Is the artist and repertoire machinery in Bollywood moving from labels to composers? – A look at the resurgence of A&R in India. And is the independent music space faring any better?
Pritam’s A&R ‘platform’ produced Zaalima for Raees
Raees released a few months ago. And with it, was launched Pritam’s much-touted A&R (Artist and Repertoire) initiative. Called JAM8, it came to the fore because of the success of Zaalima, the first single off that film’s soundtrack. Somebody named Aheer was credited with composing the song for JAM8. Two more songs from the album would follow. Of course, there was much excitement about this. For the first time, an A-List Bollywood composer was stepping aside to give newcomers a chance to shine in what is perceived to be a ‘closed’ industry that rarely supports or promotes them.
While you now knew that it was being spoken of as Pritam’s ‘talent pool’ for up-and-coming artistes who could benefit from his clout and standing in the Hindi film industry, you still wonder who or what Aheer is. He doesn’t appear in any interviews since long after the film’s release. We know Amitabh Bhattacharya wrote the lyrics to Zaalima and that Arijit Singh and Harshdeep Kaur were on vocals. Did the ‘new direction’ for Bollywood have a stymied start?
But let’s rewind a bit further, all the way to April 2016, when Pritam tweeted this: Just announced J.A.M 8 (Just About Music) with Kaushik-Akash, who are the first artists of my ‘’A&R’’ music production platform. And ask this question. Whatever happened to them. The answer follows a few tweets later — they composed two tracks for 1920 London as JAM — where Pritam said as much: Kaushik-Akash are the music directors behind #Gumnaam #Afreen from #1920London. Very proud of them. The soundtrack and the movie never made it as big as a typical Pritam-led OST would.
Why the history lesson? Ask anyone today what either JAM8 is. Or what A&R is? You’ll likely draw a blank from all and sundry. Unless of course you’re in the music business or are with a record label in this country.
Established names still sell and are needed to “move units”. The best intentions — to inject fresh talent in the music industry — will come to nothing if talents themselves are not promoted well.
A&R or artist and repertoire is the division in a record label (think T-Series, Sony Music India or Universal Music, they all have the division) that is responsible for scouting talent and commercially developing the talent into a saleable recording artist and acts as a point of contact between the label and the talent.
It would be the first time a composer stepped out of the spotlight to work on A&R. Except it really isn’t. Long, long ago, Vishal Shekhar launched The Raghu Dixit Project when no record label would and later, as independent record label VLT (Vishal Likes This), Vishal got Dhruv Voyage (Dhruv Visvanath) on board.
Then there’s Shankar Mahadevan who had two music initiatives in the past few years — one, a live experience called Kaleidoscope that put the focus on folk artistes around the country. The other was at NH7 Weekender as My Country My Music, which was called a presentation of Indian film music and its roots in Indian folk music.
We reached out to Dhruv Jagasia, CEO — Big Bad Wolf, and former Festival Director, NH7 Weekender, who has been there, seen and done that, for his viewpoint. He pointed out, “A&R as a concept in the world of entertainment, like most things in India, has to be divided into Bollywood and non-Bollywood because they are separate industries. The film world still has a nepotistic, old-school A&R and the new music directors are always looking for new singers, but there is no formal A&R process. Non-Bollywood? Well, that’s just a mess!”
Devraj Sanyal, Managing Director & CEO at Universal Music Group, South Asia —Universal Music Group, had a slightly different take on the matter when asked why A&R wasn’t as big in India. He said, “A&R isn’t big here anymore since all music that’s actually consumed and is considered mainstream comes from the film industry. We do have some of the greatest A&R ears at work in the independent music space, though and we are creating music with new artists who are already being placed in mainstream Bollywood cinema as well as finding a life of their own in the independent space.”
And that demarcation is important. Back in the Indipop era (90s and 00s), independent music (now called non-film music) flourished, when Bollywood music saw a sharp dip in sales and we actually had pan-India musical heroes from what could be called the independent music space. Something Dhruv agrees to. He says, “There was a golden era when music companies were looking for and promoting bands like Euphoria, Silk Route, Indian Ocean and albums such as Made In India made it big. But now there is nothing of that sort.”
Cynically, he points out, “A&R now is more of a recommendation process, I am sure most music companies will deny that but unfortunately that is the truth , I have personally recommended bands to labels and most of them got deals and they had no other way of reaching these labels. It depends on the interest of the person responsible at the label rather than a mandate where they have to put out ‘x’ number of artists every year.”
Well, we can’t argue with him too much on that. Devraj, who also judges the English music reality show and talent hunt The Stage, told us in an earlier interview that he saw the show (now in its second season) as “the de facto means to discovering real talent — from a singer as well as singer-songwriter perspective.” He asserted, “The truth is television is still a very mainstream medium and discovery through that automatically makes you very well known to start with. Then it’s really up to the quality of music that decides the path to success or oblivion. In our trade there is one maxim: a good song is a good song is a good song”.
Dhruv admits that the A&R model has changed and that labels have had to adapt to keep up. “I don’t blame the labels as their business has been hugely impacted for years now, since the advent of the internet and now, that is their premier A&R model. They want to sign whoever or whatever goes viral. And if their competitor has already signed someone like that, they try and create a similar artist. Speaking for ourselves, how we do it at Big Bad Wolf is, our whole office is an A&R machine and we actively go out looking for bands and musicians all the time and encourage people to send us their music.”
Malvika Nanda, music/media consultant, strategist and advisor and Founder —The Big Beat. opines, “Take a good look at what music really sells in India. Most consumers of music in this country can only take in experimental sounds (or for that matter, anything that doesn’t follow today’s trends) in small doses. So that obviously, restricts what they can really do, but the there is also a question of intent and conviction. Do labels really want to or can look beyond mandatory numbers, formulas or what’s trending? There could be lack of conviction, motivation or ability. It’s a risk after all, but what isn’t in the business of entertainment?”
She admits that Bollywood’s reach does help the Indian version of A&R. “There is some good work happening in the indie scene but the lack of promotion budgets, don’t allow the ‘good’, ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ to really reach the bigger audience. Bollywood, on the other hand, is quick to borrow from indies, be it song, styles or artistes. This may not be classic A&R, but it’s a smart move anyway,” concludes Malvika.