The South Asian Music Invasion?

Record companies are hoping "Indipop" is the next big thing

For the past few months, EMI's Virgin Records has been running TV ads to promote Indian pop diva Alisha in the Middle East and in France, where Virgin executives think her Arabic-inspired crooning will catch on. And in Singapore in May, 1,200 people--four times the number expected--crowded into the Hard Rock Cafe to hear Indian singing duo Colonial Cousins belt out its mix of Indian lyrics and Western rhythms.

Does this mean the next Ricky Martin could be from India? Multinational record companies--buoyed by the stratospheric rise of the Puerto Rican singer whose pop song Livin' La Vida Loca hit No. 1 on U.S. pop charts--are hoping so. In the continuing crossover of world music into the mainstream, music promoters are putting money on the hope that India will catch on. Since 1997, Sony Music, HMV, EMI's Virgin, and Seagram's Polygram have invested nearly $50 million to promote Indian pop musicians, both in India and abroad. "For many Westerners, Indian music provides a link to a world of spirituality and authenticity which is often missing in the more frenetic, secular West," says Don Lindgren, associate director of artistic development for Sony Music International. "This is a big part of what Western artists seek to identify with when they use Indian musicians and sounds in their work."

EXPAT MARKET. Sony Music Entertainment Inc. has been the most bullish so far. It has put about $10 million into signing up promising Indian artists, producing their music, and marketing it. Sony realized India's music potential seriously when, last year, the pop soundtrack of an Indian blockbuster movie, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens), to which Sony bought rights, sold more than 600,000 copies outside India, mostly in Britain. That's just 10% of its sales in India, but it was Sony's largest-selling Indian album outside India. Next, Sony plans to release Colonial Cousins' new CD in the U.S. early next year. The duo had proved so popular in India with its first album in 1996 that MTV hosted them on its popular Unplugged segment--the first, and so far only, Indian pop group to be featured.

HMV Music Group is focusing on selling to India's wealthy expatriates, living in places such as Britain, the U.S., Asia, and Africa. That population of 10 million to 15 million has an estimated annual income of $375 billion and an insatiable appetite for Indian music and movies. In June, HMV's Indian promoter, RPG Group, listed its $20 million subsidiary, Saregama, on Ofex, England's mid-cap bourse. The company, set up in 1996, manufactures and sells Indian film, pop, and contemporary classical music through retail outlets in Europe and Britain. Selling to Indians overseas is a natural niche for music promoters because the influence of Indipop grows from the Indian community and then spreads, says Mishal Varma, senior programming director for MTV Networks Asia in Singapore.

VIDEO BARRAGE. There have been such successes before. Traditional Indian melodies and percussion, mixed with U.S.-inspired hip-hop and techno rhythms, were all the rage in London and New York nightclubs two years ago. The biggest of these--Talvin Singh, Bally Sagoo, and Cornershop--drew wide audiences in the underground club scene and scored commercial successes in London. So did pop star Daler Mehndi, who used to run a taxi business in California before he was discovered by Indian music company Magnasound, the first to popularize Indian pop music. Those musicians, says Varma, have "opened people up to different influences and avenues of experimenting with different music."

Indian music content is increasing on MTV's international channels. Hopeful record companies now send MTV 40 Indian music videos a day, up from 80 per year in 1996. As a result, 70% of the videos shown on the MTV channel airing across the Middle East and South and Central Asia are now Indian.

For the moment, however, the biggest market for Indian music is in India. Sales are small in dollar terms--just $400 million a year--and pirating takes a huge toll. But sales have been growing 20% annually for the past decade. Soundtracks from Hindi films make up 70% of sales, but Indipop's popularity is growing. Critics say the music is still mostly bubble-gum and largely derivative. But the Spice Girls are bubblegum, too. Their Indian counterparts could be just a song away.