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The 'Wakhra Swag' of the Punjabi Music Industry – Insights into a successful indie music scene

With an increasing time spent on music streaming during this pandemic, many users are now turning to independent artists for new music given the massive halt the motion pictures industry is facing and the resultant pause on the release of ‘movie-based’ music albums. Gaana’s CEO states that there has been a massive increase in the consumption of non-film music by the subscribers of the platform during this lockdown. While various other platforms take the same stand, we take a look at one particular industry which has taken the centre stage in fostering a vibrant indie music scene in India - The Punjabi Music Industry.

Culturally-Rooted and Artist-Driven Industry

Punjabi music is one the most popular genres of music not just in India, but world over. This industry grew from classical folk punjabi songs – rich in tradition, where singers and poets wrote ballads in the form of folk music, into the million dollar industry it currently is. With more and more mainstream Bollywood movies adapting punjabi songs, this industry has stayed attached to its roots and still continues to be one of the biggest incubators for the indie music scene in India. Punjab is known to host some culturally vivacious events like Lohri, Baisakhi, Karva Chauth, Basant Panchmi and others, and theseevents have been a significant source for peppy, up-beat songs created by many punjabi folk artists.  The most popular form of Punjabi music which has captivated people world over is Bhangra. This form of punjabi music, which originated when farmers celebrated a good harvest, separates itself from most other regional music primarily due to its ability to make anyone get on their feet and dance. And due to this undeniable popularity, it has over time been the base of many independently released songs, most of which have now been incorporated into many Bollywood movies.

But before we delve into the influx of Bollywood with the Punjabi music industry, it’s important to look at the artists over the years who stood out as a proud part of this indie/regional music community and created the atmosphere for more artists to rise in a similar manner. One of the most prominent punjabi singers during the 1980s was Gurdas Maan, a legendary punjabi singer, poet and writer, popularly known for his songs like ‘Dil Da Mamla Hai’, which garnered a great amount of national attention with his live performance on DD. In the later years we saw an increasing number of indie punjabi artists who rose to fame with some massively popular songs during the late 1990s and continue to amass an immense fan following. Some of the artists include - the world famous Daler Mehndi, who had multiple hit songs such as ‘Bolo Tararara’, ’Tunak Tunak Tun’ and ‘Ho Jayegi Balle Balle’ made with some eye-catching videos, and due to such immense popularity of his songs, many Bollywood movies continue to include him as a prominent playback singer; Sukhbir, popularly known as the ‘Prince of Bhangra’ is well-known for his evergreen songs like ‘Ishq Tera Tadpave’, ’Sauda Khara Khara’ and ‘Gal Ban Gayee’, all of which have been recreated in Bollywood today; and Babbu Maan, known as the ‘King of Live Shows’ in the industry due to his melodious voice which captivated audiences, (once 4.8 million people) and was also featured in the Billboard Charts with songs from his popular indie album ’Talaash’. In more recent times, Punjabi music has been widely associated with rap, rock and Sufi music. Some of the most prominently known indie punjabi artists of today, who also now have an incredible clout in the Hindi film industry, are singers like - Diljit Dosanjh, a popular punjabi singer and actor, with unbeatable bhangra music in songs like ‘5 Taara’, ‘High End’ and ‘Patiala Peg’, and now Spotify’s brand ambassador for their Punjabi Music Campaign; Guru Randhawa, the popular punjabi singer who made it onto the cover of Rolling Stones, has captivated audiences in recent times with his record-breaking song views on Youtube with songs like ‘Lahore’, ‘High Rated Gabru’ and ‘Raat Kamaal Hai’ along with an international collaboration with sensational Pitbull in ’Slowly Slowly'; and Jasmine Sandlas, one of the few popular female punjabi singers based in California, has won over many with her songs like ’Sip Sip’ and ‘Illegal Weapon’, which also got re-created in recent Bollywood movies, creating an encouraging environment for more female punjabi artists to be inspired by.

