Advertising music streaming in India

I have been writing about music for a very long time. I started writing music reviews in the late 1990s/early 2000s period for The Music Magazine, a Bangalore-based online music website (now defunct).

I then started writing 100-word music reviews on my own blog, Milliblog, in 2005. I now do weekly new music playlists that cut across languages.

Then there is, of course, ItwoFS, my pet project in tracking plagiarism in Indian film music that I started in 1999 and is still alive, though not active.

For a person like me, with zero experience in learning any form of music, writing about the subject simply like a common man for more than 2 decades seems like way too long a time to indulge as a casual hobby 🙂

This context is not to assert that I have some knowledge of music – I do not. However, I have tracked the evolution of digital music very keenly, as a side effect, for a long time.

Now, in 2022, digital music is only streaming music, the other, less-talked-about streaming. If you ignore pirated mp3s, that is.

So what are the options available to us in India? Spotify, JioSaavn (that was once Saavn), Amazon Music (which comes free with Amazon Prime), Apple Music, and Times Group’s Gaana. Given my interest in writing about music, I have subscriptions to Spotify and Apple Music, and since I have Amazon Prime subscription, I have Amazon Music too. It helps to have multiple services since I got 2 kids and both have an Alexa in their rooms – when they play music, things get haywire if you have only one subscription. You either need to have a family plan or have multiple subscriptions and link each service with an Alexa device. This gets more complex if all of them create their own playlists, and want the service to understand their musical preferences. For context, Netflix sorts this out well with user profiles.

But there’s a big difference between streaming video platforms (OTT) and streaming music platforms – exclusivity of the content. The video content on OTT platforms rarely overlaps. But music? With very minor exceptions, you would find the same set of music, across Indian languages, on all the 5 major streaming music platforms! Of course, some are good at procuring some kind of music faster, earlier – like Gaana is more known as ‘Hindi-first’, while JioSaavn and Spotify are better at beyond-Hindi – regional music. But, by and large, the repertoire is the same across all 5.

That’s the premise of this post! When you have 5 different products with the same offering in terms of titles, how do you advertise and get people interested?

Let’s take a look at the messages from the ones that do advertise with India-specific communication (unlike Apple Music which only has global communication, and Amazon Music which doesn’t advertise): Gaana, Spotify, and JioSaavn.

1. Gaana:

Gaana’s first campaign was launched in November 2014, by the agency M&C Saatchi. It was quite literally a song-and-dance affair, featuring a catchy song (Bas Bajna Chahiye Gaana) composed by Amit Trivedi, and sung by Benny Dayal and Anusha Mani.

There was also a full version of the TV ad that makes it obvious that a jingle has been extended into a song and it clearly overstays its welcome.

The launch positioning was “India’s favourite music app” and the selling points were, “30 lakh songs. Hindi, English, Regional”.

The 2015 campaign was again by M&C Saatchi, and was in 2 parts, to lend continuity to the love story blooming between Pia Bajpiee and Miguel Herrán (who went on to play Rio in the 2017 TV series La casa de papel/Money Heist).

The first ad’s selling point was “1 Crore songs” (that’s 70 lakh songs added in about 7 months – November 2014 to July 2015!).

The second ad’s selling point was, “Music for any mood”, moving away from the number of songs.

The 2016 campaign, by M&C Saatchi, had 3 variants, but with the same crux – how music fits in life’s many occasions.

Occasion 1: proposal

Occasion 2: parents considering a groom for the daughter

Occasion 3: a cricket match with acrimonious players

In all 3 ads, the music becomes the lever to change the mood. The selling point this time? “Over one crore songs”!

The follow-up campaign later that year (November 2016) was on similar lines – a planeful of people indulging in song-and-dance! “Over one crore songs” remained.

Gaana’s 2018 campaign, by the agency River Advertising was the first attempt by the brand to actually convey a category-specific feature! This campaign addressed people who downloaded songs on their phones and asked them to stream them instead. There was also the famous ‘f’ word – free!

The 2019 follow-up to that campaign continued that ‘streaming’ focus, but instead of shifting people from downloading to streaming, it shifted people from car radio to streaming – the implication being that the former’s music selection is not in your control while streaming is.

Possibly owing to inadequate understanding of Tamil, the Tamil version of the ad, despite choosing excellent nuance from the perspective of what the car radio plays (all about motherhood, mothers, etc.!), the final text, which in the Hindi ad says, “Stream unlimited songs for free”, here says, “kaNakkatra paadalgaLai ilavasamaaga padhivirakkam seyyavum”, which literally translates to, “Unlimited songs free download”!!

