Is India yet to see a non-film music megastar?
It’s a tough one to think about, but where we have figures such as Sachin Tendulkar in sport, or more recently Virat Kohli and young(ish) politicians trying to frame public discourse, the music world in India is yet to offer an equivalent star who – and this is important – is not from the film music world.
Undeniably, movies and their respective soundtracks continue to be a major draw over streaming platforms as well as general listenership – Bollywood composers and Mollywood and Kollywood singers are very much likely to pull in hordes over an independent or even commercially-backed major pop artist. It’s not fair, on paper, to even compare A.R. Rahman’s estimated turnout to younger entrants like hip-hop/pop star Badshah, but therein lies the problem.
At a time when music consumption patterns in India are slowly changing from just a lot of film music listenership, there are of course exceptions within India – Punjabi music is hugely commercial and has created a bevy of stars over the years, from Yo Yo Honey Singh to Guru Randhawa to Sidhu Moosewala. Even Assam and West Bengal have had their share of homegrown, folk-fusion artists who can amass millions of streams as they adapt their respective states’ traditional music and contemporize it.
Yo Yo Honey Singh
Bollywood, of course, eventually does come a-knockin’ to capitalize on these artists’ following, but now even the record labels have started pivoting to promoting non-film music on a level that recalls the early 2000s and late 1990s boom of “IndiPop”. That’s everyone from Alisha Chinai to Lucky Ali, Bombay Vikings, Sunita Rao and more. Mass Appeal India, launched by American rap veteran Nas and Universal Music India, shone the spotlight on the kind of music that has arguably been tipped to create India’s new music star – hip-hop.
In the last five years or even less, we’ve seen hip-hop’s meteoric rise into mainstream pop culture, catapulting Raja Kumari, DIVINE, Raftaar, Naezy, Prabh Deep, Emiway, Dino James and many more into the regular Indian household. Yet, if you looked at the streaming numbers of these artists compared to the big label-backed artists like Badshah, the real-talk hip-hop artists are still way behind. Of the previously named rappers, perhaps Emiway comes somewhat close, but only due to his popularity on YouTube.
The challenge, then, in elevating an artist to music mega-stardom levels is finding a worthy match – someone who’s sometimes cerebral, steadfast to their songwriting craft and not just pandering to mindless lyrics. That’s where you can argue that the hedonistic, incorrigible lyrics and swagger of Badshah just won’t cut it. Sure, it might help serve some sort of pop star image, but India’s diverse music landscape needs a representative who can croon in multiple languages and have Bollywood chase him and not vice versa.
While artists like Prateek Kuhad, Ritviz and more have tremendous potential to reach this stage, the throne is anyone’s for the taking. The internet and its demands for innovative, disruptive marketing might work in the favor of artists who don’t have a major label’s promo budget at their disposal, but the status quo won’t change that easily.
Record labels such as Sony Music, Zee Music, Universal Music Group India, T-Series and Times Music have aggressively pushed singers such as Darshan Raval, Dhvani Banushali, Arjun Kanungo and more. Established in the film music world first, voices such as Neha Kakkar, Armaan Malik and others too are pivoting to releasing music that’s not attached to films, with some success.
Out in South India, especially Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the numbers continue to grow and sometimes defy any conventional trends – with heavy dependence on platforms like YouTube.
It’s a tad idealistic to want India’s music megastar – the one who will stand shoulder to shoulder in terms of influence and legacy as any sportsperson, film star or politician – to have those redeeming qualities but the time is right.
During the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, we’re seeing the behemoth that is the film music industry come to an impasse of sorts owing to the stalling of theatrical releases. More labels are turning to release non-film music and independent artists are seeing some spike in streaming activity, owing to their social media skills. It might be time for a new music star to emerge soon enough.