How India’s indie musicians came out of Bollywood’s shadow during the pandemic

Listen to me.
Listen to me.
Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
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The pandemic came as an unexpected blow to the arts. Cinemas were shut down, music gigs went online, and culture spaces had to reinvent how they would engage their audiences from a distance.

For India’s thrifty independent musicians, though, it was a blessing in disguise.

“The pandemic hasn’t affected indie artistes that much. We know how to make music at home, and now we can do just that and release a month later,” says Ashwin Gopakumar, lead vocalist of Kochi-based band When Chai Met Toast (WCMT). A similar story played out for Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, a Delhi-based musician, whose songwriting emerged out of the loneliness and gloom of the pandemic. Her single, “Everything’s Fine?” took off on Spotify, she says, presumably, because of how deeply rooted it was in the context of the pandemic and the lockdown. “There was a sudden influx of messages from listeners,” she says.

This is a trend that music platforms like Spotify and JioSaavn have also observed. “This year we have noticed an increase in the streams for indie music as well as regional language music released by independent artists. We attribute this rise to two factors—the lack of big budget films being released and people exploring and engaging with new music during the lockdown,” says the spokesperson of JioSaavn, an audio streaming platform owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries.

WCMT’s band member Achyut Jaigopal believes the Indian listeners are now far more receptive to indie music. “There has been a considerable shift over the past year. I feel the gap between indie and Bollywood music has also decreased,” he says.

Technology and the audiophile music curators may finally correct the Bollywood-heavy, lopsided music industry in India.

The rising indie star

In his late teens, Hari Tyagi would often plug into music with his earphone while working with his father on their farmland. At that time, he didn’t know what a musical note or a chord was.

“All I knew was that I was being told to be great in school—to do something that would earn me a name even after I died. And I knew I wasn’t doing that,” says the 25-year-old musician who goes by the name Theharity. Now, though, his profile on audio streaming platforms like Spotify has brought him out of oblivion and onto a globally recognised music stage.

“Before being playlisted on Spotify, I had a handful of monthly listeners,” says Tyagi, a resident of Yamunanagar in the northern state of Haryana. According to data shared by Spotify, the young independent musician’s monthly listeners grew from 10 to 4,200 when he was placed on the audio streaming platform’s Radar and Summer Indie playlists.

A similar success story played out for 16-year-old Kiara Chettri, whose monthly listeners grew from 470 to over 4,000 by being featured on Spotify’s curated playlists featuring indie artistes. “When I put out my first single, ‘You’ll See,’ on Apple Music and Spotify, I expected maybe a hundred people would listen to it. Once it began seeing 3,000-4,000 streams, it encouraged me to make more music,” says the Gurugram-based musician.

These young artistes are now part of a growing tribe of indie musicians in India, who are being discovered on audio streaming platforms and creating a niche audience for themselves. In a music industry dominated by big labels and Bollywood-led music producers, indie artistes are experiencing certain democratisation of this space. “At first, I thought one could only get songs out through a music label,” explains Chettri.

A little research helped her discover that artistes can go to music distributors like CD Baby and OK Listen. And after paying a one-time fee, one’s music can be released on music streaming platforms. There’s no middle man, no nepotism, and no need for traditional patronage. All an artiste has to do is to find a reliable music distributor and get their music out on popular streaming platforms.

From there on, the nature of the platform—and its algorithms—take over.

For the musician, by the musician

Spotify’s Radar, for instance, is a dedicated programme for emerging artistes. The audio platform keeps a close eye on up-and-coming musicians and curates their music onto relevant Radar playlists across regions.

More popular indie names, like artistes Ritviz, Divine, and Prateek Kuhad, have also significantly benefited from the launch of the Radar programme in India in May. Kuhad—whose music former US president Barack Obama also endorsed—had nearly 36,000 followers on his Spotify for Artists profile in February 2019, when Spotify launched in India. By September, this number grew to 1.7 million.

“When we were making music in 2017 or so, Soundcloud and YouTube were the prevalent mediums to put our work out there,” says Gopakumar of WCMT. But even at the time, he says, a platform like Spotify helped the band get its music to listeners in the US and Italy.

Today, most of WCMT’s streams—nearly three-fourths—come from Spotify, and the rest largely from Apple Music and YouTube. Spotify’s algorithm, says Gopakumar, is particularly helpful. “If your song is good, it will go up the playlist.”

Newer artistes are still coming to grips with this popularity. “For an artiste, it is particularly hard to be meandering through this industry without a manager. You have to know the right people, your music has to reach the right inboxes,” explains Bhattacharya. The onus of promoting one’s music, she says, lies with the artiste. “Sometimes, I would just want to tell people, ‘Please gaana sunn lo yaar’ (please just listen to my song),” she quips.

Tyagi agrees. “I have written to countless music magazines and blogs to listen to my music, and no one even responds to those emails. These people only respond once you are already settled in the music industry,” he says. “But a Spotify editor, for example, will go by the mood, the vibe of your song. They will not look at your name,” Tyagi says.

With audio streaming platforms, Bhattacharya says, one reaches the listener directly. “Not only India, but being on something like a Spotify playlist got me listeners from 25-30 countries,” she says. This, in turn, helped her connect with other artistes and collaborate over projects.

Similarly, JioSaavn, has an artist development programme called Artist Originals, which also acts as a streaming label. Under this, artistes are assisted with aspects of releasing music such as services distribution and bespoke marketing plans. Artist Originals has, besides mentoring artistes, also helped musicians like Goldie Sohel, Abhijeet Srivastav, and Chhavi Sodhani release their first indie track or album.

This could finally be indie music’s moment in the sun.