The other campaign by Gaana in 2019 (by River Advertising) is one of the most pointed attacks on a competing product – YouTube! The humor in this ad was quite evolved – the narrative frames someone who is forced to pause every other app to play music on YouTube’s free version (since it doesn’t play in the background) as someone who sacrifices all good things in life! And it pitches Gaana’s background-playing feature as the solution!

And finally, after a 2-year break, early in 2022, Gaana advertised (by River Advertising, again; features the same girl who appeared in the end of the ‘Tyaagi’ ad from 2019) the ‘auto queue’ function where Gaana picks from a song that you choose/play and adds more songs like that. This is a feature that is available on Spotify and JioSaavn too, of course. I’m assuming they forced a new word for ‘playlist’ just to differentiate themselves from Spotify’s most famous selling point 🙂

In summary:
Broad positioning: India’s favourite music app

Selling points:

  • number of songs available (30 lakh, 1 crore, over 1 crore)
  • don’t download, just stream
  • stream free music
  • play music in the background, unlike YouTube
  • music autoqueue for non-stop music

2. JioSaavn

Saavn launched its first campaign before Gaana, but in the same year – 2014 (February: Saavn; November: Gaana). The launch ad was produced in-house and featured Ranbir Kapoor, though he appears in the end almost like an after-thought! The ad was a typical, sweeping montage that showcases various kinds of people enjoying music in various ways. It’s nice to watch but doesn’t sell Saavn in any specific way, choosing instead to sell the emotion called ‘music’ in a rather generic way.

The 2015 follow-up to the launch campaign again featured Ranbir, but this was tied to the cricket world cup that year. And the messaging goes for a complete toss, trying to force-fit cricket and muddling what people may want to download Saavn for!

Possibly because of how pointless these in-house ads were, Saavn sought the help of the ad agency McCann for a follow-up campaign in June 2015. However, that campaign, aimed at popularizing Saavn’s social features (Tag, Chat, Follow, and Share) turned out to be far worse and banal than even the in-house ads! The series seemed to hinge on someone’s brainwave about using the Hindi phrase ‘Yeh kisi na nahi unta hai’ (listens to no one) and use ‘But he listens to me’ (as in my playlists on Saavn).

It’s surprising how amateurish these ads look!

Saavn ended that year by going back to in-house ads, again featuring Ranbir – not very surprising, given how the agency partnership turned out.

And this was perhaps the best pitch by Saavn in terms of building the category. It uses Ranbir walking through (literally) the kinds of ways people listen to digital music and pitches Saavn adequately.

And yet, there’s no specific focus on any one feature or reason why people should download Saavn, as against simply listening to music on any other app or even YouTube.

There was another ad too, in November 2015 that clearly looked like they had Ranbir’s hours and did not want to waste them. You see the ad and you’d know what I mean.

And then, radio silence! Saavn did more PR and virtually no advertising till August 2020! In the meanwhile, Jio Music and Saavn joined to become JioSaavn in December 2018.

The August 2020 campaign, timed with Independence Day, was hardly a consumer-focused, product-based campaign. It was more of a showcase of 5 artists and their stories.

Then, after so many years of staying alive in the background, JioSaavn finally roped in another ad agency (Creativeland Asia) to produce a proper brand campaign titled, ‘Find Your Dhun’.

The messaging was rather generic, however – ‘find your song’, from (the actual product pitch): 80 million songs, 16 languages.

Observe the use of the very-Indian ‘crores’ by Gaana and the hardly-Indian ‘millions’ by JioSaavn.

3. Spotify:

Spotify has perhaps advertised a lot more than Gaana and Saavn put together even as it launched much after those two.

The launch campaign, by Leo Burnett India, in February 2019, was a broad communication to introduce the brand, but observe 2 specific differences from Gaana’s pitch:

  • World’s most popular music app, now in India (compared to Gaana’s ‘India’s favourite music app’)
  • 3 billion playlists (compared to Gaana and Saavn’s focus on the number of songs; besides the use of ‘billion’)

Spotify followed it up with the very talked-about ‘There’s a playlist for that’ campaign (by Leo Burnett) using billboards.

In a way, Spotify was introducing the concept of playlists to India and thereby using that as a significant product differentiation over Gaana and JioSaavn.

The video version of the same thought was equally enjoyable!

But soon, the number-of-songs pitch finds its way into Spotify’s communication too – ’50 million songs’, in the first ad featuring Anil Kapoor and Ishaan Khattar, in June 2019.

In July 2019, Spotify was communicating what Gaana would eventually do too in August – the ability to play music in the app in the background, both targeting YouTube!

The same Anil-Ishaan ‘Sunte Ja’ theme runs through the Diwali campaign too, again focusing on playlists.

In 2020, Spotify has had a steady stream of advertising.

