How original soundtracks for web shows are going mainstream in India
OTTs are giving rise to original soundtracks. Here's how the trend is catching on in India.
Add one innocuous word and you can turn a pat on the back to a punch in the gut. Majaal, a Mumbai-based writer and actor, went for some clever wordplay while writing the above lines for the title track of the web series Laakhon Mein Ek, Season 1. Aired in October 2017 on Amazon Prime Video, the first season of the show follows the arc of a teenage boy struggling to find his feet in an IIT entrance coaching centre away from home. “Laakhon mein ek” is a popular idiom that means “one in a million”, extraordinary. Majaal tinkers with it just so and turns it on its head into “another one among a million” or ordinary. The track has inched closer to a million views on YouTube over the past two years.
Even though his brief was to pen earthy but hard-hitting poetry for the title track — here’s a sample “Naachna tujhe hoga Basanti/ Ho chaahe pairon mein moch/ Fir ujaale pe pad gaya taala/Chaabi andhere mein khoj (You shall dance, Basanti/ Even if your ankle is twisted/ The light has been locked out/Search for the key in the dark)” — the 35-year-old did not anticipate the response he got when the song was released. Some said it lifted their spirits. Others, like screenwriter Piyush Gupta of Dangal fame, declared on social media that they were playing the two-minute track on loop.
Besides words of adulation, the track’s popularity got Majaal more work, too. Soon after, he wrote lyrics for Bose: Dead/Alive, which aired on ALTBalaji later that year. Comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath, creator of Laakhon Mein Ek, roped him in for the show’s second season, too, which premiered in April this year. To Majaal, all this indicates that OTTs (over-the-top platforms) are making OSTs, or original soundtracks, more mainstream than tracks for Indian TV shows ever were.
Millions of viewers are tuning into OSTs of web series either via You-Tube or through music streaming apps.
Kaam 25, an OST of Netflix Original Sacred Games (2018), has over 19 million views on YouTube. Rapper Divine, whose life inspired large parts of the Bollywood blockbuster Gully Boy, has given the words and voice for this one. At 19.6 million views, Darshan Raval’s Yaara teri yaari for Amazon Prime Video’s Four More Shots Please is neck-and-neck with Divine’s rap song. Meanwhile, Yeh kya hua of ALTBalaji’s Broken But Beautiful (2018) has got 9 million views. The title track of Dice Media’s Little Things (2016), starring Mithila Palkar and Dhruv Sehgal, is now nearing 1.5 million views.
OSTs for web shows are attracting industry bigwigs like Udit Narayan and Shreya Ghoshal, and major music labels like T-Series and Sony Music. Producers also prefer creating original music to buying rights to Bollywood music as those syndication deals cost Rs 20-30 crore — content players are spending 1% of that amount in music production at present. Besides, OSTs are giving independent artists — whose era faded with the downfall of indie pop in India — their moment in the sun.
Game of OST
While the trend is just catching on in India, it is widely established in the West. Today, Iranian-German composer Ramin Djawadi and Indian-American musician Siddhartha Khosla have gained popularity for the music they have composed for worldwide hit shows Game of Thrones (2011-19) and This Is Us (2016), respectively. Music streaming app Spotify tells ET Magazine that Djawadi’s Game of Thrones’ soundtracks have fetched over 380 million streams since January 2016. “More than 250,000 listeners have created their own Game of Thrones-themed playlists,” the spokesperson adds. Djawadi has spun these soundtracks into a live concert format. The tickets for these concerts — held around the world since 2017 — are priced between $18 and $400. Khosla is touted as “one of the busiest composers in TV showbiz” with several shows under his belt besides the tear-jerker This Is Us. He boasts 23,000-plus monthly listeners on Spotify. His most prominent soundtrack — This Is Us Score Suite — has been streamed over 680,000 times on the app.
Telly Title Songs
The US is a mature market for OSTs. “The West had its golden age of TV in the late 1990s when shows like The Sopranos had great tracks. Meanwhile, most Indian TV shows used Bollywood songs as padding for the longest time,” says Sameer Nair, CEO of Applause Entertainment, who has spent over two decades in the TV industry with Star TV and Balaji Telefilms, among others.
India, too, has a few popular OSTs of television series. “Back in the days of Doordarshan, many title songs were popular, despite the onslaught of film music, like songs from Govind Nihalani’s Tamas and Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj, both by Vanraj Bhatia, or the title song of Subah, composed by RD Burman.
Down South, when K Balachander made his first TV series called Rail Sneham, VS Narasimhan composed its popular tracks,” says Karthik Srinivasan, a communications consultant who reviews music in Indic languages. When Indian TV underwent the saas-bahu phase, it saw lyricist Nawab Arzoo try all combinations of “rishtey” (relationships), “aansu” (tears), and “kahaani” (story) to weave catchy title tracks for shows across Hindi entertainment channels.