Enjoying its Independence from Film Music 

The punjabi music scene has been primarily detached from film music and this has empowered artists of this industry by letting them have the absolute creative freedom to make songs, and accompanying videos, to their satisfaction, along with a non-dependency on the movie business to create and release their songs. Another advantage that these artists have is the support of multiple smaller labels who are ready to invest in the artists, including new artists, which gives them the edge to spend more into making catchy videos to their upbeat songs. Let's take an example to understand this benefit - one of the most popular punjabi songs of 2019 ’Sakhiyaan’ , produced by a Mohali based studio White Hill Music, garnered 107 million views on Youtube in just 2 months, apart from its immense popularity of being repeatedly played on the radio and on various streaming platforms. Punjabi music, which is a part of the Indian genre known as ‘Indian pop’ or ‘I-Pop’ signifying independent, non-film music, is predominantly popular for its wide range of Bhangra, R&B and Sufi music across the world. Many indie punjabi artists from countries abroad have made it big in this genre of music worldwide, creating an international fan-base for this industry. Some of the most popular examples of such artists are - Panjabi MC, a British rapper, producer and DJ of Punjabi music who made his mark with the popular song ‘Mundian Toh Bach Ke’ in 1997; Malkit Singh, a British bhangra singer, known for many popular songs such as ‘Gur Nal Ishq Mitha’, ’Tootak Tootak Tootiyan’ and ‘Jind Mahi’ all of which have been recreated in recent times by newer Punjabi singers. The punjabi music scene has also created some buzz in the area of ‘rock music’ with the help of another legendary artist, Rabbi Shergill, who brought sufism and punjabi beats to rock music creating magic in songs like ‘Bullah Ki Jaana’ and ’Tere Bin’, which was later seen in the movie 'Delhi Heights’. The increasing number of local labels or production houses in the Punjabi music industry have fostered more inclusivity among the artists giving them more opportunities to create music without being reliant on films. Some of the most popular songs of 2019 and the years before have been released as ’singles’ produced by these individual production houses. One of the most popular ones in recent times is Speed Records, which came in the limelight with the release of popular tracks by many punjabi artists including the the indie duo Doorbeen, who created quite a buzz with their hit songs ‘Lamberghini’ and ‘Prada’ in the past year. The advantage that such local recording houses hold is being able to invest more time in new artists of the region and also allowing them time to develop their skills with releases in the form of ’singles’ instead of albums and spending atrocious amounts of money into creating catchy videos, instead of being a part of feature films and depending on their direction over the songs and videos. This has been a common strategy of most punjabi artists, where a heavy reliance has been placed on accompanying videos to every song released.

Increasing popularity on Online Platforms

With the increasing rise in demand for audio OTT or as we commonly know it as music streaming apps, many such platforms indicate a rise in regional or non-film music streaming by audiences across the country. Gaana Originals, which is a popular platform promoting indie music in India, reports that it’s most popular song for 2019 with more than 115 million views was the popular punjabi song ‘Lehanga’ sung by Jass Manak. Apart from Gaana, the popular streaming platform JioSaavn has also reported a meteoric rise in the consumption of non-film music with Punjabi music leading the pack becoming the second-most played language music on the platform in 2019.  Even Spotify joined the wagon in stating that Punjabi music is the most consumed music after Hindi and English, leading to the creation of a special Punjabi Music Campaign. Additionally, a recent report by Deloitte and IMI, released in February 2019, on the Audio OTT Economy of India suggests that there has been a steady increase in the consumption of independent and regional music, with Punjabi music also adding to this trend. The report also indicates that while Bollywood/Hindi Film music has been dominating the Indian music market, there has been a drop in the percentage of such music being streamed on various platforms and an increase in the consumption of regional music from 5 to 25% between the years 2016 to 2018. An extremely interesting study, conducted from 2016-2018, explained in this report states that OTT platforms have provided listeners with easier access to independent music and based on the results by the participants to this study, the independent singles from artists constitute about 18-22% of Hindi music and 90% of these singles are contributions by the Punjabi music industry. This is an extremely important observation in understanding as to why this industry has been so monumental in the promotion of independent music in India till date. What we can understand from these figures is the dominance the punjabi music industry holds in creating more music independently from motion pictures and also creating a strong digital presence through not just online audio releases but massive investment in the online video releases on Youtube. It is this increasing online domination that the punjabi artist community holds in India today which is primarily what has driven major motion pictures and production houses to incorporate these internet hits into their movies. A recent major deal between Desi Melodies, a punjabi label with an expansive repertoire of songs and artists, and Universal Music Group India is enough indication of the overwhelming popularity of this industry and its local artists creating a stir in the Indian music industry warranting such a collaboration.

The Punjabi music industry holds the largest share in independent music in India and is worth almost Rs 700 crores, in terms of revenue from Songs and Live Events, making it almost 5 times the size of it’s nearest regional music competitor, the Telugu Music Industry. Punjabi artists who have now been bagged by major Bollywood films and production houses have roughly an estimated annual income of Rs 15-30 crores and Rs 60-80 lakhs worth revenue per month, is generated from Youtube alone by the major record labels publishing and distributing such punjabi music. This rise of the punjabi music industry shows us exactly what are the benefits of investing in artists, investing in creative freedom and the importance of the independent music community and the highs they can reach. Here’s looking at this industry to continue to create a indie-friendly music environment to nurture and launch more artists and for other industries to take cue from.

This post was written by contributing writer, Diksha Arora. Diksha is a final year law student in Bangalore, India moving to Los Angeles soon to pursue her masters in Music and Entertainment Law at the UCLA Law School. She's an absolute music nerd, very passionate about artist rights and holds a keen interest in everything related to movies, music, and entertainment.


Photo by Nischal Masand on Unsplash

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