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The day the music died!

April 19, 2008 03:19 IST

Ishani Sharma has a fetish for music and spends hours talking to her best friends about the latest music shows -- on India's entertainment channels. In class with her, Rajat Rastogi and Alpana Mohan prefer non-music talent hunts -- which they watch on the music channels.

In television's topsy-turvy world, the general entertainment channels (and the news channels) seem to spend inordinate time airing music and musical talent even as the music channels themselves seem to get their bursts of eyeball-adrenalin from hardcore reality shows that have nothing to do with music but everything to do with manipulation, backbiting, tough-as-nails competition and an edgy, in-your-face attitude that might be more suited to -- you guessed it -- your favourite entertainment channel.

And yet, music isn't in short supply. Only, it doesn't appear to be on the music channels any more. So, does that spell the end of the music channels in India?

Vikas Verma would hope not. As head of the music and entertainment channels at INX Media, he says he's overjoyed by how things have unfolded in the last few months. Within months of its launch, 9XM, the group's music channel, has garnered impressive ratings and become the number one channel in the genre. Of course, this is what he says.

Ask the average teenager what they think of 9XM and you are more likely to be asked back: 'What's that?' 9XM's visibility is low, its reach limited. But what it does have as a 'music channel', Verma says, is the old jukebox format.

"I am happy that we have lived up to the promise of our brand name, and that is music," he picks on the competition.

Of course, he's right. MTV's biggest property is Roadies, a non-music show; Channel V's fashion-based bestseller Get Gorgeous pulls in the eyeballs as well as the revenue, and has nothing to do with music. Clearly, music channels are music channels no more.

MTV and Channel V would beg to differ, perhaps because the sound of money is music to their auditors' ears.

"Audience tastes and preferences have changed," Ashish Patil, general manager-content, MTV India, is defensive, "and we are catering to what they want."

"The spectrum of entertainment has broadened," Saurabh Kanwar, content head at Channel V, chips in, adding, "Fashion or lifestyle have a lot of entertainment quotient."

They are both adamant that music is at the heart of everything they do. (Oh yeah -- then why can't we see or hear it?) MTV says over 80 per cent of its content is music, and Channel V pegs it even higher. That may be because of the repeated promos from Bollywood films that are aired tirelessly -- but is that original content?

Media analysts laugh when asked about the absence of original music content on these channels. "It costs a lot of money to buy music," they point out, "while promos earn these channels money."

It's true the music channels have a complicated relationship with licensing bodies such as the Indian Performing Rights Society. Channel V's Kanwar suggests, "It would be better if there was a single window where we could pay to acquire music rights."

The rights issue and the high cost of acquiring music is one of the principal reasons for the absence of full songs on music channels.

But experts say it is the advent of reality TV that has changed the viewing habits of audiences, and therefore the manner in which TV channels go about sourcing content.

According to Tarun Nigam, executive director, StarCom India (north), "The days of the old jukebox format won't garner too many eyeballs in the future and so the music channels have had to reinvent their strategy."

Since these channels are targeted at the youth, it's understandable why "adventure, fashion or talk about gizmos and gadgets is part of the programming of music channels."

Patil insists MTV's philosophy has always been to engage viewers in a hatke way.

"In the past, we have had music-based shows like Fully Faltoo or Cheetos Chat which had a humorous touch." A programme like Pidhu, which is a spoof on cricketer-turned-commentator Navjot Singh Sidhu, showcases songs, but with Sidhuisms (or, in this case, Pidhuisms) in between.

Channel V claims the music used for Get Gorgeous is rendered by unknown artistes, providing them with a platform for their talent.

But these are in lieu of such former properties as MTV Most Wanted, House Arrest on Channel V or Udham Singh's show that were all of them music-dominant. Even so, Patil argues there were shows like MTV Bakra. "We have always tried to weave in content in such a way that viewers are entertained," he says.

The other tectonic shift is in the loss of the relatively iconic status of music channel VJs. Malaika Arora, Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak had a certain 'starry' quotient to them. Patil admits that although it wasn't a strategic decision, the channel wanted VJs to be people 'who are one of the audience'. So now MTV has Aayushman and ex-Roadie Bani anchoring shows like Wassup.

Diehard music buffs are annoyed that with little exception the music channels are devoted to filmi music. A possible reason for that could be the dearth of new talent (in this age of Indian Idol and Star Voice of India?).

