HIVEWIRE #6: Unveiling India's Evolving Entertainment Landscape: Beyond Bollywood and Into Cultural Diversity

The vastness of India today resembles the coexistence of twenty-eight distinct countries nestled within a single subcontinent, collectively referred to as India.

HIVEWIRE #6: Unveiling India's Evolving Entertainment Landscape: Beyond Bollywood and Into Cultural Diversity
Photo by Abhimanyu Jhingan

India can no longer be considered one large market; here is why

By: Srishti Das;

Contributor: Ray Ahmed; Editor: Mayuyuka Kaunda

When people think of India, they think of Bollywood and its role in entertainment in the country and different parts of the world, even more so with on-demand streaming where people worldwide can quickly access Bollywood. However, as we find ourselves moving deeper into a post-Bollywood phase in the music industry in India, it is essential to remember the cultural and linguistic diversity of a country like India, which is home to nearly 1.5 billion residents and ever more in the diaspora. Each of the twenty-eight states in India represents different cultures, languages and behaviours to the extent that local companies find the need to further localise products in the market for growth. The same applies to the music industry and even more so to players outside India trying to find growth opportunities.

The inception of Bollywood in the 1900s was not merely the birth of the film industry; it was the emergence of a cultural powerhouse that intricately showcased India through a social and cultural lens. This phenomenon reflected the social and cultural themes of the time in profound and multifaceted ways. However, the only thing constant in the world is change, so let's look into Bollywood through the ages to learn more about the current entertainment landscape of India.

Importance of Bollywood post-Colonialism

1947 marked a watershed moment in India's history as the nation gained independence from British colonial rule. Bollywood evolved as a reflection of the collective consciousness and transformed its own. Films then grappled with the challenges and aspirations of a newly independent nation. Themes of nation-building, poverty, corruption, and social justice took centre stage, serving as mirrors to society's struggles and aspirations.

During this era, the spirit of unity that characterised the Indian freedom movement continued to permeate Bollywood narratives. Regardless of religion or caste, the togetherness of a diverse nation was a recurring theme. Family values and the everyday struggles of the commoner became the bedrock of Bollywood storytelling. Characters like the "Angry young man" and sentiments such as "Mere paas Ma hai" (I have my mother) were relatable no matter where in India you were from or which socio-economic strata you represented. It was customary to witness stories from every corner of India within a single film, emphasising the incredible diversity that defines the nation.

For music, this was the "Golden Era of Bollywood". An era where poets, composers, and music directors collaborated to create anthems and cultural moments that resonate with audiences of all ages, even today. The melodies and lyrics from this period remain among India's most cherished cultural contributions to the global entertainment industry.

How does the rise of regional entertainment impact Bollywood today

The emergence of regional nuances in cultures, traditions, and linguistic differences since 1947 has fueled the robust growth of local communities within India's diverse states. The vastness of India today resembles the coexistence of twenty-eight distinct countries nestled within a single subcontinent, collectively referred to as India.

Traditionally, Bollywood has set its sights on capturing the essence of pan-Indian appeal. However, regional cinema has forged its path, often centred on narratives deeply rooted in local culture, language, and traditions. In response, Bollywood has attempted to incorporate elements from regional cinema, sometimes triggering debates surrounding cultural appropriation or the potential dilution of Hindi cinema's distinctive identity.

The advent of technology and the growing middle class within India's rapidly growing population have made regional entertainment hubs more accessible. As regional cinemas gained prominence and delivered high-quality content, competition ensued, compounded by the influx of Hollywood and other foreign films in the digital era, where entertainment knows no geographical bounds. The increasing fragmentation can also be attributed to communities embracing their cultures to a greater extent, driven by the accessibility of content that more accurately represents their identities than ever before.

Regional cinema's growth enriched India's cinematic landscape and deepened the connection between entertainment and local audiences. Consequently, Bollywood productions found themselves no longer guaranteed success across all regions. Regional films, tailored to local audiences' tastes and preferences, occasionally surpassed Bollywood releases within their respective domains.

The impact on the music industry

Until a few decades ago, India's music and film industries were synonymous. For an aspiring artist, the only way was the Bollywood way - being a playback singer in Bollywood was the simple definition of success. However, Bollywood's far-reaching influence on the music scene in India has transformed in recent years.

Today, artists have ample opportunities to create music independently and distribute and promote their work without the need for big powerhouses. The shift away from the exclusive grip of Bollywood has allowed for a more diverse and vibrant music industry in India, where emerging talents can flourish on their terms, and a broader spectrum of musical styles and voices can be celebrated and heard by audiences across the nation.

