As India found itself caught in the throes of a bleak lockdown last year, it wasn’t just dalgona coffee, TikTok challenges and our collective disgust for diversion tactics that brought the country together. It was a colossally catchy tune called “Rasode Mein Kon Tha (who was in the kitchen)” that truly stood out as a cultural flashpoint for South Asians or desis everywhere.
The song - the brainchild of Mumbai-based music producer Yashraj Mukhate - was based on a meme from a popular melodramatic Indian soap opera. And it broke the internet.
“I’ve had my own music production company for three years, made multiple ad jingles and even remixed other popular dialogues, such as [Hindu godman] Nithyananda Baba saying ‘money doesn’t matter’” Mukhate told VICE. “But it was only after this meme remix went viral that I was able to build such a large audience for my music.”
Mukhate - who had barely 5,000 followers this time last year - now has more than four million subscribers on YouTube and over two million followers on Instagram. Almost every meme remix of his has instantly gone viral.
While making his first massively popular video, Mukhate employed tactics he learnt while creating music for ads, realising that he would have to make a tune that grabbed the audience’s attention in a span of seconds.
His songs resonate across the world, from pubs in Peru to communities in Pakistan. Brands including Netflix and Amazon Prime have commissioned him to create remixes for dialogues from their shows. None of this, as Mukhate admitted, would’ve been possible if that one meme music video hadn’t blown up. Today, his success has also inspired the rapid rise of the meme-making music producer in India, with many latching onto the style in hopes of going viral themselves.
When music meets memes
From getting us through the most extreme lockdown to emerging as a cryptocurrency stock almost overnight, it’s been a big year for memes. But while the burgeoning impact of memes can be felt across various industries (including those NOT owned by Elon Musk), it's the entertainment industry that appears to have massively capitalised on these humorous short snippets of content.
The glorious intersection of memes and music is not new. Even way back in 2017, “Harlem Shake”, an infectious track by Baauer blew up because people kept making memes of themselves dancing to the song. And the massive potential of mashing memes with music has only grown as platforms like TikTok and Instagram Reels record a meteoric rise in the demand for short, catchy audio snippets that can define a meme trend. This includes viral trends such as Meghan Thee Stallion’s “Girls in the Hood” track driving the “hot girl shit” meme or Lil Nas X’s earworm “Old Town Road” emerging as the number one song in the world after TikTok teens kept recreating it. Then there’s troubled teen Bhad Bhabie transforming into an overnight rap sensation as also Japanese YouTuber Joji, also known as Filthy Frank, finding fame as a top billed R&B artist.
The common denominator with them is that memes have consistently contributed to helping obscure content creators find success in the music biz. Even when they don’t mean to become a meme.
But over the last year, there’s been a more formulaic approach that music producers, managers and record labels have been veering towards. Tunes are either made with the focused intention of being recreated as memes on Reels and TikTok, or beats are added to popular memes.
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“A good example of how a meme format can catapult a song to virality is the Dancing Pallbearers meme, which made ‘Astronomia’, a song made in 2010 go viral in 2020,” Sidhantha Jain, an artist manager and music marketing professional at Mumbai-based talent agency Represent Management told VICE.
Jain, who has spent the last year exploring methods to market music using memes in a manner that feels authentic, pointed out that while the medium has been around for almost a decade, it began to resonate with people who were stuck at home due to lockdown restrictions. “Earlier, the number of views you got on YouTube or streams on a platform like Spotify were the only metrics of success. But now, success is also measured by how many people make meme videos using your original audio on TikTok or Reels,” he said.
He added that the allure of platforms like Instagram and TikTok is that they can reach different kinds of audiences. “On YouTube or Spotify, the recommendations are based on the music a person already listens to. But the algorithm of Instagram is such that you never know where your song might end up, especially since it is not geographically bound.”
