Migrants and the Indian Music Business

Vivek Paul
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)
11 min readJun 3, 2020

Contributions, Collaborations, and Influences

Ilustration by Vivek Paul (www.gatsvy.com)

On their way to an unfamiliar new life, Migrants and Immigrants probably pack money, documents, clothes, and some small mementos. Imperceptibly and intangibly, they also carry cultural reminiscences: the music they listen, the clothes they wear, the way they cook their food. In a new environment, these reminiscences become a link to their home and also, something to share with thy neighbors.

Equal Sessions by Anahad Foundation

The music industry has an exciting template with many shades borrowed from the migrants to its mainstream genres and critical markets. At a structural level, when we look at types, styles, sounds, and divisions between Commercial Music, Independents, Folk, and Devotional, we find one common link — Collaboration. The diversity of Indian music is because of two healthy ingredients: People Movement and Exchange of Culture. The uniqueness and commercial success of music happen because the musicians have mastered the art of breaking sound barriers.

The sound barriers are the high points where the commercialization of music is at its peak. Glossy marketing campaigns and glamorous perception, lure the audiences for financial transactions. Bollywood and Pop Music represents this segment in India. 50% of the Indian market comes under its reach. The popularity is cosmetically created by the integration of celebrities, big marketing budgets, and blocking the display. Diversity, Regional, Devotional, and Folk Music accounts for the other 50%. Financial transaction, therefore, is very local.

Illustration by Vivek Paul (www.gatsvy.com)

Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, and Gujarati are significant languages that create sizeable regional clusters. Independents are the other 50% segment, which creates a long-tailed impact on the music business. The missing link here in economics is somewhat similar to the Startups and Corporations Business relationship. Successful startups eventually get absorbed by large corporations. Similarly, the commercially viable songs find their way to movies, advertising, or get acquired by the major labels. The remaining songs have a crucial role in forming their own foundations, so they remain self-reliant.

Illustration by Vivek Paul (www.gatsvy.com) I Images copyright Amar Ujala

Independents are mostly neglected due to the efforts required on talent development and building an ecosystem for A&R. Nowadays, such aspects are on the music labels back-burner. The independent music not just refines the creative edges, it also comprises of a large population of immigrants, enabling collaborative works.

Startup incubators have an excellent lesson for the music business. They create the pipeline responsible for the creation of new markets and innovations, eventually becoming M&A opportunities for the corporations. In the past decade, EMI, Unilever, Mastercard, etc. have created incubators for the creative industries.

Equal Sessions by Anahad Foundation

Like in India, the American Music Market also highlights that the Migrants and Immigrants create the rightful mix of music. In its pure form, Mix Tape is an expression of the contributions made by the people who came to America by intent or in chains. Their immense contributions are in Genres like Jazz, Blues, Hollywood Soundtracks, Musicals, Gospel, Ragtime, Spiritual. Artists like Ray Charles, Freddie Mercury, Carlos Santana, Thomas A Dorsey, Mahila Jackson, and Aretha Franklin have impacted the music industry.

An article from The Chicago Tribune, titled “How Immigrants Created America’s Mixtape,” says it best: “The template for American music, a cacophonous merger of a thousand cultures thrown together like nowhere else on Earth, is built on the shoulders of immigrants. And it’s not simply that they brought with them their music and cultural values: More important, they applied what they knew to a wholly unfamiliar environment, along the way conjuring radical new methods for creating music. Their work came to define the American sound and has been embraced and celebrated as such around the globe.”

“Without them, I can’t imagine what Jazz music would be. Without Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, there probably never would have been a ‘West Side Story” says David Baker, Chairman of the Jazz Studies Department of Indiana University.

A benefit carried by Broadway came from the largesse of black cultural innovations. In 1921 ragtime piano master Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle created a breakthrough show “Shuffle Along,” which reflects the contributions made by the immigrants.

Afro-Cuban dance rhythms, Mexican mariachi music, South American tango, Indian Style Bhangra, Srilankan Baila Beats, and other traditions echo in the American Music. In the words of eminent Composer and Scholar, Gunther Schuller, “If you look at it as a stream, it’s like the Mississippi River. It just keeps spreading out. It’s what we’ve called the grand melting pot, and that’s what it is. And you can’t stop the melting.

