Multilingualism and the indie musician: Is singing in Hindi or a regional language essential to turn an artist into a brand?
Over the last few years, there’s been an exponential increase in the number of acts who started their careers performing in English, subsequently began releasing material in Hindi and now seamlessly switch between the two.
During a recent webinar, when asked about which Indian acts have actually been making money during the ongoing pandemic, Chaitanya Kataria, the co-founder of Gully Gang Entertainment, answered: "Whoever has built a brand that other brands want to associate with." Kataria’s biggest brand, as you may know, is the rapper, Divine.
The webinar, which took place last week, was held by Canada-based alternative south Asian music company Snakes X Ladders with whom Kataria was to stage Divine’s tour of Canada in March 2020. That tour was cancelled of course but Divine had a relatively good 2020, which he capped with the release of his chart-topping second album Punya Paap.
Like many people working in the business side of India’s independent music industry — including Naveen Deshpande, the founder of the webinar’s co-organiser, Indian artist management and event company Mixtape — Kataria has previously worked with entertainment conglomerate Only Much Louder (OML). When he mentioned how his former employers were successfully building brands out of the many stand-up comedians they currently manage, I submitted a question asking why OML wasn’t able to create individual brands out of the several musicians whose careers it was handling during his stint with them.
His response was intriguing. According to Kataria, a lot of the artists on OML’s roster back then were “indie” acts performing in English, so there may have been “a language barrier”. They also weren’t releasing enough music, in what was a “curious period” when “streaming [in India] outside of Bollywood [music]” hadn’t taken off, something he believes only happened after the launch of Spotify here in early 2019.
There’s some weight in Kataria’s statements especially with regard to his point about a potential language barrier, when you look at some of the big names in Indian independent music right now, at least as far as streaming numbers are concerned: Divine, Prateek Kuhad and Ritviz.
Widening the scope, we see a similar profile in the list of the top live Indian indie acts of the last two decades, which I’m taking to mean those that I saw had the ability to sell out a ticketed gig at a 500-capacity standalone venue as opposed to a festival where they’re part of a larger line-up. In addition to the three names already mentioned, this would include: Agnee, Ankur Tewari, Avial, Blackstratblues, Dualist Inquiry, Emiway, Indian Ocean, Karsh Kale, Lucky Ali, Midival Punditz, Nucleya, Parvaaz, Pentagram, Papon, Soulmate, The Raghu Dixit Project, Thaikkudam Bridge and The Local Train. Most of them make music only in Hindi, in both Hindi and English, or in a regional language, and in the case of Blackstratblues and Dualist Inquiry, language-agnostic instrumental music.
Of the few who perform only in English such as Pentagram and Soulmate, they slowly and steadily amassed a staunchly faithful fan base by consistently performing shows across the country. But they’re not “brands” in the sense that Kataria was referring to the term, which, it’s safe to presume, is closely related, if not exactly synonymous, with celebrity. Vishal Dadlani, for example, is a far bigger brand than his mostly-on-hiatus band Pentagram.
Today’s upcoming indie musicians know well that a certain level of fandom can only be reached by singing in Hindi and that the resultant rise in audience boosts their chances of scoring brand associations that will help level up their careers. Over the last few years, there’s been an exponential increase in the number of acts who started their careers performing in English, subsequently began releasing material in Hindi and now seamlessly switch between the two.
Perhaps the most prominent example is singer-songwriter Nikhil D’Souza who first experienced the benefits of being bilingual the more traditional way, by providing playback to film soundtracks. More recent examples of acts whose trajectories don’t involve a tryst with Bollywood include EDM exponents Lost Stories and Zaeden, vocalist-composer Hanita Bhambri and pop-rock band When Chai Met Toast.
Then there’s Kamakshi Khanna and Raghav Meattle, both notably former contestants of the English-singing reality TV talent show The Stage, who put out their debut Hindi tracks this past October. Even members of indie acts with formidable cult followings have launched solo Hindi projects. Genre-defying group Peter Cat Recording Co.’s frontman Suryakant Sawhney is perhaps better recognised by some listeners as Lifafa. And last year, dream pop duo Parekh & Singh’s Nischay Parekh debuted his work as Nishu.
None of them can be accused of “selling out” because none of them sound inauthentic. Like the majority of urban Indians, a lot of them communicate in both English and Hindi on a daily basis so the transition between the two tongues when singing seems natural rather than rehearsed.
But where does this leave the indie musician for whom performing in Hindi would be a force fit and would indeed feel, well, fake? I return to Kataria’s conversation and what he said when asked about breaking Divine internationally, a goal the hip-hop star and he have clearly set their sights on after signing with the Indian division of Nas’ label Mass Appeal. The fact is that the same language that gives Divine such a huge advantage at home is a barrier abroad.
According to Kataria, when Divine wins over all the hip-hop fans among the Indian diaspora, that figure would be more than enough to sustain a successful global career. He paraphrased a quote from an interview with Kunal Shah, the founder of the app Cred, and said that instead of aiming for the entire overseas market, he’s focused on reaching that small segment that comprises his target customer base. For the English-language indie musician or the independent artist specialising in a non-mainstream genre, that proportion might be 0.0001 per cent of the market, but it can still be significant.
They are, in other words, the “boutique” brands that appeal to a niche that will remain loyal to them as long as they keep delivering the goods. These acts therefore would do well to garner and retain those oft-quoted “super fans”, the ones who’ll sign up for the mailing list, buy tickets for the livestream, snap up the limited-edition merch, crowdfund the next album or even support them through Patreon.
They might never acquire the kind of money the bigger brand-artists get from a single endorsement, but given the type of music they make, they probably already know that monetary worth is by no means the only way to define success.
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
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