08/22/2017
 

The State of Digital Music in India: From Piracy to Retail

Finnish Symphonic Power Metal band Nightwish released their seventh studio album “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” on March 27 2015, for which as an obsessed fan I had been waiting since forever. Then I faced the problem I face with every international music album: there was no way I could buy the album in India. It is available for purchase as Audio CD on Nightwish’s and Nuclear Blast Records‘ websites and in digital (MP3) format on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. The ACD will cost a cool 44 Euros (Rs.3000) to be shipped to India and that is insane. We cannot buy digital music off Amazon or Google Play in India and I do not own any Apple products. I know there are many “ways” to get hold of the content I was looking for, like P2P networks and their apps like Torrents, Sound card recording software and so on, but that was not the point. The point and problem here is that I want perfect music quality and also I want to buy music legitimately by paying for it, and I can’t!

Please stop staring at me like that. I really adore Nightwish and want them to earn the money for the absolutely amazing music they make.

The Story of Music Content Delivery in India

Let us forget Nightwish for a moment and look at the bigger picture of all entertainment content delivery in India, music and movies. The concept of physical media for music became widespread in India only around the late 1980s when T-Series popularized the cassette tape, before that it was all wandering minstrels and the occasional radio (for which you had to have a license!) Then came Cable TV which coupled with the inflow of Walkmen and its clones actually accelerated cassette sales. Audio CDs made a large-scale appearance around 1998 and were speculated to replace cassette tapes, riding on which “Music ‘Deck’ Systems with CD changers” sales boomed for a short period. However by 2000, personal computers (with CD Drives) were suddenly everywhere thanks to the “IT wave” and engineering college boom. Most of these “B.Tech PCs” were primarily entertainment centers with HDDs filled with ripped ACDs and VCDs [AVSEQ01.dat, MPEGAV02.dat… Old timers will know what I am talking about *snicker*]. The Music industry however didn’t suffer much as PCs were limited to youngsters and there wasn’t any easy way to transfer digital media from PC to PC. Then in 2002 came the Internet; in 2004 the USB; in 2006 Bluetooth; in 2008 P2P/Torrents and in 2011 Smartphones combined all these. Boom.

Winamp Classic

Still Rocks. Still Awesome.

As for movies, the entire thing is much less complicated. To watch a (new) movie, we still follow the ancient ways of our forefathers. We make our way physically across town (traffic, pollution, parking) to a building where we pay through several orifices to sit uncomfortably (armrests) in a hall with another couple of hundred people, eat unhealthy food, listen to others fart and talk on the mobile. Sure, no comparison of quality of movies and movie halls of today and yore, but that doesn’t change the fact that the basic funda hasn’t changed for the past 50 years.

Sorry I made you wade through all this flashback but I had to drive home a point on how primitive and out-of-touch with present our content delivery processes are. For the past 17 years, the only legitimate way to buy music in India was buying an *ugh* Audio CD! (1998 was 17 years ago). Funny that in these days of degenerating decency technological prowess and everything-connected-to-everything else-ness, they are still asking us to buy music on CDs? I have always felt that technological advancement is not being put to good use, like making people adapt new content systems and preventing airplanes from disappearing mid-air. It was only recently that it dawned upon content companies that it would be nice if people could buy and receive digital content directly to their devices. Shouldn’t this advance have happened ages ago? Unbelievable. This HAS to change.

“Hahaha it is YOU who hasn’t advanced! All the people who listen to music on their mobile phones including those skinny chaps who sit in the back of the bus and play 1990s Udit Narayan songs in full volume, do you think they all buy Audio CDs??”

I hear you. While until 1998 almost all (98%) music sales were legitimate, today it is the other way around, with 98% of all music content (online) being pirated! And all of this music is in digital form, mostly MP3 and some FLAC to which the mass has moved on to while the mainstream music industry still wants us to buy Audio CDs! And (since it cannot be sourced legally), where do all these people get their content from? Everyone pirates. Everyone, and I mean every single person either downloads from Torrents or sideloads from a million sources. It is bad, it is killing the music industry. Or is it?

