What India’s music industry can teach us about paid YouTube views, musical regionalism and the productive uselessness of charts

Below is a transcript of an interview with Amit Gurbaxani for the Water & Music podcast. Hosted by me, Cherie Hu, the podcast unpacks the fine print behind big ideas at the intersection of music and tech, featuring a curated selection of leaders, artists, thinkers and innovators from across the music business. You can listen to the podcast on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Overcast, Pocket Casts and Transistor.

Amit is a Mumbai-based freelance music journalist who contributes regularly to publications including Firstpost, Billboard and Music Ally. This past summer, he was one of the first writers to report on the controversy around Badshah, an artist signed to Sony Music India who openly admitted to buying views on YouTube in order to “break” the platform’s record for most views in the first 24 hours — a practice that the platform formally banned shortly thereafter.

I brought Amit on as a guest for my podcast to dive deeper into his research process behind uncovering this news, as well as his overall reaction to the wider normalization of paid views on YouTube, both in India and around the world. From there, we also extended to talking about wider trends in India’s music industry, with a focus on the impact of streaming and the current positioning of independent and emerging artists.

Topics we discuss include, but are not limited to:

  • Why record labels should be honest about what proportion of views they pay for on a given video, versus which views are more organic;
  • What the prevalence of buying YouTube views means for emerging artists in India, with respect to their chances of standing out on the platform;
  • How language might be more important than genre in determining an artist’s success in the Indian music market;
  • Why the terms “non-film music” and “independent music” are both flawed in an Indian context;
  • What the first-ever India charts for Spotify and YouTube, both launched this year, reveal about local music-industry trends, and
  • Why charts in general have always been meaningless — and why that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Hope you enjoy. :)

Cherie Hu: All right, I have Amit Gurbaxani on the show. Amit, thanks so much for joining!

Amit Gurbaxani: Thanks for having me!

CH: I have a ton of questions for you, but for this episode, I want to focus on the growing amount of buzz and concern around the practice of buying views on YouTube.

From my understanding, you were the first journalist to report, for Billboard specifically, that YouTube was taking an unusually long time to confirm what would have supposedly been a brand new record on their platform for the most views on a video within 24 hours.

This was back in July 2019: An artist signed to Sony Music India named Badshah claimed to top 75 million views in 24 hours for the video for his song “Paagal.” That would have broken the K-pop group BTS’ previous record of 74 million views in that time period. As you’d written, Sony had bought a full print ad in local newspapers in India celebrating the new milestone.

But YouTube neither confirmed nor denied the milestone to you for a week. They wouldn’t say anything. And Badshah himself revealed that he was able to “break” the 24-hour viewing record because he used TrueView, an advertising feature on YouTube, to essentially feed his music video to viewers as a pre-roll ad on other videos, and to have those truncated views count towards the actual view count displayed on the original video itself.

Interestingly to me, it actually wasn’t until two months after all of this that YouTube made an official announcement barring paid views from their charts and from 24-hour-view reports. But that didn’t even mean that advertising money couldn’t still be spent to increase views, and as a result the public view counts on videos today still include paid views anyway. So in the instance of Badshah and Sony, paid views would still be, and probably still are, included in the public tally for the “Paagal” video, which is still a signal that the label could point to in marketing and advertising campaigns for the future.

Before addressing the overall issue of paid views, I wanted to touch upon what this means in the rather complex and nuanced context of the Indian music industry. I would love to hear more about what you were thinking as you were reporting on this issue over the last couple of months. Did the revelation about labels buying views surprise you at all? To what extent do you think it might be indicative of wider trends and practices in the local music industry, especially with respect to marketing?

AG: When YouTube sort of took their time to confirm Badshah’s record, I started digging around a bit. I found that this was not the first time that somebody had [falsely] claimed to have the highest views in 24 hours, and that this happened with a couple of Indian music videos. I think that’s because YouTube is the biggest music consumption platform in India right now; we are their fastest-growing market, and I think also their largest market. And music is a big part of that.

But what really stood out to me was the fact that “Paagal” was nowhere on YouTube’s charts, which run from Friday to Thursday, as most music charts do. This video came out on a Wednesday. [Sony] claimed the record on that Thursday. I wrote to [YouTube] on the Thursday, and they said, ‘We need some more time.’ Then it was the weekend, Saturday, Sunday, and there was no hope of hearing back from them. But then on Sunday, the [YouTube] chart was out, and “Paagal” wasn’t on it. If a song has 75 million views and it’s broken the 24-hour record, it should be №1, or at least somewhere in the top five. It wasn’t anywhere there.

