India’s 1990s Music Business in the Rear-View Mirror!

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Revive The Glorious Past Of The 1990s! 

The music industry could get another exciting opportunity to unlock its value as we enter the 4th industrial revolution.  This revolution will progress towards data intelligence, continuous engagement of machines, real-time enterprises, instant response to human needs and demands. The industry in the last decade has rapidly aligned itself to technology and the foundation has been laid down through computerization, digitization, and telecommunication. We could witness a collapse of silos built in the unconnected world, replaced by the power of collaboration in the connected world.

We can assume that the intersection of art, culture, technology, and commerce would bring new hope for the traditional music industry.  We could start to see the shift of power from the western world to the Asian region, comprising of a population of over 2 Billion. This population could become the epicenter of new innovations, new business models and disruption.

This revolution may probably spring some surprises for the music industry, like the 1990s where the physical business migration started towards digital adoption and we witnessed a phenomenon called Pop Culture. Opening up of new markets, audiences and capital will allow the industry to revive its glorious past.  Soon, with this, IOT will become a universe of 50 billion connections and much of this universe will be compatible with the musical works (recordings, literature, visual).

In Asia, the scale can be seen to come from India and China and we could experience an interesting intersection of languages – machine conversation language x music as an expression of language. Integration of both these markets has started to demonstrate its potential by way of Bollywood movies like Dangal entering Chinese theatrical market or capital investment of Tencent in Gaana and Hike.  More of such initiatives will open new gateways for artists, content monetization, and music innovations/entrepreneurship.

With the changing dynamics of the copyright framework and two decades old technology lifecycle coming to an end, the time is ripe to look at the past, especially the music era in the 1990s to see what was done right then and how the future could benefit from taking the learning of the past.

Music Business and the 1990s

One thing that stands out for the music business in the 90s is that the business was ‘stable’. Business was good with the sale of physical products at retail (vinyl, cassettes, CDs, VHS, DVD, portable music devices etc.) being the main driving force. After many years of deep financial investments in the music business, the industry started to see a positive ROI.

There was less friction in the aggregation and intermediary layers as well as the artist eco-system. The record labels were supported by alternative economic models such as live concerts, merchandising etc., which had an upward economic impact on the copyright extensions and publishing income to the industry. The A&R aspect of the music business was thriving and artists were rising on popularity, charts and direct fan engagements.

Leading up to the 90s was the trendsetter 70s, which started the Rock and Roll trend in the West followed by Punk, Disco and Pop. While other genres grew in parallel, Pop Music got divided into Mainstream Pop and Popular Pop. This lead to the genre of pop getting recognized as the ‘Presentation format of music to the audiences’.

Interestingly at this time, microphone got its intimacy from Bing Crosby and the teenagers in the West took the portable radio out of their homes, which built the foundation of Pop Culture. Soon, the popstar era was in an overdrive through portability of music and teenagers started to get influenced by the perception built by the artists and their visual representation of artworks, costumes, and style. The uniqueness of blending Art and Music reflected in the works of multiple legendary artists such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Aero Smith, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Bon Jovi etc.

The Multiplier Effect Happened Through TV & Pop Music Going Mainstream in the 1900s

The western influence crossed over to the Indian Music Market with the entry of satellite television at home. While pockets of influence existed through physical music and allied artworks, the multiplier effect happened through TV and Pop Music going mainstream.  The success of Pop in India came through the efforts of multiple music entrepreneurs and indie labels such as Crescendo, Magnasound, Archies, etc. This led to the Indian market witnessing Pop and Rock Stars through Music Videos, Live Concerts and Meet & Greet sessions. While the major international labels were entering the Indian market through their international catalog, Indie Pop went mainstream and the market engaged with multiple talented musicians such as Daler Mehndi, Alisha Chinai, Suneeta Rao, Mehnaz, Euphoria, Lucki Ali, Baba Sehgal and many more.       

Influence on Culture and Youth

Hysterical Fans, album art, highly visual/scripted music videos, costumes, merchandising, VJs, DJs etc. have become an interpretation of the influence the musicians can create on their fans. The influence is largely associated with teenagers and youngsters.

Researchers indicate that between the age of 14-24 tastes form and lifetime patterns develop under the music influence.

Many professional musicians testify that there is a power that lies in their expression, art, and performance which can shape their fans into who they will become later on in life. Some music researchers in the 1990s focused on how music can touch and twist one’s soul. Beethoven once said, “Music can change the world.” One of William Congreve’s famous quote suggests an enigmatic influence of music, “Music has the charm to savage a beast”.

Culture & Music Are Synonymous to each other

Two things that have been constant all through the middle age, act as a reminder to the fact that culture and music are synonymous to each other and have remained constant for hundreds of years.

In the words of Philosopher Plato, “The crux of the matter is that the main purpose of ‘Art’ is to shape human emotions and develop a capability of reasoning by instilling passion.”

