Pop Is Back!
RollingStone India|April 2019

Badshah, Harddy Sandhu, Akasa Sing and Aastha Gill are resurrecting the Indi-pop glory days, one chartbuster at a time Shridhar Subramaniam of Sony Music India on what its takes to make a commercial star

Nirmika Singh

Unless you live under a rock or prefer to stay miles away from Hindi music, chances are that you might have recently enjoyed or even danced to a tune by some or all these artists: Badshah, Aastha Gill, Harrdy Sandhu and Akasa Singh. None of these four artists call themselves a ‘Bollywood singer’ – a label that many a singer would have loved to proudly wear as a badge till as late as two years ago. None of these singers even have aspirations to become playback voices. What they do want, however, is to become music icons. While Badshah is inching towards that goal, it is just a matter of time that the rest of this gang will follow suit.

When I meet Shridhar Subramaniam, President, India and Middle East, Sony Music, he tells me the non-film music world is changing in a way it never has. The film music or what is called the ‘soundtrack industry’ (comprising Bollywood and regional sectors), which in the past decade snuffed out the artist-led/non-film ecosystem, is finally shape-shifting. “Pop is now a sustainable business. It’s not going to vanish overnight and it’s not going to have a bubble moment. We’re at the beginning of a massive expansion across genres, languages and demographics,” he says.

While Sony Music India might boast of having a stronghold in the nonfilm markets since it started out over 22 years ago (music maestro A.R. Rahman’s 1997 record Vande Mataram is the label’s highest grossing nonfilm album till date), today it finds itself in the company of competitive label and multi-channel networks that are all vying for a piece of the pop pie.

Sanujeet Bhujabal, who is Sony Music India’s Marketing Director, connects this business dynamic to the increasing influence of a new kind of music icon – the digital superstar. “The rise of digital platforms has democratized music. There are no gatekeepers now. I call it ‘the loop.’ The loop is that the artist is on social media, reaching out to fans. The artist then creates content that becomes a hit, which in turn reaches out to a wider fan base. But the artist doesn’t stop there. He is also on ground – which differentiates him from a movie star.”

Clearly, it makes business sense to invest in pop stars today than ever before. Apart the four aforementioned artists, Sony Music India also manages singer/rapper/ producer Sukh-E and the alt-rock band The Yellow Diary. Just look at the numbers, insists Rohan Jha, Head of Pop Music at the label. “The parameters [of success of these pop stars] would be their numbers on the national radio and TV charts. Whenever there are major releases by Badshah and Harrdy, their songs are among the top three on charts, showing they’re overtaking Bollywood or on par with it.”

That the Punjabi artists are ruling the roost is no surprise. The region has historically favored and supported homegrown talent that never really needed the support of the film industry. Whether it was the music legend Gurdas Maan in Eighties or Yo Yo Honey Singh in the recent past, the Punjabi music industry remains a model for the rest of India. Says Pawenesh Pajnu, North Business Head, Sony Music India, “All the biggest pop stars that we see in Mumbai today are actually the older or the younger music stars from this region. Now consumption of music has increased –I also credit it to the massive diaspora consuming the music.”

In a freewheeling chat with the four pop stars and the Sony Music business brains, we find out that the glory days of Indipop might be back again.

Label-Artist Relationship Is Changing

Resurrecting the ethos of the Indipop heyday in today’s time must take colossal investments. What have been the major challenges from the label’s side in ensuring these stars have long innings?

Shridhar: It takes two hands to clap. It’s not just the label but the combination of their own talent and dedication. The four people here are probably the hardest working people in the industry. And yes, it requires patience from our side. It’s a long journey.

It is not only the artists that have had to reinvent themselves over the years, but also labels. The role of the label today has moved beyond the traditional responsibilities and it is more creative than ever before…

Sanujeet: If I look at the evolution of the music industry in the past four-five years, the first big thing has been that the industry has become more creative because we are dealing with the artists directly. It’s not like the soundtrack era which was more acquisition-driven. Second, once we get talent on board, it is all harnessing the personality and mapping their DNA to the fan base, to identify the things that the artist must do to reach out to the fans in a cohesive manner. Third, it’s about using the talent and the music to create things outside of music. Badshah is not just a music star…

Badshah, what did it take you to put together a formidable personality beyond that of a music star?

Badshah: I have always believed in teamwork. I know it sounds clichéd but all great things are clichéd because they’re great. It’s not only about creating art but also selling it, and making sure it reaches as many ears and eyes as possible. Apart from that, I had a vision before coming to Sony and I shared it with them. Luckily, we were on the same page. And although we are doing a lot of things beyond music, the centerpoint is music. At heart, I am into music and everything else is going to be an extension of that.

Historically, labels have always got a bad name. They are considered ruthless entities that care more about making money than promoting good art. Aastha, were you ever wary about this before signing with a major label?

Aastha: I feel very lucky to be part of this team. When I got into music, I too heard the same things about labels but I took a leap of faith. And so far, I have never at any point felt that they have treated me like a product. We’re all like family, and I feel secure.

Of course, there have been tiffs here and there but those are important.

Harrdy, in today’s changing times, what are the crucial things that an artist must expect from a label?

Harrdy: The most important thing is that the label and the artist must work together as a team. I started out in Punjab – I got into music only in 2010 and before that I was a cricketer.

Badshah: He is still remains a cricketer (laughs).

Harrdy: Yeah, so I have always played in a team!

Badshah: I tend to say ‘we’ in Sony Music – and our philosophy is very strong. It has to be a long-term association. Only then can you expect results. And apart from that, there’s a personal connect and that is the reason why have grown together.

BADSHAH Rapper, composer and music producer Aditya Prateek Singh Sisodia aka Badshah rose to fame in 2012 with his independent Haryanvi song “Kar Gayi Chull” which was later adopted into the 2016 Bollywood movie Kapoor & Sons. His music has been featured in the soundtracks of numerous films, most recently Stree, Loveyatri and Namaste England.

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