The pandemic year started with a playlist-for-moods theme (similar to Gaana’s 2015 message, ‘music for any mood’):

Then in September, the Anil Kapoor series continues:

But then Spotify did something the other 2 had not – regional-specific advertising! In a first, Spotify roped in Nagarjuna for Telugu and Tamil cuts of the Anil Kapoor series, and with newer, South-centric storytelling too.

Telugu:

Tamil:

In between all this playlist-focused messaging, Spotify did try an ad for the ad-free premium version too (agency: Leo Burnett), featuring Nucleya aka Udyan Sagar, in a parody of classic Indian ads!

A follow-up to that happened in April 2021 (agency: What’s Your Problem; and not Leo Burnett!) – this time, the premium plan focused on the family sharing option! This is the same as Netflix’s profiles where each person’s unique listening preferences are retained with each premium user inside a family plan!

In March 2021, Spotify started advertising podcasts too!

In another campaign in April, Spotify highlighted the ‘Share on WhatsApp’ feature, which I’m sure is available on other platforms too.

And then, Spotify and Leo Burnett hit gold with their storytelling! It started with the ‘Dil filmy toh suno filmy’ campaign in 2021 that had fantastic regional variants too!

Hindi:

Tamil:

Telugu:

(Observe how even the language in the background has been regionalized in the railway station ad!)

The other 2021 campaign featuring Deepika Padukone was an odd one out, though, with its self-referential tone.

But Spotify continued the fun quotient of ‘Dil filmy toh suno filmy’ in the 2022 series too, but with ‘Sunte Ja’ messaging that pitched ‘8 crore+ songs’ in a clear departure from the ‘billion’ usage during the 2019 launch. The mixed-use of languages and the use of multiple regional language songs in incredibly appropriate situations made this series really enjoyable.

Hindi:

Tamil:

Telugu:

Kannada:

But, however enjoyable this series is, it doesn’t communicate why we need to do this listening bit on Spotify – and no, the ‘8 crore+ songs’ doesn’t quite cut it. In a far less successful campaign, JioSaavn is claiming the same number, but in terms of millions (80 million), even as Gaana has stopped touting the number of songs in its repertoire.

What’s even more pertinent is that this campaign doesn’t address the other crucial question: why should someone pay Spotify and get the premium account?


In a way, these 3 music streaming platforms are still in category-building mode by getting more people to stream music than listen to them through other modes – radio, downloads, or YouTube.

The features they tout are available on all platforms or are easily replicable.

So consider the typical use-case of a music listener:

  • they want songs that they like. But there are crores of songs and finding what they like is a tremendous chore. Unlike earlier days, you don’t need to buy cassettes or CDs; all the songs are available inside the app and yet, because there are so many, you may waste more time trying to find what to listen to than actually listening to music (just like what ends up on Netflix, for instance).
  • they want a steady stream of music. After all, you cannot keep looking for more music after every few songs (earlier it was based on albums when it came to film music; now it’s just singles). This is where the playlist feature helps and Spotify has the best association with this concept.
  • ad-free music, in the premium version.
  • podcasts as an add-on. And this is where the platforms can offer exclusivity, something they cannot, with music.
  • other bells and whistles – mobile app sync with desktop/web player (good-to-have), the mobile app plays in the background, mobile app downloads music for long drives with spotty internet access, family plans that remember family member profiles and preferences, ability to make custom playlists for advanced users (like me; but I’m fairly sure this segment is tiny), among others.

Some of these—like ad-free, family plan—make the premium plan a compelling option. But broadly, if you can live with ads (though they can be super annoying, as much as they were, if not worse, on radio), the free plans of these platforms would more than suffice.

And that’s where the nub of the problem lies. Video streaming platforms use content exclusivity to charge for subscriptions, while the lack of content exclusivity on audio streaming platforms robs them of that significant advantage. But video content is also fickle, requiring expensive investment and acquisition. In comparison, original audio content, at least in the form of podcasts (and not music) is relatively less expensive to produce or acquire. But many podcasts are platform-agnostic and investing in exclusivity brings the cost up.

The marketing communications from the audio platforms that advertise are still largely focused on generic ‘we have a lot of music’ messaging that is clearly 7-8 years old already. And yet, that seems to be the primary messaging.

Ironically, the other music streaming platform that advertises far lesser, Airtel’s Wynk, is leading the download (app) race in 2021!

To be sure, Wynk launched ad campaigns in 2014 and 2015.

The 2014 campaign (agency: Taproot) was broad, setting context to the category:

Funnily enough, the story is very similar to Spotify’s 2021 campaign where people react involuntarily to music!

Given the fact that there are only 5.9 crore paid users in the music streaming category in India, it’s no wonder that the marketing is on, albeit by a limited set of brands. The potential is humongous! But the message going out to the ones who are not yet paid users seems minimally enticing to compel them to sign up, and pay!

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