And then I found that there were quite a few of these instances. Another one was a song called “Slowly Slowly” by Guru Randhawa who’s a Punjabi music singer, where he collaborated with Pitbull. [They] claimed to have one of the highest [24-hour] views but didn’t appear [in YouTube’s charts] the week they claimed the record, but then they appeared the next week.

So, you know, this is something that I think is fairly common among Indian music labels. And I do believe that it’s not just a practice in the Indian music industry. It happens, for example, in the Latin music industry as well, because YouTube is so big for that market.

CH: Yeah, exactly. There was a great feature about paid YouTube views in Rolling Stone that was actually published just a week before YouTube made the official announcements banning paid views from its charts. The article focused on the Latin music industry, and the numbers reported are pretty interesting: major labels can shell out as much as six figures in spending to help boost views for YouTube videos in the first 24 hours, and that can result in over 10 million additional views for a given song.

When I was in Mumbai, I talked to a local music/tech executive about this issue. I won’t say his name, but he did come from the major label system, so he was evidently biased. And in fact he was in support of this practice of buying views, because he saw it for what it was. His take was something like: “Views are just a matter of sampling. Views are a reflection of how many people sample a given video or other piece of content, regardless of whether they end up watching the whole thing, let alone rewatch it. And if you have the legal means through advertising to increase that sampling pool, you should use it and invest in it.

I’m not necessarily sold on that argument — especially because it still has enormous implications for any artist or label that’s not a major, or that’s kind of outside the mainstream ecosystem, in terms of how much they can compete with this practice, especially with lower budgets.

I would love to get your thoughts on that argument that buying views is valid because it’s just a matter of sampling, and that view counts on these videos are a reflection not so much of popularity per se but of how many people sampled a given piece of content.

AG: You know, I’ve spoken to label executives as well, and they all have this argument that, hey, it’s the same thing as TV. Now, apparently, on music television here [in India], if you want to get a song on the air, it’s free for the first two weeks and then you have to start paying. Their argument is that this is just another legal means of promotion, and there’s no reason why anybody should have a problem with it.

My view — and my thing with YouTube, especially — is that it’s problematic that the [paid] view counts are actually being counted. They’re paid views; call them paid views. If it’s a promotion, let it be explicitly known and treated as a promotion. I certainly don’t think that this means promotion should be banned or prohibited or anything like that. It’s a fair means of promotion, so go ahead. If you want to use it as a sampling method, let people hear the song for 30 seconds, and it’s their choice whether they want to hear the whole thing or not — but don’t let it be included in your view count. Don’t say that 100 million people have “watched” this. YouTube is called an “on-demand” streaming platform for a reason.

And the argument with TV is — firstly, two wrongs don’t make a right. Secondly, you don’t see that number on TV. It doesn’t say that this song has been “viewed” so many times on television. So it’s not exactly the same thing. If you’re seeing [YouTube] a means of promotion, go ahead and promote songs on it. But don’t say that these are that many people that have actually watched the song or have consumed the song, because they haven’t. They have been sort of force-fed it, in a way.

CH: That point about YouTube being an on-demand platform and the need for metrics to reflect that, I think is really good. And in general, what really stands out to me about the methodology of buying TrueView ads specifically to boost views, is that it removes that boundary between promotion and consumption, or between label promotion and consumer action. So like, by promoting the video through an advertisement on YouTube, it then counts as a stream. And then even though, you know, the per stream average payment rate for YouTube is super low, it does still count towards the equivalent of a sale. Right.

There isn’t the equivalent of like a TrueView ad system for audio streaming quite yet, and I think it’s a lot more difficult to fake views or to buy views on audio streaming services without getting taken down. But I see a very similar dynamic even there, where you can sample a song for a little bit, and ultimately not really care, maybe you will even forget about it in an hour — but it still counts as a stream and goes towards royalty calculations for artists, labels and publishers. So, yeah, that general dynamic is really interesting to me.

Are you saying that because that boundary between promotion and consumption is increasingly blurred in this current ad-driven system on YouTube, that that boundary should kind of be delineated more clearly? Like, that the publicly-displayed views should only be reflecting those views that are not bought, or that there should be some kind of clarification around the proportion of views on a video that were paid for, versus more organic?

AG: Yeah, just simply don’t count the paid views. If you have the song being promoted and showing up on YouTube for people, they’re getting the sampling … But you [the label] are saying, I want to pay for this and I want it to be counted as, ironically, a “true view” — but that’s not really what it is, right?

It’s also notable to take into consideration that YouTube announced that they weren’t going to count these paid views for their charts, and then just a little while later they announced their India charts. India charts had been something that I have really been pushing for since the day that [YouTube] launched its 44 other charts in other territories. I just didn’t understand why they didn’t launch a chart for India because we are, like I said, their biggest market now. But it’s interesting that those two things happened so closely.

