India Today

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE

Never more in vogue, the big-ticket internatio­nal music collaborat­ion comes with its perks and pitfalls

- — Bhanuj Kappal

In early June, Ed Sheeran dropped a remix of his cloying wedding-rap anthem ‘2Step’ that featured a verse by Indian singer-songwriter Armaan Malik. This was Malik’s second internatio­nal collaborat­ion, following his 2021 single ‘Echo’, which featured indie K-pop star Eric Nam and Indo-American producer KSHMR. Having already establishe­d himself as a popular playback singer at home, the 26-year-old is now looking to break out onto the global pop music scene. His weapon of choice, it appears, is the internatio­nal pop collaborat­ion.

He’s not the only one. In May, Badshah dropped ‘Voodoo’, a collaborat­ion with the Colombian ‘Prince of Reggaeton’ J. Balvin. Last month, he followed it up with a remix that also features popular Atlanta rapper Lil Baby. Diljit Dosanjh, having signed a deal with Warner Music earlier this year, has also announced upcoming singles featuring Canadian rapper Tory Lanez and Tanzanian bongo flava star Diamond Platnumz.

This isn’t exactly a novel developmen­t. Big labels are always looking for new ways to expand their audiences. Of late, they have adopted the internatio­nal collab as a major prong of their strategy to take Indian pop global (some would argue that it seems to be the only prong). The shift began all the way back in 2011, when Universal Music Group signed a deal with Priyanka Chopra to release her debut music album on the world stage.

The logic of the deal was quite simple: With the mag

ic of autotune and a top production/ songwritin­g team, a former Miss World and Bollywood star could become the Indian Shakira, opening up a whole new market for Indian music. Her first two singles—the anodyne ‘In My City’ and the hopelessly tone-deaf ‘Exotic’—featured American stars will.i.am and Pitbull, respective­ly, and were backed by a gargantuan marketing push.

That first attempt didn’t work, but, since then, the music industry landscape has changed. The internet, and recent cloud-based technologi­es that facilitate online collaborat­ion, have significan­tly lowered the barriers for an artist to work with someone across the globe. Streaming has also lowered the curtain on the idea of genres as silos: fans no longer expect artists to stick to a particular sound and celebrate unique innovation instead.

But the biggest change—one that has been accelerate­d by the pandemic—is the increasing dependence on social media and digital reach as a measure of success. With each big pop star having a captive audience of millions of followers, it has never been easier to crossmarke­t, and fandom-driven engagement is relatively independen­t of the actual quality of the collaborat­ion. The ‘1+1=3’ formula of cross-marketing has never been easier to implement.

The approach does have its pitfalls, though. Some of these collabs are so obviously dreamed up in a boardroom that it taints the thrill of discoverin­g a new artist and poring over their catalogue. Quality also suffers when the bigger artist does the collab as a favour, phoning it in or sending in an old verse—making the track into a collage rather than a real collab. But the biggest problem is that the internatio­nal collab is no magic pill—it cannot solve the basic problem of a domestic music industry that is risk-averse and does not award innovation. It isn’t language or the lack of a big brand feature that’s kept Indian artists from becoming global stars— the problems run far deeper, starting with a serious lack of investment in finding and developing innovative Indian talent. Until that happens—bar an isolated success or two—no number of big-name collaborat­ors can put India on the path of Latin-pop or K-pop. All this hype, it’s no more than lipstick on a pig. ■

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Top, Badshah (right) and J. Balvin recently collaborat­ed on the song ‘Voodoo’; left, a new remix of Ed Sheeran’s ‘2Step’ featured Armaan Malik; inset,Priyanka Chopra’s song ‘Exotic’ (2011) saw her collaborat­e with Pitbull
Streaming has lowered the curtain on the idea of genres as silos: fans no longer expect artists to stick to a particular sound, and celebrate unique innovation
MANDAR DEODHAR FUSION, FISSION Top, Badshah (right) and J. Balvin recently collaborat­ed on the song ‘Voodoo’; left, a new remix of Ed Sheeran’s ‘2Step’ featured Armaan Malik; inset,Priyanka Chopra’s song ‘Exotic’ (2011) saw her collaborat­e with Pitbull Streaming has lowered the curtain on the idea of genres as silos: fans no longer expect artists to stick to a particular sound, and celebrate unique innovation
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