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Music in the age of algorithm

Algorithms of short-video-sharing platforms have come to dictate not only how music is marketed and consumed but also composed

A lot of music labels are asking artists to give them a window of 15 seconds in a song, preferably with a hook step, that instantly connects with the audience on Reels.
A lot of music labels are asking artists to give them a window of 15 seconds in a song, preferably with a hook step, that instantly connects with the audience on Reels. (iStock)

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Shekhar Ravjiani is upskilling these days. The musician, who has worked in the Hindi film industry for 25 years, is trying to learn the ways of Instagram, particularly its TikTok-aping short video sharing feature, Reels. “My daughter tells me it’s important for your songs to trend on Reels,” says the 40-something singer and music director who makes up one half of the Vishal-Shekhar music production duo.

His teenaged daughter isn’t wrong. Artists and labels overwhelmingly agree that a clip trending on Reels often leads to a sharp increase in traffic for the song on streaming platforms, boosting earnings. And a clip trends because of the much-talked-about algorithm. As tech writers have repeatedly pointed out, the algorithms of TikTok-like apps are primed to assume that you “like” a particular audio clip if you have watched the video. They then throw up similar videos that may be set in a different context but feature the same audio. Soon, the song becomes an earworm, setting off a chain reaction where more people use the same audio clip in their videos—either to ride the trend or simply because it is top-of-the-mind. Eventually, the song goes viral.

In 2021, the Indian music industry clocked an annual revenue of Rs. 1,500 crore for the third consecutive year, according to the latest report by the Indian Music Industry (IMI), the apex body representing record labels across the country. Most music labels in India spend a major part of their marketing budgets promoting songs on YouTube, Instagram Reels and home-grown equivalents like Josh and Moj. It started with TikTok over two years ago when the Chinese app, then still available in India, had become a major music- and artist-discovery channel. Spending in the West continues to be divided between TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, with a small percentage going towards radio, outdoor, and playlist curators to try and make it to popular playlists on streaming platforms.

“In the pre-digital era, we used consumer research to understand music trends or just went with our gut,” recalls Vikram Mehra, managing director of Saregama. “Now we get billions of data points from all over the internet telling us about the consumption patterns, likes, dislikes. Data indicates that short-video sharing platforms have a big influence on music trends.”

It’s led to a sort of template for music-making. “A lot of music labels are asking artists to give them a window of 15 seconds in a song, preferably with a hook step, that instantly connects with the audience on Reels,” says Asees Kaur, a popular Bollywood playback singer, whose track Raataan Lambiyan (from the film Shershaah) was trending on Reels recently.

Most record labels spend several lakhs of rupees on getting popular social media users to post Reels using this 15-second clip. “If you are betting big on a song, you might set aside a marketing budget of, say, 1 crore just for Reels.... You will try to rope in a top film star to post one for 25-30 lakh,” says the head of one of the top five music labels in India. “Next, you get half a dozen TV actors to make promotional Reels at 5 lakh each. Former Bigg Boss participants are always in high demand in this category,” he adds. “Then come the top 10-20 internet celebrities and dancer-creators, who take 2-3 lakh each. The remaining 10 lakh is allocated among thousands of micro and nano influencers to make it seem like regular people are also enjoying your song.”

Ravjiani says phases such as these come and go every few years in the music world, which he has been a part of for over two decades. “Right now, some platforms have become important to the young audience. I am trying to understand what this new generation likes,” he adds. Just the other day, he learnt the word “drop”—also essential for a viral clip—from his daughter. Drop (or beat drop) is a point in a soundtrack when there’s a sudden change in rhythm. “‘Beat dropping’ became popular on social media in early 2019 with a clip from Old Town Road, a 2018 song by American rapper Lil Nas X that went viral on TikTok globally,” explains Shakti Shetty, copywriter and vlogger, whose playlist is filled with songs he has discovered through TikTok and Reels over the last three years. Billboard lists Old Town Road as the most successful song in US history in terms of digital song sales, all thanks to TikTok.

Not surprisingly, a beat drop has been integral to the structure of almost every 15-second clip that has trended on Reels in India, notes Anshuman Sharma, a 26-year-old musician from Delhi who is known for decoding the musical patterns of top artists in short, quirky videos that he posts on his social media handles.

He explains the structure: The first five-six seconds are low beats, indicative of a build-up section. Then there’s a break that sounds like a false ending, followed by a sudden transition to a faster/elevated beat, the drop. Listen carefully to any of the recent songs that created a sensation, like rapper Badshah’s Jugnu, singer-actor Harrdy Sandhu’s Bijlee Bijlee, or Sri Lankan singer-songwriter Yohani’s Manike Mage Hithe, and you will notice that each had a 15- to 30-second clip that was wildly popular on Reels, and that each clip had a drop. In two out of three such trending clips, “there’s a catchy hook line just before the transition—like ‘Tere pyaar mein chamkoon jaise jugnu’ (your love makes me shine like a firefly) from Jugnu, or ‘Chann di kudi’ (daughter of the moon) from Bijlee Bijlee. The lyrics are simple and make you want to dance”.

