A lyrical protest: Long relegated to the shadows, lyricists and songwriters raise the pitch for fair and equal credit

September 6, 2020 2:12 AM

Long relegated to the shadows, lyricists and songwriters are now raising the pitch demanding fair and equal credit for their work

It also has major financial implications, as lyricists lose out on royalty money if their names are missing or misspelled.It also has major financial implications, as lyricists lose out on royalty money if their names are missing or misspelled.

By Shriya Roy

In july, a music video was released which caused quite a stir. Put out by 15 well-known lyricists—including Varun Grover, Swanand Kirkire, Neelesh Misra, Kausar Munir, Mayur Puri, Raj Shekhar, Abhiruchi Chand, Hussain Haidry, Amitabh Bhattacharya, among others—the video had a simple message: give credit where it’s due. Titled Credit de do yaar and penned by Grover, Munir and Kirkire, the song was a protest against the practice of leaving out the lyricist’s name while crediting songs on music streaming platforms in the country.

The debate started on Twitter when lyricist Swanand Kirkire, best known for penning songs like Bawara mann, Piyu bole and Behti hawaa sa tha woh, shared screenshots from the Dil Bechara album on Spotify, which credited composer AR Rahman and the singers, but not lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya. The writer-composer also shared screenshots of other streaming apps, such as Apple Music, Jio Saavn and Gaana, where three albums—Teesri Kasam (lyricist Shailendra), Lagaan (Javed Akhtar) and Omkara (Gulzar)—have no mention of the lyricists.

The first artist who publicly demanded credit, however, was Grover—known for his work in films like Masaan, Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Gangs of Wasseypur—who has been raising his voice on the issue for over three years now. “Since the time we moved from CDs and radio to YouTube and streaming platforms for music consumption, the problem of credit not being given has become severe. On streaming platforms like Spotify, Gaana and Saavn, there is a complete erasure of the contribution of writers,” he rues.

Talking about what prompted the artists to come together for Credit de do yaar, Grover says, “We thought we should talk about it, and in a creative way… Through our song, we have included the listeners in the movement, making them the stakeholders. It is our form of creative protest.”

This, however, isn’t the first time that lyricists have raised their voice asking for credit. In the 1950s, when Bollywood music first started playing on All India Radio, there was no mention of lyricists. Late poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi spearheaded the fight then, questioning AIR’s hypocrisy and giving it a diktat: mention names of lyricists or don’t play songs at all. Ludhianvi’s efforts led to AIR crediting lyricists every time a song was played.

But the fight was far from over. When FM channels took over in the Nineties, the same thing happened again. Radio jockeys would credit everyone except the songwriter. The situation became worse with the advent of online portals and music streaming platforms. As digital archiving took the place of cassettes and CDs, lyricists went mysteriously missing from the database. Music apps, however, say that their algorithm is drawn from the American system, where the singer and lyricist is usually the same person and is credited as the ‘songwriter’. In the Indian context, however, this system falls flat, as here the lyricist and singer are two separate entities. “It is assumed that a song is a singer’s creation, whereas the singer comes right at the end. This shows that there is a lack of awareness among people on how music is made in the country,” says Grover.

Lyricist and film writer Abhiruchi Chand, who has written the lyrics for movies like October, Kapoor & Sons and NH10, says she finds the whole thing bizarre. “A piece of paper is blank until we write something on it. If we don’t write, what will you listen to? Why do we have to fight about something that is our basic right?” she says, adding, “As a writer, we work for appreciation. The missing credit snatches away that appreciation.”

Most lyricists believe this oversight is a result of laziness, as well as a culture of ignorance towards creative artists. Once a song is done, they say, it is taken over by the music director and the ownership shifts. Even during song or album launches, actors, directors, singers and music composers are all present, but the songwriters are missing. And this treatment isn’t just reserved for new and upcoming talent. Even stalwarts like Gulzar and Javed Akhtar are denied their due acknowledgement. To make matters worse, there is no way to search for a song on digital streaming platforms by the name of the lyricist.

Dropping credit also means that these artists get no critique or evaluation of their work. “Without a credit, there is no accountability related to the song. There is a loss of archival value of my work as well,” says lyricist Raj Shekhar. There’s a clear lack of intent in giving credit, feels lyricist Mayur Puri, who is known for his work in movies like Om Shanti Om. “It is an error of operation that can be rectified easily by streaming platforms and music companies if they so want,” he says, adding, “There was and still is a culture of not respecting poets. A society that does not respect its artists and poets is in a sorry state.”

It also has major financial implications, as lyricists lose out on royalty money if their names are missing or misspelled. “If the lyricist’s credit is not given or if we are not identified correctly, we can’t get royalty,” says Puri. Poet and lyricist Hussain Haidry adds that credits aren’t just a recognition of their work, but also help in getting more projects. “Since there is no visibility of the lyricist, no one asks or wants to know and eventually they stop caring. The singer goes around singing his song and earns from it, but lyricists can’t go and read out their lyrics anywhere. He puts them on paper and hands it over, and the least he deserves is the credit for the words written,” he says.

The video message released by the lyricists, being dubbed as the new ‘writers’ anthem’, got an overwhelming response from those in the industry, as well as the audience. The hashtag #CreditDeDoYaar trended on Twitter, with music directors AR Rahman, Pritam and Shantanu Moitra, and singers Asha Bhonsle and Shreya Ghosal extending their support to the cause. Going a step further, FM channel Radio Mirchi even made its own song in solidarity with the lyricists. Music companies and streaming platforms have, however, maintained complete silence. When asked to comment on the issue, Spotify directed us to a 2018 blog on its site, which read: “Songwriter credits are now readily available on Spotify’s desktop app”. Reportedly, the feature is part of the app’s songwriter-focused initiative which aims to credit songwriters and producers. However, a swipe through the app revealed that lyricists were mentioned only for a few songs and not throughout.

Not surprisingly, Grover says they have a long road ahead. “We want people to join us in this initiative. Whenever you find the name of a lyricist missing, comment and tag the company. We are preparing an official letter from the Screenwriters Association and The Indian Performing Right Society. We will send it to these companies, bring them to a table and have a discussion,” he says.

Small changes will make a big difference, the artists believe. “We don’t write the song for us… we write it for the people. So we need them to acknowledge it. That will make the movement stronger,” adds Raj Shekhar.

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