Popular artists in India talk about how the border between indie and Bollywood music is fading away.
Anjali Jhangiani finds out more about what this means for audiences as well as the industry
As Ranveer Singh is all set to tell the story of Vivian Fernandes, who you know as Divine the rapper from the streets, one thing prominently stands out — how the border distinguishing the genres of independent and Bollywood music is fading away. While Divine rose to fame as an underground rapper who came out with chart-topping singles such as Mere Gully Mein and Jungli Sher, today, he is the new Bollywood rave. Badshah, who was the most sought-after rapper-music composer for the last few years, came out with a full-length non-film album last year to satisfy his creative prowess. Now, even the regular Bollywood music listener enjoys indie content. With the dawn of online streaming apps and the whole idea of consuming music online, Indian audiences have evolved, and so have music-makers. We speak to new-age artists, who have their fingers in every pie, about this massive merger of genres and how to stay relevant in fast-changing times.
Ankur Tewari, the frontman of the indie band Ankur and The Ghalat Family, who is also the music supervisor for Gully Boy, says, “When artists make music, they do not categorise it. Categorisation into various genres is done by music labels to understand the product (song) better. Think of the concept of how food is arranged in departmental stores — similar stuff is kept together under one label. It is done for ease of consumption. So the concept of lines getting blurred between genres exists only for audiences; it has never existed for musicians.”
Arjun Kanungo, known for delivering non-film club hits like Baaki Baatein Peene Baad and Gallan Tipsiyaan, made his debut in Bollywood with Khoon Choos Le from Go Goa Gone in 2013. He’s been dabbling in non-film and film music ever since. “Non-film and film music are very different. Film music is always oriented towards a narrative that the music has to support. Non-film music has less constraints, it can be looked at as a canvas for the artist to do whatever they want. While film music is all about actors, non-film music is about the artist. Because of these big differences, these two genres can never merge into one,” says Arjun, adding, “I don’t consider indie music and non-film music to be the same. Indie music implies that the artist is paying for everything on their own, non-film music is funded by big commercial companies to make big profits. And that is good for us as musicians — if people are making money, then music is being consumed.”
Dhvani Bhanushali, who grabbed a lot of attention with her mashup of Shape of You and Gulabi Aankhen that went viral online, has been making hit singles like the Humsafar, Ishare Tere and more. She says, “The music made these days is for Bollywood mostly. There is no prominent existence of indie music in India.” But Jonita Gandhi, Indo-Canadian vocalist who has sung for Bollywood films like Dangal, Highway, Dishoom, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Padman and several South Indian movies and has also collaborated on singles such as Jheeni Jheeni with Salim-Sulaiman, Lamhein Beetey Hue with Anurag Godbole, Raat Abhi Baaki Hai with Shayadshah Shahebdin and so on, disagrees. “I think this blurring of lines between genres is a good thing. There’s a lot of crossover happening and people aren’t afraid to try different kinds of music, myself included. I’m definitely interested in Bollywood as well as indie music, both are fantastic avenues to explore our musicality as artists,” says Jonita whose most iconic single, unarguably, is Pinjra with Clinton Cerejo for MTV Coke Studio India (season 3).
Considered the life of every Bollywood-themed party, Neha Kakkar’s songs are a mix of indie as well as Bollywood numbers. She launched herself with an indie album in 2008. “Yes, today, the lines are totally blurred. Listeners have become smart and they know what they want. All kinds of genres are being made because there is an audience for everything,” says she.
Guru Randhawa, who is a current rage in the Bollywood music circuit with his singles like Lahore, Patola, High Rated Gabru, Daaru Wargi and Suit, among others, being adapted into films, believes that it is the popularity of an artist’s work that makes them transcend genres. “When an artist and their work reaches a bigger audience, other markets feel the need to feature them. If audiences like a song, they forget whether it is Bollywood or indie,” says Guru, who is featured on the ongoing season of Royal Stag Barrel Select MTV Unplugged, along with the above-mentioned artists.
Neha believes that the entire music industry in India has got a major lift in terms of connectivity with their audiences due to the online revolution. She says, “I believe the surge in demand and supply of indie content comes and goes every few years. Indie music is coming back in a huge way like it was in the ’90s.”
Jonita believes that we’re in an age where music is available in several platforms, which makes the world smaller. “People are listening to all kinds of music across the globe because it is so accessible. This exposure is educating audiences, and that is why the demographic that is consuming music in India is evolving at a faster pace now. Also, a musician can survive off their own YouTube channel,” says she adding, “All one has to do is subscribe to these portals and you get access to a plethora of multi-genre and multi-language music. There are no limits or boundaries, you can create playlists according to your specific needs.”
