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Peak tamil film music

Music is said to be infinite. Atleast in theory, because its all about combining 12 different notes, add a dimension of meter that can further increase the possible perceived unique combinations to produce tunes. The theoretical possible combinations is so huge that its said to be infinite.

But, if there is really an infinity out there, why would a genius like A.R.Rahman take so many hours of work to produce music? I, for one, don't believe Rahman is any less talented than the maestros of the previous two generations. Instead, I think music is finite. Before you call my argument as mere hand-waving, let me pull up some graphs to prove my point.

The following show the number of movies composed for by each of the following music directors in a given year:

M.S.Viswanathan's yearly churn out
Ilayaraja's yearly churn out
Rahman's yearly churn out

Notice how Rahman's yearly churn out is hardly anything to talk about. Arguments of Rahman's music being of better quality and hence more time taken by Rahman don't fly in the face of the number of perceived hits per movie in comparison to most Ilayaraja or M.S.V's movies. Infact, I can also argue how the technology that was available to the composers of the yesteryears were far inferior in comparison to the gadgets at Rahman's disposal. Its not about technology.

... and please bear in mind, I'm a fan of Rahman too and am by no means trying to belittle his work. Just that, I think there is a systemic problem / reason to why Rahman isn't able to churn out as many hits as the composers of yore.

Is music really infinite?

To begin with, music is only theoretically infinite. Catchy tunes have certain characteristics such as simplicity of meter/notes. Once a simple tune has been made, it can't be made again (unless we're talking about Anu Malik or Deva).

Music can be compared to how Energy is important to today's industrial society. I'm sure I don't have to pull out examples of tonnes of movies that had record records sales but had the most predictable and crappily presented stories of all. This extreme importance brings with it a pressure to churn out more and unfortunately, my friends, tamil film industry peaked music production a long time ago.

Here is the above three legends' yearly churn out stacked together to show the exact phenomenon (summary below):

Tamil film industry cumulative (stacked) yearly scores

Notice how, as each music director starts reaching their all time peak or stays long enough in their peak boring people with their repetetive tunes (isn't that what Ilayaraja did in the 90s, churning out volumes but not as many hits?), the industry, akin to the free market, finds alternative sources of music. Typically, two giants co-exist, one declines while the other grows to their full possible capacity.

The history of the Tamil film industry and the oil industry, side by side
MSV is like the cheap and easy oil of Texas and a first systematic exploitation of (western) music to drive films as opposed to films being enjoyed for the story's sake. MSV peaked in the year 1974 with 30 films being produced in that year alone... It is important to remember that the recording technology that was available mandated a whole session to be recorded in one go, no multi-track mixing and UPS'es, forget synthesizers which were a thing out of reach for a relatively poor tamil film industry of the times! and then the Market found Ilayaraaja, a combination of genius and firm western classical fundamentals.

Ilayaraaja brought about a period of abundance and prosperity, akin to what the Saudi (and middle east in general) did to the world. People talked for a long time about how the senseless thing of writing songs that fit the music will not exist for long. But yet, he prevailed and ruled. He produced 50 films in the years 1985 and 1992 while producing his all time peak of 51 movies in the year 1990. Soon after reaching the Undulating plateau, the Export Land Model kicked in, as Ilayaraja went on to make two best seller private albums (How to Name it? and Nothing but Wind). This explains the dip in the amount of scores that were produced for the tamil film industry from the year 1986 to 1988. However, towards the end of his career, he attempted his best to sustain his yearly production, akin to what Saudi is doing today by injecting sea water into their oil fields... and eventually Rahman was found in a desperate attempt, a genius working away on ad jingles.

Rahman is more like the Tar sands and oil shales. Full of high technology and sheer brilliance that the whole nation celebrated him (while he celebrated the nation). Sure there is a lot of "theoretical volumes of music remaining to be extracted" but it takes a lot of effort and skill... and time. He is the tar sands, the oil shales and the deep water oil. Can't churn out as fast as what happened in the days of glory years. The peak is behind us by this time or so speaks the data.

In short, here is how I'd like to compare MSV, Ilayaraaja and Rahman in terms of our planet's oil history: technical complexity, ease of music availability and volume of output:

M.S.V. - the easy music

Ilayaraja - abundance exploited systematically with technology
A.R.Rahman - humanity's genius put to work in getting everything out possible!

I can hear you mumbling "But we still make a lot of movies today!".

Welcome to scarcity tamil film industrialism:
  • Most stuff that is made today don't last long in our minds. They're the equivalent of stuff produced in china, to be used and thrown because its more economical to do just that - its not of good quality anyway. Plus there is the inherent pressure and need for Growth! the tamil film industry is addicted to Growth as well! ;)
  • Infact, apart from very skilled producers like Rahman, everything is just recycle and reuse of old stuff (how many remixes from the past can you count?). Heard Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya? I think some songs were very close to an oil spill disaster ;)

Rahman is probably as great as Ilayaraja or MSV was (his accolades speak for the kind of genius he is), but he doesn't have much left to produce. Don't blame him, instead think about the finite nature of something we have been told is available in vast quantities. Its not about the amount of possible tunes available. Its about how much can be produced cheaply and in an economically viable manner.