Migrants and Immigrants are Culture Carriers, and when we look at the values people bring along, we can identify the unique differences. The uniqueness lies in style, performance, visual appearance, life influences, music tastes, and human gestures. We find a significant amount of lifestyle integration into the musician’s creative works. Some are by design, but the majority of it is natural. Cities such as Mumbai, Berlin, Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, Shanghai, Istanbul, Mexico, and Singapore have distinct musical identities. Such identities are not limited to the local music structure. They extend to the opportunities such cities provide, which are attractive to the creative artists.

A study was done by Professors Philip Kazinits, NYU and Marco Martiniello, Université de Liège Belgium around this subject bring out exciting insights into the public domain:

(AT) a time when nativism is surging, anxiety over borders and immigration is rising, the song’s success highlights the truism that the soul that moves so many of us, that we groove to, that animates our lives, that in some ways binds us as a global community — pop music — is the opposite of nativist. It’s promiscuous. It doesn’t respect borders or stick to racial categories. It borrows willy-nilly, encouraging cross-fertilization of cultures and styles.

It is worth noting that efforts to use music to reinforce ethnic, racial, and national boundaries usually fail. More often, music, particularly popular music, is a space in which the boundaries between insiders and outsiders blur. Robert Burnett in his book ‘The Global Jukebox: The International Music Industry’ beautifully depicts it by saying that “music is increasingly part of the aural or sonic soundscape that surrounds us.” People who carry their musical legacies across the globe hence prove that boundaries blur and not only technology but music also acts as an important element of making the world a ‘global village’.

Bringing different frames, tastes, and repertoires from their cultures of origin may give migrants something fresh to add to the creative mix. And seeing their new homelands from both the insider’s & outsider’s vantage point, this may give their children a unique perspective, something akin to Duboisian “double consciousness” which they bring to even the most familiar artistic forms (Du Bois 1903)

Culture has a strong affiliation with the movement of immigrants. Music streaming service Spotify had an early advantage in studying this segment from a programming perspective. However, their Global Cultural initiative hit a rough patch when the majority of the teams moved out of the company.

A program that was created to focus on increasing intercontinental music exchanges was narrowly skewed to Playlisting. There seems to be a disconnect in the vision to build a vibrant import-export storyline between culture and music styles, but without a leader championing the program, it loses sight, thereby remaining a tactical marketing objective.

The significant insight coming off this objective is that perhaps the program needed to run broader in the sense of inclusiveness of the concept of immigrants, influence, and cultural exchange. It, however, remains focused on the platform and its usage, thereby play-listing. Moving the focus away means shifting priorities of the company, which opens up a more significant discussion — “Do we Curate & Create a Culture or Simply Live a Culture?” In recent times, culture curator became a keyword for many people, looks very myopic as it is restrictive, similar to the case of Spotify’s initiative.

Does this mean a large population in a younger generation lacks intelligence, and the concept, science behind it? Have they locked themselves in a me-too situation comprising of a herd mentality? Or are they living in their fixation with social media or otherwise? Many aspects point to the fact that a lot went missing in this context. We wait to see how the music business addresses this gap, as it links to the process of music creation and song incubation. Interestingly, the morals and intellect of the immigrants are involved in the creation, which is not for the Cultural Curators, but for the Culture Narrators.

Nadia Kiwan and Ulrike Hanna Meinhof from the University of Aberdeen and Southampton wrote this book, Cultural Globalisation, and Music: African Artists in Transnational Networks, which focuses on many of the above aspects with regards to Music, Artist, and Geographies. The key one being the concept of HAIS — Human, Accidental, Institutional, and Spatial.

Similarly, Elizabeth Weinfield, Music Historian at the Julliard School, explores the intersection between women’s roles as musicians and as Jews in the Antwerp salons. “This paper will show how music, and specifically women making music in the salon, enabled these interstitial and interracial dependencies.”

Music, as a visual medium, has the power to invoke imaginations through visuals. The migrants carry with them colour, traditions, culture, and unique attributes from their hometowns. At every point we have seen the amalgamation of unique visuals, we are sure that it was a collaborative effort. While cinema, books, tv content is full of stories around the movement of people, coming together in one place. Music Video is one of the most engaging mediums in the music business that brings together stories weaved with the minds of the migrants. Not only we find uniqueness, but there are also feelings of multiple regions attached to the same.