But, you know, I’ve been of the view that [YouTube] has never counted paid views for their charts. You can see this just taking the Badshah example: if paid views did count for their charts, that song [“Paagal”] would have been on the chart. But to date it has not appeared on YouTube’s weekly charts at all.

When you stop allowing paid views to be included in the view count, there will be no discrepancy between the view count that you see on the charts and the view count that you see below the video, and I think that will solve a lot of problems.

Obviously the record labels should be okay with that, but don’t know how many of them would be, because YouTube is such a huge marketing platform. One of the biggest marketing tools here in India is in that little thumbnail that you see on a video [in recommendations and search results]. Labels will put the number of views on the video in its thumbnail. That’s very common for Indian music videos, where they’ll put “169 million views” or “357 million views” or “956” or some random number, just to show you the number of views. And sometimes they will combine the views from the lyric video and the official music video, add them up and then say in the thumbnail, “okay, over 500 million views.”

That number has become a huge kind of advertisement for songs. The idea is that if something’s got so many views, it must be good, and therefore people would want to click on it. So definitely the labels have a vested interest … in paid views being included in the view count. I mean, if YouTube does that, that would be the ideal scenario.

CH: In general, I’m wondering how much of this is also tied to the relative popularity or dominance of Bollywood in India’s music industry. A kind of cliché-but-true statement that I heard from a lot of people in India while I was there was that people don’t listen to music; they watch music. That behavioral trend makes a ton of sense given people’s association of the most popular music of the day with film soundtracks. And so it also makes sense that YouTube would be a primary marketing platform for the music industry and that people would want to pump up views specifically on that platform, because it does cater so closely to the visual culture that already is there around consuming music.

AG: Yeah, definitely. And also you have to understand that we historically haven’t really had radio. Back in the day, we had, like, one main broadcaster which was the state broadcaster, All India Radio. And for the longest time, film music was actually banned from All India Radio because it wasn’t considered “culturally sound” or whatever. And people would have to pirate it and listen to it like how people use VPN now to access foreign websites. People would listen to Radio Ceylon, which was a station run out of Sri Lanka that would play Hindi film songs. So we didn’t really have a culture of radio for the longest time.

But, you know, that’s a previous generation. For the current generation, if you look at 90s kids, the main way they accessed new music was through MTV and other local music television channels. We didn’t have FM radio here until 2001. Sometime in the mid-90s, All India Radio started selling their FM bands to private radio stations. So you’re talking about a country that hasn’t really had a history of consuming music on radio.

So that’s why you’re seeing this sort of transition now, with lots of audio streaming platforms. It’s not very expensive; they’re all these freemium kind of models, and you can actually listen to many of them, But people still prefer to listen to stuff on YouTube and have it in the background; you have auto-rickshaw drivers playing YouTube on their mobile phones on the dashboard while they’re driving around. Hopefully they’re not watching it because the eyes are supposed to be on the road. But YouTube has reached the average Indian consumer, which audio streaming hasn’t yet done, even though they are sort of entering tier-two cities and towns, and gradually they will get there. But for now, YouTube is really the biggest [platform].

CH: Yeah, that’s super interesting. And going back to the subject of paid views, and now zooming out a bit and thinking about the wider music industry, including but not limited to Bollywood soundtracks and what major labels are putting out, I would love to get your thoughts on what you think the prevalence of buying YouTube views means for emerging artists, with respect to their chances of standing out on the platform.

With the Latin music industry specifically, there were a lot of concerns from independent labels in that region about not being able to compete on a sheer dollar amount with bigger labels who are paying so much money to boost views or just to pay for advertisements in general. And there’s definitely a possibility that that practice and a growing reliance on tools like TrueView ads could end up making a huge financial dent in up-and-coming artists’ budgets, if they don’t think more deeply about how to engage with fans or reach new fans elsewhere. I’m wondering if that’s a concern that’s come up in India, or if that’s ever been voiced to you, or what you think about that dynamic in general?

AG: Sure. In India, I think that when you talk about emerging artists, you need to sort of separate between emerging artists on labels, and those who are not on labels and who are truly “independent.”

If you look at the independent artists, as in the ones that aren’t signed to label — apart from hip hop acts, a lot of the indie acts have never really bothered with making music videos. They have relied on other free platforms, like SoundCloud or Bandcamp, to spread their music.

A good example is the electronic music producer Nucleya, who’s probably one of the most popular independent acts in the country. He has always given out his music for free, and he’s barely made any music videos. I think that the strategy there is that, look, it’s super expensive to produce a music video, we make most of our money from live, so we’ll just spread on music through these other free platforms and we’ll upload audio tracks onto YouTube.