As a result, musicians who are a part of Bollywood today also have a career outside of Bollywood, implying that people listening to Bollywood music are discovering newer local music from their favourite artists. Since Bollywood/Film singers such as Jonita Gandi, Shreya Ghoshal, Anushka Manchanda, etc., now have their non-Bollywood careers, non-Bollywood Artists have found their way into the Bollywood Industry, such as Divine, Badshah, OAFF, etc. These non-Bollywood/Independent Artists have become the carriers of new music discovery away from the usual Bollywood look, feel and sound.

When it comes to genres, Bollywood was never one. The music was simply a culmination of popular sounds at the time that made it into popular films. As India's music landscape evolves, it's becoming increasingly clear that the future of music in the country depends on the emergence and growth of distinct music scenes that can be identified by style, sound and language. Something that the current landscape in India needs help finding outside of Hip-hop. For instance, talking about the Punjabi scene in India could imply Hip-hop, Folk, Pop or even Electronic. It could also mean a mesh of either of these. This makes it harder for people who are into specific scenes to find a firm footing in a small scene and forces the creation of umbrella scenes. We will dive into the importance of nomenclature in a future newsletter. However, for scenes to thrive, they must find their footing through the uniqueness of their sound before joining umbrella scenes. Amapiano (a distinctly South African subgenre of house music) is an excellent example of how unique and distinguishing local scenes (even though their name) can have a strong global impact.

On the other hand, the music side of Bollywood has always functioned as a work-for-hire industry, convoluting the rights systems in the country in addition to labels also taking on the role of publishers and frequently cutting out songwriter and composer royalties. Since 2018, the Indian Performance Rights Society (IPRS) has seen some significant reforms in its functioning and policies, especially with the entry of streaming platforms in India - the distribution of royalties for DSP and other digital usages every quarter is one such example. There have been changes in their distribution methodology as well. IPRS has also successfully put more licences in place. However, these efforts still have some way to reach the far-off regions of the country.

Moreover, awareness about copyright and its protection has increased among songwriters and artists. A combination of these factors has resulted in rights holders seeing more revenue from the market than in the past. More infrastructural reforms, particularly in monitoring usages, expanding licensing efforts to various regions and handling metadata, are crucial for proper royalty distribution runs.

Embracing cultural nuances in India - Unity in diversity

To truly harness the potential of India's music industry, it's essential to view different regions within the country as separate emerging markets. Each region has its distinct musical heritage, local talent pool, and audience preferences. Therefore, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer viable. Strategic approaches encompassing various aspects of the music ecosystem are required, such as:

Rights Management: Managing music rights is a critical aspect of the music industry. India's diverse music landscape means that regional nuances extend to copyright and intellectual property. Therefore, developing rights management strategies tailored to each region is essential. This includes understanding local copyright laws, licensing agreements and ensuring fair compensation for artists and creators. The industry can protect and promote diverse musical expressions by centralising rights management and adapting them to regional variations.

Live Music: Live performances significantly influence the music industry's revenue stream and fan engagement. Recognising the importance of live music should be at the centre of the music ecosystem's focus. This involves supporting companies and individuals organising concerts, music festivals, and events catering to each region's tastes. For instance, RedFM (in partnership with Skillbox this year) recently held the fifth edition of South Side Story, a festival focused on South Indian cultures and has just announced India's first K-pop festival called K-wave. The approach for Skillbox has been around music and food, creating a robust cultural event. These events not only showcase local talent but also contribute to the cultural enrichment of the area. By prioritising live music experiences, the industry can connect with diverse audiences more personally and authentically.

Grassroots-level investment into local talent: Investing in and nurturing local talent is paramount. Programs to identify and groom promising local artists need to be developed. This might involve music academies, mentorship programs, workshops, or talent showcases. – Task Force for Music and Arts (TaFMA) in Nagaland was set up in 2019 as an organisation dedicated to promoting all art forms and taking Naga music to the world. TaFMA is also quite involved with the Hornbill Festival. They have also participated in numerous festivals and events across Southeast Asia. Some key collaborations of TaFMA include A.R Rahman's KM Music Conservatory and bringing K-Pop artists for training and mentorship programs for local Naga musicians and performers.

A grassroots approach is crucial because it allows for the organic growth of a vibrant and culturally relevant music ecosystem in these regions. A couple of great examples include a boutique fest named after Pete Seeger's song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", founded by Manipuri indie singer-songwriter Akhu Chingambam, which centres around the theme of "Tribal Unity". Manipur is a state riddled with ethnic, political and insurgency conflicts. However, Chingambam has found a way to overcome and talk about these issues through music and his festival; along with a 10,000+ footfall, it is the largest music festival in Manipur. The festival is organised in the area of Khurai in Manipur. This region is home to multiple tribes and showcases their folk culture along with popular music and bands from the Northeastern part of India. Another one of Akhu's initiatives is "Native Tongue Called Peace", a project he started with the help of the Foundation for Social Transformation (FST) to teach music, the importance of peace and how peace can be achieved through music and songwriting to children of Manipur. The project spreads across various urban and rural regions of Manipur. Akhu has also collaborated with the UK band Asian Dub Foundation on the Dewarists show.

