Remember yesterday when I was driven to an existential crisis by the way the release of “Phurr” kept being delayed and delayed? Well, googling around today revealed there is a fascinating industry story behind it. “Phurr” is being publicized as the first song to be released behind a “paywall”. Which isn’t actually true, but that’s another story. (also, it’s on iTunes now, but also on Saavn, if you pay for the app like I do, you can download and listen as much as you want)
Non-Usual Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on copyright law, I have never actually worked in the industry, I don’t know any specific details about any of this. But this is how it looks to me, observing everything that is common knowledge to the general public.
Let’s talk about Taylor Swift and gender issues! Oh boy! Not all the “all her girl power anthems, aren’t!” or “what’s with all the famous boyfriends?” stuff, BORING! No, let’s talk licensing rights! That’s the real stuff.
A year or so back, Taylor Swift was the first massively successful artist to pull her songs off of free services and insist on a paywall, at least for the first few weeks after release. Which was generally reported as “Taylor’s managers make a smart move” or “Taylor is so selfish and actually hates the fans she pretends to love.” Whereas if another massively popular singer had done this, a male one who writes songs about angst and drugs and stuff, the response would have been “Not only a musical genius, but also a business visionary!” SO INFURIATING!!!!
(Also, I love Taylor for giving us the perfect fanvid songs. Although this particular fanvid makes me slightly uncomfortable with the blurring of reality and fantasy)
But, why did Taylor do this? It was a bold strike at the illusions that keep the internet economy going. Back in the early early early years, people realized that they could rip songs from their CDs and put them on services like Napster for free. It was considered “sharing”, just the same as if you had lent your friend your CD, but on a massive scale. Heck, you can still lend your friend a CD, then can download the songs on to their computer, and then they can hand you back the CD. Nothing illegal or impossible about that.
Anyway, the music companies FREAKED OUT when this happened. Because they were still in the “I make a CD, I sell a CD” mindset. Oh, and that’s not even getting into the massive price gauging profits in the CD market (so so so cheap to make, so so so expensive to buy). So there was this whole big push-pull battle until, FINALLY, they let go of the illusion that CDs would always be there and started selling albums and even individual songs through legitimate services like iTunes. And the market stabilized (temporarily).
But then new systems like Spotify started popping up. These were “music sharing” systems again, but somehow legal. And a new idea started going around, just like in the “olden days” you needed to let your song play on the radio, free to anyone who could get it over the airwaves (did you know in our grandfather’s time they used to make mix tapes by waiting for a song to play on the radio and then hitting record? How crazy is that?), now the idea is you have to make your music available, for free, on these other services or else no one will know about you or care about your album.
(You thought this was old school, imagine doing this but by just waiting for the radio to play the song you wanted!)
And Taylor Swift was the first person to disrupt that. To say “no, why should I provide free content to your service? I would rather find a way for the people who really care to purchase it.” So she came up with the idea of a temporary “paywall” as its called. If you want to hear her album right away, you need to pay a subscription fee (part of which will go to her), or just purchase it, old school style.
Now, I don’t care about American popular music, like, AT ALL. But I’ve been paying attention to this, because as music goes, so goes movies. DVDs came out slightly behind CDs, or at least got popular slightly behind them. And so the film industry was able to learn from music’s mistakes, and DVDs were issued with a routine electronic lock on them. I mean, we all know you can still break that lock, but at least it made it harder to share them. Oh, and they also had regions, something that non-Indian Indian film fans are VERY VERY aware of! Nothing like the heartbreak of finding that rare film only to discover it is in PAL, not NTSC and you can’t play it on your American made DVD player.
And movies were also slightly quicker in the transition to streaming. Not as quick as they could be, but quicker than that whole messy period where everyone was listening to music on their computer but music producers weren’t selling it in a way that you could listen to it on your computer. However, now movies are hitting a bit of a different wall in content, at least Indian films.
