runs a music publishing company called Turnkey Music & Publishing Pvt. Ltd, which recently managed the new album by Roop Kumar and Sonali Rathod, Zikr Tera.

3. Atul speaks a lot about a reviving interest in Indian non-film music, and even cites the instance of 800+ more radio stations coming up soon as a way to bring those non-flm music to a larger mainstream. Between Madhav and Atul, they estimate that India is ready for about 4-5K more singers.

I have a fundamental issue here, and this is something I have mentioned very often on Milliblog.

I prefer composer-driven musical ventures, as against singer-driven ventures. We, as a country, have always celebrated the front-end, not the back-end that actually creates. So, actors instead of directors, script writers, dialog writers etc. So, singers, instead of composers. We celebrate what we see or hear, and hardly ever scratch the surface to understand who really is the power behind those.

Western pop music world is no different, I agree, but they have a much better respectability charted out for the behind the scene folks. Not just for music – even shows like Jimmy Fallon and John Oliver have huge teams of writers who are paid really well – simple reason: they are THE reason for the show’s success. The writers CREATE. Others in front of the camera merely perform. They have to perform well, of course, but ‘what’ they perform is the crux.

Similarly, what singers sing is the crux of the music business; not merely that they sing or how they sing. They are important, but not as important as ‘what’ is being sung. ‘What’ is the start point; ‘how’ and ‘who’ join later/eventually.

So, Atul and Madhav going on about singers trying their luck in non-film music is a lot misplaced, in my view. Who are the composers for those songs? That’s my first question, if Atul starts to focus on the quality of content as a criteria for success.

Back in the 50s and 60s, in the West, we had singers who composed and wrote their own songs. That was a form of expression, like blogging or tweeting, now. But when music became an industry, the roles were split – so, we had a singer, a lyricist and a composer collaborating to create a song.

Now, with the internet era, and with people having the power to create music even on a laptop, a person can compose, sing and write his own song. We are back to the 50s, 60s era as far as music creation possibilities are concerned. But when that singer gets a chance with a formal publishing company like say, Atul’s, chances are he/she might be asked to collaborate with other composers and other lyricists, and eventually that person may just become yet another front-end singer.

4. On Milliblog, I place my bet on composers. I know there are no repercussions of my bets, unlike Shridhar or Atul, who place money on the singers and composers, but when I say bet, I mean my opinion.

Amit Trivedi is someone I bet big long before he was even considered as a film composer. See this, for context.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 10.20.05 pm

This was in February 2008. Amit’s first film soundtrack, Aamir, released in May 2008 – I gave it a glowing #200 worder, no doubt!

I added Vijay Antony’s Nakka Mukka in my top 10 Tamil songs of 2007 long before it became a national phenomenon (eventually Sun Pictures purchased the film that was lying unreleased and re-released the audio again, in 2008, after having released it earlier in mid-2007, in prep of the film’s release in September 2008).

Ghibran is someone I’ve considered talented right from his first album (Vaagai Sooda Vaa, which was a #200 worder on Milliblog for a debutant after a long time), and he continues to live up to that promise, right up to Uttama Villain.

My next bet is on Gulraj Singh, in Hindi. He did get one song last year – ‘Pakeezah’ from Ungli. Hope he gets full soundtracks to showcase his talent.

In Telugu, it is Sunny M.R.

In Malayalam, the ones I bet on – Shaan Rahman, Prashant Pillai etc. – have already proven their worth many times. In Kannada, the composer I rooted for, for a long time, is No.1 now – Arjun Janya.

See, these are composers. Not singers. Composers are creators. Even a singer, however good, needs a composer to tell him what to sing.

So, if I was Atul or Shridhar, I’d bet on the composers more, and less on the singers. Sure, the focus on singers (since they are what people hear) is justified, but unlike film music where the actor lends the face to the song, in non-film music, we have the opportunity to create newer heroes out of composers… to put the focus on where it deserves the most.

Where are the Indian Idols now? Where are the pop bands? They all had starting interest because they were packaged attractively. But when the package is opened, you start seeing the shine only on the outer surface. To sustain, they need quality material to croon. That can only come from composers.

