HIVEWIRE #07: Winning in emerging markets - A shift from surface-level to 'meaningful localisation'

HIVEWIRE #07: Winning in emerging markets - A shift from surface-level to 'meaningful localisation'

The “One size fits all” approach for emerging music markets might not fit the bill much longer.

By Akhila Shankar

Contributor: Srishti Das; Editor: Mayuyuka Kaunda

Picture this - You manage a Hip-hop artist. Your artist is based in Europe or North America, and the music is in English, but you want your artist to find new fans outside their native country. The reason is either that they have hit their growth potential in their home market or the competition is stiff, and you need to find a relatively less crowded market for the particular brand of music your artist makes. India comes to mind because of its vastness and large population of approximately 200 million English speakers. Capturing even 1% of this audience can create a career focused on longevity.

Wrong! If only it were that simple. We dive into why and discuss the best way to make Indian audiences your friends.

India has been strategically important for trade and business for centuries. It was a couple of centuries ago because of its geographic location, making it a strategic entry point to the rest of the East. Now, as the most populous country in the world, India presents some opportunities to every business. The culture industries are no different. India has the second largest English-speaking population in the world, so it is no surprise that it is the biggest export market for International English music. The growth of streaming services and low-cost data has also enabled inter-India crossovers, which has birthed a ‘language no bar’ era (at the time of this article, the #1 track on Spotify India was a Tamil track, a language-only spoken by 6% of the country’s population). This emerging trend of mood/energy level-based listening also makes it an important market for non-English International music like K-pop and Latin music. With labels, artists and their management increasingly looking to break into India, there is a need for exporters of music to reexamine how they approach the market.

The biggest mistake the traditional music industry continues to make when exporting music to India is not deep-diving into the true audience potential for its respective artists and repertoire.

Let me explain.

For vast emerging markets, TAM, SAM and SOM paint the truth of the potential for the market

India is indeed home to over 200 Million English speakers. However, this is the total addressable market (TAM). True growth potential requires a deep dive into the Serviceable Available Market (SAM) and Serviceable Obtainable Market (SOM). In the same example, this artist manager’s best bet is to reach potential fans in India through a streaming service where English typically has a 6-12% market share (based on experiences working with digital streaming platforms (DSPs) and insights from running my podcast Indian Music Charts) of the service’s user base depending on the DSP automatically cutting the audience down to a few million. If we talk about Hip-hop, arguably the most popular genre in the country, the platform’s top Hip-hop playlist would be the closest to the actual SOM. For instance, Rap 91 is Spotify India’s marquee playlist property and has 270k saves for the playlist.

On the other hand, Hip Te Hop, the Punjabi Hip-hop playlist, has 387k saves. This showcases two fundamental aspects of India for artists looking to break into the market - One, it's a market of millions, but not necessarily millions for YOUR music. Two, regional music and artists are market drivers, and that is how it should always be.

Collaborations hold the key to the earbuds of Indians, but not all of them make an impact

While there is no fixed framework for designing artist collaborations, they typically take a few forms - remixes, collaborative original music, tour partnerships with local promoters/artists, working with local influencers, and partnering with local DSPs for profiling and playlisting. Each of these have had varying levels of success. Remixes have been a popular tactic. On paper, it ticks all the boxes - they facilitate discovery and cross listenership, they are relatively easy to orchestrate without being in-market, and you ride on the wave of a song/artist’s existing popularity. They simply don’t work in India and will probably not in other emerging markets either because this view lacks one crucial piece of the puzzle - authenticity and visible creativity. The last decade has seen an unusual number of remixes and remakes in mainstream Indian pop culture, driven mainly by Bollywood, leading to listener fatigue for the overall concept. In addition to Bollywood bringing established independent artists into their realm to boost popularity, audiences have also found more non-Bollywood local music. From Ed Sheeran to Nick Jonas and U2, many major International artists have worked with Indian artists for remixes in the last few years. The fact that these collaborations rarely make the charts (even when they do, they never surpass the original) indicates that there is no listener appetite for them, even for those who love these artists. Perhaps the biggest remix success story is Tesher x Jason Derulo’s version of Jalebi Baby. Still, it is essential to note that the original track never had a music video, and the remix was essentially the first original music video for the track (Plus, it was a pretty well-produced video, which makes a difference for a video first market like India). The track also turned a brand placement into a powerful marketing tool. Universal Music (the label behind the new version) partnered with local food delivery app Zomato. Zomato was already in the food x music space with their live IP Zomaland and was looking to strengthen its ties with music and culture. It was not just a great match because millions of viewers now saw Zomato; the track also tapped into their social media, which has been pegged as the gold standard in topical and hyperlocal pop-culture marketing for years.

Partnering with local DSPs and influencers is relatively more successful but results in a short-term spike and does not increase the artists' longevity. Real success is finding true fans who will listen to you once and invest in you by championing your music, buying tickets, merch, etc. More importantly, they will contribute organic to your fan base by sharing the music with others. The good news is that several International artists like Lauv, Kshmr, Burna Boy, DJ Snake, etc., have managed to crack the collaboration space. Maybe not with massive numbers, but it’s a good start with opportunities to build upon. However, they all share one thing - their collaborations were authentic and original.