This is something I have been straight up told by multiple DVD store owners. The problem isn’t that people aren’t buying stuff, it’s that companies aren’t selling stuff. Or making it available for sale. The gap is in the right’s sales, not in the consumer’s failure to purchase. I don’t know if it is the case for American movies (probably not because of the incestuous way our entertainment industries are tied together), but at least for Indian products, what I have been told is that the producers are trying to sell the DVD rights/streaming rights for, for instance, Raabta. And no one is buying. The cost of the rights purchase alone is prohibitive if they don’t believe they will attract any new consumers from it. And so we have this gap in the Indian movie industry that lovely websites like einthusan are filling. It’s not that I want to watch it illegally, it’s that it is just not available legally. Because the producers are holding out for such a high purchase price for the rights, no legal company is willing to pay it as they can’t make a profit on that. But an illegal company who pays nothing for the rights can. Ideally, there will be a balance, producers will realize that something is better than nothing and make their rights available for a lot less money, and some company somewhere will realize it is worth it to host these unpopular films for the few people who are willing to pay for them.
(This is a lot more noticeable in America with TV shows. Because of how the FCC rules used to work, a lot of the older shows were owned not by the network that showed them, but by a separate production house. So now the Networks don’t want to pay for rights to these shows from an outside company when they can play their own shows for free, and there’s this gap. Stuff like ER, not available streaming or on reruns anywhere, and with the bottom dropping out of the DVD market, it’s just disappeared completely. Until the producers give in and make their rights super super cheap, that’s when you may notice it popping up all over the place, like what happened with Barney Miller)
Or, maybe not! That’s what’s happening with Netflix US right now, there is this huge data dump. All of their super super super cheap content that they purchased way back at the beginning to fill up their library, they are letting the rights lapse. And instead they are focusing on getting more and more content that people really really want. And so, in Indian film terms, we get Dangal on Netflix US super fast. But we lost all those Amitabh classics that used to be streaming. Because people will buy (or keep) a subscription just for something like Dangal. But the Amitabh classics are more of a bonus, a “oh hey, that’s here too? That’s cool”.
But what’s happening in India? I’m sure we have all noticed that the opening and closing credits of films now routinely cite a partnership with either Amazon Prime or Netflix. And Salman Khan just recently announced a new partnership between Salman Khan and Amazon Prime (not as exciting as the Red Chillies deal, because SKFilms hasn’t been as obsessive about buying up his older content. This isn’t the Salman Khan library, this is just his handful of recent films to which he has retained the rights). These two companies are battling for audience in a way that is great for film watchers! If you are in India. They are in the early phase where every scrap of content is snapped up in an effort to get every single person in India on to their platform. Those “oh, that’s cool” Amitabh movies? Well, there’s someone out there who is willing to sign up with Netflix just for those. And Netflix India is desperate enough that they want to attract even that one person.
What I haven’t seen as reported on is what is happening with music and streaming services in India. Indian popular music really is not like popular music elsewhere. Because it’s all film based, right? The music’s main purpose is to get you in to see the film, not just to exist on its own.
Back when I was in college and everyone else was on Napster and Napster-clone websites, I was on smashhits. Which was like those “music sharing” things, but actually legal. Well, legal-ish. More like, no one cared enough one way or another to think about it. It was US based and it played all the popular film songs. You could download if you paid a subscription, or just stream them unlimited, creating your own playlists and everything. And then smashhits became Saavn, which I am reminded every time I sign in because they still have my old “Studying for finals” playlist that I made sophomore year somewhere stored in my account.
(A constant reminder of my strange affection for the Kyun! Ho Gaya Na soundtrack)
It’s not just smashhits/Saavn. There’s Raaga (which mostly does non-Hindi) and Gaana too. They went from streaming websites with funky graphics and SO MANY ICICI Bank ads between every song, to fancy apps you can download on your phone. And about 2-3 years ago, suddenly Saavn started running constant ads for itself, “Saavn Pro”, which would let me download unlimited songs and listen offline for a fee. Which I had no interest in, because who is ever offline?
And then POOF! Just a few months back, Saavn announced no more Saavn free. If you want to use the app (which is the only way people listen to music nowadays), you have to pay a monthly subscription cost. Which I promptly did, because I can’t live without my Saavn.