PS[1]: Thanks to the existence of 600024.com. Its by far the most comprehensive site I found on the internet that contained information of all sorts about Kollywood, india's second largest film industry next only to bollywood (and I guess bollywood's prime source of musical talent and music of today :P). I counted the number of movies by music director. I could have perhaps crawled their site extensively but I guess I've already made the point by taking the statistically significant composers of all time? ;)

PS[2]: This post was inspired by a post of similar nature - The hubbert peak theory of rock


( 14 comments — Comment on this )
Aug. 2nd, 2010 04:50 pm (UTC)
Wow - unbelievable that Ilayaraja composed for 50 movies in one year! Great post!
Aug. 3rd, 2010 02:10 am (UTC)
51 at peak, 50 x 2 just before and after the peak.

50% of his movies were made in 25% of his career span. But I guess that stat might just apply to a lot of people, since we're talking only % ;)
Aug. 2nd, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC)
Brilliant Suraj...but i do have a difference of opinion on certain points....now yes Rahman has a whale of technolgy at his disposal..so do listners who can dissect and assemble songs...so scrutiny has increased ..then MSV songs were not freely avbl as discs wer expensive and people got to hear them very rarely..with illayraja we saw the rise of Tapes and LD...but again it was not affordable for all ..but with ARR we saw the rise in Cable tv,music players and computers so people got to appreciate music by dissection...so ARR inpspite of lower volumes had to incorporate different shades to the same song...so i guess effort required is more and with Raja directors had to take the music which was given to them unlike these days when producers are asked to give out options for a single situation so it leads to a faitgue ..which MSV saw in 80's .Raja in 90's and ARR in 00's...and if u look at ur chart the period for them to arrive at that fatigue is different.It took MSV 35 years...raja 25 years and rahman about 15 years...One more thing demographics has changed to too...if I can say that in 50's and 60's people were happy to get food....in 80's our wealth had increased so we needed full saravana bhavan meals...with 90's and 00's our money power and exposure has increased so we need mixture of Italian,French and Continental cuisine....
Karthik PL
Aug. 3rd, 2010 02:05 am (UTC)
Hi Karthik!

By your argument, technology makes scrutiny of music easier. I disagree - people who loved and hated raja's music listened to it mostly on tapes. They found it brilliant not because of the quality of recording. I don't think today's generation hates Rahman's music because of his excellent quality of recording. Infact, to me, its the opposite. I ask my mind to shut up trying to see repetitive patterns from the past (I do that all the time) and instead sit back and enjoy the amazing textures of sounds rahman produces.

People criticized raja for how he used music itself (western + folk + carnatic blend). Of course, there were a bunch of people (like me) who liked his use of technology back then (think Vikram: whatever tape player I had, it still sounded good).

The rickshaw pullers didn't go mad about MSV + T.M.Soundarrajan for the quality of the sound but because of the soulfulness or whatever of the songs.

So, sorry - its not about the technology available to the listeners.
Aug. 2nd, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
It could also be that the # of tunes a musician can compose is finite. Maybe because of his own creative limitations. Similar to science:- Einstein didn't have anything big after relativity?
Instead of looking at individual musicians, if we plot the # of original tunes over time, I expect there will be spikes. (where a music genius was at his peak). If the spikes are getting shorter, then the conclusion you are coming to makes sense.
Aug. 3rd, 2010 01:55 am (UTC)
Point noted.

I actually went around looking for original tunes... or so called hits, like what the article I've referenced to in the footnotes does about Rock music (and shows how Rock is finite ;) ). But couldn't find a good source. so instead I rationalized on the following mechanism:

1. If an artist is good, film producers will approach him thereby pushing towards "Growth" year over year.
2. When the artist starts peaking, they find an alternative.
3. Assumption: MSV or Ilayaraaja or Rahman are not very different. Just that the amount of tunes they could exploit was proportional to the amount of easy tunes waiting to be made.
4. law of diminishing returns of research and production technology applies.

This explains why raja was ousted at around his peak - the water cut equivalent in music, that is stale, same sounding songs must have been so high at such volumes that they had to find alternatives... and they did.
Aug. 2nd, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
Interesting observations. I don't really have of an opinion on the finite/infiniteness of music, but do think there are some practical considerations you're ignoring. I feel the number of scores that ARR is churning out is lesser than his predecessors coz his overall workload is a lot more than either of them would've had. How many national/international concerts, Grammys, Oscars etc. did Ilayaraja or M.S.Vishwanathan have to perform at in addition to composing for movies. That plus the rigours of endless PR exercises for each album, I'm sure leaves a much smaller portion of his time for actually composing new stuff. I guess it's sad for us fans that we'll get to hear a lot less new stuff from the genius!
Aug. 3rd, 2010 01:44 am (UTC)
The PR phenomenon is an interesting angle. Indeed, a lot of time is spent these days in doing PR. Is the excessive PR work just an arms-race, everybody progressing in lock-steps and outdoing each other with more PR work, a kind of Ratchet effect? Where is the voluminous quality of the yesteryears? When there is cheap, easy to get music that gives profits, why go after expensive PR work?
Aug. 3rd, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
I was about to point you to that blog post comparing rock'n'roll hits and oil production, when I saw it in the postscript :)

Wrt that post, I think it had a lot of bias since genres keep changing over the decades, like the 60s/70s classic rock, 80s disco and metal and 90s alt rock and 2000s hiphop. Rolling Stones ranks classic rock higher than other genres, so that trend is kinda obvious.

