Independent Music: The Next Big Bet in India

The rise in India echoes the international trends we have seen in countries like the US where independent artists were the success story in the past two years

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The year 2020 has proven to be a boon for independent artists in India. People are now more willing to listen to experimental music from unknown artists. In a country dominated by Bollywood music, the sudden emergence of independent artists has been remarkably impressive. While indie artists have always been part of India’s rich musical heritage, what has driven their recent rise are digital platforms that have given them a much-welcome alternative. Consequently, homegrown streaming platforms have been instrumental in charting the resurgence of independent music in India. Indie artists are undoubtedly the next big bet in India’s vibrant music scene for producers and industry watchers.

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Their rise in India echoes the international trends we have seen in countries like the US where independent artists were the success story of 2019. It was a pattern that repeated itself in 2020 when the industry otherwise saw a setback due to the pandemic. Indie artists stood out with an impressive growth of 34.1 per cent over the previous year, reaching the billion-dollar peak for the first time at $1.2 billion. In India, independent artists are now featuring among the top-performing artists on streaming platforms. It is a symbiotic relationship where Indie music provides a welcome avenue for revenue generation for OTT platforms and artists alike.

A revolution in the making

Independent artists are those musicians who are not backed by record labels or production companies. In India, however, this category has been often extended to artists who are operating outside Bollywood or the established genres of ghazals, classical, or devotional music. Indie artists first started appearing around the early 2000s, musicians who were looking to create their own individual style.

They were backed by music companies and the newly launched music channels that were also looking to break away from the hegemony of Bollywood. Indie artists were a welcome change from other traditional music of India. These early stars, which included bands such as Agnee, Silk Route and Indian Ocean soon became household names. Many of these artists went on to record for movies. Individual artists from that era include well-established indie artists such as Mohit Chauhan and Sona Mohapatra. While some artists and bands made it big, wider recognition and commercial success were still a pipedream for most early beginners. That all seems to be changing now as independent artists get wider recognition and more importantly, more airtime.

Streaming platforms: the game changers

One of the biggest factors behind this change is the emergence of another game-changing platform, digital audio streaming services. For the independent artist, these platforms provided a much-needed alternative to large music producers or labels. For the first time, they had the option of reaching out directly to a very large listening population on the power of their music alone. At 19.1 hours (compared to the global of average of 18 hours) of listening to music in a week, this population clearly represented a larger market. But was it a more receptive audience? Emerging evidence seems to suggest so.

As the pandemic slowed down the global economy last year, the music market recovered some ground because of the growing popularity of streaming platforms. Audio streaming services grew by almost 40 per cent in 2020. The growth of these platforms has been instrumental in the growth of the music industry itself. As these music aggregators moved to create a bigger impact, they are also constantly trying to reach out to a larger audience, and this is where indie artists come in. With their eclectic range, these artists offered alternatives that were unique and at the same time, familiar to many of the listeners.

Today, indie artists cut across different genres, from alternative rock, to sufi, classical fusion and boybands. The list of top names seems to be expanding and is a testament to the wide range of musicians that are found in India today. Other than Obama-favourite Prateek Kuhad, the top names today include Nucleya, Shirley Setia, Parvaaz, Hari & Sukhmani, The Local Train, Maati Baani, Ankur & The Ghalat Family, Darshan Raval, Gajendra Verma, and many more.

The good news is that this list seems to be getting longer and more eclectic each day. The other positive news is that it’s not just streaming platforms, but the larger music ecosystem, including concert organisers and growing band of followers that are driving this thriving music scene. While live concerts may still be some time away, audio streaming services will continue to fuel this growth. This is good news for everyone, particularly for Indian music that has become more enriched and complex with the infusion of multiple thoughts, lyrics, ideas, tonality, and melodies.