Again, it’s very different for the hip-hop community … you also have to look at the sociocultural context of Indian independent music. There are different categories. The rock and pop stuff have always been the slightly more upper-middle-class, kind of English-speaking community. Hip-hop is more broad-based, it’s always in Hindi or in a regional language, and so the hip-hop community really sort of uses YouTube as their main medium, because [the platform] is free and it’s easy to access. But for other independent artists working in different genres, I don’t think it has ever been a big part of their plans.

A lot of them, as you might have seen, are trying to partner with brands, to get them to sponsor a music video or do some kind of in-video endorsement or product placement, that kind of thing. I’ve seen that happen a bit.

So it’s a bit tricky in that sense to define an “emerging” artist in India. It really depends on where you fit in the various definitions of what an emerging artist is, and YouTube may or may not be important to you depending on where you are on that scale.

CH: Yeah, and I also think there’s a larger conversation to be had about the value, or lack thereof, of charts in general. The YouTube India charts are definitely really important there wasn’t any really objective measure previously of how songs were doing on that platform.

But there was a recent article in The Economist that intrigued me, titled “The meaninglessness of music charts.” The author took the stance that because there are so many different charts you could be looking at now — not just on audio or video streaming platforms, but also for social media, for apps like Shazam, for live music and touring for apps like Bandsintown and on and on — the more charts there are, arguably, the less meaning they hold, and the harder it is to use them for their specific purpose, namely measuring one artist’s success relative to that of another.

For instance, if an artist is at the top of YouTube’s weekly chart, but number 30 in Spotify’s top 50 in a certain market, are they “more” or “less” popular than someone who’s, like, number five on both charts? It’s an interesting question to think about in that you do no longer have one absolute measure of popularity, market value of market share, which I personally think is a good thing. I would love to get your thoughts on that, especially in the context of India where aside from radio, there haven’t really been that many charts until recently with the advent of streaming in the country.

AG: Sure. You know, I’m a big chart geek. I’ve been following the Billboard Hot 100 since I was, like, nine years old.

Here’s what I think. I think that the charts have always been meaningless. The charts have always been meaningless because at the end of the day, they’re sort of the epitome of a popularity contest, and all popularity contests are ultimately meaningless. Just like awards shows.

But like, look, charts are fun … and I think that they are even more relevant now because there are so many ways to measure popularity. That’s just the way that music has gotten fragmented over the last couple of decades. Even before the streaming era, artists have been able to sell millions of tickets to live shows without ever reaching the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 or, you know, without ever having a №1 album. That’s just the nature of the chart — the chart talks about one specific song and how popular it is or isn’t in any one specific week.

But now, because there are so many different ways to measure popularity, you need to have these different ways to tell you how popular somebody is. Cigarettes After Sex sold out the [Royal] Opera House [in Mumbai] — it was a 500-capacity venue, but they sold it out in minutes. They’re not a “chart act,” but this is what streaming has done. If we had a chart that measured, for instance, the popularity of live acts, that would be amazing. We don’t have anything that like that.

The other problem with pop music that I have to say, with pop charts especially, is that the pop music industry has always been ageist. Once you hit a certain age, radio’s going to stop playing you. You’re going to continue selling out stadiums, you’re going to sell out arenas, but you may not be in the chart.

So, I agree and disagree. I feel that music charts have always been meaningless. And to say that the charts were more “meaningful” back in the day when we had only one chart … remember there were so many problems with that chart. We didn’t have SoundScan until the 90s, and there was no way to accurately measure what people were actually buying. Now we have more charts, but they’re far more accurate, and they tell you much more and newer things and give you granular data that you never had before.

CH: Just to clarify that second point that you made — do you think that having more charts now across all these different kinds of platforms is better for artists? Do you think it maybe gives them more leverage with respect to measuring popularity in different ways, or maybe fact-checking people who say that they are really high up on one chart, when that’s just a very one-dimensional and incomplete way of measuring their reach?

AG: Well, look at it like this. If you want to look at who is the most popular [artist] on streaming services, you do have a streaming chart. But hip hop over-indexes on streaming services; that’s where you have genre charts. You have Billboard always publishing genre charts. If you’re an R&B act, it doesn’t make any difference if a metal band is selling five times what you’re selling, because you are in the R&B market. You have to look at it that way.

In the Indian context, we don’t have [separate] charts for independent acts, but it doesn’t really make any difference to an independent act what the №1 Bollywood song is, because that’s not their audience.

