Bollywood Digital Music and the Galapagos Effect

Today was Mother’s Day. My gift for my wife was a compilation of Bollywood songs on a CD that she can play during her commute. I spent a good bit of time on Saavn and iTunes to put the compilation together. It got me thinking about the Indian digital music scene once again.

Saavn is a new and upcoming internet music streaming service for Indian music. You can stream any song in their very comprehensive library on demand. The quality of streaming is pretty good, at least out here in the US. The website is simple to use, though some minor UX issues could do with some attention. (btw, why don’t songs have composers as a field?)

You can make your own playlists, or just play playlists that other people have saved. I used their Weekly Top Songs as a jumping off point for my compilation.

Raaga is a competing website that has been around longer. Both these websites have the same ad supported business model. Currently, it is mostly display ads. Eventually, I expect audio ads. Both websites have Android and iPhone apps.

Overall, this ad-supported on-demand streaming model seems the most interesting thing happening in Indian digital music. They have completely handed over control of the download business to Apple, which is a shame. But that’s a different subject.

Funny thing is, this model doesn’t exist for digital music in the US. Here, on demand streaming is like owning the song. With wireless broadband now, for all practical purposes, one is never cut off from the cloud. If I can stream any song at-will, with high quality streaming it’s not very different from owning it.

In the US therefore, there is no ad-supported on-demand streaming model. You can subscribe to a whole library for a period of time which means more $$ (Rhapsody). Or you can buy and download all the songs you want for much more $$ (iTunes). [In Europe, Spotify is a little like Saavn, which is why they are having trouble entering the US].

Then there is the ad-supported model called internet radio. The differentiating characteristic of internet radio is that the user has no control over what song is played next. Pandora, the leader in this model, is expected to have an IPO soon. In India Bombay Production follows this model.

How is it that Indian digital music seems to be evolving very differently from western digital music? The answer is what I will call the Galapagos effect. The way unique species developed on the Galapagos island (or Madagascar) because it was cut off from the mainland, the same way, Indian digital music is insulated enough from the western industry that it can and will mould itself differently.

Copyright law is very tricky. It differs from country to country. Which is why you can’t get Pandora outside the US. Or Netflix. Or many books on the Kindle. It also works the other way, as in the case of Spotify.

Indian copyright law is different enough that Pandora or Rhapsody is going to avoid the hassle and instead focus on its US business.

But that’s not all. Broadband infrastructure is a key enabler for digital music. In India, that infrastructure so far has been well behind developed countries’. In fact, it might be argued that so far, the target listener for Saavn like companies has been mainly the NRI. This might change soon as broadband and 3G penetration increase.

So, while Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody pass on the Indian market, it leaves white spaces for startups to exploit. That is, until Apple decides to go after the Indian market. They already have almost the entire market for Indian digital music. And they are rumored to be planning a cloud service for streaming your music. Which will be easy to extend since Indian copyright laws allow it.

In the meanwhile, I’m not complaining. I get to listen to any song I want on Saavn for free. If I’m feeling lazy I go to Bombay Production. It’s free and uninterrupted. Pretty good deal.

But I worry about the future. I want Saavn to survive. This morning I spent 2 hours on pulling together my compilation. Most of that was on Saavn which was incredibly useful. But then I went and spent $20 on iTunes. Doesn’t seem fair.


  1. StatSpotting says:

    “Currently, it is mostly display ads. Eventually, I expect audio ads. ”
    Raaga already has audio ads.


  2. StatSpotting says:

    “Most of that was on Saavn which was incredibly useful. But then I went and spent $20 on iTunes. Doesn’t seem fair.”

    – just a comparison in the offline space, I spent 4-5 hours in a Best Buy store comparing TV models then spent 1000 plus dollars on ebay.

    Maybe like saavn does with ads, Best Buy shd charge people for checking out products. Or, are they doing it already in some form?


  3. Param says:

    If the international players with significantly larger volumes cannot make money from ads (Spotify put a cap on their free, ad-supported plan; Pandora as you point out has a unique licensing model), I can’t see how Indian players can. Something has to give at some point. My guess is that Raaga started allowing downloads because of this. (It’s another thing that their downloads are DRMised and has found few takers.) Indian music services have to look at revenue streams other than ads.


    1. Something has to give at some point.

      Agree. I think the model needs to change. On demand streaming for free just doesn’t make sense to me. Amazon and now reportedly Google offer on demand streaming but for music you own. To offer it for ads is just giving it away for saavn/raaga as well as the music industry.

      Cheap downloads is the way to go. Plus you need to crack down on websites that offer illegal downloads.


  4. Aarti says:

    I thought it was interesting that Google Music (India) plays music from Saavn – what gives?


    1. I think they started out playing music from multiple sources. Can’t say if they now play only Saavn music. But Google doesn’t allow you to make playlists so it is interesting but not useful for regular listeners.


  5. seema sinha says:

    I am using Raaga for a long time and it is the best music site in my view.You can find any song on this website.Thanks for providing information on saavn.It looks cool.


  6. Ashish Pradhan says:

    Dear Basab,
    Looks like Google has done some tie-up with (?) All searches at Google-Music ( ) …seem to be pointing to And yes, would agree that the sound quality at is very nice.

    On another note, Congratulations on yr new-role or good luck if the same is not yet confirmed – A leader with your foresight is what we need in the IT-space back home here!


  7. Basab – Thanks for writing your articles on Bollywood music. I found it quite interesting and informational. I am part of a small start up called We are exploring the possibility of building a social platform that makes it very easy and simple for Bollywood Music fans to sing songs, hear their own recordings and share with friends essentially trying to leverage new distribution channels such as the web and mobile devices. We have a free service on the web, a free iphone app called ‘Geetnet’ and are in the process of developing an app for Android.

    It would be great to hear your feedback and get your insights/opinion on the potential of the target market we are chasing.


  8. S.C.Jolly says:

    Dear Basab,
    I have been getting regularly your blogs (6.A.M Pacific ).I found them quite interesting & actually wait for them.
    I am writing this as I have changed my service provider ,my e mailI id has changed.
    You may not remember me.I am Monish jolly’s father & I used to come from Yamunanagar to meet you guys in Air Force school.I retired as Chief Executive of that company& now live in Delhi.
    I heard you hv joined as Head Global sales at Infosys.Congratulations &wishing all the best.


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