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Big music labels are rushing to grab a share of the regional language music business, especially in Punjabi and Bhojpuri. More competition is pushing up acquisition costs, but music streaming companies are not paying labels more for their catalogues. So, what’s the end game here?

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Have you ever checked out YouTube’s Music Charts & Insights page? If you have anything remotely to do with the business of music, you probably have this bookmarked. YouTube is India’s largest music discovery and streaming service by a massive margin, so this is what determines the fate of the music industry.

There are a few home truths about India’s music trends. One, Alka Yagnik is permanently India’s #1 artist on YouTube (followed by Udit Narayan). It’s probably going to take one more generation for her to lose the top spot.

Two, no matter when you check, the weekly list of trending and top music videos will almost always feature one Punjabi and one Bhojpuri music video. That’s the stranglehold regional independent music has on the Indian audience. Now, big music labels are jostling harder and harder for a share of this music segment, driving up costs. But, music streaming services aren’t exactly making big money in India. So, where is this path heading?

Labels chase regional music money. Is it even there?

Wave Music/Instagram

This week, Indians are listening to Bhojpuri sensations Khesari Lal Yadav and Shilpi Raj’s Aam Ke Swaad (the taste of mangoes) on YouTube. This track, produced by Bhojpuri music label Wave Music, is number 1 on India’s Trending music videos. It’s ahead of the latest music by T-Series, VYRL Originals (Universal Music), Zee Music, and other major labels.

Bollywood films seem to dominate Hindi music in India, but in this decade of YouTube’s domestic dominance, it is music in regional languages—Bhojpuri, Haryanvi, and of course Punjabi with a massive international appeal—are raking in the views and ad revenue on the platform. In the music streaming business, they are yet to catch up, but that hardly matters. The bulk of music consumption in India happens via the red play button on the ubiquitous Android phone.

This is why large music labels have been putting money into producing more and more regional language music. For example, Saregama launched its Hum Bhojpuri YouTube channel in 2019 and Saregama Haryanvi the very next year. Last year, the label announced it was setting aside ₹750 crore (~$91 million) to invest in new music; it also acquired a catalogue of 1,500 Telugu songs from regional music label Mango Music. Last week, it also launched Hum Bhojpuri’s FAST (free ad-supported TV) channel version on JioTV.

Meanwhile, Sony Music began producing Haryanvi and Bhojpuri music under the Sony Music Regional brand name in 2019. It has had only modest Bhojpuri success, with videos crossing 2-8 million views each. But in Haryanvi, it has hit the jackpot with tracks like Sumit Goswami’s Feelings (over 600 million views), and Raftaar and Rashmeet Kaur’s Ghana Kasoota (118 million views).

T-Series’ Haryanvi channel is also relatively newer, launched in 2018, although it has been producing Bhojpuri music for a long, long time. Meanwhile, Universal Music India signed a multi-year deal with a Mohali-based Punjabi label called Desi Melodies three years ago to exclusively distribute all their soundtracks. Desi Melodies’ biggest hits include Afsana Khan’s Titiliaan (starring Harrdy Sandhu and Sargun Mehta) and BPraak’s Filhall (starring Akshay Kumar and Nupur Sanon) with 892 million and 1.1 billion views each.

That’s still not as high as Desi Records’ 2020 Hayanvi track 52 Gaj Ka Daaman: it now has over 1.5 billion views on YouTube and became a viral sensation on short-video apps.

Clearly, the scales are slowly tilting towards non-film, independent, local language music. And everyone in the business now knows this.

“Yes, the big labels are now coming down to sign up Bhojpuri singers and actors,” Abhay Sinha, founder and CEO of Bhojpuri entertainment production house Yashi Films, told The Impression. “They will offer up to five times the going rate for a top singer and actor. That does drive up the competition and the cost of talent.”

But, Sinha says, Bhojpuri labels like his are simply focusing on looking for newer musical and acting talent. Thereby, they can ensure they keep up with growing demand without having to hike costs to the standards set by newer, deep-pocketed entrants.

What’s more, the top Bhojpuri stars don’t work exclusively with one label. The likes of Pavan Singh, Ritesh Pandey, Manoj Tiwari, Shilpi Raj, and Khesari Lal Yadav have music videos and movies with all major Bhojpuri labels, along with the national ones.

