Update: A note by Atul, via Facebook, in response to my post, appended at the end.

First, the video that kickstarted these thoughts in my head.

This video is interesting for multiple reasons. Let me list them all!

1. It is hosted by Madhav Das, ex-founder of Magnasound, the label that introduced international music to a LOT of Indians, back in the 90s. I have fond memories of buying droves of Magnasound tapes. They looked visibly different, with their plastic covers (something that Pyramid eventually imitated with many Rahman soundtracks). I had a lot of tapes in their Everlasting Love Songs series, besides a whole lot of other tapes.

In my earlier days, when I was a mad, blind fan of Rahman (I’d like to believe I’m just a fan now, not mad and blind), I was mighty pissed with Madhav when he repackaged Set Me Free and re-released it with A R Rahman’s name in the cover, with Malgudi Subha relegated to the 2nd place, unlike the first release which had the reverse order and the composer’s name being Dilip. Rahman himself mentioned that he was disappointed by this opportunistic decision and that he wasn’t informed of this.

Looking back, now, I think it was an astute business decision by Madhav, though he could have perhaps worked with Rahman on this, together. But that album was horrendous, by any standards, and under any name – Dilip or Rahman.

2. There are 2 people in the Indian music business (music ‘business’) that I really look up to – one is Atul Churamani (ex-Saregama) and the other is Shridhar Subramaniam (Sony Music). I have been tracking their work for a L-O-N-G time and in a recent 3 day office event in Jaipur, I had the opportunity to meet Shridhar personally. In my fanboy moment, I blurted something out in a silly way and never connected with him after that :)

Atul now runs a music publishing company called Turnkey Music & Publishing Pvt. Ltd, which recently managed the new album by Roop Kumar and Sonali Rathod, Zikr Tera.

3. Atul speaks a lot about a reviving interest in Indian non-film music, and even cites the instance of 800+ more radio stations coming up soon as a way to bring those non-flm music to a larger mainstream. Between Madhav and Atul, they estimate that India is ready for about 4-5K more singers.

I have a fundamental issue here, and this is something I have mentioned very often on Milliblog.

I prefer composer-driven musical ventures, as against singer-driven ventures. We, as a country, have always celebrated the front-end, not the back-end that actually creates. So, actors instead of directors, script writers, dialog writers etc. So, singers, instead of composers. We celebrate what we see or hear, and hardly ever scratch the surface to understand who really is the power behind those.

Western pop music world is no different, I agree, but they have a much better respectability charted out for the behind the scene folks. Not just for music – even shows like Jimmy Fallon and John Oliver have huge teams of writers who are paid really well – simple reason: they are THE reason for the show’s success. The writers CREATE. Others in front of the camera merely perform. They have to perform well, of course, but ‘what’ they perform is the crux.

Similarly, what singers sing is the crux of the music business; not merely that they sing or how they sing. They are important, but not as important as ‘what’ is being sung. ‘What’ is the start point; ‘how’ and ‘who’ join later/eventually.

So, Atul and Madhav going on about singers trying their luck in non-film music is a lot misplaced, in my view. Who are the composers for those songs? That’s my first question, if Atul starts to focus on the quality of content as a criteria for success.

Back in the 50s and 60s, in the West, we had singers who composed and wrote their own songs. That was a form of expression, like blogging or tweeting, now. But when music became an industry, the roles were split – so, we had a singer, a lyricist and a composer collaborating to create a song.

Now, with the internet era, and with people having the power to create music even on a laptop, a person can compose, sing and write his own song. We are back to the 50s, 60s era as far as music creation possibilities are concerned. But when that singer gets a chance with a formal publishing company like say, Atul’s, chances are he/she might be asked to collaborate with other composers and other lyricists, and eventually that person may just become yet another front-end singer.

4. On Milliblog, I place my bet on composers. I know there are no repercussions of my bets, unlike Shridhar or Atul, who place money on the singers and composers, but when I say bet, I mean my opinion.

Amit Trivedi is someone I bet big long before he was even considered as a film composer. See this, for context.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 10.20.05 pm

This was in February 2008. Amit’s first film soundtrack, Aamir, released in May 2008 – I gave it a glowing #200 worder, no doubt!

I added Vijay Antony’s Nakka Mukka in my top 10 Tamil songs of 2007 long before it became a national phenomenon (eventually Sun Pictures purchased the film that was lying unreleased and re-released the audio again, in 2008, after having released it earlier in mid-2007, in prep of the film’s release in September 2008).

Ghibran is someone I’ve considered talented right from his first album (Vaagai Sooda Vaa, which was a #200 worder on Milliblog for a debutant after a long time), and he continues to live up to that promise, right up to Uttama Villain.

