It's big business and it's in your palm, reports DIVYA KUMARIt's a common experience today to make a call only to be greeted by bhangra or Bach or to be acquainted with the latest film music hits by hearing your colleagues' cell phones ring. Mobile music has become part of our lives, and it's big business. Such big business, in fact, that some industry analysts predict that sales from the mobile music industry could overtake the traditional by the end of this year. But wait. This may be just the tip of the iceberg. The next big step that has music companies and mobile providers alike buzzing is the use of cell phones as music players. You've seen the glossy ads of Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones, Nokia's N-Series phones and Motorola's latest phones that are flooding the airwaves. These phones are equipped with mp3 player technology and polyphonic sound systems that could give iPods and other mp3 players a run for their money. "Handset manufacturers are focussing on music as a style platform for their phones," says Sunil Menghrajani, controller, new media for Saregama. And they're going all out to attract the Indian market. For example, Nokia N-Series has joined hands with the Indian Music Industry (IMI), and their phones now come preloaded with classical, devotional and old film hits as part of their "Legends of India" package, with more such packages to follow.But such preloaded packages are just the beginning; cell phone providers are now fully alive to the potential market for full-track downloads on mobile phones. Last year, Airtel and Hutch rolled out their service that allows customers to download entire songs from their website for the cost of Rs. 20 and above. Chennai-based Aircel is planning to roll out their service in the next month and a half, and Reliance, not to be left behind, was recently in town to discuss the option of full track downloads for mobiles, says S. L. Saha, joint secretary, South India Music Company Association (SIMCA)."There were a lot of questions earlier about whether music players and phones could be viably merged, but now there's a general agreement that it can be done," he says. "The whole system is changing."
The Long TailGoing hand in hand with this change is the larger online music revolution in India. While legal online music downloads are still small business in India relative to ring tones and ring back tones, here too change is in the air. Soundbuzz.com established the first Indian music portal providing legal downloads costing Rs. 10 on average back in 2001, in addition to providing back-end services to the likes of Airtel, Indiatimes 8888 and Hutch. The Singapore-based digital music retailer has made some interesting findings, the most important being that the online phenomenon of `The Long Tail' found in the West is being replicated here in India in music downloads. That means most of their sales are coming from older or little known artistes in niche genres that are hard to find in physical stores. "We've found that 85 per cent of our downloads are of classical music, ghazals and devotional songs by relatively unknown artistes," says Mandar Thakur, general manager, Soundbuzz. "Just 15 per cent is contributed by recent, popular hits."The implications of The Long Tail for revenues from digital music are tremendous. "Basically, every sale of these songs is profit for us, since there's no overhead," explains Saha. That's why SIMCA will be rolling out a new music download portal accessible through the websites of leading dailies that would contain thousands of songs of all these genres in April this year.
Beware the piratesOf course, digital piracy remains a serious issue, but many in the industry believe that it might be easier to combat online piracy than that on the streets. For example, Soundbuzz was the first to offer DRM (technology that ensures controlled usage of copyrighted digital music) compliant music downloads in India. And Sunil and Saha alike are confident of their ability to track down online pirates. "It's actually easier to track IP addresses online," says Sunil. As early as 2005, a research firm did a survey showing that the value-added service mobile users in India wanted the most was being able to listen to music. Today, with the number of phones with top of the line sound quality rolling out, and with the predicted slashing of the prices of these 3G (third generation) phones later this year, the time seems ripe for many of the 150 plus million mobiles being used in India to become as much about music as they are about talking.