What’s so special about this structure? “People are looking for songs that have enough peaks and troughs and transitional turns in the audio to help them tell a story in a dramatic way,” says Priya Jhavar, creative director at Applause Entertainment, a content studio. The title track of Applause’s popular web series, Scam 1992, had peaks and troughs intentionally worked into it by composer Achint Thakkar to make it part of the aural memory of the show. Reels had just launched in India when Scam 1992 released in 2020, and “people were creating videos with their versions of the hook line of the soundtrack, from Taxi driver mujhe ghar chor de to Jiya meri girlfriend,” recalls Jhavar. The popular HBO show Succession, which premiered in 2018, had a similarly memorable title track that pianist Nicholas Britell composed to create a distinctive character for the show. It took on a life of its own on the internet, as a part of memes and mash-up videos across Reels and TikTok.

On short-video sharing platforms, “music has become a tool to complement a performative economy,” says Gurpreet Singh Bhasin, co-founder and chief operating officer (COO) of One Digital Entertainment, a leading content creation and marketing platform. “Choreographers are briefed to create a hook step that is easy enough for everyone to emulate on Reels. The work of a few artists has become an industry benchmark for their hook lines.”

Nikhil Dwivedi, founder of EYP Creations, represents more than 40 artists from the Punjabi music industry, including B Praak and Parmish Verma. “When composing a song, all of them look at creating a 15-second version that has a solid hook,” says Dwivedi. Some of his artists, like Jassie Gill, have recently collaborated with Instagram to launch songs exclusively for Reels.

To Ravjiani, this template feels somewhat “calculative”. “Songwriting has always been about a personal emotion coming out. How can you physically alter that (to suit a template)?” he says. He isn’t alone.

“(It) feels a bit disingenuous,” says singer-songwriter Anuv Jain, 26, who left his family business of manufacturing corrugated boxes in Ludhiana, Punjab, to take up music as a full-time career during the first nationwide lockdown in 2020 and has over a million monthly listeners on Spotify. “While composing a song, I find myself thinking something needs to happen every 15 seconds so listeners don’t leave. Our attention spans have reduced significantly; it’s a scary place to be in as a musician.”

“There’s a lot of pressure to be very catchy very quickly now, right from the first word,” says Vipasha Malhotra, 24, a singer-songwriter with about 70,000 subscribers/followers each on YouTube and Instagram. “If I pick one of the forever-trending themes, like unrequited love, write ‘You left me on ‘read’ (on WhatsApp)”, and add a catchy transition, it will resonate. But there cannot be a metaphor or poetry in the lyrics.” While writing music, she now thinks about not taking up too much space on the listener’s feed, “and sometimes it is hard to get someone connected to your story within 15-30 seconds”.

This phenomenon is playing out in India the same way it did in the West. A recent article on the Business Insider website explains how TikTok has influenced music discovery, promotion and creation. “Canadian rapper Tiagz built a following of 4.2 million fans on the app by writing songs that directly referenced the app’s popular memes and trends, effectively gaming its search and content recommendation algorithms,” the article notes.

A few international musicians, like Adele, are vehemently opposed to making music solely to trend. In an interview with Apple Music last November, the singer-songwriter said she disregarded her management’s advice that her music should appeal to “14-year-olds on TikTok”. “If everyone is making music for TikTok, who’s making music for my generation? I’ll gladly do that job,” she said. Despite this, TikTokers have used her latest track, Easy On Me, in over a million videos.

Leading Indian musicians like Arijit Singh steer clear of the Reels race but not everyone can afford to make that choice. “Everyone feels the pressure to make songs for Reels, especially for non-film music, because everyone wants their baby to succeed,” says playback singer Asees Kaur, who has hits like Makhna (Drive) and Ve Maahi (Kesari) under her belt.

“It’s very difficult to say if artists are influenced by what is happening across platforms; however, it will be naive to believe that they are not adapting to the current trends and utilising them to showcase their creativity,” says Vinit Thakkar, COO at Universal Music India. Universal Music owns the rights to Jugnu by Badshah, which was trending on Reels until recently.

Rapper Badshah doing the hook step from his viral track Jugnu.
Rapper Badshah doing the hook step from his viral track Jugnu. (Photo courtesy: Universal Music India; imaging: Rohit Goyal)

Some, like Sharma, believe that “when you have to ‘adapt’ your song to a platform, the art loses. People who believe in putting great art out there, lose. But they can always give up on their art,” he says, only half-jokingly.

Jain, whose slow-romantic track Baarishein has been used in over 32,000 Reels, says it doesn’t have to be a situation of either/or. “My music is slow but it can be used by travellers in their Reels. So, I try to educate listeners on how to use my songs for Reels, say, by putting a clip from one on a video of rain.” The indie artist gets a good response to these “sober Reels” too, he says.