CH: Yeah, that’s a really good point. Going back to YouTube’s India charts specifically, you analyzed their rankings early on for Firstpost, and one trend you mentioned briefly that’s really interesting to me is the difference in the most popular kinds of music on audio streaming services versus on YouTube. And in particular, regional music has a much stronger and much wider presence on YouTube than on audio streaming services, which have a higher concentration of Bollywood and international music — in terms of consumption, not catalog.

I think I have some of my own guesses for why those discrepancies might exist, but I’d love to get your take on that as well.

AG: Like I said, YouTube has reached the average Indian. Audio streaming services are primarily consumed by people in larger cities, and they listen to a lot more international music. Bollywood is equally strong on both [services], but when you look at it, you’ll see a lot more older songs appearing on YouTube. So maybe people are consuming a lot more catalog on YouTube, because if you listen mainly to Bollywood music, you’re probably going to listen to a mix of old and new. But if you listen to a mix of Bollywood and other genres, you’re probably going to listen to the newer stuff.

Again, it’s just a matter of where those listeners are coming from. That’s why you’re getting more people in smaller cities and towns who are obviously consuming more regional music, whereas people in metros listen [more] to international music.

CH: Right. And if I remember correctly, one of the top six artists on Spotify’s India chart, in the first six months that Spotify was available in the country, was BTS. Kind of coming full circle there. And, I mean, I would assume BTS is super popular on YouTube as well in India, but that was kind of a signal to me that international music — and in this case, Korean music and K-pop — were doing especially well on a platform like Spotify that was trying to cater to more international rather than regional audiences.

AG: What I think happened with Spotify was that BTS had an announcement video when [Spotify] launched [in India] that said, ‘Follow us there.’ That kind of thing makes a huge impact on their Army and their fan base.

And it’s interesting that you mention BTS because if we go back to the whole Badshah story and the “Paagal” episode, one thing that Sony didn’t keep in mind was that they were trying to break a record set by BTS. BTS is actually a Sony Music artist! They’re distributed through Columbia Records, so technically they’re part of the same music group. And obviously they didn’t realize that, you know, you’re taking on the Army here. It was the Army that was really vehement about the fact that something was amiss here, that the song has gotten that many views in such a short time. I think that’s what really prompted Badshah himself to sort of out himself with an Instagram story saying that these are not ‘fake’ views, these are paid promotions and it’s perfectly legal.

So obviously I think they didn’t factor in that they were essentially saying they were going to try to break BTS’ record.

CH: That could be a whole other podcast episode, in terms of the dynamics of unintended internal competition within a major label across countries, trying to break two artists simultaneously.

AG: It didn’t really matter which label BTS was on, but just the fact that [Sony] was not realizing that if you’re saying you’re going to break this record, and you’re doing it in this not-so-kosher way, this is who you’ll be going up against. I don’t think they thought about that at all … If you look at the comments below the [“Paagal”] video, it was all the BTS Army saying, ‘This is all fake; look at the disproportionate number of likes’ — pointing out stuff that maybe people would have missed.

The other thing about that song is that I think that [Sony] really sort of misfired because they chose the wrong song. If it had been a better song, the views would have increased organically. People would have been playing that song on their own, and the difference in activity between the first-day views and the first-week views would not have been so stark.

It’s not like Taylor Swift’s label or these K-pop groups don’t use some amount of paid promotion. They all do. I think the difference is that the proportion of that is far less, right? The number of people actually genuinely watching is far higher with those videos. That’s one of the main differences in that case.

CH: Yeah, those are such interesting points. My next question is not really related to YouTube or buying views specifically, but is related to something that you touched upon earlier in terms of the nuances around what it means to be an emerging or quote unquote “independent” artist in India.

At the most recent All About Music conference in Mumbai, I was tasked with moderating a panel about the rise of what is called “non-film music.” Having never been in India previously, I assumed for some reason that “non-film” music was simply the equivalent of “independent” music. I think that maybe came up because of a wider perception in a lot of Western countries that the Bollywood industry is the equivalent of the major-label industry in the West, and that everything else is considered “independent” because it’s not part of that ecosystem.

But I very quickly realized, in talking with the panelists as well as with conference attendees afterwards, that that is just a completely false dichotomy of non-film versus independent. If anything, a lot of indie artists don’t even identify with the term “non-film” in the first place because they never thought about that difference, anyway — they’re just making music full stop.

AG: I mean, [the term “non-film”] is problematic because that means you’re saying that an artist is only seen in relation to Bollywood.

CH: Exactly. You wrote a separate article for Firstpost about this complexity of defining what it means to be independent in India. In that piece you mentioned something that I’ve also noticed recently, which is that on one hand, yes it is problematic to identify an artist only by their relation to Bollywood. But, on the other hand, there are many artists who might call themselves “independent” who actually also work frequently for the Bollywood ecosystem, too. Like, they’re working as songwriters, producers, session musicians, playback singers or whatever other role is available, to help make ends meet.