5. The role of an A&R manager/outfit has changed dramatically now. Talent hunt is one part of it, but the sheer amount of talent available on the internet makes the job even more difficult.

In particular, for outfits like Atul’s Turnkey, the role after an artist is on board is even more critical. The days of physical music delivery are long gone – everything is digital now, as Atul himself acknowledges in the interview.

Music distribution is on so many levels now – there is digital streaming, digital downloads, mobile downloads, mobile streaming, mobile caller tunes, YouTube uploads, OKListen, Bandcamp, iTunes etc.

The person or team managing the music distribution of an artist needs to ensure that the music is,
a. promoted appropriately, pre and during the launch
b. available in as many platforms as possible, as easily as possible

Even in (a), crafting the story behind the song/album is far more important than the music itself. The story introduces the music. This is classic PR effort though, not necessarily music industry-specific.

Besides this, there are uniquely nuanced tasks that are specific to digital media.

When people search for that artist, on say, Google, what do they get? Has the artist’s manager taken care of that? By either using search engine marketing or search engine optimization? The option are plenty, in both cases. To start with, people should be able to sample the music – so, a Saavn or Gaana page, or the YouTube link of that album/song coming up is a great start. And then the iTunes page, for purchase.

If people search on iTunes, what do they get? This song/album, or something similar sounding, from another artist? On a YouTube search, via the YouTube mobile app, what do people get? Many albums and soundtracks I search on Google or YouTube hardly ever gets me to the jukebox correctly!

Social media is another animal altogether!! Do the artists (all involved – composer, singer, lyricist etc.) have social media profiles worth exploiting to promote the album? Even if they do, what should they say, to create curiosity about the album?

Are there media, social media influencers that are pro artist/singer/composer who can be given a sneak peek to help them spread the word? How should they be chosen, evaluated? How should they be engaged?

Then there is good old PR – media relations. And event appearances. Brand tie-ups. It’s a full plan that can only come to life depending on what the story behind the album and artist is.

Finally, the big daddy – live gigs. Someone like Raghu Dixit is a living example of a professional musician who uses his social media outreach well, composes his own songs, and gets help from professional lyric writers like Madhan Karky when needed. Of course he had the initial push from Vishal and Shekhar’s own music label Counter Culture Records, but that’s precisely the role of a label/publisher these days – identify the creator, not just the person mouthing a creation – and push them to limelight. Beyond the intial push, the creator will find avenues him/herself to sustain the interest.

6. Finally – the money part of it, that Madhav has made it the video’s title!

I honestly do not think music business is a career option now, in India. Not a sole career option, at least for starters. Starters need to prove themselves first – to do that, they can only moonlight as musicians. They need to do something that can earn their bread and butter. At some point, they can pivot into a full-fledged musicians if the going is good.

But doing only music, with no other source of income is a bad move in the Indian music business scheme of things, film or non-film.

It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to be a writer’ and leave your job and only write. Bad idea.

Atul does list a lot of avenues of making money from music, but given the fragmentation of the music industry, money from each avenue is also lesser, overall. So, more than conviction that one can become a professional musician, on a more practical level, consider your livelihood first.

7. Finally, if I were a national music publishing house and had access to a really good Hindi singer, I’d get Gulraj Singh to compose music for that singer and cut an album. If he can compose stupendous music for a Ganesh bhajan album, I’m sure he can do wonders with a pop music album.

But, it needs to be promoted well (all of #5, above).

Update (March 4, 2015):
Atul responded via Facebook: “About singers and composers, the questions asked were about singers so I replied accordingly. However, there is a point when I say that you have to have a good song, one that passes the ‘grey whistle test’. So I am actually agreeing with you that it’s all about a good song to start with! Plus the fact that I am today into music publishing means that I am dealing with composers, not singers. A lot of people are singer – songwriters so one deals with them. But it is in their capacity as songwriters and not singers.”



Sponsored links

Like Milliblog? Help spread the word!