Young Indian audiences in the 1990s, through Channel [V], experienced their connection to art and cultural shifts by engaging with the aura of an artist.  This aura was made up of artist perception and marketers buzz that influenced the fans in becoming an inclusive part of the Artist-360 model. Channel [V] became the bedrock of music innovations through programming & curation, which gave birth to artist management, artist services, styling talent and choreography.    

Artist As A Brand In 1990s 

The concept of ‘Artist as a Brand’ came into existence through Alisha’s ‘Made in India’ Music Video, Daler Mehndi’s multi-colored gowns, Hans Raj Hans’ wrist beads, [V] Popstars’ ‘VIVA’ and innovative programming like Channel [V]’s Jammin (India’s 1st music artist collaboration format bringing together diverse sounds and styles of music and musicians).

The [V] Music Awards and Viewer’s Choice Properties encouraged millions of music fans in India to electorally select a winner. This amplified the engagement of artists and fans and democratized experiences. Brand marketers started to engage with this cluster of audiences through branding and financial investments.


Digital and Dopamine

While the global revenue will hit 40BN$ by 2030, the industry is witnessing low human engagements, missing out on the 3H’s (hype, hysteria and high) that described the 90s. Jack Ma recently made an interesting comment at the WEF – “We should teach our kids sports, music, painting, art – to make sure humans are different from machines.”

Creativity enables the power to culturally and morally influence our societies. Fans mandate the artist to bring positive vibes and positive changes in the world via their music, influence, and fan following. This means that there are two distinct forces at work: emotions intertwined in musical works to create loyal communities and technology that enables transmission of those works to create engagement, interaction & commerce.

Bringing Back The 3Hs Of The 1990s

While there could be a missing link in the chain reaction caused by emotions and algorithms, the transmission of human to human emotions between the artists and their fans is still intact. Hence, it is important to bring back the 3Hs of the 90s which can help restore the dopamine effect and eliminate intrusion that technology. 

Crossing the Valley of Death

P2P Networks in the Napster Era gave way to the rise of digital music in the 90s. The physical business was lessened to 30% in 2008 and the phenomenon of file sharing using the Internet disrupted the traditional music business.

P2P created a war between the Record Labels and Tech Entrepreneurs, resulting in legal battles, shutting down of services and RIAA suing P2P users. This was in a way a battle of free choice and expression. Metallica, the Band, faced a backlash from their fans for supporting RIAA and suffered serious financial losses. The battle can be credited with bringing in the need for digital rights management and industry-wide fragmentation to adopt a standard for digital compression.

Some progressive thinking artists saw P2P usage as an opportunity to engage with their fans directly and put out marketing programs, mining digital usage. The Band Nine Inch Nails, came out with an innovative marketing strategy by going directly to their fans with a ‘Pay what you like’ Business Model.  At the end of their campaign, they made more money in Royalty than from a recording deal with a label. The change in the business model was an interesting market proposition, which many artists followed later.

Other business practices that started to change reflected in Artist-360 deals between labels, talent and promoters (Robbie Williams and EMI, Live Nation and Madonna), showing signs of new negotiations in the royalty deals.

Tower Records filed for bankruptcy in this period.

The Indian market was also affected by the Peer2Peer disruption. But the effects were controlled in comparison as bandwidth, digitization, digital literacy and devices were yet to conquer masses.  However, the MP3 in its physical form did create disruption by crashing the retail price.

Bollywood started to absorb the music scene through hefty content investments, marketing spends and ownership of the IPR.  In a way, film producers created an upfront economic model for the rights’ creators and introduced a rights trading mechanism.

Musicians crossed over to playback singing and film soundtracks became a money-spinning business model. Derivative music distribution through telecom Value Added Services (VAS) created new lines of revenue and the conventional music industry was saved by the multi-million dollar mobile music market.

The early contributors to VAS explosion were Airtel, Nokia, SK Telecom and multiple tech entrepreneurs. The 1999 INR 700Cr music market is on its way to reach 1800Cr INR by 2020.

Content royalty for digital music, entrepreneurship, and venture capital were other three segments that emerged in the late 90s, giving birth to multiple products and services alongside digitization, music production and a minimum guarantee financial model for music rights licensing.

In 2018, we are re-living the disturbance that was seen in the booming CD era, which is now established, as a digital business. Large music curators and distributors like Gaana, Saavn, Wynk, Hungama, Artist Aloud etc. are working to fix the value gap in the business. The size and scale of the opportunity is already being exhibited by T- Series championing the business of talent, music, and content by becoming one of the biggest YouTube channels in the world.

Disclaimer: Data used in the article is from various reports and publically available electronic information.

Collaboration Information: This knowledge sharing series is created for the music industry professionals and collaborated with Vivek Paul [Content Innovator and Founding Partner of]

Managing Partner at Gatsvy Consulting “my entire career devoted to evolving businesses and ensuring that they ethically fulfilled their customer and consumer promise”

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