You also mentioned a lot of other factors that might further complicate this question of independence, such as the language of the lyrics in the music — like whether artists who perform only in English be considered a totally separate group of artists from those who sing in Hindi, in Punjabi or in any other regional language, given the difference in demographics of who speaks those languages.

I guess this conversation is still very much evolving in the Indian music industry as we speak, but are you seeing any other kind of designations come up aside from the blanket term of “independent” that might help clarify the way an artist makes money today, or just clarify their career or their positioning in the Indian music industry beside these more general and more vague terms?

AG: Yeah, so I was talking to one of the heads of a big label here, one of the major labels. And he was like, “Oh, I want you to help me come up with a new term, because ‘non-film’ obviously is kind of inadequate.”

I think “non-film” is really a synonym for commercially-oriented pop music. One of the reasons why they’re just simply not calling it “Indipop” is because we had an Indipop scene back in the 1990s, and in the early 2000s it was sort of cannibalized by Bollywood, and so they want to differentiate it from that.

The difference now is that this sort of non-film music is now finding an audience thanks mainly to audio-streaming services. And if I can pin a piece I’m writing in the future, it’s for Music Ally and it basically talks about this whole “non-film” phenomenon. [Editor’s note: The piece Amit mentioned was published on November 5, a few weeks after this interview was originally recorded.]

But to answer your question about independent music, I think that the dividing line between non-film music and independent music is decided by language first. If you’re singing and performing in a Hindi or a regional language, that automatically separates you from a whole bunch of independent artists that will never be embraced by the mainstream in India. There obviously will be exceptions, but I think it’s first language, and then maybe genre — because obviously you haven’t really had, like, a Hindi metal band really become huge. You have Hindi rock bands or folk-fusion rock bands, as they call them. There’s a big Bengali rock scene. You have the Punjabi hip-hop scene.

So more than whether it’s “film” or “non-film,” or whether you’re on a label or whether you’re independent, it’s primarily language, and then it comes down to genre. It’s really language that is sort of the big dividing line. And you know, as time goes by, maybe you’ll have an English-singing artist being able to cross over to the mainstream. But for now, that’s basically how it is. And the problematic [term] “non-film” is really essentially just commercial pop and related genres.

CH: Yeah. Super interesting. This is the last question I want to ask before the last segment, still thinking about the importance of language in determining an artist’s popularity in India. One thing that I heard a lot of people in the Indian music industry say, at least when I was visiting there, was that more than many other countries, India just has so many different regional languages that a label or a streaming service would have to account for. Like when Spotify launched, there were seven or so different languages, right?

AG: They had playlists in five languages, I think. That’s one of the main differences between Indian streaming services from anywhere else in the world. Anywhere else in the world, if you sign up for a streaming service, they will ask you for your genre preferences. In India you’re asked for your language preferences. It’s become sort of a marketing tool; you hear things like, “We have 40 million songs and 15 different languages.”

CH: Right. So I’m wondering, do you think that that tendency towards more regional language preferences, let alone music preferences, even further complicates this question about the relevance of charts? Because what we’ve been suggesting through all this is that if you look at different regions of India that have different languages or different dialects, they’re listening to very different music, and subsequently artists’ popularity rankings are going to vary quite widely depending on where you are in the country. And so if you have a blanket chart measuring popularity in all of India, it might be missing that regional nuance.

AG: Yeah, of course. If you just look at the breakdown I did of YouTube’s top hundred songs [in India], you’ll see the difference in the representation of different languages. You’ll see that, for instance, the third most subscribed Indian music channel on YouTube is not a Bollywood channel. It’s a Bhojpuri music channel. [Bhojpuri] is a language that’s spoken in the northeastern parts of India. It’s also, funnily enough, a big pop market; I think 80% of that market is pop.

So is everything an even playing field here? Probably not. Bollywood is always going to be the №1 song. But if you look at it the other way … earlier this year, YouTube put out the list of their ten highest-viewed videos in the first six months of 2019. There were two Indian music videos on the list, and neither of them was a Bollywood song. One was a Tamil film song, “Rowdy Baby,” which was at №3, and there was another Hindi pop song called “Vaaste,” which was at №9.

That shows you that it’s not just Bollywood that’s amongst the most-viewed or most-consumed music in this country. Like, country music is rarely ever in the top ten of the [Billboard] Hot 100, so you can almost treat a regional language [in India] as the equivalent of country music. Bhojpuri is spoken is some of the most populated states in [India], so you’re going to get a lot of people from there. You have to take all of that into consideration.