And I can’t live without my Gaana and my Raaga too. Because while we were suddenly paying more on our end, the indications were there that they were suddenly paying more on their end too. If I wanted to hear “Zaalima” and all the other Raees songs, I had to use Gaana instead of Saavn, because it wasn’t on Saavn. If I wanted to hear the soundtrack from Thattathin Marayathu, I had to use Raaga because it wasn’t on the other two services. The majority of the songs in the entire history of Indian film were still shared between all 3 services (especially Saavn, Saavn is the best), but there would be these odd gaps. And sure enough, Raees comes out and there’s “Gaana” plastered all over the credits, they had an exclusive deal with it.
(Totally worth downloading a new app just for this)
Again, Indian popular music is different than in other places. What was (is?) industry standard is that the production house/producer owns all the music for a film forever. It’s not the composer’s, it’s not the singer’s, it’s the producer’s. And the producer isn’t in the music business, he’s in the film business! He wants to use the song to promote his film, and to help people enjoy his film, and then he’s kind of done with it. Sure, he’ll sell the rights to some record company to make a little profit, but he isn’t laying awake nights worrying about the failure or success of some love song.
We all know how songs are used in movie promotions today. In the post-MTV India, song videos are a thing. You want a super catchy song the country will fall in love with, with a great video that will get lots and lots of plays, and then people will remember the name of your movie and come to see it. Plus, they are great “buzz” features. Like little movies within the movie, you can release hints about the “look” for the song, about who might make a special appearance in it, and now even these trailers-for trailers-for trailers and on into infinity all building up to a full length music video.
But in all of this, just like in recent years in America, the actual value of the individual song has gotten a bit lost. We are so used to just playing the song trailer on youtube instead of even streaming in Saavn. Which, sure, helps promote the movie and all that. But it doesn’t put any money in anybody’s pockets directly. Well, except for Youtube.
Enter Diplo! Who, I think we can all agree, has a very stupid name. And a career which makes no sense to me, I don’t understand the DJ/producer type thing. But what I am able to garner is that he comes from the American music production world. Where you continue to own the rights to your own work, or at least the music company that bought them continues to own them, even if they are used in a film. The music is on top, not the film, if that makes sense. The film gets a very very limited part of the music rights for one use only, and then it goes right back to the music owners.
I don’t think Diplo himself suggested this whole thing, but I think the combination of the Western style musician whose music people would be more used to paying for than, say, Pritam on his own, plus the idea that this song is somehow “different” because it involves collaberation with the West, is why “Phurr” was chosen as a test balloon for the whole “what if we paid for our music content?” idea in India. And so, yes, it is being reported around that “Phurr” is going to come out, but not as the usual youtube video music video, instead as just the music available for purchase or through subscription services. Nameless subscription services, which is very odd to me, that articles are reporting it will be sold straight up as a single on iTunes, or available “through subscription”. What does that mean??!?!?!? WHAT SUBSCRIPTION?????
I think what that means is that they are hoping no one will notice that Indian film music is already behind a “paywall”. Like I said, Saavn’s been subscription only for a while now. And there are already songs that are only available on Saavn, not elsewhere. Sure, you could always listen on your laptop for free, but who does that? Gaana must have paid big big bucks to Red Chillies (or whoever they sold the music rights to. Zee?) for the exclusive Raees soundtrack. And it got me to download the Gaana app. Free, but still got me to do something I wouldn’t have otherwise just because I wanted that particular song.
If you say “‘Phurr’ will be available through iTunes and Saavn, a paid subscription music service”, then people are going to say “hey hey hey wait a minute! I’ve had to pay for Saavn for months now, this isn’t news! By this definition, all music was behind a ‘paywall’ since, like, March!” Or maybe I am overthinking it.
Anyway, in general, I personally have no issues with any of this. Sure, let the content creators get paid! Why not! We’ll still be seeing the movie anyway. And if the smaller films can make some of their money back by selling exclusive music rights, that’s fine too! So long as Radio Mirchi keeps chugging along (Radio Mirchi! WHY DON’T YOU LIVE STREAM TO AMERICA???), people can still hear the music and the films will still get promoted. If I can’t watch a song video over and over again on youtube while I wait to buy the DVD, I’ll survive.
(They don’t even make their incredibly catchy theme tune available! WHY????)