Dhruv Visvanath hits iTunes India's top five: Are exclusive streaming deals the way forward for independent artists?

Editor's note: Beginning 23 February 2018, we're running a fortnightly column by noted music writer Amit Gurbaxani that dwells (sometimes whimsically) on all things musical. Presenting — Musicology.

This past week, guitarist and singer-songwriter Dhruv Visvanath’s The Lost Cause joined the short list of Indian independent music releases to have hit the top five of iTunes India’s all genres albums chart when it debuted at number two within just a few hours of release. The list includes blues-rock guitarist and composer Blackstratblues’ The Last Analog Generation (which hit number one in August 2017); pop singer-songwriter Tejas Menon’s Make It Happen (which reached number three in September); Punjabi rapper Prabh Deep’s Class-Sikh (number two in October); electronic music duo Burudu’s Ditties (number two in November); Hindi rock band The Local Train’s Vaaqif (number one in January 2018) and electro-rock group Laxmi Bomb’s Bol Na Ranti (number one in February).

While landing in the top five was a pleasant surprise for each of them, there are a few factors that helped their albums get there. With the exception of Burudu’s Ditties, all these albums were released exclusively on iTunes and Apple Music, meaning that those were the only places you could buy or stream them for a limited amount of time. This period has ranged from the first 48 hours (Blackstratblues) to a week (Tejas Menon, Dhruv Visvanath) to 10 days (Prabh Deep, The Local Train) and a fortnight (Laxmi Bomb).

Dhruv Visvanath’s emphatic new single ‘Jungle’ is possibly his strongest yet; hear it here

In return, depending on the length of the deal, iTunes and Apple Music promote the albums in a variety of ways, such as placing it on the ‘carousel’ or the slideshow of new releases in the iTunes app, seeding a selection of tracks into different Apple Music playlists, featuring the acts as Artist of the Month on the streaming service, and including the link to the release in newsletters to subscribers. Perhaps the biggest factor that enabled the albums to land high debuts is that they were available for pre-order on the iTunes store, typically for a week. The Lost Cause was up for purchase for a month and half before its release, which allowed it to rack up hundreds of sales that were good enough for a No. 2 debut.

That it’s remained in the top five after 48 hours can be attributed to the praise the record has received from the indie music fraternity (including Vishal Dadlani, on whose now-dormant label Visvanath’s first album was released); recent media coverage, some of which was pegged to the eye-catching, anthropomorphic mop-featuring video for the track ‘Wild’; and the fact that The Lost Cause is a pretty good effort.

Dhruv Visvanath

Dhruv Visvanath

On their part, acts try and harness the power of social media to push sales and streams. To promote their albums, Blackstratblues conducted a couple of Facebook Live sessions featuring frontman Warren Mendonsa and drummer Jai Row Kavi while Laxmi Bomb created “a teaser video”. That’s apart from the more conventional routes such as releasing singles and videos and frequently performing the songs at gigs so that they’re already ‘hits’ even before they’re recorded. The Local Train, for instance, had been playing tracks from Vaaqif live for a few months before its launch. It should be noted that most of these acts had at least one previous album or EP to their name before they scored a top five hit, so they had an established fan base to target.

However, exclusive deals have their limitations. Laxmi Bomb’s drummer Levin Mendes said that other streaming platforms were reluctant to promote Bol Na Ranti because of their tie-up with Apple. He feels that there needs to come a point when Indian independent music releases are treated on the same level as those from Bollywood and more mainstream genres even without such exclusive partnerships.

Although a few cynics have been wondering about the seemingly sudden appearance of Indian indie on the iTunes charts, it would be unfair to say that these deals are a way to manipulate the survey. It’s true that apart from Blackstratblues’s The Last Analog Generation, none of these sets have stuck around for longer than a week on the all-genres chart. And if iTunes released a weekly chart for India, there’s a good chance none of them would have been No.1 though they might have been in the top 10 or top 20. But when you consider that they managed to beat out Bollywood soundtracks, which have a much larger market, even momentarily, getting to the top five is quite an achievement.

Besides, using a bit of strategy to top the charts is something that record companies and artists have been doing for decades, especially when it comes to the charts published by Billboard magazine in the US, long considered the gold standard across the world. Infamously in the 1990s, some American music labels stopped releasing singles so that if fans wanted a particular song, which had become a hit on the radio, they would be forced to shell out more money and buy the entire album. Why? Singles weren’t as profitable as albums. You’d think that nineties classics like ‘Don’t Speak’ by No Doubt, ‘Men In Black’ by Will Smith and ‘Torn’ by Natalie Imbruglia were all No. 1 hits, right? They topped the radio airplay chart but did not scale the main Hot 100, which excluded songs that were not officially released as singles.

Maybe Billboard was trying to discourage this crafty practice but it became so widespread that the Hot 100 stopped reflecting the most popular tunes of the time, and in December 1998, they finally relented and allowed songs to chart on the basis of airplay alone. Of course, the whole thing became irrelevant with the advent of digital downloads and when fans started buying individual tracks off albums that weren’t being officially promoted as singles.

Another method of building up sales was to heavily discount an album during the first few weeks of release, until Billboard rightfully changed the rules in November 2011. Over the last few years, however, on account of the consistent fall in album sales, Billboard has been very accommodating of means used to bulk up first week tallies. These days, it’s becoming increasingly common to bundle an album with the sale of a concert ticket. If the attendee chooses to ‘redeem’ their album when it’s released, the sale is counted. This is how a number of rock acts such as Arcade Fire, Bon Jovi and U2 have managed to score chart toppers over the last couple of years. The fallout of this phenomenon is that the title takes a huge tumble from the top in its second week when it doesn’t have the added benefit of the concert ticket purchases.

A sale is a sale some might argue. In November 2014, Billboard allowed the inclusion of ‘streaming equivalent albums’ and ‘track equivalent albums’ to be added to sales of CDs and digital downloads while compiling its Top 200 Albums. Now it’s logical that if a consumer streams or downloads an album in its entirety, it counts as a sale. However, under the modified rules, even if the same track is downloaded 10 times or streamed 1,500 times, it’s counted as an ‘album’. To me, this is problematic, as much as some of the tools used to reach No. 1 on the singles list, but those warrant another column. Until then, congratulations to Visvanath and all the other Indian independent acts for their chart success. Unlike that of some of the American equivalents, it’s well deserved.

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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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2018 11:56:26 IST

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