CH: Yeah, absolutely. So in the interest of time, I do want to move on to the regular over-underrated segment, and actually I think the topics that both of us have in mind are super relevant to this whole conversation we’ve been having. So I would love for you to start first, with whatever you had in mind.

AG: One of the most underrated pieces — I don’t know whether “underrated” is the right term, but it was this piece that Elias [Leight] from Rolling Stone wrote about how payola is still prevalent in the U.S. amongst radio stations. I was surprised that it didn’t get more followup pieces.

But I think that it’s probably happening everywhere across the world. I know for sure that it happens in India. You hear label executives say stuff like, “Oh, we were №1 on the radio chart, and the radio chart is something that you just cannot game.” But on the other hand, I’ve heard from truly independent artists who have said that every time they approached radio stations, they told them flat out that, look, you have to pay us if you want us to play your music.

So it’s not that payola doesn’t exist, and I wish that there were more followup pieces done for the story — even just in the U.S., or just to get deeper into it. This is a pretty comprehensive story, but just to follow up on it would have been interesting.

CH: Yeah, I also noticed that it wasn’t really as widely shared as it maybe should have been.

AG: How many record labels are going to share a story like that?

CH: *laughs* Yeah, that’s a very big factor, actually.

There are a couple of other things I’m thinking about. At least in the U.S., a lot of people in the music industry are aware that payola still happens in some form, in terms of labels paying radio stations directly. There’s another element of labels, particularly streaming executives, having the budget to take streaming or radio curators and DJs out to very fancy dinners or, you know, to give them a VIP ticket to a nice show. That isn’t payola per se, but —

AG: It’s a form of payola, right?

CH: Yeah.

AG: You know, as journalists, you’re constantly sort of — people would want to, you know, give you a free meal or send you gifts. It’s something that we as journalists face, too. The only way to get around that is just to have a blanket, no-gift, no-lunch or whatever policy, but it’s difficult. I don’t know how many people actually are able to say no to stuff like that, because it’s really tempting. But the point is, you take the free lunch but ultimately, the decision is up to you. And if that repeatedly happens, people are going to stop taking you out to lunch.

CH: Yeah. I’m kind of thinking out loud right now, but I also wonder how this relates to the reason why artists would or would not want to sign to major labels in the first place. Especially in the U.S. one of the top reasons in favor of signing is that a major label is still one of the only ways that you can get played on terrestrial radio, or get a high-profile broadcast TV placement. Obviously, independent artists have gotten those slots, but a lot of the time it is coming from the major-label world. And to my knowledge, the majority of a standard marketing budget in a major record deal is still going to these really mass-market broadcast channels like radio and TV.

I wonder what if it would be like if that were flipped — in terms of the majority of a marketing budget going to digital sources like streaming and social media, instead of radio. Would that actually be better for the artist? Or actually is this just a legacy thing in which artists are actually excited about being on the radio regardless of its impact, and they just accept that that’s where most of their budget is going?

AG: I think in India it’s slightly different, because you’ve never really had support from mainstream media anyway if you are an independent artist, so it doesn’t apply there. Obviously you’d want to get playlisted on streaming services, so it really depends on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, Apple Music here has a very good relationship with independent artists. JioSaavn also has this platform called Artist Originals, where they work with a lot of South Asian artists. So if you are an independent artist, you know that basically these are the two streaming services you need to be in touch with, because that’s where you have the highest chances of getting some kind of attention. You’re never going to get on the front page of the Times of India Supplement unless you pay for it anyway, so you don’t really look at that at all.

CH: Right, exactly.

The piece of news that I had in mind — it’s interesting because I think it’s underrated, but it’s not anything new at all for India. If anything, it’s actually how the Indian music industry has been operating for years, but it’s still considered quite new and unconventional in the U.S.

I’ve noticed more and more U.S. filmmakers and production companies are launching their own record labels. In 2018, the renowned film producer J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot Productions, launched a label called Loud Robot. The label operates independently from the production company, but I think there are some potential collaboration opportunities there in terms of syncing Loud Robot’s music into Bad Robot’s films. And actually, one of my favorite up-and-coming artists in the U.S. right now called UMI released her latest EP with Loud Robot, and she did it in a way that she called “episodically,” which I think is super interesting.

So what UMI did is that she released a separate short film on YouTube to accompany each song in her EP, and dropped these films week after week with the final video and the full EP coming out on October 30 this year. The videos are really well made, and when I looked at the descriptions of the videos on YouTube, I saw that Bad Robot Productions was officially credited in all of them. And I was like, oh, this is interesting — and it totally makes sense that Loud Robot would invest this much in high-quality visual content given that their parent company has the resources, the chops and the network to do the job.

