We seem to have a fondness for female pop stars, for we’re the No 2 nation for Camila Cabello, Ellie Goulding, Hailee Steinfeld and Selena Gomez.
During a panel discussion at the recent virtual edition of Singapore’s All That Matters conference, music industry professionals from India talked about how international acts can break our market. Broadly, they highlighted two routes artists could take: the traditional way —touring consistently to build a fan base, or the more recent phenomenon of having a song go viral on social media platforms.
Universal Music’s vice president of brand partnerships Preeti Nayyar, cited DJ Snake, who’s performed across the country multiple times at music festivals, Holi parties and on New Year’s Eve (and also filmed a music video here) as an example of the former. The founder of 9122 Records, Sunil D’Sa, mentioned the success of reggae singers Conkarah and Shaggy’s collaboration ‘Banana’, which was aided by a TikTok trend, as an example of the latter.
Their panel got me thinking about how one gauges the success of international music in a country where – despite the considerable increase in its consumption over the last five years – it makes up only about 15 percent of the market, which is dominated by film soundtracks and pop music in local languages.
In other words, how do you know an international track is a nationwide hit? And by that I mean, it has crossed over into the masses among those who don’t typically listen to non-Indian music. Earlier, you’d know a song was popular just by how often you heard it around you, over the speakers of a gym, restaurant or nightclub, or blasting out of a neighbouring car’s stereo while you were stuck in a traffic jam. In Mumbai, you could say that a tune had truly entered the mainstream if you chanced upon it being played during Ganesh Chaturthi festivities.
These days, of course, we have more quantitative, data-driven means of tracking a track’s ubiquity such as plays on streaming services and Google searches. Being the geek I am when it comes to these things, I went through the weekly India charts of our most widely consumed streaming platform, YouTube, for the past year, and was surprised to find that only one international song has stuck around its top 100 for more than a couple of weeks: Panamanian reggaeton producer El Chombo’s ‘Dame Tu Cosita‘, the infamous video of which features a dancing green alien and like ‘Banana’, inspired a TikTok challenge.
However, as the market for international music has grown in India, its listenership too has got segmented. And as we know, even a small section of our population of 1.3 billion is substantial. Which means that while combing the YouTube chart is a good method of judging how big a track has got here, it’s not the only one. ‘Banana’ may not have cracked the video platform’s top 100 but it generated millions of views on TikTok, so it’s fair to say it’s reached audiences not just in the metros but in Tier-II and Tier-III cities as well.
A good way to know what’s trending across short video-sharing platforms is to browse the Shazam India chart as many users of TikTok (and those of the dozen other clones that have popped up in the past couple of months) use the app to find out the names of the tunes they hear in the clips.
When it comes to audio-streaming services, I check which international songs appear on the all-genre charts run by JioSaavn and Wynk, which boast a larger pan-India presence than those of international platforms like Spotify and Apple Music whose user bases over-index on the consumption of foreign music. This year, hardly any English tracks have made JioSaavn or Wynk’s surveys.
Going by the number of streams on audio OTTs, the top non-Indian hit of 2020 so far is ‘Yummy’ by Justin Bieber, which has over 13 million plays on JioSaavn and over 20 million on Gaana. But ‘Yummy’, both globally and in India, is a much smaller smash than Bieber’s many other chart-toppers such as ‘Despacito’ and ‘Sorry’. Its stream count also pales in comparison to last year’s biggest international hits in India, Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s ‘Senorita’ and Alan Walker’s ‘On My Way‘, which ended 2019 with over 60 million and 50 million plays respectively on Gaana.
Then again, maybe it would be wrong to ignore the likes of Spotify, which is fast gaining ground in non-metros and on which BTS’s ‘Dynamite’ recently broke the record for the most streams in a week with over 2.4 million plays. ‘Dynamite’ also debuted at No 2 on YouTube’s India Top Music Videos chart, the highest ranking for an international tune in the history of the survey’s yearlong existence. Notably, K-Pop as opposed to western pop is the only genre to consistently crack this chart and this is thanks to the extremely passionate fan bases of both BTS and BLACKPINK, further indicating that its popularity spans the length and breadth of the country.
For a wider perspective of how well international acts fare in India, perhaps we should zoom out of individual charts and look at their domestic popularity relative to the rest of the world, as shown on YouTube, which displays the top 100 countries and cities for artists by the number of streams over the last 28 days.
One of things that distinguishes our audience for international music is that pop-oriented EDM over-indexes here, which can be attributed to the regularity with which DJ-producers tour India. Between 28 August and 24 September, we were the leading market for such frequent visitors as Alan Walker, Hardwell, KSHMR and the aforementioned DJ Snake, for whom we generate almost triple the number of plays he gets in the US, which has the second highest patronage for him. We’re also the top territory for Pitbull and Vengaboys, who have also toured our shores.
Somewhat more surprisingly, we’re the No 1 country for British pop singer Anne-Marie, netting her almost two times the quantity of views she enjoys in the US. We seem to have a fondness for female pop stars, for we’re the No 2 nation for Camila Cabello, Ellie Goulding, Hailee Steinfeld and Selena Gomez.
Given how much we love the likes of Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Marshmello and The Chainsmokers and more peculiarly Cigarettes After Sex and Poets of the Fall, you’d think we’re the country that watches their videos the most, but we’re either the No 2 or No 3 spot on the globe for them. Similarly, we figure in the top five for BTS and Taylor Swift.
What all this might mean is that at some point in this decade, when it’s finally safe and financially feasible to mount world tours, India will have a decent shot at figuring in the list of countries to which these acts make the trek. In the near future, it could be an indicator for promoters like BookMyShow – which streamed a pay-per-view performance by Ellie Goulding in August – of the type of artists whose virtual gigs the Indian audience would buy tickets to see.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country’s independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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