Arjun points out that audiences are hungry for new and better music that is relatable and in a way represents them. “I think audiences have always been open to indie and non-film music. But Bollywood has been dominating the scene for very long. Back in the day, Bollywood music was lobbied to audiences in a much stronger way than it is today. Now, YouTube and the digital world has kind of ‘democratised’ the music industry, and this has led to meritocracy because only the best songs and artists are popular now,” says he adding that online streaming portals like Gaana, Saavn, etc are responsible for this. “That’s where the companies that are funding us get their revenue back. It’s important for us to do well on these platforms because we want money from these investors to make our art. The only way these companies are making money, since nobody buys CDs or cassettes nowadays, is through digital streaming. Streaming sites across the world are now contributing almost 60-70 per cent of all music revenue, so it’s a multi-billion dollar business globally. Soon you’ll find Spotify, Amazon Music making big strides in India,” says the Aaya Na Tu hitmaker.
While these platforms provide audiences with such benefits, the concept of accessing music online is a boon for the artists as it opens up many unexplored markets for their music. “Let’s say there is an artist with a niche audience. For potential audiences in different parts of the world, it would be difficult to find his music or catch his performance. But online streaming platforms have in a way helped in taking this artist’s music to all the niche audiences around the world, increasing his fan-following overall. These platforms help indie artists realise the potential of their music,” says Jonita.
Ankur points out an obvious way in which these portals expose audiences to fresh content and new artists. “The thing with these platforms is that you’ll be listening to a film song while working out or travelling, and if it is on autoplay, the next one might be an indie one. These platforms have made music more democratic without classification,” he says.
Dhvani believes that ‘song is king’. “Of course sometimes people are influenced by who is starring in the song video. But ultimately, the song is king and when it is put up on the internet and people like it, even if it’s not in a movie, it goes places,” she says.
To stay relevant in this fast-changing world, Arjun says that it all boils down to reinventing himself as an artist. “As an artist. I’m not really worried about getting lost because I don’t look at it as a short-term thing. I have to be on my toes, keep doing new things. I’ve done film music in the past, and plan to keep going at it on the side,” he says adding, “Success means different things to different people. If I am able to work in the music industry my whole life, I will consider myself successful. Big or small projects don’t matter.”
Jonita believes that the key to a flourishing career in the music industry is to keep an open mind towards new content and collaborations. “To avoid having a short-lived career, it’s good to be open minded, try out different avenues, find newer audiences, but before all of this, you need to find your voice as an artist. I prefer not keeping all my eggs in one basket. I want to explore film music as much as possible, have my eyes and ears open always on the indie scene, to new music and people I can collaborate with,” she says.
Guru says it’s all about one word — content. “There’s no tried-and-tested formula. It’s all about making the right decisions, how to carry yourself in the market, how to talk to people nicely, and just be home and work on your songs,” he says adding, “It is all because of my original music that I am in Bollywood and doing shows now. If one loses focus on making good songs and gets into something which they cannot carry off, then it’s a downward spiral. I’ve been in the market for the last two-three years, my plan is to put in a lot of effort so that for the next 10, 15, 20 years, I make good music.”
Ankur believes that survival, even in this case, involves evolution. “When you know that your profession has a short shelf life, you have to keep reinventing yourself. Look at Sachin Tendulkar, as a sportsman he reinvented himself so many times throughout his career. An artist will fade away if he stays in his comfort zone for too long,” says he.
Indie artists don’t plunge into Bollywood just for the fame, there’s also a lot of money involved. Dhvani thinks music festivals are a great way for indie artists to grab the attention and remuneration they deserve. “Music festivals have helped the merging of genres. When these artists perform at festivals and catch the eye of a director who likes the song and sees how it fits into his narrative, he might just pick it up for his film and a collaboration might happen,” she says.
Arjun, however, says that he is not into the festival circuit in India. “I do my own paid concerts, private concerts and so on. Festivals are good for indie artists who have small audiences, and no substantial fan-following. They use the stage to showcase their talent to a few thousands of people. That said, established artists get peanuts for these festivals now. I would rather perform for millions of people through the digital platform. My last song had 130 million streams. Established artists don’t need festivals anymore, they’re for those starting off in the industry,” says he.