August is traditionally a vibrant period for India’s music industry, with myriad music festivals announced from October through February and tour dates booked for international artists — all of which provides a crucial boost for the independent community operating outside the film arena. In the cautious months throughout the pandemic, none of this has been possible, but new innovation across the industry is helping audiences go beyond film-led music to discover a bustling independent scene.

In the 18 months since Spotify launched in India — focusing on India’s independent artists who are mostly unattached to film music aspirations — digital music distributors, record labels and more are releasing music outside of the Bollywood machine. This drive comes at a time when theaters remain shut and many Bollywood and regional films are entirely premiered on platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, ZEE5 and Disney Plus Hotstar.

According to data provided by audio streaming platform JioSaavn, at least 50% of their top tracks were non-film between May 1 and July 15. The top three tracks included “Genda Phool” by rapper Badshah (launched by Sony Music), singer Jubin Nautiyal’s “Meri Ashiqui” and siblings Neha and Tony Kakkar’s “Bheegi Bheegi” (both released via T-Series).

Over on Apple Music and Spotify’s charts, artists such as Punjabi actor-singer Diljit Dosanjh, Hindi pop crooner Darshan Raval, Hindi-English singer-songwriting star Prateek Kuhad and fusion/electronic producer-singer Ritviz saw their songs enter the top 50.

JioSaavn’s chief operating officer Gaurav Sharma (pictured, left) notes that while Bollywood isn’t churning out any new hits, their trends show listeners going back to older songs from previous eras. “There hasn’t been a noticeable loss of interest in Bollywood music. There has instead been a new-found interest in music that falls outside of it. In many ways, the lockdown and pandemic may have created a more inclusive music ecosystem in the country,” he says.

CD Baby’s India rep Ritnika Nayan says the pandemic situation has helped independent artists become more distinct.

“A lot of artists who mainly focused on touring have now realized that they have to release music if they want to still be relevant,” says Nayan. “We see a lot more releases coming out. Live music and management companies who now have to change their business models are also focusing more on releasing music and hence starting their own labels.” In the last four months, Nayan says CD Baby has seen an approximate 70% increase in releases compared to 2019.

On the digital music distribution front, India has had the likes of OK Listen, Horus Music and more cater to Indian independent and mainstream artists. TuneCore, however, officially launched in July and has since been chipping away at increasing its presence in India. On setting up during a pandemic, country manager Heena Kriplani says, “The need to launch a local version of TuneCore was more important because at a bleak time like this, we’re working to offer musicians more localized resources while continuing to be their window to the world.”

Meanwhile, the publishing world has also muscled in, with Kobalt signing a sub-publishing deal with Mumbai-based Turnkey, one of the few major players in India’s music publishing scene since 2013. With an eye on the increasing number of young Indian voices who are gaining popularity on YouTube and Instagram for covers, Turnkey’s managing director Atul Churamani says they want to help artists in India figure out “legitimate covers of global hits they can release officially on all audio platforms.”

As Nayan mentions, the labels started up pre-pandemic and have operated throughout India’s lockdown, with the intention soon becoming about capturing the attention of the film music-loving audience. Bollywood music composers such as Amit Trivedi started AT Azaad at the end of March to release his own music, while veteran filmmaker-composer Vishal Bhardwaj and sibling duo Salim-Sulaiman launched VB Music and Merchant Records, respectively, in July for their own music.

One of the country’s best known talent management companies, Tarsame Mittal Talent Management, had its eponymous boss launch TM Music — a label that’s currently working with younger artists in hot genres such as Punjabi and Hindi pop and hip-hop.

While each label has its own scope in terms of selecting and championing bankable artists, the unsigned and self-made independent artists like Prateek Kuhad, Raghav Meattle, Mali and Dhruv Visvanath (pictured, right) are doing well enough on their own. Making the most of streaming avenues and creating communities, they know the importance of growing their own audience.

Visvanath, who’s releasing a song every month, says he’s seen his listener base grow “almost four times over the space of four months.” He adds, “I can only give myself as an example because I know my statistics, but I pay attention to the data of a lot of (other) artists as well.”

As far as turning a profit and fostering a livelihood goes, Visvanath admits that artists continue struggling for a sizeable royalty payout, but says they’re no longer being lied to about “exposure,” which is often the carrot dangled by independent promoters and venues in India. “We’re getting this new level of appreciation now.”