The good, the bad, and the ugly of the contemporary popular music scene in India

6 February 2024

The Indian music industries are dominated by film soundtracks, especially Bollywood music. However, the emergence of national and international music streaming platforms (MSPs) has given a much-needed fillip to independent musicians, long neglected by the Bollywood-facing Indian music industries.

However, using secondary research, our analysis shows that the largest rewards from streaming platforms continued to be reaped by major labels.

The Good News

A Luminate report for 2023 indicates that the Indian music streaming market is the second largest in the world in terms of volume. The most subscribed to channel on YouTube publishes Bollywood music and is operated by T-Series, the largest record company in India.

In a short span of three years, India has entered the top 10 markets for Spotify, the largest MSP in the world. Furthermore, the Indian music scene is not only resisting, but is also countering, western cultural hegemony. For example, the year 2022 saw some major successes for Indian musicians in international markets:

The Bad News

While the above examples bode well for Indian music, it is important to highlight that they do not represent the growing independent music scene that MSPs purportedly promote. From the musicians mentioned in the examples above, King is supported by an international major record company (Warner Music India) and Arijit Singh rose to stardom as a Bollywood playback singer. Of the seven Indian musicians on YouTube’s global music chart, five are Bollywood playback singers.

MSPs have substantially alleviated the music distribution problem. Artists are no longer dependent on record companies for getting physical records onto record store shelves. But the music discovery process remains tightly controlled and governed by pre-digitalisation logics. Social media and short-form video platforms such as TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts are touted as democratic means for musicians to reach their audience and gain popularity.

However, the most followed musicians are still those who are backed by either a Bollywood repertoire or the major record companies or both. For example, Neha Kakkar, a popular Indian singer, built an impressive catalogue of Bollywood and non-film projects supported by the domestic and international major record companies (the majors) and became the most followed musician on Instagram with sixty million followers.

YouTube drives the most consumption of music in India. This potentially provides an opportunity for Indian independent musicians to subvert the powers-that-be and earn directly from advertising revenue through YouTube. But the largest music channels on YouTube are controlled by the majors and so, their channels attract far more advertising than those operated directly by independent musicians (or their representatives).

With the lion’s share of YouTube advertising dollars in the music category going to the majors, advertising income from YouTube does not suffice for most independent musicians.

The majors continue to wield enormous power in India; especially domestic majors who have, over several decades, invested substantial resources into building compelling local catalogues of superhit songs predominantly acquired from film music. And they have asserted their power. For example, domestic major SaReGaMa forced Spotify to remove 120,000 of their songs just two months after the streaming service was launched in India.

The Ugly Truth

The Indian musician King, mentioned above, had acquired a fan following independently before he was signed to Warner Music India. Stories like his give hope to many that digital platforms allow more musicians the opportunity to distribute their music and get discovered. However, discovery remains a largely undemocratic process and examples like King’s are few and far between.

Music platformisation, then, continues to reinforce the oligopolistic structure of the recorded music industry in India and maintains the dominance of film music. A lot more needs to be done to improve the sustainability of the vast majority of musicians who do not achieve star status through playback singing in Bollywood.

While there is increased opportunity for independent music to flourish, often it eventually needs support from the majors to convert into a long-term career. Most independent musicians continue to depend on traditional live entertainment opportunities, which alone may not suffice for their daily bread and butter.

The advertising-skewed Indian music streaming economy does provide independent musicians with the opportunity to generate income directly from their recordings. However, it is not immune to the inequalities and power dynamics of the industry that music platformisation has been little able to upset.

A more detailed analysis on this topic can be read here (open access): The changing shape of the Indian recorded music industry in the age of platformisation.

Share this: