Everyone’s a rockstar in Mohali, the city at the heart of a Punjabi music boom
There’s dancing on the streets, recording in the bylanes, music videos being shot in parks. New songs are released on streaming apps every day. It’s a struggler ecosystem, but imbued with a lot more hope than, say, LA or Mumbai.
The lanes of Mohali house hundreds of studios, some with world-class equipment and some with just a mic, drum and guitar. Many don’t even have a signboard outside. You knock on the door and ask if it’s them.
One such bungalow, in Phase 11, is the office of Speed Records, one of the biggest music labels in Punjab. The wide street and picturesque gardens look like a movie set, and that’s partly because they are. Low-budget music videos are shot here, for as little as ₹30,000. Some have gone on to get millions of views on YouTube and top the charts on music streaming apps.
Speed released a song called ‘Sab fade jange’ in December, for instance, that has 42 million views on YouTube so far. It’s about unruly young men who break the rules and delete their chats so that their girlfriends don’t find out about each other, and how they will all get caught one day.
Similarly, ‘Sakhiyaan’ released by Mohali-based White Hill Music got 107 million views in two months; it’s about a girl asking her lover to never leave, to take her to movies and on picnics. Humble Music’s So High (a boy telling a girl that even if she disrespects him, his eyes will aim at her heart) got 144 million views on YouTube.
“The most downloaded songs and the top-rated songs on Gaana in 2018 were all Punjabi numbers,” says Gaana CEO Prashan Agarwal. “We release over 1,000 Punjabi songs a month on the app.”
Seasonal hits are always a good bet — party songs in winter, dance numbers for the wedding season, romantic songs around Valentine’s Day.
At the office of Humble Music, a youngster aspiring to such success waits her turn. It’s a Sunday morning and Nina Kaur, 17, has come here from Ludhiana with her father and a group of college boys, waiting to record the video for her song.
“This is where all the good recording studios are, the ones that will help you record and suggest music labels to approach for the song’s release,” she says.
In the tradition of most of Mohali’s young pop stars, Kaur’s only experience with music is the talent contests she’s participated in at school. Also in the tradition, she has written her own song, with help from a digital keyboard; it’s about a girl who gets very drunk at a party and dances to the beat of the Bhangra.
“Our daughter dreams of being a singer, and now this is no less a profession than being an engineer,” says her father, Parmesh Singh, a poultry farmer. “If I can spend a few thousand and help her become a rockstar, I will do it.”
Kaur headed to Mohali after watching videos her friends had made here, singing on a bungalow terrace or dancing with a group in a living room. “The technology is good, and the costs are low,” she says. In studios across the area, aspiring musicians from across Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi are similarly trying for their big break.
“Over the last couple of years, the Punjabi music industry has emerged as the biggest non-film music industry in the country,” says Amit Gurbaxani, who writes on music and the country’s indie scene. “A few of the singers have gone to become national and international hits—particularly in diaspora-rich countries like Canada and the UK. The audience is hence getting bigger and growing further.”
So why Mohali? As demand and supply grew, the hub shifted from Jalandhar, the heart of Punjabi folk music country, to Mohali, where there was more space in the form of hundreds of commercial and former-residential spaces that could be turned into music studios and offices for recording labels. Abutting Chandigarh also meant access to an airport nearby, as well as colleges, cafes and pubs where musicians can jam and perform.
The artistes entering the industry aim to have at least three hits so they can enter Punjabi music industry or collaborate with Bollywood singers. Collaboration is key. Friends will dance for free in your video, or let you shoot in their home. Cafés will accept Facebook videos as demos and let you try out your material before a live audience.
It’s a struggler ecosystem, but infused with a lot more hope than, say, LA or Mumbai.
Take Iqbal Sandhu, 22. The Science graduate from Pathankot moved here last year. “I was always fond of singing but had only sung kirtans in my gurudwara,” he says. “After I came to Chandigarh for coaching for a banking exam, I started talking to my classmates and some of them are now my band, Rhythm Boyz.”
The five-member Rhythm Boyz performs at cafés in the evenings and is saving up to pay for studio time. Sandhu sings; the rest play instruments.