Can’t argue with this either.

The Big Bad Pirates of the Indian Internetz

I have always felt music piracy in India to be a cultural phenomenon. People in the West acknowledge consuming content they haven’t paid for to be wrong, illegal and immoral, but Indians have no such moral qualms. Really, it is one of those philosophical questions of right and wrong. People who wouldn’t even think of taking Rs.10 from someone without asking will have no hangups in downloading a whole movie or album because they don’t believe it to be wrong. They really, really, really believe (in a religious way) that they are entitled to free content, especially music, and consider it sacrilegious to pay for it. And as a country of mostly poor people, spending money for music wasn’t really in anyone’s top priority lists anyway. (Today’s prosperous folks pirating stuff suffer from a generational hangover of this). Also, music in India was always free, from community radios and cassette players, free music on TV (Chitrahaar, MTV) to entry to most concerts like ganamelas and kacheris being free. Also, “Once you pay to watch a movie, the songs come free with it“. Everyone always thought this scene would go on forever and hence nobody tried to change this outlook towards content payments. Then suddenly digital content exploded everywhere and woke up sleeping content creators by kicking them in the balls.

However, while shouting themselves hoarse about internet piracy ruining them, have these music labels and artists ever thought WHY people resort to pirating content in the first place?

Real picture of a modern-day Music Pirate.

Real picture of a modern-day Music Pirate.

It is called taking the path of least resistance. Everything takes the easiest way forward, and that goes for people acquiring music also. In today’s scenario, content is prohibitively expensive and acquiring said content is prohibitively complicated. This puts off even people who are ready to legally buy music by paying for it! Why not just download stuff with a couple of clicks for free from user-friendly pirate websites instead of going through all the wranglings of buying legal content? Powers and authorities in India hung up with dangerous twin baggage of conservatism and socialism relentlessly push us to follow the (higher-resistance) path they want us to for meeting their own ends while blocking the path of least resistance presenting it as wrong and immoral (in our case, as #AgainstIndianCulture), despite the fact that it will level the field and make things easy for everyone. Make access to music easier, make legal downloading the path of least resistance for acquiring content, piracy will automatically come down. Norway shows the way here too, having virtually eliminated piracy!

“We are now offering services that are both better and more user-friendly than illegal platforms… In [the past] five years, we have virtually eliminated illegal file sharing in the music industry.” – Marte Thorsby, MD, IFPI Norge.

There is more. Despite all the grandstanding, the consumer has little power of choice in India. Capitalism in India does not work because of inertia, corruption, lack of regulation and entrenched interests. We are not offered the choices we want, but only what they believe is best to suit their ends. And when people do not get what they want in the way they want it, they turn towards channels from where they can get it. Coming back to entertainment content delivery systems, I want them to be democratized, like everything should be available streamed or downloaded.

I don’t want to buy overpriced Audio CDs which play only on my laptop and will be rendered useless in a couple of years anyway. I want to directly download music in FLAC to my computer or mobile phone from where I will transfer it to my portable digital music player. And I am ready to pay for it. Why can’t I?

I don’t want to watch the latest Rom-Com in a damn movie theater which does not offer me anything extra. I want to watch it on my 42 inch Sony Bravia while sprawled on my couch and eating home-made Chicken Fry. And I am ready to pay for it. Why can’t I?

Sure, going to the movies is still an experience and is an outing, and many do not mind spending the money if the movie is worth it. I wouldn’t want to watch Fast & Furious or Pacific Rim or Unstoppable anywhere else but in a movie theater. But that choice should be left to the customer, the listener or viewer! If they want to stop piracy, they should offer people what they want. In this case, easy access to MP3 songs, one click without the hassles of payment. Make it cost effective to buy music rather than pirate it! Sounds funny? Read this.

Do they still wonder why music and movies are being pirated?

