A viral video in July 2020 sparked a movement demanding lyricists be credited for their work in the music and film industry.
By Amit Gurbaxani
At the end of July, over a dozen Hindi film lyricists, who usually remain behind the scenes, made a rare appearance in front of the camera. They banded together for “a humble demand” — to ask for “proper credits on music streaming platforms and YouTube channels”. They made their request in the best way they know how, through song. Written by Kausar Munir, Swanand Kirkire and Varun Grover, composed by Chinmayi Tripathi and Joell Mukherjii and sung by Kirkire, “Credit De Do Yaar” is an earworm of a tune with a breeziness that belies the sense of anguish that evoked its conceptualisation.
The music video for it, which features its three co-writers and fellow lyricists such as Abhiruchi Chand, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Anvita Dutt, Hussain Haidry, Kumaar, Manoj Muntashir, Mayur Puri, Neelesh Mishra, Puneet Sharma, Raj Shekhar, Sameer, and Shellee, swiftly went viral on social media. Consequently, it drew public attention to the sad reality that despite being as important as composers and singers to the creation and success of popular music in India, lyricists are the last to be acknowledged for their contribution. “[The hierarchy is] actor, then the singer, then the composer, then the lyric writer,” said Grover at a panel discussion also entitled ‘Credit De Do Yaar’ at the 2020 edition of the All About Music conference in August.
The struggle for due credit is one that lyricists have been dealing with for decades, Kirkire told the audience at the event. It started, he said, with All India Radio, which initially would only name the hero and heroine on which a song was picturised. They subsequently started mentioning the singer and composer but it wasn’t until Sahir Ludhianvi persisted that they cite the lyricist as well that the track’s writers were credited.
Similarly, when private FM channels launched, a lot of them didn’t announce the names of composers or lyricists until Javed Akhtar’s consistent efforts resulted in a change. Today, history is repeating itself on digital platforms. “As and when the mode of music consumption has shifted, this problem has occurred and a fight needs to be fought,” Kirkire said.
Today, the lyricists are not only calling for the addition of their names where they’re absent, but the correct placement and display of the credits as well. Most audio-streaming services follow the western convention of treating both composers and lyricists as songwriters. On Spotify, for instance, there is no separate field for lyricists. Instead the lyricist’s name is included, along with that of the composer, under the ‘Written By’ field. And this is only viewable if you click on the ellipsis near the song title and choose ‘Show Credits’.
Munir disagrees with Spotify’s clubbing of the composer and the lyricist under the same field. “You can’t say ‘written by’ the composer,” she says. “He or she didn’t write a word of it. That’s misinformation. It takes away from your credit and perhaps royalty because you share those. It’s wrong cataloguing.”
Many music industry insiders feel the lyricists are justified in their demand to be mentioned as the main artists alongside the singer and music director. “What they’re saying is that the composers and the lyricists are the owners of the soul of the song [so] why will you not treat the lyricist equal to the composer and the singer?” says Tarsame Mittal, the founder of artist management company TM Talent Management, which organises All About Music and whose roster includes Bhattacharya. “‘Channa Meraya’ is composed by Pritam, written by Amitabh Bhattacharya and sung by Arijit Singh. In the YouTube tags or on Spotify, why should it only say Arijit Singh?”
According to Mittal, the argument for lyricists to be given title credit is further strengthened by the fact that they are poorly remunerated for their services. Unlike composers and vocalists, they don’t typically have other potential sources of income such as live concerts and brand endorsements. “They get paid peanuts,” he says. “There are only ten lyricists who get decent money. Most of them don’t even get a lakh for a song.” As per industry estimates, while top-rung lyricists get around Rs3 lakh per song on average, the compensation can be as low as Rs30,000, depending on factors such as the production house behind the film, the budget of the movie, the music director composing the soundtrack and the experience and market status of the writer.
There is some debate over whether record companies or streaming services decide how metadata appears on audio OTT platforms. An executive at one of India’s major labels believes the issue is one of “marketability”. “Labels should include the lyricist more prominently in their sales pitches,” they say. “[This way, the DSPs will start to] acknowledge that it’s not just the singer and composer but also the lyricist who’s an accomplished artist of repute and has a certain listener base. When users keep seeing the name of a lyricist, that lyricist will start getting more popular.”
Encouragingly, in the three months since “Credit De Do Yaar” came out, Gaana and Spotify have both got in touch with the lyricists behind the campaign. “There’s definitely been positive movement,” says Munir. “We’ve been noticing a shift. [For] whatever has been released [recently], our name is being [included] more often than not. The archive remains a problem. They’re trying to figure that out.”
Finding a permanent solution would entail, as she puts it, “systemic change” for Digital Service Providers (DSPs), which will need to go from merely duplicating western formats to adapting them for local situations. On its part, Spotify says they’re working on it. “We have engaged with lyricists and their concerns are largely around specific credit attribution to lyricists versus grouping it under other categories, missing credit, and access to analytics,” says a spokesperson.
Reconfiguring how users are shown credits for lyricists “would require a rewriting of display, credits model, and way to capture the information that comes in.” Though they haven’t said when this might happen, they haven’t ruled out executing it. “We want to localise as much as we can, and we’re constantly building/developing features,” the spokesperson says.
In the meantime, Spotify India has demonstrated their commitment to the cause with the addition of ‘Lyrics By’ playlists this month, starting with those showcasing the works of Akhtar, Dutt, Grover and Kirkire. Given other audio-streaming services’s tendency to closely watch and replicate the features of the global market leader, we can reasonably hope that its Indian counterparts will follow suit soon.