Yet, there were hardly any cassettes, CDs, or LPs dedicated to tracks from TV shows.
The digital medium has solved that supply problem almost entirely. “At one point TV did away with all the credits to go break-less so that as soon as one show ended, the next one started,” recalls Nair.
Show On a Song
On the web, too, one can always “skip the intro” and the end credits but there is the option to check the credits. Unlike Bollywood hits and Punjabi ditties, these OSTs have no elaborate marketing machinery behind them and no big budgets to boast. The Little Things’ title track Song for survival, for instance, is a DIY video. Dice Media’s parent company Pocket Aces’ co-founder, Ashwin Suresh, shot bits of it, too, standing next to his director of photography. Featuring its music composer and lyricist Neel Adhikari and actor Mithila Palkar, the video also uses animation and visual representation of the lyrics to enhance the impact.
Most production houses and OTT platforms set aside 1-5% of their production budget for music. The show’s popularity drives people to its music and not the other way around, says Suresh of Pocket Aces. It also keeps the memory of the show intact between two seasons, he adds.
Shruti Naik validates his argument. “If I’ve just watched a show and liked its tracks, I spend the weeks that follow listening to its OSTs, googling the artist and their music. Almost 30-40% of my playlist has OSTs from my favourite shows,” says Naik, 28, a flamenco guitarist based in Vancouver. While Naik’s OST playlist mostly comprises of Djawadi’s best from Game of Thrones and tracks from her favourite Korean dramas, streaming data for Indian web series’ OSTs looks promising, too.
The 12-song album of Kota Factory, the latest web series from multichannel network TVF, is played over 276,000 times on JioSaavn. TVF, an early entrant in the web series game, has admittedly been late to the OST party. In 2018, it released a show set in Jaipur called Yeh Meri Family. “When its soundtrack fetched 5 lakh streams on JioSaavn in no time, we realised we should have done this sooner for our other web shows as well,” says Vaibhav Bundhoo, creative director, TVF. Bundhoo’s music for some of the older TVF series like Permanent Roommates, Pitchers and Humorously Yours had caught singer Udit Narayan’s attention. Eventually, the 35-year-old convinced the veteran singer to lend his voice to Yeh Meri Family’s soundtrack Aisi hai hawa. “We are pushing the music better now,” says Bundhoo.
ALTBalaji has amped up its game, too. Artists like Shreya Ghoshal and Papon have sung some of the OSTs. “We are utilising 47 OSTs from our shows for promotions as well as monetising across multiple platforms,” says Sunil Lulla, Group CEO of Balaji Telefilms. MX Player (owned by the Times Group that also publishes ET Magazine) has decided to have an OST for every new show. “A business ecosystem, like the one for mainstream music, will have to be developed for web series music. We have to get to a point where critics do music reviews of web series. This will require a concerted push from OTT players, music streaming apps, and music labels,” says Gautam Talwar, chief content officer, MX Player.
Major music labels have begun to take note already. Two of Hungama Play's OSTs from its web show Bar Code are available on T-Series's YouTube channel, says Siddhartha Roy, COO of Hungama Digital Media. So far, Sony Music has picked music distribution rights for at least five web shows across OTT platforms. "At 50 million views, the audio-video streaming numbers for Four More Shots' title track across platforms are as good as a regular Bollywood movie. The genre will have a slow start, but over a period of time, there won't be any difference between Bollywood music and web series music," says Jay Mehta, head of digital business at Sony Music India.
Artists are also bullish about this genre. "Just as Jagjit Singh found a home for his ghazals in the title tracks of TV shows, singer-songwriters have found a place in the web series zone," says Neel Adhikari. The 44-year-old has helmed music composition for web series like Little Things, What The Folks, Laakhon Mein Ek, Bose and Zero Kms. At one point, he was getting offers every day. "I had to refuse many," he says. While there's plenty of room for creative satisfaction, the earnings are not as gratifying. Streaming revenues are low, royalty contracts too complicated and often include archaic clauses. Dub Sharma, who enthralled the audience with his musical chops in Gully Boy, is trying to decode the royalty collection process so he can simplify it for his community of musicians. "This process shouldn't be complicated," says the 30-year old. Sharma recently gave the distribution rights to one of his old tracks called Roshay to Amazon Prime's Made In Heaven. "OTT players don't have the rights to shows for perpetuity," he says. "So, if your music continues to run on their platforms after a show's contract renewal, your payouts also go up."
All this chatter around royalty and payout is Greek to Nilotpal Bora. TVF spotted the 29-year-old Assamese artist on YouTube two years ago and roped him in for Tripling's second season. His composition Ishq ka haafiz has been making waves ever since the series released on the platform and SonyLIV. Since then, Bora has been on music tours. "Web series are so big they've made my work bigger," he says. "It's not like Shah Rukh Khan tweeted my song, but still."