Thursday, September 14, 2006

s w a n s o n g

The crescendo cannot be ignored; the innuendos cannot be overlooked; traditional is dead, noveau is alive!a Music industry has been transformed, and like nobody could’ve ever imagined

Traditionally, male singers with a deep voice were considered to be better than others.

Traditionally, female singers with a high pitched voice were considered to be better.

Traditionally, you never bought a music cassette after listening to it in the shop.

Traditionally, you bought the whole album – even if you liked one or two songs.

Traditionally, artists worked for years before achieving success.

Traditionally, record companies signed on young talented groups and nurtured them, till they were ready to earn the big moolah for them.

Traditionally, you either had to be very talented or very rich to be able to cut-out an album.

Traditionally, you had to drive down to the music store to buy music.

Traditionally, music companies decided whether you were good or not – not the listeners.

Traditionally, it was your voice that was your biggest asset – as a singer.

Traditionally, you knew an artist was good if you heard him often on the radio.

Traditionally, singers were heard more and seen less of.

Well, all that, as is mentioned, was traditional. Today, it has all changed. Today, the music industry is undergoing a major transformation. All the old rules are being challenged and all the norms are being broken.

Singing has changed!...

“Unconventional” is the conventional now. Everything you knew about traditional singing has changed. Today, everybody is looking for a “newer” and “fresher” voice. Songs that were totally unimaginable in the 80s are superhits today. If you are different, you are successful. There is no “typical voice” that you require today. The unusual is the hit number. So Mitwa quickly rose up the popularity charts, with its different music and different treatment and the outstanding voice of Pakistani singer Shafqat Amanant Ali. So the movie Corporate used the unconventional voice of Gary Lawyer for its title track. And Gangster of course had lovely songs – especially Ya Ali sung by Zubeen Garg of Assam. He was so popular, his voice helped sell 38,000 CDs in Assam alone, within the first few weeks of the album’s release. So today, Himesh Reshammiya, with his rather unique vocals, is the one who belts out the maximum hits. In the 70s or 80s, no one could have even imagined a voice like that would work. Not to forget Rabbi Shergill and his Bulla number that shot to fame in no time at all.

Singing has truly changed! Good or bad is debatable. The larger and more interesting the vocal canvas, the higher the chances of success. The more you experiment, the better off you are. People are ready to give a chance to new voices & even new ways of singing.

Till very recently, ‘Remixes’ were the shortest routes to success. Officially, everyone dislikes them, but if numbers are to believed, then in India, seven out of the top ten numbers are remix albums. If Rs.620 crores is the estimated size of the legitimate music industry, then remixes alone account for as much as Rs.125 crores, which is a big piece of the pie! Moreover, the Copyright Act allows you to pick up any composition that is more than two years old and remix it. You just need to inform the parent recording company & pay 5% royalty on the retail price of every cassette sold. So music companies holding rights of old music – like Saregama, and Sony Music – are churning out remix albums and spinning the money wheel again & again.

...And singers have changed!

Today, the fact that you will become a successful singer has got very little to do with your voice. Since singing has become more visual than audio. Britney Spears is probably not as talented, but she makes a good visual package on stage and on your TV screens. So she became a singing sensation among the teens. Her albums make record runs (Of course, today she is busier making babies than albums. She probably would make more money selling exclusive rights of her baby’s photos to magazines!!)

You don’t just need to sing well, you need to look the part too. So Lindsay Lohan’s shrinking waist line helps to keep in check any ‘shrinkages’ in her album sales. People have to like what they see. Singers are as prominent and in the spotlight as any of the filmstars. It’s not enough to have a good voice – one has to be a great performer as well.

The route to success has changed!

A massive rally rolled out in Guwahati some months back. A door-to-door campaign was launched in the city of Silchar asking people to vote for the “Son of the Soil.” Northeast was united like never before. Everybody was talking about him. Debojit was no political leader, but a finalist of the TV show, Sa Re Ga Ma. Debojit finally won the contest with 2.2 million SMS messages being sent in his favour, of which 1.5 million came from the Northeast!

The fact is that record companies or music companies don’t really decide who will make it big today. Today, with numerous reality shows, contests and programmes on TV, it’s more a war of SMS messages than an appreciation for sur & taal.