Authentic, original content > All

It’s such a great time in the Indian music industry. At this year's All About Music conference, one thing stood out. The authenticity and the music are once again the critical ingredients of success. The formulaic nature of music seems to be coming to an end, at least for now.

One of the most powerful ways to localise and collaborate with artists in the Indian market is true-blue original music. While this takes a higher investment in time and capital, its impact must be considered. Burna Boy has been an artist whose popularity has steadily increased. His collaboration with Siddhu Moosewala ‘Mera Na’, released earlier in the year, is a class act demonstrating his sound and ability to reach across the aisle and integrate with Moosewala’s music and fans. While the song did not top charts in India, Delhi consistently appeared in his top five markets until his latest album drop. Another excellent example of how original music collaborations can be the fast track to listeners is Kshmr. Kshmr's upcoming album will see the EDM artist and producer team up with a series of Indian Hip-Hop artists. In a market where EDM rarely makes it to the top 100, the first track ‘Haath Varthi’, in collaboration with rapper MC Stan, debuted at #21 on Spotify Weekly Charts. The numbers are an unequivocal testament that pairing up with the right collaborator can even break market trends.

While new music is at the top of the authentic collaborations pyramid, it isn’t the only way to find new audiences. Authenticity creates the ability to distinguish two artists and catches the attention of the first fans in a market. One of the most impactful projects I got to work on during my time at JioSaavn was our partnership with Outdustry to help singer-songwriter Lauv find a larger audience in India. What sets this apart from one-off new release partnerships is that the most common way DSPs and management teams work together is their long-term vision for India. Our strategy mirrored this long-term approach, deploying several marketing tactics throughout the year that ran the entire marketing funnel - awareness, consideration and conversion. While playlisting and in-platform advertising drove impressions, the tipping point where we saw his artist rank on the platform steadily go up happened after the release of a YouTube video where Lauv and Troy Sivan reacted to music from artists of Indian origin, including Prateek Kuhad’s Cold/Mess. Kuhad shared this in his IG stories, and suddenly, a whole segment of Prateek Kuhad fans became superfans of Lauv. You don’t have to take my word for it; read the comments on the video.

Another authentic and relatively low-effort means to collaborate is music sampling. From Britney to Jay-Z, many international artists have sampled Bollywood music in their songs. However, these are often easter eggs that fans discover much later in the song’s growth trajectory. We have yet to see an example of music sampling that opens up Indian audiences to artists from beyond the borders. Interestingly, in more recent times, we’ve seen sampling by Indian artists introduce a younger audience to older Hindi catalogues. DIVINE, in particular, has been leading the charge. The title track of Baazighar introduced a whole generation to the OG Baazigar and Alka Yagnik. Similarly, his collab with Siddhu Moosewala ‘Chorni’ brought attention back to the OG Lata Mangeshkar track ‘Chorni Hu Main’ from the 1982 movie of the same name.

A shift from ‘localisation’ to ‘meaningful localisation’

Countries that have seen success with music export to India have had a proactive export strategy, think of long-term impact and have had boots on the ground to bring these efforts to life.

  • The British High Commission has proactively had delegations visit India annually for years. While now discontinued, The Exchange became an essential part of the social calendar that facilitated collaboration between British and Indian businesses.
  • The Royal Norwegian Embassies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs run one of the most thoughtful international programs in the music industry. Not only have Norwegian executives made their way to India, but the program also has them inviting Indian execs to Norway over OyaFestival and By:Larm forging a win-win equation.
  • European Music Exporters Exchange (EMEE) is the latest entrant in the Indian market. EMEE’s delegation spent a week in Mumbai meeting music execs across verticals, with members returning for All About Music a few months after the first delegation visit. One of the nights of AAM coincided with a Czech music showcase in Mumbai. It is worth noting that EMEE has a locally partnered with Mumbai-based music services company and creative incubator Stubborn Company.

What these programs get right is that they have evolved from surface-level localisation to ‘meaningful localisation’, built on the foundation of local collaborations and a deep understanding of their target listener. To break this down into three elements that form the hallmark of this approach:

  • Audience targeting is sharp, and collaborations are skewed towards brands, live promoters, DSPs and artists with whom the identified audience is already engaging.
  • Market intel is gathered through a hybrid method that combines online and on-ground research and networking.
  • Efforts are strategic and at an artist level, not at a song/release level.

Removing the unconscious bias

A fundamental bias is associated with the term ‘developing markets’, often attributed to India. Markets that have been classified as ‘developing’ for far too long, and somewhere in this time, have transitioned to mature markets. In under a decade, Korea has gone from a market producing music for niche fans of K-pop to K-pop topping charts worldwide. At the same time, Africa has had several breakout stars like Burna Boy and Wizkid. How long the history of a music industry has existed in a country is no longer the benchmark to categorise it as developed/developing. Much of this categorisation also exists because of unconscious bias that exists only to strengthen colonial/pro-West hegemony.

India’s context is peculiar because it is also a self-sufficient market. In a sense, there is enough and more music to explore from within the country, which is far more accessible than ever. There is also far more demand for this music than ever. For International artists and sounds to find a place on their playlists, they need to offer real value. An artist’s country of origin is no longer a USP. Artist managers and marketers looking to break their artists in India have the difficult task of balancing their artist’s vision and what is often the missing piece in the equation - an understanding of what is meaningful to the Indian listener.