Bollywood composers often talk about their desire to do non-film, independent music. Practically every composer I've interviewed have inevitably brought it up at some point in a conversation. It's natural for them to feel that way because film music has its restrictions—not only restrictions imposed by briefs specific to the film's characters and situations but the constant pressure of delivering something more saleable. Barring a season or two of Coke Studio, they never really end up doing it.
This has changed in the last six months, during which we've had a number of major Bollywood composers releasing music independently. Amit Trivedi kicked off his own label, AT Azaad, in April, with a series of tracks called "Songs of Faith", followed by another series, titled "Songs of Dance", resulting in a total of 10 songs. Coming soon is "Songs of Trance", that has five songs.
Vishal Bhardwaj, too, started his own label, VB Music. Bhardwaj wrote an emotional note—"Always a composer first, a filmmaker second"—when he announced that he will release new compositions under his label; he has already released two. The inception of Salim-Sulaiman's Merchant Records happened 6 years ago, but it really got going in the past few months with back-to-back releases. Arijit Singh announced his label, Oriyon Music, a couple of months ago. The first track drops on Sunday, October 4; it'll mark his debut as a composer. All of them plan to release not just their songs, but of other artists as well (Merchant Records is already doing it). Expect more names announcing similar projects.
What explains so many announcements in a short span is that the lockdown has given the artists, who are usually busy, the time to work on something they'd been wanting to do for a long time. Trivedi, for instance, has been planning AT Azaad since last year. He had a bank of songs that he wanted to release in different phases. But the lockdown fast-tracked that process. "Film work is almost not happening during lockdown. So I could focus my energies on AT Azaad," he said over the phone. Salim-Sulaiman are generally busy travelling for concerts that doesn't give them the time to "sit in the studio and write music", which was possible because of the lockdown.
And what explains them starting their own labels is that today it is easier to do so. Thanks to YouTube, anyone sitting at any corner of the world can publish their own music (and become famous, as proven by the rising number of YouTube stars). "In earlier days, the music label business was a very complicated business, because there is a lot of distribution involved like making a cassette and selling it," says Tarsame Mittal, who heads TM Talent Management, and whose clients include Arijit, Trivedi and Bhardwaj. "But since it is all digital now, you can put your content on YouTube directly. There are services that help you distribute your music on the streaming platforms, which you can do it from your home."
It also says something about the Hindi film music industry today and the little creative freedom it allows composers, singers and lyricists. Music companies like T-Series and Zee Music call the shots—to the extent that they can decide who should sing a particular track. There is also a new working system that favours multiple composers instead of one, a format that most established composers don't agree with. This has resulted in less and less work for them. (Trivedi had only one album this year, in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, unless you count the song-less Bulbbul, and Salim-Sulaiman haven't been actively composing for Hindi films for a while).
Owning your own work is another reason why starting your own label makes sense. "I don't have to buy my music from another person", says Trivedi
If composers felt Hindi film music was restrictive 5 years ago, it has gotten much worse in 2020. "Doing music independently has always been a liberating kind of a feeling. When we did Coke Studio, in 2013, we really enjoyed that… The barriers in film music also started getting bigger. We never liked this whole multiple composers thing and then the remix phase started," says Salim.
Composers rarely speak out, but outbursts on social media are not entirely uncommon after they wake up one morning to find out that one of their songs has been made into a remix. Even AR Rahman, the only Hindi film composer who owns the rights to his own work, wasn't immune to it when "Masakali" was remixed earlier this year. Owning your own work is another reason why starting your own label makes sense—there are new, small-scale, more artist-friendly labels that are also coming up as well. "It's definitely a big plus," says Trivedi, "I don't have to buy my music from another person. If I have to use it to perform, I don't need anybody's permission."
Trivedi can also license out the songs produced under AT Azaad; he says there have already been enquiries on acquiring the rights for the song "Moti Veraana" for a film. The composer says that AT Azaad is not a part-time project but something that'll take up half of his time even once film work resumes. "I've got 64 thousand subscriptions in 6 months. I have to keep up the momentum. I have to give it attention, otherwise this won't work," he says. "This is a great beginning of a new era. Everyone's frustrated with the film scene. So people are trying their own stuff," says Salim.
But starting a label is one thing and cutting through the noise in the age of information overload is another. It's true that anyone can go viral today, but nothing that the composers have put out until now have managed to stand out. If they are supposed to be musical expressions free and independent of the market, they could be a little more adventurous. Songs of the Faith has some likeable things, but Trivedi can and should do better. (For one, he should sing less. Take a song like "Radhe" for instance; the bits featuring Neeraj Arya and Arunima Bhattacharya are lovely, they make it sound like an earthy, devotional song; it's Trivedi's portions, sounding smoothened and on auto-mode, that make you feel indifferent).
He would have a lot more fun with the arrangement in his folk-flavoured Hindi film songs, and we've seen him take wilder risks in his Coke Studio set. Similarly, Bhardwaj's newly released tracks are far from his best, at best melodically lukewarm musings over Gulzar's lyrics that sound like something that has been put together during the lockdown. Here's hoping they have more thrilling things in store.