For some producers who go viral for their meme mashups, their instant success makes them desirable collaborators for brands. That’s the case for creators like Mukhate, who earns commissions for creating viral tunes mainly for OTT platforms. But apart from social media clout, this is also a way for them to draw a wider audience to their YouTube channels, which can be monetised for every unique view. Many musicians we spoke to argued that it’s this YouTube page where their real talent lies whereas their fleeting viral moment is mostly a means to an end.
Rohit Shah, a producer from the hilly northern Indian city of Dehradun who goes by the moniker Rosh Blazze, had been producing music since 2017, but only had a 1,000 subscribers on YouTube. That was until he remixed a massively viral meme of notorious news anchor Arnab Goswami yelling “Mujhe drugs do (Give me drugs).”
“That meme remix got more than 7.2 million views, and helped me grow my [YouTube] following to 75,000 subscribers,” Shah told VICE. There’s a flip side to this though, and it does affect how you want people to view your talents. “Now, my audience only wants to listen to my meme remixes, and sees me more as a video editor than a music producer,” Shah admitted.
A case of identity
In fact, most music producers who find fame through viral memes experience an identity crisis of sorts, since their newfound audience automatically expects only a certain kind of content from them. “After I started making memes, my Instagram interactions went up by 3x, but the kind of following I got wasn’t into music,” Sarthak Sardana, a music producer from Delhi who goes by the name Sartek told VICE.
For Sartek, who began making memes in the midst of a creative rut in last year’s lockdown, the transformation from musician to meme-r helped him grow his audience, and even drove some of them to platforms where he put up his other music. But it also impacted what his audience expected from him—a story that resonated with all producers we spoke with who’d gone viral almost overnight.
“The advantage is that you have better reach, but then people always expect you to incorporate humour into your music,” agreed Anshuman Sharma, a music producer from Mumbai who works in the Bollywood film industry. While Sharma tried to go viral by making meme remixes and song covers, it was only after he made a tongue-in-cheek video trolling the musical formula of Ritviz, another popular Indian artist, that he saw an exponential growth.
“International YouTubers have been doing this for years, but we’re definitely seeing a rise in it over the last year, especially in India,” he admitted. Sharma pointed out how the lack of live performances are also largely responsible for pushing the meme music genre to popularity. “Now that live music is on hold, this format is an accessible way to connect with even people who have short attention spans.”.
Meme-ing is the new live-streaming
Live music gave revellers a curated experience of head-bobbing tunes injected with the energy of an enthusiastic crowd. But as venues remain shut amid the second wave of the coronavirus, turning their music into memes has given many producers the opportunity to build an online community that stands in for a physical crowd. This remains true even beyond the commercial music space.
“When I look at my comment section, it’s mostly people interacting with each other,” Djeki Morris, a Los Angeles-based techno producer, who is most recognised as the dude who hilariously imitates ravers and DJs at a techno gig, told VICE.
Struggling to make it in the music industry, Morris had almost given up his interest in music, growing bored by the technical marketing that Instagram and YouTube demanded. Then, he randomly decided to take his sharp-witted observations about how tripped-out techno bros behave at a rave, and created a persona called Bad Boombox on TikTok, where he trolled ravers and DJs for their dance moves. Within weeks of launching this project, he found instant success as a meme while using his original music as a background score. “The way the music once brought us together on the dance floor, these memes are bringing people together through the visual element,” he pointed out. As an experiment while quarantining, Bad Boombox began using his popular memes as animated effects on internet livestream shows. “When I start my live sets again, I’m definitely going to integrate elements from my memes.”
For some, venturing into the meme space was a way to gain instant fame. For others, it was a way to push their boundaries and challenge themselves creatively. But ultimately, even if the trend doesn’t last for too long once the world opens up, it has led to the creation of content that is wholesome, hilarious and, to some extent, groundbreaking.
“Right now it is trending, and everyone is trying to be a part of the cultural moment by fitting in their content,” concluded Mukhate, who slips in links to his original tracks to piggyback on the views. “But for a producer to stay relevant, they have to keep reinventing themselves instead of sticking to one formula, no matter how well it works.”
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