My next bet is on Gulraj Singh, in Hindi. He did get one song last year – ‘Pakeezah’ from Ungli. Hope he gets full soundtracks to showcase his talent.

In Telugu, it is Sunny M.R.

In Malayalam, the ones I bet on – Shaan Rahman, Prashant Pillai etc. – have already proven their worth many times. In Kannada, the composer I rooted for, for a long time, is No.1 now – Arjun Janya.

See, these are composers. Not singers. Composers are creators. Even a singer, however good, needs a composer to tell him what to sing.

So, if I was Atul or Shridhar, I’d bet on the composers more, and less on the singers. Sure, the focus on singers (since they are what people hear) is justified, but unlike film music where the actor lends the face to the song, in non-film music, we have the opportunity to create newer heroes out of composers… to put the focus on where it deserves the most.

Where are the Indian Idols now? Where are the pop bands? They all had starting interest because they were packaged attractively. But when the package is opened, you start seeing the shine only on the outer surface. To sustain, they need quality material to croon. That can only come from composers.

5. The role of an A&R manager/outfit has changed dramatically now. Talent hunt is one part of it, but the sheer amount of talent available on the internet makes the job even more difficult.

In particular, for outfits like Atul’s Turnkey, the role after an artist is on board is even more critical. The days of physical music delivery are long gone – everything is digital now, as Atul himself acknowledges in the interview.

Music distribution is on so many levels now – there is digital streaming, digital downloads, mobile downloads, mobile streaming, mobile caller tunes, YouTube uploads, OKListen, Bandcamp, iTunes etc.

The person or team managing the music distribution of an artist needs to ensure that the music is,
a. promoted appropriately, pre and during the launch
b. available in as many platforms as possible, as easily as possible

Even in (a), crafting the story behind the song/album is far more important than the music itself. The story introduces the music. This is classic PR effort though, not necessarily music industry-specific.

Besides this, there are uniquely nuanced tasks that are specific to digital media.

When people search for that artist, on say, Google, what do they get? Has the artist’s manager taken care of that? By either using search engine marketing or search engine optimization? The option are plenty, in both cases. To start with, people should be able to sample the music – so, a Saavn or Gaana page, or the YouTube link of that album/song coming up is a great start. And then the iTunes page, for purchase.

If people search on iTunes, what do they get? This song/album, or something similar sounding, from another artist? On a YouTube search, via the YouTube mobile app, what do people get? Many albums and soundtracks I search on Google or YouTube hardly ever gets me to the jukebox correctly!

Social media is another animal altogether!! Do the artists (all involved – composer, singer, lyricist etc.) have social media profiles worth exploiting to promote the album? Even if they do, what should they say, to create curiosity about the album?

Are there media, social media influencers that are pro artist/singer/composer who can be given a sneak peek to help them spread the word? How should they be chosen, evaluated? How should they be engaged?

Then there is good old PR – media relations. And event appearances. Brand tie-ups. It’s a full plan that can only come to life depending on what the story behind the album and artist is.

Finally, the big daddy – live gigs. Someone like Raghu Dixit is a living example of a professional musician who uses his social media outreach well, composes his own songs, and gets help from professional lyric writers like Madhan Karky when needed. Of course he had the initial push from Vishal and Shekhar’s own music label Counter Culture Records, but that’s precisely the role of a label/publisher these days – identify the creator, not just the person mouthing a creation – and push them to limelight. Beyond the intial push, the creator will find avenues him/herself to sustain the interest.

6. Finally – the money part of it, that Madhav has made it the video’s title!

I honestly do not think music business is a career option now, in India. Not a sole career option, at least for starters. Starters need to prove themselves first – to do that, they can only moonlight as musicians. They need to do something that can earn their bread and butter. At some point, they can pivot into a full-fledged musicians if the going is good.

But doing only music, with no other source of income is a bad move in the Indian music business scheme of things, film or non-film.

It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to be a writer’ and leave your job and only write. Bad idea.

Atul does list a lot of avenues of making money from music, but given the fragmentation of the music industry, money from each avenue is also lesser, overall. So, more than conviction that one can become a professional musician, on a more practical level, consider your livelihood first.

7. Finally, if I were a national music publishing house and had access to a really good Hindi singer, I’d get Gulraj Singh to compose music for that singer and cut an album. If he can compose stupendous music for a Ganesh bhajan album, I’m sure he can do wonders with a pop music album.

But, it needs to be promoted well (all of #5, above).

