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AN EXPLOSION OF SINGERS - 'Singers are doing more stage shows than playback singing'

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By The music industry is suddenly awash with talent. Television shows have launched hordes of new singers in the last two years. Nearly all are making money, report Gouri Shukla and Velly Thevar
  • Published 12.03.06

Vinit Singh may be a mega star in his hometown Lucknow, but he has no immediate plans of returning home. The 17-year-old, who broke down on stage when he won the second spot in a popular singing contest on television last month, has too busy a schedule ahead of him to even think of a homecoming. “I don’t want to go back now,” he says.

The boy who couldn’t appear for his higher secondary examinations because of the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Voice of India contest has at least three playback assignments to look forward to. “I know this is my calling. I’m going to work hard to make a name in the music industry,” he says.

Suddenly, the music industry in Mumbai is awash with talent. Every other channel ? from Zee to Sony to Channel V ? has a singing contest, and every contest its share of stars. And it appears that nearly every singer has a contract in hand as well. Says singer Sonu Nigam, who used to host Zee’s Sa Re Ga Ma in the 1990s, “Previously it was tough for even winners to make it in the music industry. Now the risks of depending on a music show as a launch pad are far too low.”

Since 2003, industry insiders reckon, the glitz, glamour and gruelling training on the sets have launched 20 to 30 new singers. “A talent show is now the starting point of a singer’s career, it gives you the guarantee of a career,” says Nikhil Alva, partner, Miditech Productions, producers of Indian Idol and Fame Gurukul, two popular talent search programmes on Sony.

Every programme has thrown up a pool of formidable talent. There is quite a buzz about singers such as Abhijeet Sawant, Amit Sana, Prajakta Shukre, Debojit Saha, Vinit Singh, Himani Kapur, Hemachandran, Nihira Joshi, Qazi and Rooprekha. Sony is currently airing the second season of Indian Idol, and a few would-be singers are already making a name for themselves. The young singers are making money, and quite a few are leaving a mark on the industry.

Abhijeet Sawant, last year’s Indian Idol, sold an unprecedented 900,000 copies of his debut album within six months of its launch last April. Or take Nihira Joshi, a Sa Re Ga Ma Pa contestant who was among the last five contenders for the cup before she was voted out. Joshi has already bagged a contract for Nikhil Advani’s new film Alagh, a title song for Zee TV and one for music composers Jatin-Lalit.

“When I entered the contest, I was prepared for any eventuality,” says the 19-year-old who says she has been planning a career in playback singing since the age of nine. “I always knew that this was a good platform for me, whether I lost or won,” adds Joshi.

Or take 25-year-old Naresh Iyer, who was eliminated in Channel V’s Super Singer contest last year but bagged a contract with composer A.R. Rehman, who was one of his judges. Says Iyer, now famous for his songs in Rang De Basanti: “I always wanted to become a playback singer and even sing for A.R. Rehman one day but I didn’t think it would happen so soon.” Iyer now shuttles between Mumbai and Chennai, doing playback singing for Hindi and Tamil films.

It was perhaps Indian Idol 1, the first show last year to incorporate audience votes for elimination, that made television shows a serious breeding ground for musical talent. Recognition and contracts didn’t come that easily to the earlier batch of TV contest winners ? including such singers as Shreya Ghosal and Sunidhi Chauhan. Thanks to audience votes ? a format welcomed by TV producers since they make money on SMS’ ? the new lot comes with ready-made fan clubs.

Gajendra Singh, producer of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Zee TV’s longest running talent hunt, agrees that the contests now offer more visibility and fame than ever before. “Zee TV too focuses more on creating excitement and recall for the show as well as participants now,” he says.

The eyeball-garnering capacity of the first Indian Idol series has encouraged hundreds of would-be singers. Participants are aware that a TV show promotes their chances of a career in music more than anything else.

That’s exactly what egged on 19-year-old Himani Kapur to move from hometown Faridabad to Mumbai to participate in the Zee TV contest. A few months down the line, she’s not ready to leave Mumbai. She has started doing playback singing and has bagged a three-year contract with Zee Events for stage shows.

And, clearly, there is something for everybody ? at least to begin with. Some are doing playback singing, even though the newcomers’ fees are nothing to write home about. And quite a few are doing that along with a new trend in showbiz ? that of glitzy stage shows.

Stage presentations demand a performance, and quite a few of the finalists in the TV contests have been groomed into doing just that in their shows. For television, along with its focus on presentation, has thrown up a bunch of singers who are not just tuneful but an eyeful as well.