The reality talent hunt show Indian Idol changed the fortunes of not just its winner, Abhijeet Sawant, but also of the TV channel Sony.

for free, all in the comfort of your home. It couldn’t get better than this. There are file-sharing networks like Napster, eDonkey etc. where you can download music for free.

Would it result in music stores becoming redundant in the future? No one knows, but music companies are sitting up and taking notice of the havoc the internet is capable of doing to their bottom lines. Virgin Megastore was the first to have “listening stations” in its stores to make it possible for the customers to sample the music before buying. Now everybody is following this practice.

With music being so freely available, the hold of music companies on Radio stations is decreasing. If grapevine is to be believed, big companies used to bribe these stations to play more of their music. Today, listeners are moving to the net to hear the music they want, if they don’t get it on the radio. Technology has made it much cheaper to cut an album. So bands are boycotting studios & turning to home studios. The marginal cost of producing copies of the music CD is almost zero.

Artists can also distribute their music on the net. If the songs are popular, listeners ‘will’ download. Not surprising that “Viral music” is the craze among youngsters. Maybe in the future, the internet, and not the music companies, would define music.

Buying patterns have changed

Those were the days when you’d go to a store and buy the whole album. Imagine asking the retailer to sell only one song from the cassette or the CD. The reality today is that no one is interested in buying the whole album anymore. Apple’s data shows that customers buy more singles than the whole album. Some 12 singles were purchased for every one album sold at iTunes, Apple’s online music store. Not just this, the sale of CDs is decreasing. Thanks to ipods and itunes, people prefer to buy music online. The public doesn’t care about labels – but songs. They want instant gratification. If they can get it for free, on the net, they’ll really look no further than their computers.

Music companies are changing

The “big four” internationally – Sony/BMG (the largest music company in the world; turnover $55 billion), Universal, Warner and EMI – are feeling the heat. Their music sales fell by a fifth between 1999 and 2003. Their hold on radio stations has decreased. Artists are now using technology to bypass them. In fact, entertainment is getting a new definition. The shelf space in stores like Walmart is being dedicated more and more to DVDs and video games and less to music CDs. No wonder, CD prices are getting reduced.

The old model of doing business is changing for these companies. They have to rely on overnight hits, and create and churn out artists quickly, and in large numbers – for that’s what teens like. But these teens don’t like buying music when they can get it for free! Thus, putting the music companies in a catch 22 situation.

The stock market is impatient. It can’t wait for them to find a Michael Jackson and nurture him for more stable and long term gains. And this is putting music companies in a soup.

Artists are getting smarter and want a bigger share from the profits. They do not want to give more to the record labels. The managers of groups like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, and of singers like Shania Twain would do anything to prevent record labels from grabbing any share of “non-recorded income.” This would include sponsorship deals, touring profits, merchandise sales etc; the only “shared revenue” would be CD sales. With revenues shrinking, the marketing clout of these music companies is also losing its lustre and artists are gaining more power. The top Indian recording labels – T-Series, Sony-BMG, and Saregama – are finding their share of the pie shrinking too. Film music success is keeping them happy, but again, a lot of it is being taken by Yash Raj Music.

There is the problem of royalties, which is not very high either. The mobile-phone culture is changing all dynamics. With services like Airtel’s Hello Tunes, it would become easier for users to download the song than to pay for a CD. To top it all, the music industry is not getting its share of revenues for their songs that end up as ringtone downloads. According to industry estimates, nearly two lakh ringtones are downloaded in India everyday; while 60% of the charges for downloading a ringtone is taken by the mobile service provider, only 25% goes to the music companies (and 15% to the government). So while telecom companies are enjoying the extra inflow, the others are sulking.

Music companies have to think hard. If they have to survive, they have to change and evolve. They have to give better artists. They have to make better music. They have to not just market & distribute music, but look into the issue of artistic development too.

They have to change their attitude towards distribution. They have to make friends with their enemies – the internet and the file-sharing networks. Sueing them would not help. The next decade is full of risks. They have to be ready – creatively & technologically, or else, they could very well be singing a new original song... their own swan song.

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