Update (March 4, 2015):
Atul responded via Facebook: “About singers and composers, the questions asked were about singers so I replied accordingly. However, there is a point when I say that you have to have a good song, one that passes the ‘grey whistle test’. So I am actually agreeing with you that it’s all about a good song to start with! Plus the fact that I am today into music publishing means that I am dealing with composers, not singers. A lot of people are singer – songwriters so one deals with them. But it is in their capacity as songwriters and not singers.”

There is a strong undercurrent of interest in immortality all through Uttama Villain, as if Kamal Haasan wants to ensure that at least his body of work remains immortal. It starts with the magnificiently mounted Iranian naadagam, where Hiranyakashipu assumes he is immortal, till Vishnu finds a loophole. The song comes out better in the full version (at almost 8 minutes vs. just-under 5 minutes CD version) and ends with Kamal asking us to compare immortality’s pain to an endless story’s lack of listeners.

Then Uttaman kadhai that tells the absorbing story of Uttaman, who cheated death multiple times, though there is a rational explanation for each, even as villagers call him a ghost. That story pans itself out wonderfully in the soundtrack’s best, Mutharasan kadhai, telling the story of King Sadaya Varman, his evil brother-in-law Mutharasan who usurps the king’s throne and eventually looks to Uttaman to extend his life predicted to end in grusesome death. Together, these three pieces of music offer the finest combination of natively-told stories blended to Western classical impressionist and atonal musical styles, courtesy Sofia Symphony Orchestra. The story-telling is immaculate, thanks largely to Kamal’s rich verses and vocals.

Saagaavaram is conventional, in comparison, but extends the immortality theme again. Veteran Villuppaattu proponent Subbu Arumugam joins Kamal in the beautifully-rhythmic – very unique to Villuppaattu form – Utthaman arimugam, an apt intro song to Kamal’s gargantuan repertoire. Padmalatha breezes through the seemingly Vasantha-raaga based Kaadhalaam kadavul mun, while the soundtrack’s most accessible Love’aa is lyricist Viveka’s mischievous ode to Kamal’s image and Ghibran letting down his hair with catchy orchestration. The 7 instrumental pieces too add to the rich tapestry of sounds, topped by the Theme. Uttama Villain’s soundtrack is one of the most daring and inventive musical attempts in recent Tamil cinema history.

Keywords: Uttama Villain, Uthama Villain, #300, 300, Ghibran

Nikhitha Gandhi’s super stylish vocals prop Beautiful zindagi‘s already funky tune, reminiscent of Lenka’s pop music style; the chorus in the song too adds tremendous value. The short title song is equally cool, Ramy breezing through the vocals admirably well, though it is Radhan’s backgrounds impress the most. Ranjith and Ramy are fantastic in the racy Nuvvu nuvvu kadhu, even as Radhan makes great use of the punchy rhythm and horns, and even some nadhaswaram thrown in for good effect. Harini sounds ethereal in O kala, a thoroughly endearing melody, beautfully handled by the composer, particularly in the waltzy orchestration and the sweeping violin in the interludes strongly evoking Ilayaraja. Mohit Chauhan seems to struggle in the opening notes of Idhera, but eventually owns the song with the engaging rock sound. The soundtrack’s big surprise is Ilayaraja’s 1995 Tamil song from Avatharam, Thendral vandhu, rehashed by Raja himself to scintillating effect in Challa gaali thakuthunna, presenting another perspective to the already mesmerizing song. Senthil and Rihitha offer aptly soulful vocals in the song’s new version. Composer Radhan debuted with a great Andhala Rakshasi, but lost track in the Tamil film Vaaliba Raja. In Yevade Subramanyam, he makes a superb comeback!

Keywords: Yevade Subramanyam, Radhan, Ilayaraja, 200, #200

Hunterrr 303 is a neat throwback to the Bappi disco period, while Chori chori is a sedate old-world melody with a new coating – very listenable, in Arijit and Sona Mohapatra’s vocals. Thaali hai khaali and Amit Trivedi-sung Bachpan have corny, bizarre lyrics; the former breezes through with catchy charm and the latter is just morose. Khamosh handles the breezy, predictable melody in Naina well. Ye naa gade is raucous Marathi template, while Altaf Raja has been chosen aptly for Dil lagaana – it’s his style, but ends with a fake firang Hindi outburst! Odd, medley’ish debut by Khamosh Shah.

Keywords: Khamosh Shah, Hunterrr

Javed Ali and Sheya Ghoshal handle the gorgeously slow-burning techno-ghazal combo sound of Kangalilae very well – GV Prakash’s tune is the clear winner here. LED kannala, however, is standard-issue techno-kuthu that fails to engage despite the punchy sound. Tipu is the sole saving grace of Why machi why, another students-song that addresses mighty predictable tropes in equally predictable catchiness. Yaarai polum illa neeyum (and its Reprise EDM Mix), has a nice uptempo sound, but is way too templatized within the lively, happy-pop variety to make any kind of impact. Familiar GV Prakash Kumar fare, barring minor highs like Kangalilae.