And just last Friday as of recording this, on October 18th, the actress and producer Issa Rae from Insecure also launched a label, as a joint venture with Atlantic Records. I think she’ll be signing primarily hip-hop acts to her label, based on the artists already featured in the official announcement. And I should also mention that Loud Robot, under J.J. Abrams, is partnered with Capitol Records on administration and distribution.

There are a couple of interesting layers here. One is the fact that major labels are involved in both of these examples I just mentioned. It makes sense for the film industry to partner with incumbents on administering and managing the catalog. But from the major labels’ side, there’s also a general conversation around the different kind of value that they need to provide now in the streaming age, compared to, say, 10 to 15 years ago. In particular, there’s just so much noise out there on streaming services that, increasingly, what will actually make fans remember you as an artist is if you can be seen, if there’s some visual to go along with your music on a consistent basis.

Obviously, that’s been the case historically through music videos, but there’s a pressure to do that on a much more frequent basis nowadays. TikTok is totally part of this trend. And so an increasingly urgent requirement from the major-label side is to invest in or partner with companies that have deep expertise in making and marketing great visual media. So I see this partnership with film companies as one way of approaching that.

And it’s kind of traveling in the inverse direction from what’s happened in India, where for years the local film industry has already been dominating the local music industry from a marketing and distribution standpoint, and now with the rise of audio streaming services local labels are grappling with how they could potentially separate themselves from films and grow sustainably in an audio-first streaming economy. So, yeah, I just thought that was a super interesting trend that’s coming up that’s kind of in parallel with what’s happening in India, but tackling the same world of music and film from an opposite angle.

AG: It’s fairly new, in fact, even in India, for the kind of people you mentioned to start up their own production companies. You’re seeing both things happen. For instance, T-Series, which is the biggest Bollywood music label here [Editor’s note: as well as the world’s biggest YouTube channel by number of subscribers], is going into film production. That’s kind of the reverse, where it economically makes sense: rather than buying the rights to a soundtrack, they simply produce the film themselves, and then all the music is produced in-house anyway.

Also related to this is the whole trend of rehashing old songs that’s happening in India, where you have a lot of remixes of remixes of old songs being used in new films. At the same time, you have people like the actor Ranveer Singh starting his own hip-hop label. He starred in Gully Boy, but his work in hip-hop proceeded Gully Boy. He was a brand ambassador for this Danish clothing brand called Jack & Jones, and they did an advertising campaign where they had this contest where people could rap with him on a track.

I think people have realized that you have to have all of these sorts of avenues available to you. TikTok was a big part of the Badshah “Paagal” campaign that we were discussing. It also depends, I think, on where an artist comes from. You have some artists who have a strong visual aesthetic, so they want to have an entire package built around that, whether that’s in the form of a video or stage design. The idea is that as an artist, you’re not just releasing a song nowadays; you’re releasing an audiovisual experience, you know.

CH: Right, and that multimedia offering on a higher level is becoming the imperative for artists’ success around the world; it just manifests in different forms on a local level.

To close, is there anything you’re working on right now that you’d want to promote or talk about? You mentioned you’re working on this piece for Music Ally — is there anything else that might be coming out soon that you want people to know about?

AG: Yeah. In my Firstpost column, I talk about whatever’s happening currently, and I think that if anybody wants to know about the Indian music industry, that’s a good starting point. They’re not behind a paywall or anything like that, and I’ve spoken about a whole bunch of things — whether it’s about the independent music scene and how that works, a lot about charts and Indian music charts and how they work, and the live music scene here, which is, again, a whole different ballgame. That comes out twice a month. It’s slightly erratic when the pieces come out, but it’s twice a month.

CH: I’ll say that it’s been super helpful for me over the last several months in terms of learning more about the Indian music industry and keeping up to tabs with the latest trends. So yeah, if you’re listening, definitely go read Amit’s column.

Amit, thank you again for joining for this conversation!

AG: Yeah, it’s really interesting. And it’s great and really rare to get the opportunity to chat with another music journalist!

CH: Yes, let alone with another music journalist from halfway around the world.

AG: Yeah. You should make another visit soon — this is an exciting place.

CH: For sure!

If you enjoyed this conversation and want to follow similar analyses on the intersection of music and tech, please listen to the remaining episodes of the Water & Music podcast and/or subscribe to the eponymous newsletter.

You can also reach out to me via Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.




I run Water & Music, a publication about the fine print of innovation in the music business. bit.ly/waterandmusic

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Cherie Hu

Cherie Hu

I run Water & Music, a publication about the fine print of innovation in the music business. bit.ly/waterandmusic

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