Coronavirus

How India’s Lockdown Has Changed Music Listening

Neha Kakkar
Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Neha Kakkar photographed at HT Media office on April 13, 2018 in New Delhi, India.

In the absence of Bollywood output, fans are playing classic hits, non-film music and indie tunes.

MUMBAI — Among the distinguishing features of India’s music business is how closely tied it is to the country’s film industry. Songs from movie soundtracks, like 2019’s romantic drama Kabir Singh and the romantic comedy Luka Chuppi, make up about 80% of all music consumption, which in India is dominated by streaming.

But the ongoing lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, put in place the last week of March, has severely impacted India’s movie industry, which has spilled over into the music market.

As in the United States, the outbreak in India has forced the closing of cinemas and the cancellation of film shoots across the country, and production houses have delayed the release of multiple movies and their accompanying soundtracks. As a result, audio-streaming services have been bereft of their largest source of listenership: new music from the Bollywood (aka Hindi), Telugu and Tamil movie industries.

Yet, music executives say, streams aren’t falling sharply. Rather, lockdown times have shaken up listening habits in India in surprising ways.

On JioSaavn, daily plays increased by 5.4% between March 24, the day before India went into lockdown, and April 15. On Spotify, while the total number of streams for the platform’s top 200 songs dipped by 6% from 54.4 million to 51.1 million during the fourth week of March, the figure has been rising ever since; it was back up to 54 million for the week ending April 23.

What’s prevented a plunge? Here are three ways listening habits have changed in India over the past 30 days.

The share of “non-film music” is increasing on the charts

The absence of new film tunes has led to fans streaming more “non-film” music, a somewhat problematic umbrella term for all material that’s not part a soundtrack. More specifically, it refers to mostly Hindi songs with a radio-friendly sound that could largely be classified as commercial pop. A month into the lockdown, five of the 10 most-played hits on several audio-streaming services, including the three biggest -- Gaana, JioSaavn and Wynk -- were non-film songs.

These include those by vocalists and composers such as Badshah’s “Genda Phool” (“Marigold”), Darshan Raval’s “Bhula Dhunga” (“Will Forget”), Neha Kakkar’s “Jinke Liye” (“For Whom”), Tony Kakkar’s “Goa Beach” and Vishal Mishra’s “Aaj Bhi” (“Even Today”). The artists also sing for Hindi films and leverage their popularity in Bollywood to market their own tracks. Their music videos often feature movie and TV stars.

As such, “non-film” artists aren’t quite the same as indie acts, at least in the traditional sense of the term, and they’re often signed to major labels. Badshah is Sony Music India’s biggest non-film name, Neha Kakkar has a deal with T-Series, and Mishra is signed to Universal Music India, which pivoted a few years ago to focusing completely on Indian non-film and international music.

Indie musicians are getting some time in the spotlight

India’s independent musicians -- meaning those who aren’t signed to a major or to a label at all, and mostly depend on gigs to earn a living -- have been the most deeply impacted by the lockdown. Some of this loss has been ever so slightly buffered by an increase in the streams of their tunes. On Spotify, the listenership of playlists such as Indie India, which currently has over 59,000 followers, is the highest it’s ever been, the service tells Billboard.

This fallow period is a “chance for indie artists to step up and use this opportunity to create music and release it,” says Amarjit Singh Batra, the managing director for Spotify India. Indeed, from March 19 to April 17, indie acts such as singer-songwriter Raghav Meattle, vocalist-composer Vishal Mishra, and electronic music producer Ritviz, each of whom put out a single or two in that span, saw their followers on the platform rise by 27%, 19% and 17%, respectively.

Neeraj Roy, the managing director and CEO of Hungama Digital Media Entertainment, the parent company of Hungama Music, believes that indie musicians tend to forge stronger personal connections with their fans. “They have the ability to evoke emotional responses,” he says.

Both JioSaavn, which has an in-house streaming label called Artist Originals (AO), and Hungama Music, which runs a digital music distribution service named Artist Aloud, have shown their support for indie talent by hosting a series of live-streamed performances on their social media channels these past three weeks.

JioSaavn has gone a step further by pledging that artists will receive all the revenue generated from the digital gigs. That will take the form of both contributions made by fans who are invited to pay what they want for the shows, as well as income from future streams of the tracks performed during the concerts, which will be uploaded as EPs on their platform. Streams of the existing catalogs of the artists who played the first round of livestreams, such as singer-songwriters Ankur Tewari, Dhruv Visvanath, Taba Chake and Tejas, have already increased between 5% and 30%, JioSaavn tells Billboard.

Rishi Malhotra, CEO of JioSaavn, says that the service also plans to roll out about a half-dozen Artist Originals singles over the next two months. “Because our AO records are independent and not married to a film vehicle, there’s some fluidity in how we can move things around,” he says. “I think the independent side can really thrive right now.”

Fans are streaming older music

Despite an absence of new film music, older Bollywood fare is holding its own. Mirroring a global trend, plays of classic hits have risen on services such as Spotify and JioSaavn. Streams on JioSaavn of Bollywood playlists featuring music from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s more than doubled between March 15 and April 15. “A lot of people are reaching for music from a time that was simpler or of joy for them,” says Malhotra.

On both Spotify and JioSaavn, tracks by Hindi film playback singing superstars such as Kishore Kumar and Udit Narayan, already among their most-streamed artists, have seen a surge over the last month. And it isn’t just Bollywood that’s feeding fans’ need for nostalgia. Plays of Hindu devotional music and Urdu ghazals, styles traditionally favored by an older audience that’s now working from home, have also witnessed a boost on both Spotify and Hungama Music.

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