Channel V, which in 2002 launched the reality music show Popstars and bands like Viva and Aasma, seems to have decided against similar genres.

"At the end of the day, we can only give them a chance to make a career out of music," explains Kanwar of his bands, "eventually it depends on how the music industry takes to them."

Patil argues that MTV has been backing new artistes, the latest being its Raghu Dixit Project. Raghu Dixit had been around for almost a decade before MTV shone its limelight on him and turned him into a star: "We even had Raghu performing as an opening act to our biggest event of the year, the MTV Lycra Awards," he says.

Unlike MTV, 9XM is staying away from the promotion route.

"We are not in the business of promoting new artistes," says Verma. "Our philosophy is simple -- if you deserve to be on 9XM, you will be there." Too bullish? "No, it isn't," counters Verma, "We are here to give the audience only hit music. It is something we are very clear on."

"There aren't dedicated music channels any more, so you don't see a proper platform for new artistes," argues back Atul Chudamani, vice president of SaReGaMa. And while Patil says the comatose Indipop genre has given way to newer genres like Punjabi bhangra or hip-hop, Chudamani says that in the race for eyeballs, music channels have drifted away from their original positioning.

What do the artistes themselves say? Mohit Chauhan, lead singer in the Silk Route band, claims it was once a big deal to get your music video on MTV. But "newer platforms like Internet have changed that". Besides, most artistes want to get to Bollywood and not remain confined to the small screen.

The last music channel-backed artiste to perform was Neeti Mohan, now a part of A R Rahman's troupe but formerly a member of Popstars band Aasma.

"I owed a lot to the channel then as they gave me a start, but it would have been foolish to bank on them to make a career for me," she says now.

But Patil claims that Dixit sold a lot of copies of his album when he was their property. What many don't know, says Patil, is the role of channels in promoting unknown artistes. For instance, "We bombarded Rabbi's song on our show countless times a day, as we felt the guy had something in him," he points out. 

But have shows like Roadies or Get Gorgeous diluted the brand equity or loyalty the music channels used to enjoy? "No, it hasn't," according to Nigam of Starcom, "not if you talk about advertising. For most brands, music channels like MTV or Channel V are among the top three for promotions."

Advertising revenues have been growing over 40 per cent for MTV, according to Patil, and though Kanwar does not share the arithmetic, he says the numbers are up for Channel V as well.

The repositioning or reinvention of music channels came about in 2004 when the numbers were stagnating and there was a dip in revenues. MTV then adopted a Hindi model to coincide with the launch (and stop brand cannibalisation) of VH1.

Nigam says that was also the time when reality TV was taking off in India. "You have to remember, there is no appointment viewing for music channels, so from an industry point of view there was a need to differentiate." In came Roadies and Get Gorgeous and out went the traditional jukebox model.

But was there a fear the channels would lose their identity? "I don't think so," says Patil, "we were confident that something like Roadies would work, and it has done extremely well."

Now in its fifth season, Roadies remains a big revenue as well as eyeball driver for MTV. Channel V's Get Gorgeous may not enjoy the same popularity, but Kanwar argues, "That doesn't mean we aren't a music channel anymore, we are just giving the audience what they want." 

"The name of the game is innovation," adds Patil.

"How you do it depends on your channel's philosophy, and for us at MTV it is something which spells cool, so it can be music, adventure or lifestyle."

If it didn't adapt, chips in executive producer for Roadies, Raghu Ram, it might as well write its own post-mortem.

"MTV is a music channel in your mind," says the caustic wit of the programme, but it "deals with everything". "We can't have this attitude that just because we are a music channel, we cannot show anything else."

Besides, as he points out, the music on TV is not unicontent, it is on all channels.

"So it would be silly to put all our eggs in that basket."

Despite that, he says MTV's backbone remains music. "We want to bring out platforms for musicians, for music that is Indian in soul and yet very contemporary in its presentation."

Be that it may, according to Nigam, the content on music channels could get even less music-oriented ("60 per cent music and 40 per cent non-music") over the next few years, Patil and Kanwar are adamant that music will continue to dominate programming on their channels.

But the signs are hard to miss if you've been watching MTV Wassup, a 30-minute entertainment and music news show. (So where's the music, dude?)

Verma insists 9XM will not travel down the road its competitors have taken. "You don't expect a hamburger joint to serve you a masala dosa, do you?" he asks. "The M in our brand name stands for music and music alone." (Who's betting it won't last?)

Aabhas Sharma in New Delhi
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