So Prajakta Shukre, who was among the finalists in the first Indian Idol series, has dropped a year for her stage shows and singing career. Though the 17-year-old recently cut an album, she is practical enough to know that stage shows are where the money is.

Shukre did playback singing for Shaadi No. 1. More recently, she recorded two lines for a song in a yet-to-be-released film called Jaaneman. But this is not where name or fame lies, and the young singers know that. Says Vishal Kothari, another Indian Idol contestant, “I am lucky to be selected by Anu Malik for a song in a forthcoming film but I have done more stage shows, having traversed all over the country.”

The money in stage shows is many times more than what new playback singers earn. While established singers charge about Rs 25,000-Rs 50,000 for a playback assignment, or Asha Bhonsle gets the highest fee ? a whopping Rs 2 lakh ? for a song, the young singers get to charge no more than Rs 3,000-5,000 for a song. And some are even willing to sing without a fee if it helps a career take off.

“In the film industry, cost is the last factor of consideration,” says music director Pritam Chakraborty. “Most of the time, new and old talent co-exist till the old voices become too old for the actors,” says the composer of Dhoom.

On the other hand, for a stage show, while well-known singers pocket Rs 5-8 lakh per show, the top freshers can easily charge Rs 1 lakh ? which is not small change for a newcomer. Himani Kapur, for instance, is paid Rs 1.12 lakh per show.

While money is a factor, a new trend of songless films is also pushing more and more singers into focusing on stage shows. Films such as Kaal, Bluff Master and Samay had two or three songs as opposed to the 15 songs that an average film once boasted of.

Not surprisingly, fresh-faced Rahul Vaidya, a Mumbai-based 17-year-old collegian who was voted out of Indian Idol in the final rounds, is busy doing stage shows. Apart from the Rs 20 lakh contract that he signed with Sony and a few playback assignments, Vaidya keeps himself busy by travelling across the country and performing on an average at seven musical shows a month. Amit Sana, Vaidya’s co-participant and first runner-up in Indian Idol 1, too has bagged playback offers in a couple of Hindi films but is a regular on the stage show circuit.

“This is the new format ? singers are now doing stage shows first and playback singing as an afterthought,” says Savio D’Souza, general secretary of the Indian Music Industry, an association of music companies that fights piracy. “But we have to wait and watch. So far we do not know whether the new trend is good, bad or ugly.”

A final verdict is still to be delivered, but what Shukre knows is that her stage shows are getting more and more sophisticated. “Before Indian Idol happened, I used to perform in stage shows where I was flanked by a harmonium playing artiste on one end and a tabla artiste on the other. I stood in the centre, nervous as hell, but singing on. But after Indian Idol, I have been transformed into a performer and I even egg the audience to sing along with me.”

Like Shukre, the new lot is young, often talented and almost always ambitious. But the industry seems quite sanguine about the flood of new talent. “There’s place for all kinds of voices in this industry. And competition is only healthy,” says Sonu Nigam.

Hiren Gada of Shemaroo Audio, a recording company, says that the firm is looking at voices that are different and have an instant market appeal. “We go for a voice that the market demands. The singers will have to take the songs to a different level and those who will do it are the ones who will stand out. This is the area where the boys will be separated from the men,” he says.

But the question being asked is whether stage shows will be able to sustain the growing number of artistes almost factory produced by talent-hunt programmes. Says Shivaji Gupta, vice-president of Universal Music, a company that launched the singing careers of Falguni Pathak and Bali Brahmbatt: “The shelf life of artistes these days is low. So they need to reinvent themselves.”

Some caution that stage shows may not flourish for ever. Industry-wallahs say that though there is a whole new array of forums such as Planet M, Music World and the malls and corporate events that are beckoning singers from talent search programmes, the question is of viability. “In the West, people pay to see singers perform live on stage, whereas in India most of these are sponsored shows. So you have to keep looking for sponsors,” says Savio D’Souza.

Adds Shivaji Gupta, “Ultimately, it does not matter if you are a performer or not. Your voice should speak for yourself.”

The survivors in the industry would agree. Sanjeevani Bhelande, who started her playback career after winning the runners-up cup in Sa Re Ga Ma in 1995, says that 10 years and a few playback songs later, she still doesn’t like being called an “established” singer. “You might get your first break easily but after that it’s an uphill task,” she says.

For the time being, though, life’s a song.