Music

Songwriting Abroad: In India, Brazil & Beyond, New & Lucrative Opportunities Are Leading to Big Hits

In January 2023, when Los Angeles-based songwriter David Arkwright accepted his Roc Nation-signed colleague Natania Lalwani‘s invitation to visit her home city of Mumbai, he thought, “Let’s go see India! This could be fun.” The next thing he knew, he was commuting two hours a day through heavy traffic to work 18-hour studio sessions all month with the singer-rapper King, whose 2022 hit “Maan Meri Jaan” has 446 million Spotify streams.

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“King walked in, and he started to sing,” recalls Arkwright, who wound up taking two additional trips to India last year to work on King’s October album New Life. “We just went, ‘Aaaaaand we’re writing.’ After that, it was like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’”

With its population of 1.4 billion, India is one of the biggest potential international markets for streaming hits — and it’s just emerging as a music business powerhouse after years of dealing with online piracy and stream-ripping. So top publishers are funding trips for veteran Western songwriters like Arkwright to combine their pop skills with regional stars. And it’s not just India. In October, publisher Warner Chappell sent U.S. country songwriters to Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a camp that generated potential hits for top regional sertanejo stars. And U.S. songwriters have spent the last decade traveling to South Korea and Japan, working with regional labels to write K-pop and J-pop hits.

“With the way socials are going, the world is such a smaller place, whether we’re talking Korea or India or Brazil,” says J.Que Smith, a Grammy-nominated L.A. songwriter who has co-written for Beyoncé and Justin Bieber and recently penned Japanese girl group XG‘s hit “Shooting Star.” “Thirty years ago, we weren’t really caught up on what India was doing, and India didn’t know what we were doing. But now that’s very different.”

For decades in the record industry, the only Western stars who could break internationally were those who could ship physical records to far-away countries — from Cheap Trick in Japan to Michael Jackson in Europe. In the streaming era, that has changed. K-pop stars, as well as Latin-music breakouts like “Despacito,” have demonstrated that international successes can emerge from anywhere, not just North America or Europe. Coachella showed this international breadth in April with headliners such as Mexico’s Peso Pluma and Carin León, South Korea’s ATEEZ and LE SSERAFIM, Colombia’s J Balvin, Argentina’s Bizarrap and South Africa’s Tyla, says Marc Geiger, the former William Morris head of music who is now head of SaveLive, which invests in independent live music clubs. “Music has turned into the Olympics,” Geiger says.

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Roughly 14 years ago, Harvey Mason, Jr., a producer and songwriter who has worked with Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Justin Timberlake, accepted an invitation from South Korea’s SM Entertainment to work with a half-dozen other Los Angeles songwriters to crank out what became hits for K-Pop groups like Girls’ Generation and EXO. “We kind of just did what we did and took their sounds and took our sounds and put them together,” recalls Mason, now CEO of The Recording Academy, who continues to collaborate with K-pop artists. “New music markets are being developed and becoming more healthy and vibrant. Look at Africa — you’ve got 1.4 billion people on the continent, and they consume so much music. As the infrastructure of the industry starts to build, you’re going to see regional hits becoming just as important as hits in the U.S.”

India is perhaps the most fertile region for music-streaming opportunity: Total streams in 2023 were more than 1 trillion, second only to the U.S., according to Luminate, and the country ranked first in volume growth, well outpacing the U.S., Indonesia and Brazil. Then again, a monthly Spotify account in India costs roughly $1.42, so the revenues for artists, labels and other rightsholders aren’t yet as robust as they are in the U.S. and elsewhere. “The revenue generated for a track always depends on where it is streamed and what the end-user is paying for the subscription in that specific geography,” says Ludovic Pouilly, senior vp of music industry relations for Deezer, a streaming service available in more than 185 countries (though not in India).