And before anyone ditches this theory that people will not pay for content, times are changing, thanks to probably the “educated” moral belief that people should pay for what they get. Contrary to popular belief, it turns out that there are other people today who are ready to pay for content if the price is reasonable (Thank God I am not alone in the Universe). Click here to view the entire conversation I had with fellow Tweeps on this case.

Physical media is dead. CDs, DVDs and all are a humongous waste of time, money, material and effort. They will last only a couple of years and then become e-waste while digital media will last forever. If the entire supply chain of physical media were to be eliminated and all content supplied online through easy-to-get channels, it will cost way less, will reach more people (more money) and help reduce piracy. Nobody owns CD players anymore, bub! The only device most people own is a mobile phone and the most preferred content is MP3 but there is no way (websites) to easily buy MP3 music in India (but there are tonnes of them in the West)! Music labels still want us to buy Audio CDs instead of supplying us with the content we want, and then blame piracy! The big question is, why?? There are many songs.pk type websites offering pirated MP3s for free download at one click. (Interestingly, most of them are optimized only for the mobile, which shows that they know who their customers are!) Why aren’t these being made legally available despite overwhelming demand? Reason is the same. Entrenched powers who don’t want to break the great Indian status quo.

Fear of Creative Destruction Prohibiting MP3 Sales

Why isn’t there a platform in India that aggregates and sells MP3 songs from all over the world? Yes, like Flipkart’s Flyte of yonder. Flyte was India’s first multi-label online MP3 download store which was hastily shut down on June 17 2013, just 16 months after it was launched, citing lack of customer interest. That was a stupid move and broke a lot of hearts, especially when coming from an e-commerce site which is not really a shining beacon of profitability and for which business plans are made looking a decade ahead. Especially since Flyte managed a surprising 600,000 downloads and 1% of Flipkart’s revenue in five months! I would consider that a stellar achievement and if built upon would’ve substantially changed the mindset of a people over a period of time.

However, the real reason behind Flyte’s shutdown was the fear of Creative Destruction, which resists any change from happening in India, in any field. Flyte was challenging the almost cartel-like power music labels wield over the entire industry, which they did not like. Nikhil Pahwa of MediaNama reports of an incident where “a top music industry executive” talks to him about Flyte when Mr.Pahwa suggested that labels should make standardized content licenses easily available to startups which will spur innovation, make music more widely available and curb piracy.

“… (Flipkart) were trying to create a black box that would control us, control our distribution. How could we let that happen? We couldn’t let that happen. They had to be shut down.”

Entrenched powers that are are always shit-scared of innovation that will threaten their positions. The content licensing scene in India is dominated by music labels (Hungama, Saregama-HMV, Sony Music, RPG etc) which own everything about the content and the ways it can be used, including the power to make people listen to what they want. No composers, music directors or artists are bigger than the label. Unlike in the West, music artists in India do not get royalty. Labels buy music from artists including all rights to use them in whatever way they want, just like a pot-selling conglomerate buys pots from a pot-maker artisan and sells them at 10x profit. It is a nice scene for the labels who hold sway over everything as the ultimate dominator. Flyte and such innovations seriously challenged this domination, as the power to listen, choose and buy music suddenly lands in the hands of the consumer, who cares no shit about all the dealings going on in the corridors of content power. It would almost seem that labels are more scared about losing their position of power than they are about piracy, which is why there aren’t any MP3 sites.

But now it looks like these labels are slowly yielding to the sheer mass power of the Internet and the people. YouTube was the beginning (I use YouTube to listen to songs I can’t find anywhere) which broke the monopoly of music labels as the sole supplier of content. Later, music-streaming sites like Gaana and Saavn and new Airtel’s Wynk app have changed how people consume content forever. The signs are evident. Saregama has put up their entire catalog for download at Rs.9 per track and for streaming free of cost! Hungama also has limited streaming and tracks available for purchase at Rs.10. When it comes to movies, we actually have a plethora of options like YouTube, Google Play, BoxTV, BigFlix, EROS etc where we can watch movies online (or download, depending on the site) for free or for as less as Rs.49! The problem is that none of this is discoverable. Everything is frustratingly fragmented. No publicity, no SEO. The entire thing screams “reluctance!!” This is not enough. We need to have common aggregator platforms (like Flyte) from where people can download legal music!

content discovery

Amazon is amazing at SEO. Music-Bazaar is a European site.