Keywords: GV Prakash Kumar, Pencil

Samayaa has a lilting sing-along, guitary feel and the Allah Bol hook works easily too, thanks to Anudeep’s Sonu Nigam’ish singing, with apt support from Thaman himself. Vaddura mama has a funky banter-style sound and along with the catchy tune, Thaman’s imaginative backgrounds help generously too; particularly the effort in the interludes. Love story‘s sound is even more quirky and thoroughly endearing, as Deepak sings it with the necessary nonchalance and verve. Hey Tiger has a grand sound but nothing much apart from that; ditto with the background’ish theme piece. Three good songs is a good record for this Tiger.

Keywords: Tiger, Thaman S

Ammanae has a fantastic 80s pop wrapper around an otherwise loud and full-throated conventional Amman song lyrics – very funky idea that plays on the dramatic difference between the lyrics and the sound! Karthik excels in the Middle Eastern tinged Ponna pathi sollava, complete with a fantastic, Vikram-Vanithamani style rap prelude and a phenomenally catchy tune that taps on every possible Middle Eastern cliche that there is. Unnai enni is a beautiful waltzy melody that is so-Bharadwaj! It’s sung by M.K.Balaji with the perfect verve even as the composer adorns it with a sound that is instantly alluring! Aravind and Deepika’s Maanga peesula is easily captivating, with its likeable and repetitive hooks, a slow-burning, slowed-down kuthu that almost sounds like a Deva song from the man’s peak in the 90s, while also referring to assorted Saran film titles in the lyrics! Bharadwaj and Sreedevi take turns in Yelay and deliver a mighty unusual jugalbandi that’s intriguing and interesting! Akila’s short, Yen uyirae is a nice enough ballad that derives a lot from her vocals, while the other short, Thirunelveli is simple, straight-off foot-tapper. That Bharadwaj produces his best with director Saran is no secret; this is the composer’s proper comeback!

Keywords: Aayrathil Iruvar, Ayirathil Iruvar, Bharadwaj, #200, 200

PS: I took almost 7 days to arrive at a #200 for this one. I brushed off the music as standard-issue Bharadwaj initially, but gave it a cool-off period like I do with soundtracks that seem to have a spark but is not evident immediately. This one surprised me eventually over a week with its fabulous tunes!

Sanjeev Darshan pitch in with a strong Chhil gaye naina with the right amount of grunge in it. Mohit Chauhan, Shilpa Rao and Arijit adorn Le chal in 3 versions, a languorous composition by Bann Chakraborty that’s wonderfully lounge’ish, but it’s the fourth, differentiated variant, Khoney de, featuring Mohit and Neeti that tops all! Composers Ayush Shrestha and Savera Mehta’s Main jo is whimsical and endearing, while their other song, Kya karein is likeable thanks to a whispery Rachel Varghese. Samira Koppikar’s Maati ka palang is faux-Vishal and Rekha Bhardwaj, but has a lilting sound. Consistetly moody and in-theme soundtrack!

Keywords: NH10, Anushka, Sanjeev Darshan, Bann Chakraborty, Ayush Shrestha, Savera Mehta, Samira Koppikar

Anu Malik channelizes his Ashoka/Refugee form again in Moh moh ke dhaage and in the two versions, by Papon and Monali Thakur, has a clear and easy winner! The title song is a messy hodge-podge, despite Kailash Kher and Nooran sisters. Barring the mod keyboard sound, Kumar Sanu’s Tu is a lovely, nostalgic throwback to the 90s, tune-wise; ditto with Dard karaara, that stays true in all sense – tune and orchestra. Except the quirky lyrics, Sunder susheel is more gimmicky than tuneful, while Papon powers Prem’s theme in his rich vocals. Minor comeback of sorts by veteran Anu Malik!

Keywords: Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Anu Malik

Oorukku perumai is mind-numbingly outdated in every way, and panders to the debutant hero almost as if he was MGR-incarnate. Adiye rathiye is even more redundant, harping on utterly pointless tune and rhythms. Vaada vaada closes the cycle perfectly with another 90s embarassment. But Karthikraja salvages the soundtrack in style with Karichan kuruvi and Enakkanavan! The former, with Karthik and Chinmayi, is a beautiful duet that’s a perfect blend of dad and son’s sensibilities, while the latter, a lovely solo by Chinmayi, is delightfully trademark Karthikraja’ish sweeping melody! Two songs that Karthikraja can be proud of, from his big-ticket re-entry.

Keywords: Sagaptham, Karthikraja

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