Spotifying hits and misses

ANURAG TAGAT | Updated on February 28, 2020

Listen in: Spotify for Artistes has over 6,400 musicians, such as multi-instrumentalist Karsh Kale (centre), who have signed up to understand how their songs are being heard   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SPOTIFY INDIA

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Spotify since its India launch a year ago, but the app is tuning itself as a platform for both niche and mainstream music

The most-streamed song on global music platform Spotify is British pop artist Ed Sheeran’s seductive Shape Of You, released in 2017 and currently at 2.4 billion plays. But you won’t find it on Spotify India. Neither can you find some of his other hits such as Thinking Out Loud (1.49 billion plays) or Perfect (1.34 billion).

It’s been a year since the digital music app, founded in Stockholm in 2006, was launched in India. But Spotify’s legal dispute with industry giant Warner Music Group means that a huge chunk of popular music is not available for Indian subscribers. At the time of its launch on February 26, 2019, Warner revoked a publishing licence that allowed Spotify India users to stream music from its catalogue because it felt the terms were not favourable to the record label. So, despite being a leading music app — alongside biggies Apple Music, Amazon Music and YouTube Music — Spotify could not play for Indian listeners the most recent discographies of rock band Green Day, pop songstress Dua Lipa, rap rock heavyweights Linkin Park, funk veterans Red Hot Chili Peppers, and firepower rapper Stormzy, among many more acts.

In mid-January, Warner Chappell Music and Spotify announced a new global licencing agreement that indicated they had ironed out their disputes. Spotify India, however, was unable to tell BLinkwhen Warner’s catalogue would become available in India.

Since the app’s launch in India, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, beginning with a court injunction brought by Warner Chappell Music that questioned whether Spotify could be considered a “broadcaster” under Indian copyright law. The app argued that its use of the Warner catalogue was protected by a statutory licence that applies to broadcasters. For Warner, the numbers just didn’t add up. At ₹119 per month for a Spotify Premium subscription, the label felt there was not enough money from streaming in India. But global catalogues or not, Spotify India decided to brave it out. As its head of music strategy Jeremy Erlich told Rolling Stone India, “The priority in India for now is just making sure that streaming and Spotify become the number one way to consume music.”

Since the launch, there’s been a strong focus on engaging with Indian musicians and pushing Indian music. Playlists have been created specifically to present Indian music. Whether it’s Rap 91 (with 47,000-plus followers, who get a notification each time it’s updated), Bollywood Party (140,000-plus followers) or Fusion Finds (18,000-plus followers), there’s something for lovers of popular as well as niche music in India.

With an estimated 124 million paid subscribers and over 271 million total users globally, Spotify’s entry into India may have been a tad late. Streaming platforms such as JioSaavn, Gaana, Wynk and Apple Music had already amassed millions of Indian users. But Spotify India managing director Amarjit Batra says there were “opportunities waiting to be converted”. Batra reiterates that piracy remains a concern in India and hopes that streaming will bring a change in the consumption pattern. “We believe that if we are able to provide a lighter app (Spotify Lite), and invest in educating users, more users will move to legal streaming,” he says.

Spotify also enlisted the help of influential artistes for its India venture. While their 2019 launch included video shout-outs by everyone from Bollywood music director duo Vishal-Shekhar to Indian rapper Badshah to Korean pop group BTS and pop artist Selena Gomez, they embedded themselves in the Indian market with their Spotify for Artists platform. It offers workshops and master classes for artistes on ways to engage with listeners.

Hindi pop musician Arjun Kanungo (with 963,000 monthly listeners) says he uses the app’s streaming data to figure out which songs to play in which cities based on their popularity. Indie singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad’s manager Anirudh Voleti says they paired streaming data with social media insights to even plot their India tour last year. Pune-based electronic music producer Ritviz says his team figures out a set list and which cities to play in through Spotify. “It’s an important tool to have,” Ritviz adds.

“They [Spotify in India] are listening to us (artists) as well, to what we want. I found out from Spotify that one of my songs — Humble Bee from my first album — is on a different sort of acoustic playlist. Prior to that, it had 800 streams and now it has over 100,000 plays. I can know exactly when people tweet about the song or put it on Instagram. I know where that’s coming from,” says acoustic artiste Dhruv Visvanath, known for his blend of easygoing and emphatic vibes. Visvanath uses the social media function of Spotify to interact with listeners.

According to newly released figures, Spotify for Artists has over 6,400 musicians (including Visvanath, Kuhad, multi-instrumentalist Karsh Kale, rappers DIVINE and Naezy), who have signed up to explore just how their songs are being heard.

On a broader level, Spotify’s latest stats show that Punjabi non-film music, Indian film music and international pop continue to dominate in terms of listener habits. Batra says the app will also push podcasts on a larger scale in 2020. “We are working to grow Anchor (a podcast creation platform acquired by Spotify) in India; it’s the easiest way for anyone to make podcasts, and we’re spending time not just in Mumbai, but also other parts of the country to educate creators on how they can get started,” he says.

“This will be the most exciting generation for artistes to take their talent centre stage and leverage technology to propel their music globally,” Batra says. There may have been slowdowns along the way, but the music giant is clear that it’s running a marathon in India.

Anurag Tagat is a freelance music writer

Published on February 27, 2020

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