World Music Day 2021: 'We should use our music to propel more progressive ideas', says Jonita Gandhi

Ten years ago, when Jonita Gandhi uploaded her first YouTube video, she had no idea what the platform would grow into and how it would change her life within a decade. Fast forward to 2021, she is now one of the popular singers in Bollywood with super hit tracks such as the title song of "Chennai Express", "Sau Tarah Ke" from Dishoom, and "The Breakup Song" from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil among others.

A journey that began in her room by crooning covers of iconic songs such as "Teri Ore" and "Tujhe Bhula Diya", Jonita says, “I didn’t know uploading my videos on YouTube would lead me getting discovered by industry stalwarts halfway around the world. My friends who encouraged me to record myself singing to share with them deserve a huge shoutout for sparking a fire that led to so much more. I couldn’t have imagined that uploading those videos would lead to me living my dream!”

As the songstress is nearing a million subscribers on the video-sharing site, she maintains that it is natural to use metrics such as views and likes to gauge success, but avoids trends that overwhelm her.

She says, “When it comes to securing work, brands and clients are often driven by numbers - but there is a balance to maintain while trying not to let it get to me. Although I do have certain number-related goals when I produce and share new content, I personally try not to let the number game be a measure for anything. I believe in quality and also feedback from the audience.”

“I do feel like staying relevant is important, but I avoid trends that overwhelm me. There’s so much content out there and I don’t feel the need to follow trends just because others are doing it. Also, I try to stay conscious of the type of content I make - I stray away from things that don’t represent me as an artist or as a person,” adds Jonita.

Keep working hard to make music that moves people. There’s an overload of content out there, but good music can still stand out!
Jonita Gandhi

The COVID-19 induced lockdown gave a boost to virtual entertainment, specifically independent music. As someone who understood the importance of digital media since the onset of her career, Jonita says that she’s glad to have built a team and work ethic that allows her to be independent and still thrive on digital platforms.

However, due to showbiz and live concerts being cancelled, she adds that similar to the entire industry, her finances also took a hit.

Jonita shares, “The lockdown had a huge impact on the live music scene, which is my bread and butter. That being said, as someone who already had a lot going on “online”, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate that I don’t rely solely on live concert performances for financial stability. I really feel for touring artists who have been devastated by the showbiz standstill.”

But is independent music enough to keep a singer financially stable? Jonita answers, “If you were to ask me this a few years ago, I think I would have said that Bollywood is definitely where the bigger money is. In recent years though, a lot has changed. Independent music is enough to sustain an artist financially if they have a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck on their side.”

Weighing in on earnings of playback singers, Jonita states that “for recording songs playback singers often get paid token amounts or sometimes don’t receive any remuneration at all.”

“I’m sure everyone knows by now that we all rely on live performance income more than the money we get for recordings. There are definitely composers who make it a point to pay… but generally speaking, there isn’t a lot of money allocated to singers for their time in the studio,” she adds.

At 16, Jonita tried her hand at Canadian Idol, but couldn’t get past its auditions. She says that the biggest takeaway from the rejection was being able to clarify to herself what her USP was.

She recalls, “It was almost like an identity crisis because I realized I should be able to define my own space as a vocalist rather than sounding like someone else. Thankfully resilience is one of my superpowers (laughs), so the rejection didn’t dent my passion. Instead, I worked harder on honing my talent and finding my unique sound.”

Despite not gaining much from trying her luck at a reality show, Jonita speaks highly of the format stating that a lot of good talent comes out of it.

However, when asked if they help in providing a “big break”, she says, “It has a lot to do with individual goals. Although an artist may not walk away from a reality show and straight into a recording studio for a film song, the fame that comes along with TV shows helps the artist carve a space for themselves and they walk away from the show usually with a large international following online. Not to mention the network of musicians they meet while shooting, and the performance experience that they gain. Even though we may not hear much about the artist after the show is over, they’re likely performing regularly and doing quite well for themselves!”

Jonita, who set out all by herself to venture into the music industry asserts that a lot of factors had to work in her favour in order for her Bollywood journey to being and flourish. However, she pinpoints the credit to the internet and YouTube.

Jonita made her Bollywood debut with the title track of Chennai Express in 2013. She further cemented her place with "Kahaan Hoon Main" for Highway followed by working on projects with ace music composers A. R. Rahman and Pritam.

Despite the magnanimous backing from industry stalwarts, Jonita maintains that having grown up in Canada with her complete immediate family based there, there are days when she still feels like an outsider.

She says, “Sometimes, I feel like I don’t belong. However, over the years I’ve become more of a ‘Mumbai Mulgi’, and I’ve developed my own circle of friends as my ‘chosen family’. The great part about the city is that a lot of people who live here have come from other cities, and so it feels like a bunch of outsiders who all have that in common! It’s a strange but beautiful dichotomy between feeling like I’m an outsider, yet feeling like I fit right in.”

When asked if she’s ever lost projects because of her accent, Jonita says that she wouldn’t be surprised if it prevented people from calling her when she initially came to Mumbai.

“I know a few people who would hear me speak in conversation (generally with my Canadian English) and become very skeptical of my ability to sing in Hindi because of it. Fortunately, I don’t recall any specific circumstances where I wasn’t able to prove my ability to sing Indian languages when given the opportunity to try,” she says.

Although Jonita has solidified her spot as a renowned female singer in Bollywood, she maintains that the industry is male-dominated even today.

She says, “It’s true - statistically speaking even, there are many more males in the Indian music industry than females. But I think what is important is that more people are acknowledging this disparity and that has led to some change in the right direction. I’m happy to see that more females are now empowering themselves to shine in our industry, than ever before.”

Commenting on songs or lyrics that are outright sexist and misogynist, that are given a clean for release and distribution, Jonita asserts that they’re a “bad idea.”

She signs off, “Although I’m all for people using their music to express their opinions, and I support freedom of speech, I think that as artists, we should use our music as an opportunity to propel more progressive ideas. I believe music and social media are platforms that should be used responsibly, because often the people who listen to our music are quite impressionable.”

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