Recently, Naved Shaikh — better known as the rapper Naezy — visited his father in Dubai. He wanted to know how his family’s primary bread-winner has been living away from his loved ones for the last two decades. “I spent time with him and told him that what I’m doing will get him back very soon,” says Naezy.
Around the same time, Saavn, a digital music service, got in touch with Naezy to produce original music. Fresh off the success of their Artist-in-Residence (AiR) programme last year — where they heavily promoted independent musicians such as Nucleya and Papon — producing music in-house appeared to be the logical step forward.
Naezy had gone to Dubai with the rebukes of relatives ringing in his ears — shaming and taunting him and trying to persuade him to give up his beloved hip-hop. When he returned to Mumbai, he had the beginnings of a concept in mind. He wanted to make a statement about being free to choose what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be and pitched the idea to Saavn. “Since childhood, I’ve been interested in telling people about my life. This is what I am best at, and this is what I want to do,” he says.
That song became ‘Azaad Hu Mai’, released last week as the first track under Artist Originals (AO), Saavn’s new programme that “empowers South Asian artists, songwriters and producers from around the world”. Composed, written and sung by Naezy, the song is both a statement and a searing testament to the immense difficulties of navigating life in a Kurla slum. “ Raaston pe chalne palne waalon ki aawaaz hu main, azaad hu main, ” he sings. (“I am the voice of those brought up on the streets. I am free.”)
“About a year ago, as we were getting involved in music beyond films, we realised that there’s a huge festival market, such as at NH7 [Weekender] or EVC, where independent artistes perform and enjoy a huge following,” says Paramdeep Singh, co-founder and executive chairman at Saavn.
These artistes, despite their online and festival popularity, were still distant from the mainstream, neither getting into Bollywood nor enjoying the means to widely distribute their music. Saavn — with its global reach in 196 countries across 13 languages — decided to fill this void.
In a way, Naezy is the perfect artiste to launch Artist Originals — his style, his free-flowing Mumbai-tinged rap, his angst-ridden words, all added to his stature as an independent artiste keen to make a statement. The song is also littered with occasional expletives, stamping his music with street cred.
Apart from Naezy’s artistic merits, his genre also paved the path to his enlistment in the programme. Based on data that Saavn constantly gathers across its database of 30 million tracks, they had gleaned that hip-hop was steadily gaining popularity in India. In addition, Naezy was not signed to any major label either. “We decided to kick-start this year with #HipHopMovement to put the spotlight on India’s burgeoning hip-hop scene,” says Singh, “Naezy was a natural fit. With his strong underground following, we saw the potential. There’s a clear demand for his music, but it’s inaccessible to larger audiences.”
Hip-hop’s increasing global popularity is summed up succinctly by Naezy. “It helps express yourself powerfully. You cannot open up in any other form. Here, the words have space to breathe.” He admits that hip-hop also becomes a bit of a personality statement — the style, the attitude, and way of dressing... “I’ve always been interested in fashion, in buying stuff that’s colourful and blingy,” he says.
Singh is excited about the potential of AO: “The programme aims to release a number of new singles by different independent and under-represented artistes. We will be promoting them and their music to help build interest in, and a fan following for them, on Saavn.”
Naezy says he had “100% artistic freedom”. He explains that independent artistes often don’t sign contracts with big labels because they wish to be free creatively. “This should be a game-changer,” he says.
For Saavn, the ultimate aim is to create a hit track, every time. What constitutes a hit? At the core of it is the number of times a track has been streamed (the industry standard for one stream is 30 seconds of continuous playback). In addition to this, the number of times a track is repeated, shared with friends, and added to a playlist is also benchmarked against data from the entire database. “The Naezy track is definitely trending to a hit,” says Singh.
Interestingly, it appears that the real insight is the slow but steady proliferation of big-data-influencing business decisions, even in the music industry. Who becomes popular, and what kind of music we hear in the future, might even be driven less by sheer artistic merit and talent, but the mysterious desires of the market.
So what next? Singh says more tracks from other independent artistes will be released in the coming months, and will, hopefully, become hits. Naezy, meanwhile, says he’s written a song that’s likely to be incendiary, because it talks about the system and how it does not serve the people it’s supposed to. But he hasn’t yet decided how and when to release it. “If I think I am right, I shouldn’t be afraid to say something. But there is a certain way and a balance has to be maintained. I don’t want to get into trouble because I have a family. But at the same time, I am not going to stop.”
‘Azaad Hu Mai’ is available to stream exclusively on Saavn. It will be available on additional platforms, to be announced within the coming months.
Spoilt for choice
Home-grown streaming music services are increasingly popular in India. Apart from the big two — Saavn and Gaana — other services such as Wynk, Rdio, Guvera, and Hungama enjoy a significant user base as well. Each appears keen to grab the title of ‘India’s Spotify’.
Founded in 2007, Saavn is currently accessed in 196 countries and offers 30 million tracks in 13 languages. The company has more than 900 label partnerships. In 2016, Saavn Original Programming started offering a slate of original, non-music audio programmes that range from comedy and storytelling to mythology and cricket, apart from its Artist-in-Residence programme that showcased Nucleya and Papon.
Gaana, reportedly Saavn’s closest competitor, claims 50 million app downloads and a library of over 10 million songs in 22 languages. It has recently released an Android Auto version that will allow users to stream their favourite music via Android Auto compatible phones, vehicles and aftermarket radios. This comes on the heels of its partnership with Uber last year — piloted in Mumbai — to promote themselves Gaana among Uber’s riders.
Apple Music, the first major international player to enter the Indian music streaming market, tied up last year with Ola, India’s largest taxi aggregator, to expand its reach and visibility. Its popularity is premised on its vast music library, Beats 1 Radio, and cheap subscription prices, including special discounts for students. Recently, it has also roped in a number of local musicians and content creators across genres — indie, alternative, and Bollywood music. Interestingly, Apple Music has also brought in renowned Indian fashion designers, including Manish Malhotra and Masaba Gupta, to curate their favourite playlists on the platform.
In the coming year or two, all eyes will be on Spotify to enter the Indian market as well. Moreover, Amazon Music is likely to come to India as well — a logical addition to its growing offerings, including the recently-launched Netflix-like service, Amazon Prime Video.