Why Bollywood’s music companies and singers, lyricists, composers are at loggerheads

For most of us, it’s difficult to separate an iconic movie moment from the song featuring a leading lady or leading man doing something entirely illogical but enticing. This is how integral music has been to the Hindi film industry. A lot of our favourite films are favourites because of their soundtracks that we remember even decades later.

However, while Hindi films continue to have music and sell soundtracks, a lot has been brewing under the surface with digital listening taking center stage. Some of the discontentment over how a singer or composer earns their living, or how much control he or she has over their creation, has been known for a while. But with music becoming free to consume on digital devices, these complications have grown. And the right of a creator of music is at loggerheads with those that do business.

When AR Rahman stated that a ‘gang’ in Bollywood has been working against him, he stirred up a hornet’s nest. Leading singers supported him, fellow Oscar winners Shekhar Kapur and Resul Pookutty tweeted in his favour. Rahman’s statement followed closely on what Sonu Nigam stated angrily online. That monopolistic music companies (no prizes for guessing who) can destroy lives and break spirits of singers.

Ironically, Rahman’s interview was part of the pre release conversations of Dil Bechara, Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film, who was purportedly a victim of Bollywood groupism. Soon after this, we saw a well-tuned and witty video featuring Hindi cinema’s top lyricists, including Varun Grover and Swanand Kirkire, that asked for credit for their songs from digital platforms.

In the past, singers have routinely asked for fair shares in revenues and copyright with Nigam taking the lead. Some of this changed in favour of the singer and composer when the Copyright Act was amended in 2012. But music creators still feel that control and power lies with music companies and powerful film companies.

This writer experienced a good bit of it while writing this piece. Having reached out individually to each singer and composer who had tweeted in favour of Rahman, or raised concerns about fair treatment for music creators, one faced a stonewall of silence. It’s almost as if everyone runs scared or doesn’t want to get drawn into an unresolved debate.

Who owns a song, a lyric or a tune? How much should the creator make? These issues remain unresolved. A leading composer requested to drop out of this piece altogether. Kirkire, an otherwise vocal person, simply said he doesn’t know. Others spoke off record.

Here’s what emerged from different conversations. Rahman has refused to work with leading film companies in the past over publishing rights. What reportedly began with a popular early-2000s Hindi film, has continued as he asks to keep these rights to himself. Typically, publishing rights of a film’s soundtrack remains with the film’s producers and music label. Should a composer or singer control these? That remains an unresolved grey area.

Commenting on the conflict that composers face with music labels, Shalmali Kholgade explains that creative interference becomes a sore point for composers with music labels. “When it comes to film music, a composer has to understand that the rights of a label come first. A lot of times the label gets involved in the making of the music itself, which is why favouritism has come up because they might be pushing a singer onto a composer.”

Shalmali Kholgaden| Image from Twitter @htshowbiz

Veteran playback singer and performer, Shaan, who has sung regularly for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar, points out that since 2010, work from these composers have dried up for him. “It can’t be coincidence after working for so long I never get a call (from them). I think they’ve clearly taken a decision. It’s totally fair. I can’t grudge them that. I doubt anyone has the time or inclination to cause someone personal harm or create personal harassment. It has to make business sense for a person to want to hire a singer or composer. Not hiring someone is also that person’s prerogative. But for me to decide how someone should be treating me is stupid. It isn’t personal if someone decides not to work with me. A R Rahman has also, from time to time, taken a call on a project to work with or not to work with. Should someone he has refused consider it personal? That is being blinded by your ambition that is unfulfilled. Just do good work!”

In the past decade, film soundtracks have evolved to become assimilations of Indie pop or Punjabi hip hop numbers along with a safety retro remix, and a couple of other songs thrown in for feasibility. These songs may not integrate with a film’s story or its characters, but that is irrelevant. Simultaneously, we witness lesser involvement of leading composers likeShankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar, Amit Trivedi, Rahman etc. Simply put, they aren’t needed to make music for every movie.

With digital listening becoming the norm, Shaan explains this change as pure business. “Music today works only on numbers. Earlier, you used to buy a CD and choose to pay some money to listen to your music. Since about 2010, music has become available to listen on the phone, on the laptop. It has come down to making a product that is heard by the lowest common denominator. In terms of target age group, music companies make songs for 12 to 20 years old. How much life experience or musical exposure has someone so young had to actually listen to a meaningful lyric? So the acumen of a Shankar Ehsaan Loy or an A R Rahman is not needed to make songs for a consumer base that just seeks to listen to music on the go.”


Younger singers often go beyond playback singing to carve out independent careers. Kholgade has composed music for a Marathi film, June, and has released independent songs apart from diversifying into regional music. The voice behind chartbusters like ‘Balam Pichkari’, ‘Pareshaan’, she explains why she sings infrequently for Hindi films. “I am not the best at networking. I also don’t do much playback because my voice and singing style doesn’t always lend itself to film music. One or two songs may click but mine’s not a regular playback voice. Having said that, a lot of times, interacting with composers, you have instant recall for a song. A composer needs to try out different voices before deciding on the right one for a song. And that’s fair.”

The good thing about assimilated soundtracks is the opportunity that it opens up for newer, fresher independent talent.

Surprisingly, indie artists face the same ‘grey areas’ (creative control, revenue shares) as do veterans. Qaran, whose ‘Tareefan‘ (along with hip hop star Badshah) has over 26 million hits, feels that reform is the need of the hour. “I started off my career in India as a music producer for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy who I consider the epitome of class and generosity. As a young, up-and-coming musician, I will be forever indebted to them for the way they treated me when I was starting off. However, when I made the transition to being an artist in my own right with my debut, I did learn that not everyone else followed the same code. That being said, there are many instances one goes through in this music industry where we question the decisions and ethics of others. As far as payments go, the Indian music industry is in desperate need of reform. Everything from contracts to residual payments is more often than not exploitative by nature.”

In this space where laws of ownership aren’t clear, the worst predicament is that of lyricists. Explaining that a lyricist is often at the bottom of the food chain of a hit song, Kirkire elaborates on their music video asking to be given credit for their songs. “As music consumption has shifted to digital mode, it has brought up a big problem. With CDs our names (that of lyricists) were mentioned. But with digital platforms like YouTube, the credit to the lyricist is often omitted. Music streaming apps like Spotify don’t credit lyricists at all. Like in the Western music world, songwriters and singers are often the same person. But here, the lyricist is omitted completely. You can’t make a search on say, Spotify, for a lyricist. They don’t recognise us as artistes. Varun’s name along with the composer’s names was missing from ‘Aankhon Dekhi‘ album on a streaming platform. We saw similar omissions from the highly popular Dil Bechara songs streaming too. Since we got a lot of positive support from people and the media, we decided to make a song. We wanted to be heard but we didn’t want to be ranting.”

Kirkire, a multi-faceted persona who also acts and sings for films, rues the fact that not a single actor has re-tweeted their video. The constant need to fight for one’s rights disappoints him. “What we are battling is a lot more desperate than groupism. We are fighting for our basic right of getting credit.” As digital music consumption has shifted the format of making or selling music radically, creators have to create their own labels sometimes to grow and survive. Sonu Nigam, and Vishal and Rekha Bharadwaj have taken first steps towards this. But in the long run, formulating and regulating qualitative laws that protect interests of music creators is the need of the hour.

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