The Song Download Business Model – Can it Work?

Some of you might already be thinking about a startup website on the lines of Flyte selling music tracks online. It is not that simple. I have worked closely with content rights and licensing, and it is an ultra-complicated mess. Each label has its separate rules about when, where, how and even with what their content can or cannot be used, sometimes rules being different for different tracks in an album. Sometimes tracks cannot be bundled, sometimes they cannot be sold individually. Sometimes they cannot be put on a page with tracks from a rival label and so on. This entire copyrights mess and associated bureaucratic tangle in addition to the entrenched inertia of the ways of the old is why digital content delivery is not taking off in India. This is also why Netflix and Spotify are not available in India and why Amazon.com music cannot be downloaded in India. For them to sell music in India, someone here must be cut in to the deal. Ridiculous! Digital content can be sent across the globe in seconds. Why tie it to geographical boundaries? Indian digital music industry is expected to cross Rs.3100 crore by 2020. It could probably do double that amount if we democratized content.

So what is to be done to make content download more “democratic”? Creative destruction, waves of it, resulting in the creation of a digital on-demand content delivery ecosystem. The present system must be disrupted and replaced by the new. These waves of change do happen, albeit slowly. The first was when content went digital. The second wave was the rise of easy sharing options (Bluetooth, USB, P2P, Mobile) and the third was online content sales (iTunes, Spotify etc). The fourth wave was the “indie” music movement that originated in the US, where artists who couldn’t afford record labels simply cut out the middleman and went directly to the customer through their websites and aggregator platforms like ReverbNation. This not only caused an explosion in content but also helped tens of thousands of aspiring artists to rise up. This wave hasn’t reached India yet in a big way because music labels still have content producers by the balls here. However, we are surely getting there. Check this out.

Slain is a Bangalore-based Progressive/Melodic “indie” metal band. They are no Dream Theater but they are really, really good. You might not have heard of them since they are not “publicized” and promoted like a Avial or Honey Singh. They don’t seem to even have a record label! They sell their music through a Bandcamp site internationally (linked from the ReverbNation widget above) and through OKlisten.com in India. You can buy their entire album for just Rs.99! Awesome! And this is the India I dream of, where middlemen and intermediaries are cut out and the producer, be it a singer or a farmer can sell their product directly to the consumer, be it music or potatoes. Record labels should realize that they are not really required anymore. They have been replaced by a combination of YouTube, ReverbNation, WordPress, Social Media and MP3s. We don’t need CD printing agents anymore.

Enshrined in their ivory towers, labels, producers and artists seem to have no clue on what is happening on the ground, what consumers want or how they want it. All they seem to be interested in their deals and the money they make. If they use their leverage to make content easily accessible to users by helping to build a digital ecosystem where content is easily discoverable, buyable and transferable (to hell with DRM!) As the Norway example shows, people will actually stop pirating! (real life account). For this to happen, as Pahwa said, labels and artists should start by standardizing their rights laws and rules and give out content rights either for a flat fee or on a pay-per-use basis to whoever interested in retailing them (startups) and Amazon/Flyte types, with content in the cloud and access fees charged per download. Billing could be possible through mobile service providers or other micro-payment avenues. The music industry in India will be revolutionized, and I can get my Nightwish and Xandria albums easily too. If the old sharks don’t realize this now, they will be too late once international giants like Spotify enter India or when others finally get together and disrupt their old business practices. That day should arrive soon. Hopefully.

PS: I could finally buy Endless Forms Most Beautiful from Ganxy.com which was linked from Nuclear Blast’s Nightwish “Downloads” page. Costed me Rs.795 for 22 tracks. That money was well spent. Thank you Tuomas!

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