“The best part about Mohali is how easily you get a chance to perform at restaurants,” he says. “We shoot our own videos on our phones, near monuments, and share them on social media. That helps us get gigs at community functions and clubs too.”
MADE IN MOHALI
“You don’t need to be a star kid, you just need to be a good singer and good at playing a musical instrument or two. Mohali will provide you everything to you need to create your song and sell it to the industry,” says Satvinder Kohli, cofounder of Speed Records, one of the biggest Punjabi music labels.
As the market for this music grow — industry estimates puts the size of the Punjabi music industry at about ₹500 crore, up from about ₹200 crore in 2016 — new songs find ready takers in apps such as Gaana, Saavn, Hungama, Google Play and Amazon Music.
“India has now overtaken the US to become the world’s second-largest smartphone market after China. Digital music sales have overtaken physical, accounting for around 65% of overall music sales [in India],” states the FICCI-EY media and entertainment report, Re-Imagining India’s M&E Sector, released in March 2018.
“The Punjabi music industry has adapted well to the digital market,” Kohli of Speed points out. The numbers bear this out — there were 50 Punjabi songs released in the first three days of January, as opposed to one song in Gujarati, and none in Marathi. Hindi songs are typically from film soundtracks.
“We are constantly sending new songs out on the streaming platforms and thus our music has acquired much wider reach,” Kohli says.
The larger record labels are now getting over 20 songs a day sent in by new artistes.
“We do not check whether the artiste has formal training in music; we just see if there is a wow factor. We go with gut feeling,” says Tej Gobind Singh, head of music at White Hill Studios. “We have released around 1,000 songs by independent artistes since December 2017, when we launched White Hill Music. Before that we used to help artistes record, and distribute movies, and because of that experience, we now know when we hear it for the first time whether a song is going to be hit.”
THE BUSINESS MODEL
What defines a hit? A combined 1 million hits on YouTube and the streaming apps, and a phase two that involves requests to perform at parties, events or the cafés that now dot the city. The production house gets its revenue from advertisements on YouTube and fees from the streaming apps. The ultimate aim — to have artistes perform at gigs abroad and compose or sing playback for Bollywood movies.
Some of the biggest players, such as Sony Music India and Speed, go beyond music releases to groom talent for live shows and book them for ad commercials. “We have a budget for every new Punjabi artiste we sign,” says Pawanesh Pajnu, regional manager for north and east India at Sony Music. “We also hold talent contests at colleges and on social media.”
In 2014, Speed tied up with talent and events management company EYP Creations to help it identify fresh talent through tie ups with music academies across Punjab, college-level competitions and also through scouts who browse through YouTube and Instagram to find singers and musicians that stand out.
“For the past two years, we have also been organising an annual Punjabi music festival called Crossblade, that features artistes presenting exclusive versions of their songs,” says Nikhil Dwivedi, founder of EYP. “This year, it is being sponsored by Gaana and will be hosted in Chandigarh and Jaipur. Next year, we plan to take it to the UK.”
A huge chunk of revenue for the Punjabi music industry still comes from live shows, Dwivedi adds. “You hear this music everywhere, from the restaurants in Mohali to the stage events in the US.”
It’s easy to invest in the talent, because the music itself costs very little to produce and distribute, and within the formula — catchy beat, young dancers, lyrics about alcohol / partying / romance and heartbreak — some returns are almost guaranteed.
The culture in Mohali is encouraging, adds Gurnazar Chattha, 30, a singer and lyricist for five years now. His recent hit, ‘Kudi kudi’, was shot at an uncle’s bungalow in Chandigarh. “You don’t have to have a godfather in the industry. You just need a good song,” he says.
Pradeep Singh, 24, a Commerce graduate from Kurukshetra, Haryana, is two songs old and still looking for his hit, but he believes Mohali is the place to do it.
“Here, studios always respond to my emails,” he says. Even if it’s a no, there is always a response.” He moved to Mohali in 2018 and is working on his social media presence and saving up for an autotune pitch correction machine. People are interested in music here and are always willing to help you in your journey, he says.
“We aren’t fiercely competitive,” adds Chattha, laughing, “we believe that there’s enough sun for everyone.”