But in the case of Tamil film music, I think we should also give credit where credit is due. Ilayaraja was a genius who could think music like not many other geniuses could. I've read about anecdotes that he typically would compose a song in a few minutes (even while for eg. having lunch), and just write it down. Rahman, on the other hand, takes days (technically nights) to compose a song. I don't think it would be possible to answer the question: if we swapped the two, would their #songs per year also get swapped. (From what I understand, you're claiming it would, based on your hypothesis of finite music. (If so, then are you also saying that, if we swapped Saint Thiagaraja and say Lalgudi Jayaraman, their #kritis/year would also be swapped?)
Aug. 3rd, 2010 01:29 am (UTC)
I think it would. If you looked at the basic structure of an Endaro, I don't think its something beyond Lalgudi's reach. Just that it was already made!

The genre thing you're talking about is exactly it: You can only do so much with an Electric guitar, though it did last for a very long time (for about 4 decades?). But remember it was Peak Jazz before that... and then rock... and then pop. Kinda like how Pennsylvania was exploited to it's fullest and while it was declining, they found texas... and then mexico... and then middle east... and then north sea.. and so on. Each 'pool' of musician or genre might have its limitation, but remember, once a musician churns out a simple, catchy tune, it can't be made again! its gone, lost forever!
Aug. 3rd, 2010 01:15 pm (UTC)
Very interesting premise about the finite-ness of *good* and *long-lasting* music. I have also felt this intuitively, but now I am sitting down and thinking about it.... and I feel that though yes, it still seems to be a finite entity, it's also probable that we are nowhere near the limit....I used to hear my uncles and aunts lamenting about the lack of "good music" even in the MSV days!...and I was not allowed to listen to "pop" (everything was classified as "pop" and therefore, by implication, bad)....and now we have those songs as classic hits, and the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel are classic hits....even now, the odd song ( "then mErkku paruva kAttru" for example) is so delightful, and remains in my "mental ears" for a long time...

And...today...the longevity of a song could also be decided on how much it is played/sung. Several recent composers (I can include myself in the list) have composed several kritis; I know they are good. But who will sing them? So they are doomed to obscurity and quick obsolescence.

Well, this is a very interesting post because it gives me so much to agree with...and disagree with...the essence of interesting conversation! Thank you. You've put in a lot of work over those graphs....I wish I could follow up my theories with so much of solid analysis!

Aug. 4th, 2010 03:00 am (UTC)
Thanks deponti.

More than "good" and "long lasting", this post is about "easy to produce" and "volumes that can be churned out in a given unit of time" which is what will matter when talking about Peak Everything. Its not about "how much is left" but about "whether we can produce as much as they did in those days".

If we had dates on when various Thyagaraja/Dikshitar kritis were made, we could come up with an equivalent Peak Carnatic Music post ;) But then, I guess we don't need data. Most of carnatic songs _were_ made back then. Some good ones came about later, but those were just the few that the trinity missed out ;)
Aug. 19th, 2010 05:22 pm (UTC)
Interesting take. But if we have to take ARR as "equivalent in pretty much all respects" (i.e. talent, else ...) as IR and MSV which seems to be the assumption/presumption, then perhaps he should have dominated the same way w.r.t. market-share i.e. % of total films made - because that is the metric you are using to make your point?

If the total # of scores released during ARR's period is in the same ballpark as IR/MSV's, - then is there reason to conclude "less water in the ocean"? Now once you started getting into "but today's tunes in spite of volume they aren't as good, don't stay with us", you are getting into heavily subjective arena afflicted with generational bias etc. and so the jury for which isn't still out. There WERE people from previous generation complaining about IR's music during his prime as well. But yes within a very limited genre one can reach a point of saturation - but usually innovation shows a new way for it to evolve (unless artifical factors curtail innovation - which happens e.g. in Carnatic). I believe MSV did show a new way, so did IR, and so did ARR.

So why isnt ARR dominating as much? It could be that he isnt at the same level (I dont buy that), or it could be market dynamics have changed making it more level playing field (easier entry etc.).

Jun. 4th, 2013 06:52 am (UTC)
Nice post dude!

A different comparison of their output could have been to have their experience in X axis- 1 year, 2nd year, 3rd year and so on. 1992 of ARR, 1974 of IR and 1955 of MSV would overlap. Gives a year by year comparison of these 3 legends.
( 14 comments — Comment on this )