"Non-film music is the present and the future" - Arjun Kanungo

Pop-star Arjun Kanungo’s diverse discography has a song for every mood – his latest heart-rending single “Woh Baarishein” is a stark contrast to his debut track “Baaki Baatein Peene Baad,” a groovy dance number.

Riding high on the success of “Woh Baarishein,” India’s heartthrob, Arjun Kanungo talks to the OnRecord team about his musical journey and the industry’s paradigm shift from Bollywood to independent music.

Your newest single “Woh Baarishein” is a melodious song that has touched the hearts of millions of listeners on JioSaavn and has quickly become a crowd favorite. How was it working on this song? 

It’s a great feeling when you work on something with your whole heart it just does well. I think this is one of those songs that just happened; it went from an intense emotion to a song and it happened quickly. There was no confusion of what the song was supposed to be and it’s a joy to work on a project like that, where everyone has a common goal.

Your discography is very diverse, while something like “Baaki Baatein Peene Baad” is a high-energy party track, your latest single is quite tranquil. How is your approach to each project different?

It has to come from within. If it doesn’t come from an honest place, it doesn’t give you a sense of joy. And, even though the songs have different styles, they just show a different side of what it means to be Arjun Kanungo. Different sides, same person! 

From being the vocalist in your own metal band and then touring with Asha Bhosale, to becoming one of the most famous Hindi pop-stars in today’s time, what has the journey been like for you?

It has been like an espresso martini! Lots of highs, lots of lows but I have never doubted my destiny. I have some apprehension about my ability, and that’s fine because that’s what makes you work hard, makes you improve your skills. All in all, the road ahead may or may not have success but I strongly feel that I have a lot more to give to music and film.

What role do you think a strong internet presence and a dedicated online community of fans has played in your success?

My success begins and ends with my fans. I love them, they love me. As long as I can make people happy with my music, I will consider myself successful.

What did you learn most about yourself and industry while working independently as an artist?

That I’m obsessive and the fact that my capacity to work on something obsessively is only exceeded by my love for the work that I do. I also realized somewhere along the way that I’m not starstruck; I’d rather sing for myself than for actors. 

Also, film and non-film are not far apart from each other anymore and independent artists will eventually get their dues. The world is changing and soon your originality will be the most important thing about you. 

On the same lines, how do you think music streaming apps like JioSaavn are helping independent artists like you?

You know I love you guys. We need platforms like JioSaavn that democratize content. You guys give artists the opportunity to reach millions of people. The last I checked the JioSaavn Artist page, my music reaches 5 million+ listeners on your app every month! If that’s not mainstream, I don’t know what is.

Do you think the Indian entertainment industry prioritizes actors over independent artists and independent artists oftentimes do not get the recognition they deserve?

One word answer: YES.

We witnessed indie rock and pop peak in the 90s after which Bollywood music took over the Hindi music scene. The last couple of years have been favorable to indie artists and we’re gradually experiencing a surge in independent music. What do you think the future looks like for upcoming independent artists? 

The future is here. Non-film music is the present and the future. The numbers don’t lie. You can’t ignore the fact that non-film songs are doing 50-200 million streams on a regular basis. My last three songs have all crossed 50 million streams with “Aaya Na Tu” over 25 million on JioSaavn. From a business perspective, the business model of non-film music is sound, now as artists making independent music we need to change the perception of non-film music. 

In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of going independent as an artist? 

The pros: You get to create whatever you want. You get to influence culture. You get to inspire people. You get to be your own boss and the hero of your own story. You don’t need anyone’s permission to create and release music. 

The cons: Only you are responsible for your failures. The burden of success and failure is only on you. 

At times, even the most creatively and financially backed projects bomb. What is your plan of action when a song doesn’t perform the way you expect it to and how do you find a way to make the most out of it?

You can’t predict a hit with 100 percent certainty, no-one can. But with logical arguments and sound research, one can predict it to a reasonable degree of certainty. If something bombs, it bombs. You pick yourself up and move onto the next project taking those learnings with you. My failures have taught me a lot more than my successes. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge that independent artists face in the Indian music industry?

I’ve been in this business for 10 years, one thing that has become very apparent to me is that talent gives you the opportunity to shine but how well you utilize every opportunity eventually defines how successful you are. Independent musicians have no unity. They are all competing among themselves to get to the top and this is the biggest challenge for the non-film scene. If we help promote each other instead of competing against each other, the scene will grow much much faster. It’s very apparent that Bollywood helps Bollywood. We need to learn from that.

What are your thoughts on the rise of Desi hip-hop from the independent scene to Bollywood?

It’s been brewing a long time. While every movement reaches critical mass, the scene has been around a long time. It’s a good thing and Bollywood is the nation’s biggest stage but these smaller scenes are the ones that create legitimate talent. 

Talking from a business point of view, what is the difference between a song released on an independent label like VYRL vs. a traditional record label?

VYRL is the non-film sub-label of the Universal music group, one of the biggest labels in the world. In essence, the only difference between VYRL and traditional labels is the mindset. They believe that non-film music is here to stay. So the intent is to make a significant impact on the music scene in India through non-film music and not just make hit tracks. It’s about creating a culture that inspires more musicians to do what we’re doing. But it still has all the infrastructure and know-how of traditional labels.

At the young age of 18, you founded your own recording studio, Promethean Audio. How did that entrepreneurial venture help you get to where you are today?

It gave me a way to enter the industry. One of the biggest problems for a newcomer is not knowing where to start. Having a studio gave me more opportunities to meet people and understand how things work. My advice to anyone starting off would be to put yourself in more situations that give you an opportunity to learn and meet people. Spend less time in the studio and more time meeting like-minded people who can teach you things.

Apart from singing, you’re also a composer and you’ve dabbled in acting as well. What, in your opinion is the hardest part of each, singing, composing, and acting?

Nothing is hard if you train and work at your craft. 

You’ve worked with big names in the industry like Badshah, Momina Mustehsan, Sonam Kapoor, and Shriya Pilgaonkar to name a few. What is one dream collaboration you would love to work on in the future?

I am still waiting for a phone call from A.R. Rahman sir! 

Closing this conversation with your thoughts on the remake of old Bollywood and Punjabi remakes for film music. 

There should be less remakes and more original music. The fact that we now have a ‘Best remake’ category at music awards tells us that we have TOOO many remakes every year. I’m not against remakes but moderation is everything in this case. 

Take a walk down memory lane with the beautiful “Woh Baarishein” only on JioSaavn.