Pop no more
They were all over the music channels till a few years ago. Then, suddenly, India's popstars were gone. Now, even Indian Idol winners are being nudged towards film music. Part of the prize awarded last week was a chance to sing for Yashraj. Radhika Raj and Shubhda Khanna report.Updated: Oct 02, 2010, 22:38 IST
It takes rapper Baba Sehgal a little time to describe how life has changed after Indipop's sudden death in the late 1990s. He sighs. "Let's put it this way. I lived on nothing but delicious, juicy, rich mutton in the '90s. Now I make do with dry pieces of chicken."
The one-time pop icon has spent the last 10 years representing South Asian rap in jaunty bars in the US, hosting regional singing contests, rapping for Tollywood and doing two-bit roles on TV. That would be the dry chicken.
The juicy, rich mutton was the early 1990s, before all the reality shows, when music channels actually played music and the Indipop star was king.
Youngsters and yuppies hummed the latest tunes from artists like Baba Sehgal, Suchitra Krishnamoorthi and Alisha Chinai, who ruled the charts on MTV and Channel [V].
VJ Nikhil Chinappa got daily requests for Lucky Ali's romantic videos on after-school must-watch MTV Select.
Sample this: Just a couple of years after MTV Asia aired the first ever Indipop video, Sehgal's 'Dil Dhadke' from the album Thanda Thanda Paani (the tacky, Indian version of Vanilla Ice's Ice Ice Baby) in 1992, the artist had 21 albums to his credit.
Thanda Thanda Paani alone sold 50 lakh cassettes in the first year of its release, Sehgal says.
Today, the most successful reality show-spawned popstars can't sell more than 10,000 copies, CDs and cassettes combined.
So what wiped out Indian pop? It was a combination of the Internet, with its free illegal downloads, and Bollywood, which at first overshadowed Indipop's fresh new vibe and then used its best artists to annex its audience.
"By the late '90s, the music channels had opened up to Bollywood music and Bollywood, in turn, began to draw on the immense popularity of popstars like Sonu Nigam, Shaan and Daler Mehendi," says Atul Churamani, vice-president of India's biggest record label, Saregama, and part of the Magnasound team that launched pop sensations like Mehendi, Sehgal, Chinai, Bali and Colonial Cousins in the 1990s.
As Bollywood was seducing its best-loved artists, a second wave hit the Indipop industry.
By the turn of the century, the Internet had introduced urban India to the illegal online download.
"With music available free on the Web, sales dipped. The entire music industry suffered. But the popstars, who depended solely on cassettes and CD sales, were finished," says Churamani.
Unlike in the West, popstars had no endorsement deals or concerts to fall back on.
So, as cassette sales began to stagnate and then nosedive over the following decade, they turned more strongly to Bollywood, in turn bringing a fresh new tone to what was once a series of musical clichés — and strengthening the hold film music still exercises on India's music industry.
"Those who stood by their music and resisted the temptation to join Bollywood lost out," says Churamani.
Take Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, whose early hits, Dhoom Tara and Dole Dole, stayed on top of the charts for weeks.
"To me, my music was an extension of myself, my individual expression," says Krishnamoorthi. "The only face that matches my voice according to me is mine."
Her last album was released 10 years ago.
As composer and singer Salim Merchant puts it: "Today, we don't really have a music industry… we have a film industry that is so diverse, it consumes all genres."
Merchant is currently a judge on the ongoing fifth edition of Indian Idol, a popular TV music talent hunt show.
But even Idol has failed to resuscitate Indipop. Successive winners have faded into oblivion, their records lying largely unsold. Newer contestants are counting more on a foothold in Bollywood than a career as a solo artist.
And, while judges once told contestants they needed to be the complete package — star, performer and singer — these days, the best compliment you can expect from judge Anu Malik is that you are the perfect playback voice.
This year, apart from a contract with Sony BMG, the winner also received a chance to sing in Yashraj's next film.
"Today the popstar scene isn't even a hundredth of what it was," says Churamani.
So is there any hope for artists like Krishnamoorthi, who have remained true to Indipop?
"Difficult," says T.V.M. Sridhar, strategic marketing manager for record label EMI.
"Good music doesn't get you success anymore. You need promotions, marketing, PR, concerts. Recovering all the invested money from CD sales is not easy."
What's worse, over every attempt is the looming shadow of Bollywood music, now growing fresher and hipper with every big release. And driving that new Bollywood sound are still the once-so-popular-solo artists, now using their considerable experience to mix things up and cater even better to the cool, urban, multiplex listener.
"Bollywood music is a huge thing to battle," says Ken Ghosh, who directed numerous music videos in the 1990s, including Chinai's Made In India and Sehgal's Thanda Thanda Pani. "Today, on music channels, it's a popstar versus a Shah Rukh Khan singing to the tunes of A.R. Rahman. How do you compete with that?"
Sehgal would agree. Five years since his last album, Welcome to Mumbai, Sehgal is struggling to produce his as-yet-untitled next.
"No company is willing to invest in a music album. So I just decided to do one myself," he laughs nervously.