The Big Squeeze

So, the big national music labels want a piece of the regional action, and that is driving up music acquisition costs. But these costs have risen so much that Saregama says it is now having trouble finding music acquisition deals at a reasonable asking price.

“In fact, there is no catalogue deal that has happened anywhere in the market apart from the one single deal that we had done,” Saregama India’s managing director Vikram Mehra told investors in a call this May. “Just because the money is sitting with us, we are not going to pick up catalogues at bizarre prices.” Instead, Saregama will focus on picking up minority stakes in up-and-coming regional music companies.

Streaming accounts for almost all of the music industry’s revenues, with live performances coming in at a distant second. Of this streaming revenue, YouTube is the largest source of income for all big and small music labels.

Harish Arjun/The Signal

Harish Arjun/The Signal

Unlike other large markets, India’s music streaming industry is not driven by subscriptions. I’d written in a previous edition of The Impression about how Indian consumers are stubborn about wanting their entertainment to be free, even if that means watching a ton of ads.

Harish Arjun/The Signal

What this means is that music labels are ploughing in cash to acquire more and more songs, bidding against local rivals to snag top talent or striking deals with them. But streaming payouts remain extremely low in the Indian market. Music industry executives I spoke to told me the thumb rule is that most streaming platforms pay about 10-15 paise per stream, if not lower. And YouTube, as the largest platform, can pay as little as 1-2 paise per stream.

Saregama’s Mehra also said in the investor call quoted above that the average payout for a music label is about 10 paise per stream. Telecom operator-owned Airtel Wynk and JioSaavn are free to use. And in a recent interview, Spotify India managing director Amar Singh Batra said it was a challenge to get Indians to pay for music. Without paying subscribers, ad revenues are the only viable source of income for everyone, but it isn’t coming in quick enough for all major music streaming platforms. Instead, some of them are reportedly looking at ways to cut their payouts to music labels.

“Streaming companies don’t have much leverage when negotiating with large music labels,” Mairu Gupta, a senior music and sports media executive, told The Impression. “So, there is T-Series. And look at the artists that Universal Music and Sony Music represent. Can you run a music streaming service anywhere without the songs of Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Eminem, and Drake? So, if there is room to squeeze, it is only with smaller labels.”

And that squeeze may already be here, as prices plunge to 4-8 paise per stream for some regional and lesser-known music labels, a senior executive in the entertainment practice of a consulting firm told me. “Streaming platforms don’t have money to pay anymore,” he said. “There is no ad money coming in, so they want to rationalise costs and pay less per stream if possible. Some platforms like Gaana have gone subscription-only already. And if you see the ads playing on JioSaavn, they’re mostly for JioSaavn only.”

Saregama’s Mehra is hopeful that the “free tap” of music will soon be shut and that streaming platforms will manage to nudge Indians to pay for music streaming. But until the biggest platforms, especially YouTube, sign up for subscriptions, ad-supported free music will remain the dominant form of consumption. And the two-way squeeze between higher music costs and lower (or stagnating) streaming payouts will continue.

Local labels, however, are finding ways around it. One emerging channel is the rise of short video. “When YouTube ad revenue began falling by some 30% for us, we started getting revenue from Facebook Reels,” Yashi Films’ Sinha says. “So, we were able to keep growing our digital revenue.” Meta launched Facebook Reels India in March this year. Haryanvi songs Kacha Badam and Gypsy (Balam Thanedar) were among the top tracks in India on both Instagram Reels and Facebook Reels in 2022. Meta has licensing deals with almost all major labels for short-video properties across its apps.

New product launches like these offer some respite, but music labels are essentially on a treadmill. Any music video or song must rack up hundreds of millions of views and streams, and get monetised in as many ways as possible online for the producers to make some semblance of a profit.

For small, independent folks in the business, that means facing the heat and continually expanding their catalogue to where they can comfortably negotiate with streaming platforms. The dramatic rise of regional music’s popularity, especially in Haryanvi and Bhojpuri, should help. But they’ll always have to keep looking over their shoulder; ‘Big Music’ is in hot pursuit.

