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Whose song is it anyway?

The activity around Javed Akhtar's study may not befit a quiet, writerly life. There’s composer Raju Singh sitting in the room. Lyricist Sameer has just walked in.

music Updated: Jan 23, 2011 01:32 IST
Mayank Shekhar

The activity around Javed Akhtar's study may not befit a quiet, writerly life. There’s composer Raju Singh sitting in the room. Lyricist Sameer has just walked in. Phones buzz non-stop at Akhtar’s sea-facing apartment: a meeting with producers is being organised. Akhtar goes through several emails on his iPad, mainly to do with a recent split in the ranks of a prominent producers’ guild. The film industry has always been a divided house. It appears one parliamentary bill has divided it beyond repair.

After the bill on intellectual property was referred to the parliamentary panel, intense lobbying followed. Producers from the south recently made a presentation to Rahul Gandhi. Over 30 MPs, given to propose on what looks like the future of the film and music industry, meet again, early next month. This explains the commotion in Akhtar’s room.

What’s at stake is the right of a music composer and a lyricist to their own song. The bill argues that the earnings from a track, say a Bollywood number, be split between its co-creators: "When a song makes money outside of the film (ring-tones, caller tunes, radio, TV), just 12.5 per cent of that must go to the writer, 12.5 per cent to the composer, something that internationally accrues to them as a right. That’s all,” says Akhtar.

Industry insiders say, this notion itself of sharing revenues with the authors of a film song could force the nearly Rs 1,000 crore music industry to rethink its numbers game entirely.

Here’s why. Music in India is still a sub-set of the movie industry. The producer owns a song. In most cases, the music company, once and for all, buys off the soundtrack of a film from the producer for a lump-sum. Most producers need this seed capital to finance movies and film songs. They’re happy to sell away all copyrights of the soundtrack to the music label. The label, in turn, promotes the songs, and by association, the film. Only bigger producers get a share in a soundtrack's profits: if the music company has recovered its investment ("minimum guarantee"). The creative side? They usually get a flat fee. Beyond that, nothing.

India has a performing rights society (IPRS) that’s supposed to collect artistes' royalties from a song's revenues. It, however, brings in precious little to composers or lyricists in India. In most cases, the artistes have already signed away all their rights to any royalty to the producer.


The current bill, if passed, would make it illegal for a music composer or lyricist to sign on such a contract. The artiste would not, as per law, be allowed to give up on rights to royalty for their work. Similarly, the producer cannot sell the entire copyrights of a soundtrack to a music label anymore. The music company would not spend as much on a film either. In the deadlock, the key lies where the producers go on this issue. Therefore the various split among producers' unions.

Says Bhushan Kumar of T Series, who owns over 60 per cent of the country’s music industry: “Unlike the west, we spend crores 'picturising' a song. I spent Rs 1.5 crore on the track Munni Badnaam Hui, and I have just doled out R 2.5 crore on a Salman song for Ready. About 80 per cent of films flop in a year. If I’ve spent R 5 crore on a rack and made R 2 crore from various avenues, I've already lost R3 crore. I’d have to shell out 25 per cent of that R 2 crore as well? There is no logic to this.”

“The lyricist earns about Rs 15 to 20 lakh per film. That part is never shared. The composer makes about R 50 to 60 lakh as fee for a track, and about Rs 10 to 12 crore in a year from performing those songs. I pay for the promotion, music, bear all losses….”

Bigger producers are on Kumar's side. The few huge labels in the music industry can dictate terms to less privileged filmmakers. Smaller producers get no royalties once they've sold off their music. The bill may restore them as original owners of a soundtrack.https://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/HTEditImages/Images/23_01_pg13d.jpg

Lesser known composers or writers gladly sign contracts that bring them a breakthrough. The music industry stands divided.

It's the classic Left-Right debate being played out in the most Right Wing of all arts: Who owns labour? Who invests in capital? Who takes the risk? Whose song is it anyway?