| 15 Jul 2024
20-TEN Year-ender: Atul Churamani, Head of International Business - Saregama India Limited

* A Decade of Decay

Planes didn't fall out of the sky when Y2K descended at the turn of the millennium. The music business as we knew it did.

The last ten years changed the music industry like never before. The business of selling recorded music (read albums) dropped from US$ 26.5 billion in 2000 to US$ 16.2 billion in 2009, of which US$ 11.9 billion was in the physical format (cds, cassettes and vinyl) and US$ 4.3 billion was through digital formats (streaming and downloads on the internet and mobile phone).

The much-talked-about digital business, which was expected to see another replacement cycle when cd collections would be replaced by digital files just as vinly was replaced by cassette and cassette by cd, did not deliver. The digital business became significant in 2005 when it delivered US$ 40 million, but by the turn of the decade, was only 25% of the total music business.

For much of the decade there was conferencing, confabulation and consternation about the business and much theory was propounded about the way forward, but all one saw really was the near collapse of the major record labels. Layoffs were the only solution that seemed to work, and while restructuring followed restructuring, the majors started getting snapped up by venture capitalists (EMI to Terra Firma), investors (Warner to Edgar Bronfman Jr.), media houses (Universal to Vivendi) or even each other (BMG to Sony). The Big Five became the Big Four.

As technology after technology unfolded to give consumers free access to pirated music across geographical boundaries at the click of a button and artistes direct access to their fans, the recorded music business started becoming increasingly unviable. Everybody agreed that labels would have to adapt and offer artistes 360-degree solutions, where the labels would also become managers, booking agents, promoters and publishers for talent apart from distributing their recorded music. The truth is: very few successfully did.

In India, with the dominant music being film music, labels were impacted by sliding sales and many got out of the business of acquiring new film soundtracks. Non-film music stopped getting the support of television stations like MTV and Channel-V which turned to film music and reality shows to bring in advertising revenue. This caused a huge problem in the promotion of non-film albums and artistes as videos vanished. FM radio also in general did not offer a platform to non-film music, though towards the end of the decade some stations had started playing pop albums and showcasing performances by artistes in their studios.

The one thing that the Indian music industry did successfully, however, was to unite forces and start focusing on areas that were seemingly insignificant during the days of booming recorded music sales. Public performance revenues grew substantially during the decade as the Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS) and Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) increased their feet on street, licensed establishments playing music across the country and even went to court to bring defaulters to book. Simultaneously the collectives stood their ground in negotiating with the newly developed FM radio industry and more importantly, took on the might of the telecom giants that found music a critical part of their Value Added Services (VAS).

So while the physical music business in India began evaporating -- cassettes vanished, cds never really became the popular format of choice and mp3s were released only after pirates began dominating sales in smaller markets -- some relief came in the form of monetization of the so-called �non-physical' business.

One major problem with the Indian music business was the total absence of digital sales of recorded music on the internet. No iTunes in India was the major lament, but would the dominant digital store in the world market have held its own against free files available on pirate sites? The jury is still out on that one. The lack of a good indigenous digital music store was an issue, though some ground was gained when Nokia set up its Ovi Store and Saregama's came into existence in the last year of the decade.

As far as the 360-degree model was concerned, labels in India too explored artiste management, acting as booking agents for talent. Tips was probably the most notable in doing so because of the success that Atif Aslam enjoyed, but from an overall perspective, none of the companies made the business of live music a priority.

The emergence of good venues for live music like Blue Frog in Mumbai and Hard Rock Caf?© in seven cities was applauded by the community as a whole even as lesser known establishments across the country offered young musicians a platform to play original music. This was capitalized on by new entities in the business like Blue Frog Records and Only Much Louder. These and other new players have turned the business model on its head, making live music and performances the backbone of the business with extras coming in the form of physical and digital sales.

One interesting point of discussion is the monetization of non-film music in the digital world. Almost all music being monetized in the digital space is on the mobile phone and most of that business comes through ring back tones (RBTs). The top selling RBTs, as a rule, are either current hits like Munni Badnam Hui and Sheila Ki Jawani, or established catalogue songs like Chura Liya  or Piya Tu. The long tail contributes significantly as a chunk, but when one starts looking at individual track sales of that long tail, the numbers are not very large.

Very little, if any, comes from new non-film music.

Which brings us to the much debated point of how new non-film music will be monetized. On what basis will a music label invest in promoting the recordings of a new artiste if cd sales are abysmal and digital sales don't happen?

The answer to me is obvious. It's all about concerts. Eighty percent of all artiste revenues across the world come from concerts, and if record labels do not participate in that side of the business, they are losing a massive revenue opportunity  And this is the opportunity that can make up for the lack of revenue from recorded music sales. Initially, new acts may not get concerts enough to generate substantial revenues that will cover recording and marketing costs, but that's where labels have to display enough confidence in new acts and sign them on term contracts so there is time enough to build the artistes. It's basically the old model with the difference being that concerts now become part of the contract.

