Will Sanam maintain its numero uno position if it ditches the covers?

Updated: Nov 26, 2017, 14:41 IST | Aastha Atray Banan | Mumbai

The Indian band with members from everywhere, has fans everywhere, even Suriname. But will Sanam maintain its numero uno position if it ditches the covers?

When we meet them on a windy November afternoon, the quartet that calls itself Sanam (named after lead singer/composer Sanam Puri) is comfortable taking questions on, and dealing with fame. They could be the biggest band in India, say insiders. Their YouTube channel has 208 million subscribers and enjoys 14 million views per month. And they have fans across South Africa, Trinidad, Netherlands, Bangladesh, England, Nigeria, and even Suriname. "We just realised the other day that there isn't a country in the world that hasn't visited our channel," says Keshav Dhanraj, drummer. Thank God Indians are everywhere, we say, and he laughs, "Yes! Bangladesh is the biggest consumer of our music!" And they admit that they are drawing in more women than men. "It's quite a tough fight," says bass guitarist Venkat Subramaniyam, who is scrolling through figures as we talk over watermelon juice at the clubhouse of their plush residential complex in Madh-Marve. "It's 50:50," he adds, "women are more active on social media, I mean they comment more, but otherwise the gender ratio is roughly equal."

Pic/Nimesh Dave
Pic/Nimesh Dave

It has taken them a while to get here. Brothers Sanam and guitarist Samar Puri, from Delhi, Subramaniyam, from Bengaluru and Dhanraj, from Chennai won a contest called SUPASTARS hosted by a recording label in 2010. Free gigs, great for exposure, but not of particular value, followed, until they met their manager Ben Thomas. "Under Ben's guidance, we started making videos and music of all types [originals and Hindi, English covers], says Dhanraj. Their first song, Hawa Hawa, saw a decent traction. But then, a cover of Lata Mangeshkar's Lag Jaa Gale got them almost 36 million views (and counting).

But their success is also a product of consistency. The first-time visitors on their channel often discover other songs, which they may not have done as well when they released, but gradually gained popularity. "So, our song, Dua [23 million views] which is an original, got popular after people had already discovered us through perhaps a cover version of some song, and wanted to listen to other stuff," says Sanam. They do remember the time that they tried first to get their songs heard. "I have been banned by Facebook so many times because I have spammed so many people [in an attempt to get them to hear our music]!" laughs Dhanraj. "I remember tagging people in the comments section of our videos. Facebook only allows 10 mentions per comment. So, you can imagine how many comments I posted!" smiles Sanam.

Today, they have the numbers, but they won't take their success for granted. They try and put up at least one new video every month (original or cover), update their social media accounts every few hours, and tour the country and outside. They now have a team that handles the logistics, including mixing and editing of videos, so they can "concentrate on the music". "We used to do it all ourselves. Now, it's about making music we are proud of so that you, the listener, likes it."

Ask them if they will ever ditch covers for originals only, and they have a smart, sorted reply. "In India, originals are respected more. We get that, and we aim to make more and more of them. But in many countries we visit, our fans are into the classics, like Mohammed Rafi's songs, and we want to give them what they want. They are our unique versions, they carry our stamp, in any case," says Subramaniyam.

As we leave them, they tell us about their musical influences, and there are some surprising answers. Sanam doesn't listen to much else because he doesn't wish to influenced, but if he must, he will pick, "strings and background music". Subramaniyam loves funk and blues, and Dhanraj and Samar like Arabic tunes. As Samar says, "We sing in all languages, and with our success and fan base, we now get that music really does have no language."

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