Opportunities and challenges of platformisation in the Indian music streaming economy

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Aditya Lal is a postgraduate researcher in the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change. His research interests focus on the impact of platformisation on the cultural industries.

Aditya Lal

Indian record companies and musical tastes are not only resisting but are actively challenging the cultural dominance of Western music streaming platforms (MSPs). 

This can be seen from the following examples:  

The above examples also highlight another important phenomenon – the rise of an independent recorded music industry in India. Owing to the dominance of film soundtracks in India, the word ‘independent’ or ‘indie’ is loosely used in India to denote non-film Indian music. From the artists mentioned in the examples above, King, Arijit Singh, and Diljit Dosanjh have all had their music released by one of the majors – the domestic (T-Series, SaReGaMa, and Zee Music Company) and international (Universal Music, Sony Music, and Warner Music) major record companies. So, unlike in the west, indie is a contested term in India, that can suggest independence from the script-bound film music business, or from the majors, or both.  

Nonetheless, non-film music (‘indie’ being reserved here for its more traditional independence-from-majors connotation) has proliferated in the Indian platform economy thanks to artists having access to cheaper music production technologies and easier digital distribution services that do not require them to relinquish their rights. As a result, today, non-film music and artists are not only challenging the cultural hegemony of film music but are also being co-opted by the film industry. 

The Indian Music Industry (IMI) is an industry body representing over two hundred Indian record companies including the domestic and international majors in India. According to the IMI, at 71 percent, the local music consumption in India outstrips the global average preference of 49 percent for local music. Within local music consumption in India, Bollywood music leads by a substantial margin and regional (non-Hindi, non-English, local) music is growing rapidly, with Punjabi music leading the way.  

These findings corroborate research (part of the UK Government’s response to the Second Report of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s Inquiry into The Economics of Music Streaming) on Spotify, the largest MSP in the world, which found an increase in home bias (the degree to which users in a country prefer music from that country) during its period of study from 2014 to 2019. Understandably, Spotify has localised its product and marketing campaigns in India. 

However, the strong consumer affinity for local music, the powerful rise of non-film music, and the continued dominance of film music in India reinforce the enormous power wielded by the majors who have, over several decades, invested substantial resources into the acquisition, distribution, and marketing of compelling local catalogues – be it in film music, the more recent non-film music, or other evergreen genres like devotional music. And they have asserted their power. For example, domestic major SaReGaMa forced Spotify to remove 120,000 songs owned by SaReGaMa just two months after the streaming service was launched in India. 

The Indian music streaming market is advertising-led, with YouTube driving the maximum consumption of music. This potentially provides an opportunity for Indian indie musicians to subvert the powers-that-be and earn directly from advertising revenue through YouTube. But the largest music channels in terms of subscribers and views on YouTube are controlled by the majors and large independent record companies, and therefore their channels attract far more advertising than those operated directly by indie musicians (or their representatives). So, with the lion’s share of YouTube advertising dollars in the music category going to the majors, the income generated from YouTube is inadequate for many indie musicians. Consequently, they continue to depend on traditional live entertainment opportunities, which alone may not be sufficient either, for their daily bread and butter. 

MSPs offer important marketing and promotion channels for musicians who can pay for these services or are affiliated to record companies that can fund such expenses. But these platforms do little in terms of improving the sustainability of the vast majority of musicians who do not achieve star status. However, short-form video platforms such as TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts offer another avenue for musicians to reach their audience and gain popularity.  

Before being banned in India, TikTok had become an essential music discovery app, especially for independent musicians – ‘6 out of the top 10 all-time Indian tracks on TikTok were independent releases and gained considerable traction on YouTube’. Since the ban, the space vacated by TikTok has been filled by YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels, and a surge of indigenous short-form video apps that have rapidly gained importance for the discovery of indie music.  

However, the most-followed musicians are still those who are backed by either a Bollywood repertoire or the majors or both. For example, Neha Kakkar, a popular singer, built an impressive catalogue of Bollywood and non-film projects supported by the majors and became the most followed musician on Instagram with 60 million followers. 

Platformisation, then, continues to reinforce the concentrated structure of the recorded music industry in India. It maintains the dominance of film music while giving opportunity for non-film music to flourish, albeit with support from the majors. Indie musicians continue to depend on live entertainment for their main source of income. The advertising-skewed Indian platform economy does provide them the opportunity to generate income directly from their recordings, but it is not immune to the inequalities and power dynamics of the industry that music platformisation has struggled to disrupt. 

A more detailed analysis on this topic can be read here (open access): The changing shape of the Indian recorded music industry in the age of platformisation

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