Even as new releases jostle to trend, old songs across languages and genres resurface on short-video sharing platforms and trend organically. In September, Sagar Bora, a popular dancer, posted a Reel where he is dancing to a remix of an old classic, Koi Sehri Babu, with fellow dancer-creators Rupesh Soni and Piyush Gurbhele. Soon, thousands of users were making Reels with the song and copying his hook step. In November, Saregama, the label that owns the rights to the original song, came up with a remix of the 1973 track. Bora featured in promotional Reels for the new version—which has gained 37 million views on YouTube so far— doing the hook step he had popularised.

Songs that trend organically on Reels have helped eliminate entry barriers in the music industry. Singer Chitralekha Sen’s rendition of Rajasthani folk song Banna Re, which she recorded in collaboration with DJ Shadow Dubai, took off on Reels in early 2021 after celebrities like Madhuri Dixit Nene used it for the global “iPhone lock screen” trend, which sees a user staying still for a few seconds, pretending to be an image on the iPhone lock screen, and getting into action after a beat drop in the audio. “Every other label wants me to sing folk songs now,” says Sen from Rajasthan, who struggled to find her footing in the Indian music industry (and Mumbai) for nine years. While an audio search for the song on Instagram shows that it has been used in over 342,000 Reels as of date, Sen shows us how a number of users downloaded the audio and used it without proper attribution—either user malpractice or oversight—thus proving that the actual Reel numbers run into millions.

This also indicates that musicians have a lot less control over how their work is adapted and used on these platforms. Around this time last year, an upbeat version of the Punjabi folk song Bajre Da Sitta, featuring artists Rashmeet Kaur, Deep Kalsi and rapper Ikka, went viral on short-video sharing platforms, allegedly after a Canadian beauty creator used a clip from the song with a catchy beat drop in her “before-after” make-up video. Right now, two melancholic film songs, Ranjha (Shershaah) from India and Ghalat Fehmi (Superstar) from Pakistan, are being used by entertainment creators and meme pages to make funny Reels. Many direct-to-consumer brands also use these 15-second clips for their Instagram ads, again in ways that the original creator may not have intended the song to be used. “A popular song acts as a celebrity endorser for independent players like us,” says Vivek Chaturvedi, co-founder of Indie Jhola, a Jaipur-based artisanal lifestyle brand that set up its Instagram account just four months ago and used the song Manike Mage Hithe to promote a post recently. “It gave us a sudden thrust in likes. We got 38% site visits from this ad compared to the 10% visits normal ads get,” he says.

“But what if someone creates hateful, bigoted content on top of your music?" asks Krish Ashok, a tech professional, culinary author, musician and Lounge columnist. “With a billion visual variations to their songs, the artists are now part of the cultural zeitgeist not by insisting but by accepting the interpretation of their work.”




“If your song gets trending on Reels, more songs come to you and your fandom grows,” says Aditi Bhavaraju, a playback singer in the Telugu film industry. On the flip side, “if your song fails to make any mark on the app, it is believed that there is nothing special about it”. People with money for promotions can use the algorithm of these platforms to their advantage, she notes.

From the business standpoint, though, this may not always be sound strategy. “Some songs trending on Reels are a hit but a lot of it is just hogwash,” says Mandar Thakur, COO of Times Music. “You don’t know how much money has been poured into making it trend. Ultimately, the success of a song is determined by its ability to recover the cost and make profits, but I can tell you only five of the 100 so-called hits on Reels are able to translate that success on to streaming platforms that bring in revenues.”

In October, during a panel discussion at the industry conference All About Music, Haryanvi rapper KD Desi Rock said many artists now focus only on making a 15-second section of the song that will shine for Reels, and the underwhelming streaming numbers reflect the blandness of the rest of the track.

You see this play out at a global level too, says Sharma. “When Doja Cat performs live, you hear the audience get super excited in just those 15 seconds when the part of the song that trended on TikTok plays. For the rest of the song, they are just meh.”

Further, every trending song has a limited lifespan. On Josh, a home-grown TikTok alternative, a song trends for about 14 days, says Sunder Venketraman, head of creator and content ecosystem at the app. On Instagram, it can range from a week to a month. “What does help popularise the song is if there’s a trend or a challenge associated with it,” says Niharika Pande, strategic partner manager-Instagram at Facebook India.

Asees Kaur says people eventually got bored of some of her songs that went viral on Reels. This is, in fact, one of the biggest markers of a song attaining peak popularity these days, says Shruti Jani, a 25-year-old media professional from Pune. “People get sick and tired of a track because it is used so often by everyone in their posts.” And since multiple songs are going viral every few weeks now, singer-creator Malhotra feels we are getting bored with more songs more quickly.

Nevertheless, Ravjiani says one must honour a trend if it connects with so many people. He is learning how to use the app to promote his music but will not let a platform dictate how he makes music, he says. “A platform may shut down tomorrow but a melody will always remain.”

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