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How older Indians are taking to OTT music apps

Ease, convenience and access continue to drive the listening patterns of older users as they try to come to terms with OTT music apps

Older users believe a lot of music has actually disappeared in this era of streaming and instant availability
Older users believe a lot of music has actually disappeared in this era of streaming and instant availability (iStockphoto)

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Every millennial or Gen Z-er has had to deal with a parent or grandparent who is deeply dissatisfied, confused or frustrated with the seemingly simple act of listening to music. In most instances, it’s to do with their painstakingly digitised music archives becoming obsolete. Sometimes, a file may not be compatible with their mobile devices. Or, the file itself may be corrupted.

The simple solution may be to sign up on a music streaming app that will allow access to thousands of songs, artists and albums. However, for those born in the 1950s and 1960s—a generation that has gone from radios and transistors to record players, cassettes, CDs, and then to downloaded and sideloaded files—paying to “stream” music they can never feel real ownership of doesn’t always come easy.

Nor does it offer the same satisfaction. You cannot browse through songs you had curated over decades and play an old favourite you had almost forgotten about. And you may not find that music in the sea of pre-populated home pages on most new-age streaming apps.

Goa-based writer and photographer Vivek Menezes, 53, says that “in the era of streaming and instant availability of almost everything, a lot of music has actually disappeared”. An avid collector, Menezes was keen to introduce his sons to music from South America and various West African bands he had grown up discovering. “But they only exist in some of my old CD and record collections now. In this ubiquity of music, where I can find 200 Celia Cruz songs in a second if I want to, the ones that affected me the most are not available,” he says.

In the move to streaming, Menezes has lost about 25-30% of the music he had collected, despite keeping up with the quickly changing landscape of file formats. When he got an iPod in the early 2000s, he had digitised a lot of his collection. “When that died, it took so much of my music with it.” He now listens to music much less than he used to. When he plays something online, it’s from YouTube streamed through his smart TV—anecdotally, YouTube would seem to be the preferred option of many older users.

For, while OTT music apps have opened up access and consumption, aficionados like Menezes also rue that this has made the process of listening to music much less of a communal experience. “Everyone is now plugged into their own thing. The teenager point of view (at home) is, ‘you are listening to what you like, why can’t I listen to what I like?’”

During the pandemic, when families were locked in for months, millennials and Gen Z-ers started easing their elders into the use of these apps. Today, there are nine major ones: Gaana, Apple Music, Spotify, JioSaavn, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, Airtel’s Wynk, Hungama Music and Resso. Industry sources say that in the pre-covid era, most apps saw only new tracks doing well; since the lockdown, though, they have seen a small but clear uptick in those primarily preferring songs from a few decades ago. 

“(Over this time) many of them were forced to get exposed to streaming apps through the younger lot, while earlier they wouldn’t come to these apps at all, finding it difficult to access, understand and navigate,” says Vikram Mehra, managing director of Saregama India Ltd, India’s oldest music label. 

In 2017, Saregama launched the Carvaan, an offline vintage-style music player that comes with 5,000 preloaded “evergreen” songs. With variants launched for Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali and Punjabi, the aim was to make digital music consumption easy and familiar-looking for older listeners. It also did away with the need for signing up, subscribing, or putting in credit or debit card details.

In a 23-city study done in 2016 in the lead-up to the launch of Carvaan, Mehra says three things stood out: Most older users valued the convenience of listening over control of their libraries; they wanted to be less dependent on others to get their music; and more often than not, they craved the comfort of music from a time when they were in the 15-28 age group.

To an extent, this holds true for Delhi-based Prakriti Prasad, 51, a parenting coach. “We still tune in to Doordarshan’s Rangoli between 8-9am every Sunday,” she says. Prasad and her husband are Dev Anand and Kishore Kumar fans and though catalogues on streaming apps have yesteryear Bollywood songs, this is a ritual the couple has kept going. Other than this, they primarily use YouTube to pull up a song they want or ask voice assistant Alexa to help.

Sometimes, though, Alexa doesn’t get it or plays a remix of an old track. Other times, Prasad has to “sift through (on YouTube) a lot to get to what I like, and that is a little difficult. Earlier, you just picked a CD or cassette that you wanted and played it,” she says, recalling college days when she would go to a shop with a list of songs she wanted recorded on a cassette.

When asked if she has tried replicating this process online by making playlists, Prasad confesses that her college-going daughter tells her the same thing. “Maybe we just need to buck up at the end of the day and learn,” she says with a chuckle.

In Kolkata, Sankar Prasad Datta, 66, too finds YouTube easiest to use. Like Menezes, though, Datta experiences a huge loss of the songs and albums he was most attached to. “I am looking for some specific albums I had. One is a cassette from the 1980s, featuring Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Boy George. It’s just not there. The other is a particular LP by this Hindustani singer called Sharafat Hussain Khan. I cannot find that either.”  

To some extent, the dissatisfaction is driven by nostalgia. In terms of content especially, it’s not an easy hurdle to cross. A study by the France-based music streaming app Deezer in 2018, for instance, found most of us stop listening to new music after about the age of 30.

Datta, however, says he’s always up for new music—but only when it really “touches the heart. Being an Indian, I also invariably listen to contemporary Bollywood music. I like Pritam and Ismail Darbar but I just feel like compositions were better earlier.”  

In 2018, the HCL Corporation launched its HCL Music app, hoping to make a catalogue of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music available on OTT. However, the app, rated well on both PlayStore and AppStore, is used largely by a below-40 demographic. Users over 50 comprise only a “high single-digit percentage” of their “multiple lakhs of installs”, says Rohit Kaul, the general manager of marketing in charge of HCL Concerts and HCL Music. Older users flocked, however, to HCL’s non-app avenues for streaming their extensive Indian classical catalogue—the over-50 demographic accounted for 25% of HCL Concerts’ livestream viewers on Facebook and YouTube. “It is ease, convenience and access that drives their listening patterns,” Kaul adds.

The overall convenience and accessibility of YouTube also stems from the fact that it comes pre-installed on Android phones, which account for at least 90% of the Indian smartphone market.

For Saraswati Rajagopalan, a Delhi-based Carnatic veena artist who retired from All India Radio, YouTube works best because it’s easy, has “mostly everything”—and there’s a video option if she wants a glimpse of the expressions of the artists she’s listening to. In Vadodara, Gujarat, Harish Lakhani, 60, switches between the radio and YouTube for the music his wife and he prefer: old Hindi film songs, bhajans and kirtans. They find streaming on this platform easy; a simple Google search of a song invariably takes them to YouTube.

Many older users grew up with the transistor on at home at all times—it would hum along as people went about their day, took naps, and through post-dinner family gatherings. When satellite TV channels started diversifying in the 2000s, many would leave the music-only channels on to beam music videos through meals and household chores. 

Even today, Jaipur-based Soundara Viswanathan, 56, leaves Tamil music channels like Raj Music or Sun Music running in the background through her morning chores. In Kolkata, Datta’s wife too cooks with music on—but though she uses YouTube at other times, she likes the FM radio for her morning tunes.

This listening pattern is also in line with the data Mehra sees through the return path coded in Carvaan devices—the average per day listening time never dips below 6-7 hours, he says.

When spending evenings with her on the terrace, Viswanathan’s neighbour brings along her Carvaan. The two are also on large music-themed WhatsApp groups, through which they exchange YouTube links. Viswanathan, an amateur singer, uses just one other app—Smule, a karaoke app that has her singing solos live and collaborating on duets with other users from around the world. “So really, there’s no need for a JioSaavn or Apple or Spotify for me.”

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