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In India, TikTok Ban Spurs a Game Of Clones

New apps are vying for the short-video market vacated by the Chinese platform TikTok.

MUMBAI — After India banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese-owned apps in June over data privacy concerns, “people thought it would be the end of the influencers,” says Awez Darbar, a dancer and comedic Indian TikTok star. Since then, however, at least a dozen new platforms have launched in what was once the ByteDance-owned service’s fastest-growing market. (It had over 200 million users.) “It hurt when it was banned,” says Darbar, who had more than 25 million TikTok followers. “But then I knew if TikTok [went], there will be other options.”

Since launching in 2016 in China as Douyin, and then under its current name in Japan and South Korea the following year, TikTok has demonstrated the power of short-form videos — they range from three to 15 seconds — to create viral buzz that drives streams and builds careers. In India, which TikTok entered in 2018 following its acquisition of the startup Musical.ly, music companies used the platform in multiple ways, from creating dance challenges to roping in A-list influencers to star in music videos for other platforms. “It became essential for every promotional plan to have TikTok in it,” says Roochay Shukla, marketing manager at the music industry services company Outdustry India. According to his estimates, music featured in about 70% of the Indian videos uploaded on the platform.

The TikTok ban has left India’s music industry without one of its favorite publicity tools. Competitors stepping into the breach include Triller, Facebook’s Instagram Reels and HotShots. (The lattermost comes from Indian music streaming service Gaana.) Such local contenders as Josh (from the company behind news aggregator Dailyhunt), Moj (from the team that runs social media network ShareChat), MX Takatak and Roposo are also vying for business. In September, Google launched YouTube Shorts in India first, with plans to expand globally from there.


Big influencers are now the subject of bidding wars, with some apps offering lucrative signing bonuses as part of exclusive deals. Companies are offering as much as $41,000 to make a certain number of videos over the course of six months, more than most influencers were making from brand endorsements on TikTok, according to industry insiders.

“A lot of people are throwing money [at us],” says Darbar, who has so far refused the exclusive offers. He’s trying out the new platforms first, including HotShots, Reels, Triller, and soon, Josh. “I’m just waiting [to find] that same bond I had with TikTok.”

The size of the offers depends on the duration of the deal (typically one or two quarters), the quantity of videos the creator is contracted to make for the app, and the restrictions placed on them. For example, an influencer with more than 20 million followers on TikTok, who recently signed a six-month exclusive deal with MX Takatak, had to agree to post about 250 videos on the platform and reshare at least 40 of them on Instagram, one industry insider says.

Awez Darbar
Awez Darbar Sultan Khan

Gaana has shown how short-form video can make an obscure song go viral. In 2018 — a year before Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” blew up on TikTok in the United States — “Tera Ghata,” recorded as an exclusive for Gaana by Gajendra Verma, a relatively unknown singer at the time, emerged as what’s regarded as India’s first TikTok hit. The track now has nearly 400 million views on YouTube and 200 million streams on Gaana. The latter service incorporated a feature called Videos last year before launching the similar HotShots app in July. “We pretty much had all the ingredients,” says Gaana CEO Prashan Agarwal. “The technology was in place. Influencers were already working with us, either doing music videos for our series of exclusive Gaana Originals releases or promoting the songs on TikTok.”

Though most of the music in influencers’ TikTok videos came from domestic repertoire, labels were also using the app to break international hits. “When we go to creators and tell them how Lauv is the next big star,” says Shukla, “it brings interest because it adds a coolness factor to their profile and they can get followers from his fan base.” When the artists tour India, Outdustry arranges meet-and-greets with the influencers.


Shukla feels two apps have the best shot at replacing TikTok in India: Moj, which counts Twitter among its investors, because it’s among the few to have secured licensing deals with major domestic labels T-Series, Saregama and Zee Music Company; and Roposo, which creators have told him “comes closest to the TikTok experience” for their audience. With Roposo, which has been around since 2014, he says, “there’s a certain familiarity that makes it easier to use.”

There are also advantages to using a global platform. Part of Triller’s mandate is to equip “Indian artists to showcase their talent across the globe,” says Raj Mishra, head of operations at Triller India. Two recent singles by Indian acts, Armaan Malik‘s “Next 2 Me” and Diljit Dosanjh‘s “GOAT,” have hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top Triller Global chart. But while the app has deals with Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner Music Group — which own minority stakes in the company — it lacks licenses with the leading domestic labels. And it’s not the only platform facing copyright issues: In August, T-Series sent copyright infringement notices to Triller, Josh, Roposo and others.

Armaan Malik
Armaan Malik Mohit Varu

Triller has also entered into a strategic partnership with audio-streaming service JioSaavn “to localize and customize our offering,” says Mishra. Under the arrangement, which gives Triller access to JioSaavn’s nearly 200 million monthly average users, a view of a video that uses music from the DSP will count as an audio stream. In September, Triller partnered with Big Bang Music, a joint venture between Sony Music and talent management agency Kwan, for the release of Bollywood actor Tiger Shroff‘s debut single, “Unbelievable.”

Big Tech’s entrance into the market with Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts also threatens to shake things up, as their parent services already have many of the necessary licensing deals in place to cover Indian labels in India, and their apps are likely already used by influencers and their fans: India is both the world’s biggest YouTube audience — with over 265 million monthly average users, CEO Susan Wojcicki said last year — and Instagram’s second-biggest market, with 100 million users, according to market data company Statista.


India was the fourth country to receive Reels, and among the reasons for its swift introduction was that “video is over a third of all posts we have on Instagram today,” says Niharika Pande, strategic partner manager, Instagram India.

For now, influencers are reveling in the competitive cauldron. “They said the influencers’ shops will shut,” says Darbar. “But a mall has opened instead.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2020, issue of Billboard.