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It’s not looking good: Zee Entertainment’s merger with Sony is on very precarious ground. Last week, markets regulator Sebi barred Zee’s promoters Subhash Chandra and Punit Goenka from taking any key managerial position of any listed company (or its subsidiaries). When they filed an appeal, Sebi responded with a 197-page reply documenting exactly how the Goenkas allegedly fooled banks and siphoned off crores of rupees, routing them to other Zee group companies and offering guarantees without telling the board. Reports suggest Sony is feeling jittery about the merger, although Sony denied this. What’s going to happen next? Remember: two years ago, Reliance Industries was also looking to buy a stake in Zee.

Down the drain: Cinemas just can’t catch a break. Bollywood’s big summer release Adipurush is shaping up to be a dud. On Day 4, film trade analysts estimated its daily box office collections had fallen by 75%. It’s already facing universal backlash for its weird dialogues and modifications to the original Ramayana plot. Early reactions to the films pushed PVR INOX shares down by over 3% on Friday; today, they are down another 1% already. PVR INOX needs a string of hits this year to turn around its corporate fortunes, and the Adipurush debacle is not helping. I wrote more about how this is the cinema business’ do-or-die year in this edition of The Impression. Maybe Karan Johar will come to Bollywood’s rescue?

That’s all, folks: Times Now’s chief editor and conservative primetime anchor Rahul Shivshankar has quit the news channel, Newslaundry reported. The reason for his departure isn’t known. Shivshankar rose to prominence at Times Now after its previous star anchor Arnab Goswami quit to start his own network, Republic TV. Shivshankar’s fellow primetime anchor Rubika Liyaqat also quit ABP News earlier this month to join Bharat 24 and launch her own YouTube channel.

Doctor’s orders: Parents, educators, and children’s healthcare professionals all warn that social media isn’t healthy for teenagers. But it’s hard to agree on a plan of action to protect the kids because no one has solid research on the effects of social media on teen minds, or even a definition of what social media is, reports The New York Times. Last year, a group of parents sued Meta for endangering children’s mental health with its addictive social media apps. This year, a number of US school districts also sued Google, Meta, and TikTok for ‘rewiring’ children’s brains.

Taken hostage: The Reddit Blackout is taking a turn for the worse. After major subreddits went private to protest Reddit’s plan to charge third-party apps for access to their APIs, some major subreddits have begun flooding their forums with porn to kill ad revenue and make it harder for users to browse content on the platform. Some others are flooding theirs with photos of British comedian John Oliver. Meanwhile, a hacker group called BlackCat is threatening to reveal confidential information on the social media network unless it is paid $4.5 million in ransom. It is also demanding that Reddit abide by the demands of the protesting Redditors.

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Do we think about the ethics of what we are watching?

Our devices are so awash with content that we’re getting numb to choice. And perhaps now, only really messed up things excite us. Such as voyeuristic reality TV shows dissecting someone’s life. Or dramatised true crime documentaries meant to be binge-watched over a weekend. Or splashy pictures of our favourite celebrities caught in, well, human moments.

This is the subject of three episodes of Netflix’s cult classic Black Mirror, whose latest season was released this month. Joan is Awful, for example, deals with a world in which reality-style shows can be made on anyone’s life in real-time. All by harvesting intensely private details of their life via super-intrusive technology. It’s ironic that Netflix, a Big Tech firm with super-intrusive technology, has produced an episode with this theme. But the irony isn’t lost on them; in the episode, Joan is Awful streams on a Netflix knockoff service called ‘Streamberry’.

This meta, self-referential theme continues into the second episode called Loch Henry, about two young filmmakers shooting a documentary for ‘Streamberry’. The film follows the story of a gruesome serial killer in a small UK village, only to discover a dark family secret. Once again, the episode forces you to think about how the victims of horrific crimes feel when their trauma becomes nighttime entertainment for millions of viewers worldwide. Netflix had received backlash for its award-winning series Dahmer last year, mostly from the loved ones of the people Jeffrey Dahmer had killed.

Another episode, Mazey Day,is set in the not-so-distant past: the early 2000s with Nokia phones and dial-up internet. It follows the story of a paparazzi photographer who goes to insane lengths to grab a million-dollar shot of a troubled young actress and stumbles into a horrific situation. And while you feel disgust for the paparazzi and intense sympathy for their ‘victims’, the episode reminds us that we, the viewers, are why any of this is happening at all.

That’s all this week. If you enjoyed reading The Impression, please share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. And please write to me anytime at [email protected] with thoughts, feedback, criticism or anything you’d like to see discussed in this space. I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading, and see you again next Wednesday!

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