The future of the Indian music album: Pop industry increasingly abandons format, though indie artists continue to prefer it
The answer to the question 'Is the album becoming irrelevant?', especially in the context of the Indian music industry, is ‘It depends on what kind of artist you’re talking about’
The answer to the question about whether the album is becoming irrelevant depends on what kind of artist you are talking about
For artists, recording an album has always given them a sense of creative achievement
At the start of the year, I wrote a column about how the album as a format is under threat in the streaming era. As we near the end of 2019 and in fact the close of the decade, I’ve been contemplating the future of the album again.
To me the answer to the question ‘Is the album becoming irrelevant?’, especially in the context of the Indian music industry, is ‘It depends on what kind of artist you’re talking about’. If you’re an Indian pop act, for instance, maybe they’re simply not worth the time, expenses or energy.
T-Series chairman and managing director Bhushan Kumar told me, during an interview I did with him for another publication, that he believes albums have “become immaterial in the digital [age]”. Kumar said he’s told artists signed to his label, such as Punjabi pop star Guru Randhawa, that they’re better off focusing on singles. And by that he indirectly means music videos.
“What’s the use of making an album?” asked Kumar. “You release it as a jukebox on YouTube, it will gather some seven lakh to ten lakh views, not more than that. If you don’t put a video out for all the songs, those songs [without videos] will not work. I have no example in which only [an] audio [release] has worked, where the song has become a blockbuster hit, without the visuals.”
Kumar, who runs the most successful music company in the country, is of course seeing things from a commercial standpoint. And his current view represents a 180-degree turn in perspective from the time of physical formats when labels like his would press albums to justify the price of a cassette or CD to the average Indian.
In some way, you could say that this is a welcome change from those days because more often than not, back then albums with one or two hit singles would be crammed with six to seven filler tunes. If you’re a 90s kid, then I’d be curious to know how many songs from Alisha Chinai’s Made In India (1995) and Daler Mehndi’s quartet of nineties albums Bolo Tara Ra (1995), Dardi Rab Rab (1996), Ho Jayegi Bale Bale (1997) and Tunak Tun Tun (1998) you remember, apart from the title tracks. And those are among the best-selling albums of that decade.
But for artists, recording an album has always given them a sense of creative achievement. It proves that they have the ability to put together a large body of work. This is especially true for Indian hip-hop acts who aim to mirror their idols in the West.
Badshah spent years working on his full-length debut, the 17-track ONE (Original Never Ends) (2018). When the folks at US-based company Mass Appeal were in talks to sign Divine, they were surprised to learn he had garnered such a large following without ever releasing an album and decided to launch with the highly-anticipated Kohinoor. Naezy aims to drop an album before the end of the year, while Emiway’s first EP No Brands is out this week.
In the scheme of commercial viability, these aforementioned Hindi hip-hop acts are somewhere in between Indian pop or “non-film” singers and Indian indie artists who perform in a range of languages and genres. This last group includes rock bands such as aswekeepsearching, Blackstratblues and Parvaaz and electronic music producers like Disco Puppet, Malfnktion and Riatsu, all of whom released new sets over the last couple of months, timed no doubt to tie in with the ongoing gig season.
For them, new albums equate to fresh material for their live shows, and it’s through their gigs that their songs turn into hits. Therefore, to these acts, albums will always be relevant, even if some of their more established counterparts are having their doubts. Electro-folk-fusion duo Midival Punditz, perhaps disappointed that their last album Light (2015) was nowhere as successful as its predecessor Hello Hello (2009), returned this year with a trio of singles, each with a different collaborator and its own set of remixes.
They were unveiled with a gap of a month or two. The idea, we can safely presume, was to maximise the attention each track received and to increase the chances of them getting playlisted on streaming services, the economics of which have altered the definition of a single. Once an album is out, it’s not the label but the consumers whose play counts decide which songs are the most popular. This consequently guides the record company’s release strategy.
I was thus surprised to find that the second single from Kohinoor is 'Vibe Hai', which features the rappers signed to Divine’s venture Gully Gang Entertainment, and not 'Chal Bombay' or 'Gandhi Money', which are performing better on both Spotify and Apple Music. It will now be interesting to see how many of Kohinoor’s tracks get permanent spots on Divine’s concert set lists. That in turn will dictate how quickly, and maybe even whether, the Mumbai rapper releases a sophomore effort.
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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