More boutique festivals catering to a local region are needed to showcase the music and musicians and the local culture, cuisine, fashion, etc. This will eventually help develop music/cultural tourism for non-metropolitan regions of India. Ziro Festival of Music is another excellent example, organised in the small, sleepy town of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, centred around the picturesque beauty of the locality and the Apatani culture of the local population inhabiting that region. Dambuk Orange Festival is another such festival centred around the orange plantation in the area.

Awareness of copyright and its proper management is critical in developing these regions. Workshops and masterclasses are needed to encourage music education encompassing traditional instruments and modern production methods, i.e. producing-composing "in the box", to foster a new generation of musicians and music enthusiasts. This will enhance music business skills and knowledge for independent artists, managers and up-and-coming music industry executives.

Building a thriving music ecosystem takes time, but creating a vibrant and sustainable music industry is possible with a well-considered strategy and the community's support. More strategies must be developed around collaboration with other entertainment sectors like film, gaming, fashion, etc., and collaborations among musicians across various regions, including international collaborations.

Build local stories for a cross-cultural India | Exchanging culture through collaborations

Developing local music markets before pushing for collaborations at a pan-India or international level is particularly relevant for the Indian market. Every region in India is a mosaic of cultures and traditions, with each state and community having its unique identity. Focusing on nurturing local music markets first ensures that these individual identities are preserved and celebrated through music's power. This preservation is crucial for maintaining the cultural richness and diversity that defines India.

History and stories of struggles and celebrations are waiting to be told within each state, and music is an ideal medium for conveying these narratives. Developing strong local music scenes allows artists to draw inspiration from these stories, creating music that resonates deeply with the local audience while giving regional histories to a broader audience. Furthermore, local music scenes allow artists to experiment, grow, and refine their craft without the immediate pressures of the national or international spotlight. This is vital for developing a robust and sustainable regional music industry, allowing for cultivating a distinct regional sound that draws inspiration from global genres. As artists draw from their cultural backgrounds and experiences, they contribute to the evolution of unique genres or fusions that can set them apart when collaborating on a broader scale.

In the Indian music ecosystem, many artists and bands have skillfully woven regional influences into their identities. Notable examples include Rewben Masangva, who artfully blends Tangkhul Naga Folk music, spoken word, and Blues into a harmonious fusion; Soulmate and Friends, who seamlessly intermingle Blues rock with Khasi Folk music and Dymbur, a Folk Metal sensation hailing from Shillong, Meghalaya, carving out a unique identity and giving birth to a new Metal subculture in the Northeast, aptly named 'Thraat.' Meanwhile, the Serpents of Pakhangba, a theatrical avant-garde ensemble conceived and led by multi-instrumentalist composer Vishal J. Singh, draw profound influences from Meitei roots and folklore in Manipur. These artists testify to the rich fusion of regional and global sounds within India's music landscape. Beyond these influences, the Northeastern region is experiencing a burgeoning wave of hip-hop and hip-hop-inspired music, with artists rapping in local languages, infusing their beats with tribal folk rhythms, and crafting lyrics that resonate with regional social issues.

Even South Indian artists like Thaikuddam Bridge and Avial exemplify the fusion of diverse influences. A standout example is the band Bloodywood, marking the dawn of Indian metal with lyrics primarily in Punjabi, seamlessly melding metal with pulsating Bhangra beats. Their journey has taken them to prominent stages, including the prestigious Wacken Open Air in Germany, the world's largest metal festival. These artists collectively underscore the power of embracing diversity and regional nuances while crafting a unique and globally resonant musical identity within the rich history of India's music landscape.

Notably, several examples of artists and bands across India have successfully navigated this path, staying true to their regional roots while making a global impact. One example is the late Siddhu Moosewala's collaboration with Burna Boy on "Mera Na." Moosewala, with his deep connection to Punjabi culture, brought his authenticity to the collaboration, blending it seamlessly with Burna Boy's Afro-fusion style. This collaboration showcased the power of combining regional authenticity with global appeal, creating a cross-cultural musical experience.

To significantly impact a global scale, we must first empower local music scenes by understanding and celebrating cultural nuances. This approach preserves the richness of regional identities and allows artists to create music that resonates deeply with audiences worldwide. Through this careful cultivation of local narratives, artists can bridge the gap between their regional roots and international ambitions, demonstrating the true potential of a cross-cultural India rooted in diversity and unity. The approach for markets as diverse as India is no longer Glocalisation. Instead, the opportunity lies in strengthening local scenes for Internationalisation.