There is a distinction between managing artistes and being a booking agent or concert promoter. A label has to decide which course it wants to pursue and set its infrastructure up accordingly.

Saregama has made moves in the direction of concert promotion in the UK over the past two years, with a fair amount of success.

The company, which has a great advantage in its international offices in the UK and the US, opted to explore the smaller and more manageable market of the UK first.

Our first concerts in 2008 were almost accidental. The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) had done a recording of instrumental songs of Mohammed Rafi, and approached our London office to see if we'd be interested in releasing the record. I immediately saw the opportunity to do concerts around the project if we got Sonu Nigam to sing the songs, backed by the 75-piece orchestra. To my mind this was a first for Sonu and would be a tremendous start to our concert business.

Thankfully, Sonu agreed, and we had a fantastic tour comprising three concerts -- one each in Birmingham, Manchester and London. We played in the most prestigious venues and the London show, at the Coliseum, was filmed by Sony Entertainment Television and telecast three months later. We thus created a substantial project called �Rafi Resurrected' and ended up with an album, a three-concert tour and a satellite telecast which not just made a profit far greater than a simple album release would have done, but also put yet another feather in Sonu's already full cap.

It was a terrific performance by Sonu, who, accompanied by Gunjan as the female vocalist, carried the two-hour shows with no Indian percussion at all! The crowds went into raptures as he sang Rafi classics like �Main Jat Yamla Pagla Deewana', �Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho', �Yaad Na Jaaye', �Kya Hua Tera Vaada' and many more.

The CBSO was delighted with the concerts and wanted to do another collaboration, so the next year, we did a tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with the CBSO, roping in Rahat Fateh Ali Khan to do the vocals.

The ask was tougher for �Remembering Nusrat', as it is very difficult for an orchestra to play qawwalis and even tougher for a qawwal to perform to a set score, but once again the tour was a thundering success. This time we did four concerts -- one each in Birmingham and Nottingham and two in London. Rahat was accompanied by four vocalists, his own saxophone player and two percussion players, backed by the 75-piece CBSO. The concerts sold out, and the Guardian of London likened the music to Beethoven and John Adams! Check the performances of �Kinna Sohna', �Allah Hoo' and �Dum Mast Qalander' on youtube to experience the incredible music.

For the CBSO this was an unbelievable collaboration as they had near full houses for all seven concerts on the two tours -- something that the orchestras find difficult these days, apparently.

During the tour we also got to see how popular Rahat is in the UK, and he started getting offers from promoters there to return for more concerts. He asked us if we'd be interested in doing a tour with him subsequently, and though it's a risk bringing an artiste back to tour a country within six months, success gave us courage and we did a �Simply Rahat' set of four concerts in March 2010.

This time around it was Rahat performing with his own set of musicians and singing his own hits. Freed of all restraints of performing to a set score, Rahat was pure magic, and the general audience consensus was that he is now singing as well as Nusrat saab! The concerts in Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester and London were performed to full houses as Rahat belted out favourites like �Jiya Dhadak Dhadak', �Man Ki Lagan', �Jag Soona Soona Lage' and �Ajj Din Chadiya'.

The experience taught us that it wasn't just collaborations that we could do but solo artistes as well, and in October 2010, we did a four-concert tour with Roop Kumar and Sunali Rathod. A lot of people were surprised by the choice of artiste, but we felt that Roop was an undervalued artiste, with not too many people aware of the fantastic songs he has sung for Bollywood apart from his wonderful ghazals. So the Roop and Sunali tour covered London, Birmingham, Leicester and Liverpool, and was yet another success. Feedback was that we marketed the show brilliantly and the performances lived up to the expectation that was created.

So in the space of two years, Saregama has built a great name in the concert business, with both audiences as well as the venues. Our next project is the �Naina Lagai Ke' tour in March 2011 with Asha Bhosle and Shujaat Khan, and even before we've made the announcements, tickets have started selling off our website, Rahat follows with a six-city tour in the UK and two concerts in Holland in June. We're up and running.

The next task is to create a network of promoters in Europe so that tours from the UK can be extended to the continent. It means more money for us, more gigs for the artistes and hopefully, more opportunities for Indian artistes to work with international ones.

We're also starting in the US in April with two concerts by the violin duo Ganesh Kumaresh. The US is a very difficult and expensive market to organize tours in, but we see an opportunity. If we get that right, we'll have an extensive network to work artistes into and hopefully a platform which we can also use to build the new talent we sign.

If that happens, it's back to rock �n' roll this decade.