Hear and now: Follow the changing story of Indian music
Music is changing. Musicians are pivoting too. See how Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, Anand Bhaskar, Rashmeet Kaur and William Basaiawmoit are keeping up
Good music reaches your ears. Great music goes right for your heart. But for either to happen these days, it has to take some pretty twisted routes to find you in the first place.
Friends still recommend new music. But they won’t tell you about them – they’ll send you a link to a themed playlist on Spotify, YouTube or Apple Music. Trying to identify a half-familiar tune playing in a pub? Whip out your phone and Shazam it for instant answers. Waiting for top 10 charts? New sounds are reaching more listeners as soundtracks on Instagram Reels, or even the soundtrack of a TV show instead.
An international music festival made its India debut this year. Gigs are being held in the Metaverse. More artists, often separated by several international borders, are collaborating online. If a song’s catchy hook goes viral, you’re likely to hum it all day but never hear the rest of it. Songs rarely last longer than three minutes. Lyricist Kausar Munir observes that songs usually had three verses and a chorus. “Now it’s just one chorus or verse or bridge and you’re done,” she says. Everyone’s moved on to the next track.
The shift isn’t all bad. “It means if I search online for a popular song or artist, a lot of other renditions come up, which introduces me to new genres and artists,” she says. “It’s a great tool for me. It’s even better for younger listeners.”
Munir is hoping the soundscape widens even more, with Coke Studio Bharat, a new platform for music, for which she has created a line-up of 50 musicians with musician and songwriter Ankur Tewari. “Everything is seen through the lens of commerce today,” says Tewari. “But it’s in the things that don’t make practical commercial sense that magic happens.” But even magic needs a push. “A lot of musicians end up working in silos,” Tewari says. “It’s exciting to bring them together, so different fan bases cross-pollinate as well, helping music travel further.”
See how Indian musicians from diverse genres are navigating new sounds, new platforms, new collaborations and eager new ears.
How folk music is staying timeless and trendy Rashmeet Kaur
Rashmeet Kaur, 28, moved to Mumbai from Punjab seven years ago to pursue playback singing. She has sung for films and web series. She’ll feature on Coke Studio Bharat. But she still calls herself a Punjabi folk singer.
“Folk songs are timeless,” she says. “Whenever a modern interpretation of a folk song gets popular, people start digging into older versions and rediscover the genre. The younger generation gets acquainted with a style that was thought to be a fading.”
Her song Nadiyon Paar, which featured in the 2021 film, Roohi, retained its folk elements and found similar success. But it’s the way people find and consume music today that’s given folk music a boost, she says. “10 years ago, I would not have had as many paths to popularity,” she says.
For a musician it’s a tricky journey. People are on the phone all the time – it’s where an artist should be too. But it means sacrificing hours of daily riyaaz. “I limit my Instagram use to an hour a day. Everything is saleable online, but at the end of the day, you must think about how you are am getting better as an artist,” she says.
There’s room for surprise. Even algorithms and Reels can’t predict how humans will react to a particular song immediately or even years later. Bruno Mars’s Talking To The Moon, for instance, is popular again 13 years after its release, because it’s so popular on Instagram Reels.
“Even if 10 songs trend at a time, trends don’t last. Art, however, is forever. As an artist, you must acknowledge the responsibility you have towards your art and your audience. Art is not content.”
Compositions that fight algorithms Anand Bhaskar
As a composer, one major change Anand Bhaskar, 41, has made in the last few years is to never begin a song with instrumental music. “Attention spans are much weaker now,” he says. Best to jump into the song, right away, without preamble.
Bhaskar’s compositions have been featured in the shows Dr Arora, Masoom and Mirzapur. He also performs with his band, Anand Bhaskar Collective. Music has certainly changed, as have tastes, he says. But this generation of musicians doesn’t necessarily have it easier. More platforms and avenues are available. “On the flip side, because it has become so easy for people to record and upload music, it’s harder for someone to break out and establish themselves as a superstar,” he says. “Not everyone is going to become a Prateek Kuhad.”
Musicians are also turning into content creators, which, Anand sees as a distraction. “They’re satisfied posting covers three times a day on Instagram, instead of using that time to create some new music,” he says. “People aren’t actively listening to music because there is so much out there. The habit of seeking out good music is dying. People will enjoy an Arijit Singh composition, until they find out it’s picturised on Ranbir Kapoor in the movie. Then, it’s Ranbir’s song; no one will remember who composed it.”
It’s an old complaint. But social media is opening other doors – it’s where Anand discovered vocalists Madhubanti Bagchi and Shilpa Surroch. And web series are turning out to be musically much more inclusive than Bollywood. “The problem with Bollywood is that most decision-makers are not musicians. I’ve got feedback that my sound was ‘too indie’,” Bhaskar says, laughing.
To discover good music, of any kind, go with your instincts, not a faceless algorithm, he believes. “I’m not a numbers person. If I’ve heard a song and it has stayed with me, then that’s what matters.”
Even jazz can break into the mainstreamSanjeeta Bhattacharya
For 27-year-old singer-songwriter Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, the focus isn’t numbers but feedback. She’s had messages from listeners who used something she created to create something new, such as artwork inspired by her songs or written poems.
“Instagram started influencing the music we listen to in the pandemic,” says the Berklee College of Music alumna. “There is a formula today of what works and a lot of musicians use that formula to make music for Reels, hoping it goes viral. With lyrics, a lot of us try to stick to words that the younger generation would relate to,” she says.
Some still sing against the tide, putting their hearts into songs, unmindful of the bots. During the pandemic, Bhattacharya released two songs in collaboration with artists she had only met online. Red features Boston-based pop musician Niu Raza. Khoya Sa, features Delhi singer-songwriter Aman Sagar.
The internet can even offer training and chart your career in music, if you know who to you learn from. “It depends on the community of musicians you are exposed to and the connections you build,” she says. “It’s one of the key things that will help you get where you want to be. It’s something music schools need to concentrate more on: How to navigate the volatile music industry.”
Meanwhile, she scrolls the apps for new music just like everyone else. “They’re purpose-built to help you discover music you may like,” she says. “But, recommendations from people you know have their own charm.”
Choirs find a new voice William Richmond Basaiawmoit/Shillong Chamber Choir
William Richmond Basaiawmoit, 34, the lead vocalist of the 25-member Shillong Chamber Choir, is working hard to harmonise with the present time. “People come to watch us because they’ve heard about us through word-of-mouth; the organic, old-fashioned way,” he says. “But we’re realising that people will also go online to check us out. The choir is very private, but it has a unique and inspiring story to tell. We have to move with the soundscape without losing our identity.” The choir will be on Coke Studio Bharat and has upped its social media presence this year.
Online, where a musician’s work and worth is judged by the number of its followers, it’s tricky territory. One video can make you a global sensation. But what next? “Are you creating something sustainable that will help you evolve?” Basaiawmoit wonders. “If you don’t work your way from the ground up, you miss out on that strong foundation. People will consume your content and love you quickly, and move on as quickly.”
The level playing field has solved some long-standing problems. You don’t need to be signed with a record label to release a song or market it. “Apps like Spotify amplify independent work. You can monetise your music on YouTube.”
New challenges are largely about holding on to a person’s attention. The choir is now making 60-second Reels of their acapella songs and is hoping for the best. “On Instagram, the hook of a song goes viral. The rest of the song gets lost,” says Basaiawmoit. The choir also collaborated online with musician Shekhar Ravjiani during the pandemic. “Distance is no longer an issue. It saves time and money. But music is something you sense. When energies match, the music just flows. With digital connections, that magic is missing.”
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From HT Brunch, February 18, 2023
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