The Paris’ ‘Musée de l’histoire d’immigration’ (National Museum of History of Immigration) created a unique exhibition designed to invoke thoughts around music and migrants. The event displayed artistic movement in France and England. The curators’ objective was to demonstrate how “successive generations of immigrants in these two colonial powers used music to stake their claim to equal rights, affirm their presence in the public space, and contribute to the urban, economic, and cultural transformations reshaping” both countries.

Mini-events and exhibitions at this showcase have received a massive demand for subsequent series that can showcase deeper musical connections. For instance, the punk and dub-reggae productions of John Letts, and the “Asian underground sounds” of the Asian Dub Foundation.

Image copyright histoire-immigration.fr

A few years ago, a study done on PopJustice highlighted the following:

  1. A competent agent of change is based on two essential characteristics: it is dynamically expressive and accessible. Popular culture acts both as a means for us to have enjoyable and emotional experiences with characters, places, things, or situations that we may not otherwise participate in — perhaps because they are not even real — and a means for us to define our social reality.
  2. Popular culture plays a crucial role in determining how we represent our own and other identity groups.
  3. A powerful vehicle in the creation of the (too often) negative public opinions toward immigrants and people of colour.
  4. More authentic depictions can increase positive perceptions of immigrants and people of colour. Both of whom are still often considered “out-groups.”

The baseline, therefore, is that, in the positive framework, we get New Styles, Sounds, and Visuals.

Illustration by Vivek Paul (www.gatsvy.com)

In India, we witness people movement within our states and from other parts of the globe. Entertainment, Movies, Music, Television, Live industries are full of migration stories, and their contributions have shaped the business in many different ways.

One of the critical elements of immigrants is that the music industry gets to find new stars. The talent that resides in remote parts of the country comes to music cities like Mumbai, Kolkatta, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Guwahati. Creativity out of these places is the backbone of the music business.

Music from Punjab (India) is a testimony to the fact that its contributions are global and local in India. Punjabi Music cuts across film, television, musical collaborations, advertising, and live. Gibb Schreffler, an Author, and Musicologist, extensively studied the contribution of Punjabi Music, Culture, and Bhangra. In his expressions — From Ludhiana to London or Popular Punjabi Music in a Global Historical Perspective.

The narration goes as “Looking back over 75 years of Punjabi popular music, one can see the changing nature of the relationship between the individual and the “home” culture. In the pre-Independence era, the “Punjabi” identity had yet to play a significant role in recorded music, whose chief value had been entertainment. By the 1960s, music had acquired the function of forming a short idea of Punjab with which its international audience could quickly identify. By the 1990s, Punjabi identity, as espoused in its music industry, was marked by the idea that, by its very nature, to be Punjabi was to be global”.

Dr. Anjali Gera followed ‘Bhangra,’ the dance of Punjab concludes, Diaspora music par excellence. Music from Punjab demonstrates a shift from the idea of Punjabi Diaspora to the notion of Global Punjabi Culture.

In this entire structure, we can visibly see that the music industry’s vibrancy exists due to the migrants and the soulful music they have contributed to the industry over centuries. Their vocals, lyrics, compositions, instruments and unmatched passion and love for the art has enriched the industry for generations to come. Without their contributions, participation, and collaborations, the work’s creativity shall remain incomplete!

Illustration by Vivek Paul (www.gatsvy.com)

The impacts of immigrants on the music industry can be seen through the lens of Ethnomusicologists. A highly specific activity that is interdisciplinary, the ethnomusicologists focus on examining music as a social process to understand what music means and what is its actual role for musicians and music audiences. The Story of The Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology in India - LINK

Music plays a crucial role in everyone’s life. From elevator music to commercial jingles, there’s something about the combination of rhythm, melody, and lyrics that touches a primal part of every human being. Without the Indian immigrant, much of our favourite music would have never found its way into our lives.

It is negligent in ignoring the impact that various regional musical histories have had on India’s music scene. In many cases, the opportunities afforded by our country are what set the stage for flourishing musicians to begin their careers. Stiffening limitations for talented, culturally impactful immigrants could mean missing out on the next big name in music. Are we ready to risk that?

Illustration by Vivek Paul (www.gatsvy.com)

By, Vivek Paul in collaboration with Dr. Ankit Chugh and Dr. Vandana Sharma

  • The contents of this post are personal views of the author and the collaborators.
  • The source of information is tagged in the links.