In 2023, Asian recorded-music revenue increased 14.9%, according to IFPI, its fourth straight year of double-digit growth, while revenues in the Middle East and North Africa rose 14.4% and Latin America’s 10-year boom continued with a 19.4% jump. Major music companies are making heavy investment bets in these regions — Sony Music bought top Brazilian indie label Som Livre for $255 million in 2021, for example, to try to dominate the world’s ninth-largest music market, whose revenues increased 13.4% in 2023, according to the IFPI.

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For publishers, the world market has become so robust that many are making like Arkwright and Smith and supplementing their song-royalty income from once-reliable U.S. markets with suddenly-reliable work in Asia and Brazil. “Five years ago, pop songs were huge in America, and it was easy to export our writers. It’s a bit harder now, because there’s a local hip-hop culture where Nordic writers are not as good to be in,” says Lars Karlsson, managing director of Warner Chappell Music Scandinavia, a region famous for pop mega-songwriters such as Sweden’s Max Martin. “It’s beautiful to have emerging markets open up for us.” Adds Ryan Press, Warner Chappell’s North American president: “For a while, it felt like you had to have success in the U.S., and that dictated everything. Now that’s not the case.”

In 2022, Universal Music Publishing Group launched an A&R team, the Global Creative Group, to plan cross-cultural collaborations such as a recent K-pop songwriting camp in Los Angeles and a country-and-Latin-music camp in Mexico City. It sent Elena Rose, a Venezuelan-American songwriter from Miami who co-wrote last year’s Becky GKarol G hit “Mamiii,” to Morocco to collaborate with singer-songwriter Manal — and wound up with a duet and a reworked album. “It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to send our Western producers to colonize some unsuspecting territory,’” says David Gray, the UMPG exec who leads the group. “It was, ‘We’ve got a great Latin artist and a great artist in Morocco, let’s put them together.’ This is not about imposing Western creative styles onto another country.”

Dominated by the Bollywood film industry and plagued for years with online piracy, India has struggled to develop its own recorded-music business, despite a period of Indipop and Punjabi pop hits in the ’80s and ’90s. But Universal and Sony have had offices in India for years, and Warner Music expanded its presence there in 2020, installing Jay Mehta as managing director; earlier this year, Reservoir Media signed publishing deals, including catalogs and future works, for Indian rappers MC Altaf and D’Evil. India is the 14th-biggest music market, increasing revenues by 15.3% in 2023. 

Over the last few years, according to New Delhi-born singer-songwriter Subhi, the music business in India has broadened from strict Bollywood-industry guidelines to artists and music companies with a broader palette to create songs. That shift has led to more regional hits — and interest from major record labels and publishers, and more  collaborations, like a songwriting camp Subhi attended through Anara Publishing and a co-writing session with a U.K. producer she’d met at a separate camp. “It’s a huge market to cater to, but also, slowly, we’re building an audience for independent music,” says Subhi, who is based in L.A. and Chicago. “It’s only the beginning.”

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A regional star in India, King is a “sign that Indian music will have an increasing impact and influence on the global charts,” as the general manager of his label, Warner Music Middle East, said in 2023’s IFPI report. Now that King’s 2020 hit, “Tu Aake Dekhle,” has scored 395 million Spotify plays, Bhavy Anand, one of his managers, says, “We’ve been getting a lot of attention from international songwriters and publishers and media houses. This was unheard-of three years, four years [ago].”

Working with Warner’s Mehta, King’s team saw an opportunity to cross over from regional hits to international stardom, and recorded a new version of “Maan Meri Jaan,” with vocals in both Hindi and English. The label contacted Lalwani, the Mumbai-born songwriter who lives in Los Angeles. “I wanted to make it very effortless — Hindi and English isn’t something that’s always put together,” Lalwani says. Later, the label enlisted a U.S. pop star, Nick Jonas, to add duet vocals for the new version released in April.

For Arkwright, collaborating with artists outside North America and Europe is a crucial way to diversify his songwriting business. “People there are doing things that no one is doing here. I want to partner with those people,” he says. “I wish it could be like in the ’80s, where you could have a Michael Jackson B-side and buy a house in Malibu. But you have to look at things differently. You have to look at new and emerging markets.”

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