From evaluating listenership to mainstream success: The evolving relationship between indie musicians and streaming services

Amit Gurbaxani

Jun 19, 2019 09:53:08 IST

It’s music industry conference season again in Mumbai. Music Inc. will return for the second year this week while the third edition of All About Music will be held in August. PALM Soundscape, organised as part of the long-running PALM Expo, took place at the end of last month. I was invited to conduct a panel discussion at event and chose as my subject the evolving relationship between Indian independent musicians and streaming services. The speakers were blues-rock guitarist and composer Blackstratblues aka Warren Mendonsa; Tej Brar, the founder of artist management company Third Culture Entertainment; Vijay Basrur, the founder of digital music distribution service OK Listen! and Soumini Paul, the vice president of Artist Aloud, the independent music distribution division of audio-streaming service Hungama Music.

When music industry folk speak of streaming services, they are typically referring to the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Prime Music and their Indian counterparts Gaana, JioSaavn, Wynk and Hungama. But as the panelists pointed out, Bandcamp, Soundcloud and YouTube are equally important in building an act’s career. Take, for instance, the best-known artist on Brar’s roster, Nucleya.

From evaluating listenership to mainstream success: The evolving relationship between indie musicians and streaming services

Representational image. Reuters

The electronic music producer believes in giving out his music for free. So when, in 2016, he signed a deal to exclusively release his album Raja Baja through Saavn as their first Artist-In-Residence (a precursor to their Artist Originals platform), he ensured that while it would not be available on competing services for a period of six weeks, his fans could listen to it on Bandcamp, Soundcloud and YouTube, on which all music can be streamed without a subscription.

For the benefit of those who didn’t make it to the talk, here are some of the other insights the panelists shared.

Acts should work closely with services that match or help grow their listenership

While none of the panelists are in favour of exclusive deals, they have each used them to suit different needs. Mendonsa said that he released his last album The Last Analog Generation exclusively through Apple Music because he found that it’s where most of his fans consume his material. “People ask me, ‘When is your music coming out on (whatever platform)?’, two years ago, it was iTunes, now it’s Spotify,” he said. Conversely, Hindi rock band The Local Train tied up with Apple Music to put out their sophomore set Vaaqif because they felt it “has a premium audience” they could reach out to, said Basrur.

As part of their deal with Nucleya, Saavn put serious marketing muscle behind Raja Baja and featured its creator on billboards in seven cities across India, something he wouldn’t have been able to afford on his own at the time, said Brar. He also revealed that Third Culture is partnering with Apple Music for BLOT’s next release because it could help the electronic music producer snag gigs abroad. BLOT will be playing the Awakenings festival in Amsterdam this month and Apple Music, according to Brar, is a “globally recognised brand” whose inclusion in BLOT’s bio will catch the attention of foreign booking agents who are unlikely to be aware of its Indian rivals.

A streaming hit is the first step towards mainstream success

It’s hard to define a hit when you are an independent musician. The test of a new song’s success is whether your fans know it when it’s played at a show. Thanks to streaming services (and download stores such as iTunes), indie acts have a better way of gauging how well new releases are doing. While many artists have tunes that go viral on social media or YouTube, landing a smash on an audio-streaming platform lends a certain legitimacy.

“Getting [good] numbers on a commercial destination [is] a stamp of approval,” said Paul whose company distributes the music of “underground” hip-hop sensation Emiway. While a number of Emiway’s videos have racked up millions of views on YouTube, his track 'Machayenge' has reached the top 20 on the charts of Gaana, JioSaavn, Wynk, Apple Music and Spotify showing the nation that it’s as popular as the biggest tunes from Bollywood right now.

Streaming services can help acts figure out where, and with whom, to tour next

Not only have streaming services greatly increased the reach of artists – before the panel, Mendonsa told me he was pleasantly surprised to know that a bellboy at a hotel he stayed at in Bengaluru knew his stuff from Spotify – they also provide them with deep consumer data they didn’t have access to before.

Acts who distribute their music on Gaana, JioSaavn and Spotify have dashboards on the platforms they can view to learn demographic and geographic information about their listeners. They can use this to plot their tours and even shortlist who to collaborate and perform with by checking which artists are on the same playlists as them.

Labels have their benefits even in the streaming era

Streaming services enable independent musicians to distribute their music to millions of potential listeners across the world, eliminating, to a large extent, the need for a record label. However, one thing labels have to offer is an “inbuilt audience”, which helps artists looking “to scale”. Brar is confident that the track 'Mirza' from Nucleya’s last album Tota Myna, which features Hindi rapper Raftaar and has thus far tallied over three million plays on YouTube, would have “over 200 million” views if he had sold it to T-Series, currently the most subscribed channel in the world.

Similarly, Basrur said that things really took off for The Local Train after their song 'Aaoge Tum Kabhi' was featured on the soundtrack to the film Angry Indian Goddesses. The movie may have flopped but by being on T-Series’ channel, the band was introduced to a lot of new listeners. Another example is Divine and Naezy’s 2015 breakthrough 'Mere Gully Mein', which benefited from being on Sony Music India’s YouTube channel, which presently has more than 25 million subscribers. The Mumbai rappers have just over 1.5 million subscribers between them.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

Updated Date: Jun 20, 2019 11:01:04 IST