The outbreak of COVID-19 was many things for many people, for the rich it was a time when they could stay back home with their family and contemplate, while for some it meant the loss of livelihood and starvation. For Devesh Mirchandani, a 26-year-old choreographer, it meant no work.
Mirchandani's primary source of income came from the money he made from the workshops he conducted in cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Vadodara, Mumbai and Pune, by being physically present. With over a million followers on Youtube, Mirchandani was a sought-after choreographer whose workshops would sell off fast.
Given the instructions to be followed to curb the spread of a raging pandemic, Mirchandani was left with no other means to pay his bills.
On 5th August 2020, a couple of months after the break of the pandemic, the Meta-owned platform - Instagram released, the feature named 'Reels' following the success of the short form videos on TikTok. Mirchandani, like many other artists, jumped on the wagon and started creating Reels.
With his Reels going viral, he soon started getting international clients who were enamoured by his simple choreography for Bollywood songs both old and new.
"In ankhon ki masti was one of the first Reels, made in the month of October 2020, that got me a lot of attention and clients on Instagram. However, after a couple of days I realised that my video had gotten muted," says the Mumbai-based choreographer.
In the month of August, a video posted on Instagram and Facebook, Mirchandani is seen asking, "Why are music companies muting our videos when all we get are views and reach, while they make money? We are not even asking them to share the revenue. We can't even monetize from those videos!"
In the recent past, many digital content creators have taken to Facebook and Instagram to complain about the same - the muting of audio previously available on the Instagram Music library. However, just like the Instagram algorithm, this too remains a mystery to most content creators and viewers.
Creators Complain That Reels Made Using Audio From Instagram Music Library Are Getting Muted
With the release of the feature -Reels on Instagram, the platform stopped boosting static posts and started pushing reels. Creators soon jumped on the wagon and started making short-form videos to increase their reach and audience engagement.
"August of 2020 meant that the world was still figuring out the new normal", says Mirchandani who had turned to making reels when conducting offline tutorials became impossible owing to the pandemic. The choreographer turned digital creator, told DECODE that the world of reels had opened up many possibilities for a time when his primary source of revenue had dried up.
"People - both from India and abroad, saw my simple dance routines for songs like 'Mohe panghat pe' , 'In ankhon ki masti', 'Ghoomar' and immediately started requesting me for online classes. So while we had no clue how to take online classes, we learnt but that opportunity opened up because my Reel went viral".
Stage For Change, a performing arts group, based out of Kolkata, on realising that hosting stage shows might be a distant dream, turned to using Instagram as a platform to generate some revenue in 2021. Kanaya Bhattacharya, the founder of the five-year-old troop says that shifting the focus from offline revenue generation to online revenue generation aka making Reels on Instagram opened up the world of barter and paid collaborations and enabled them to earn revenue in the absence of stage shows.
But a stable and/or continuous flow of revenue demands virality of the reel, which comes from good content, trending, and catchy music, and many such factors. However, with music being muted by music labels on Instagram it has begun to affect digital content creators and their businesses.
Shruti Majumdar, a 22-year-old fashion and lifestyle influencer based out of Kolkata, frequently does paid collaborations with brands like Urbanic, Maybelline, and Myntra. In the last two months, she has seen 5-7 of her reels getting muted. The Kolkata-based lifestyle influencer only posts reels for paid collaborations, so when she started noticing that her reels were getting muted, despite using music from Instagram's music library, she immediately reported the videos. As a resolution, Instagram restored the audio for some videos but without linking them to the original singer. So instead of displaying the name of the song and singer, it just displayed a '.'.
Majumdar who usually gets at least 50K views on her Reels, did not receive that many views on account of her video getting muted. Considering her video isn't linked to the original source of the audio, her reels do not show up under the trending audio thus affecting the reach of the video even in the long run.
With a follower count of 24.4K on Instagram, Majumdar, a fourth-year Law student, tells DECODE that if the video for a paid collaboration gets muted within a day or two of being uploaded it is bound to affect her business. "Most Reels depend on instantaneous reach - that is the number of views you get on a Reel in the first few hours and maybe first two days. Sometimes it starts taking on after 2-3 weeks of being uploaded but that is quite rare. So, if my video gets muted on the very day of uploading it, I will not get the reach, and considering it is a paid promotion, it will invariably affect my credibility".
Most creators fail to understand the reason behind the muting of videos on Instagram despite using audio from the Instagram library.
Ritika Jadhav, a 22-year-old Bombay-based make-up- artist with 13.9K followers complains that many of her videos have been muted since February 2022. "Some got muted in a day, some after weeks, and some after two months of uploading them. However, I fail to understand why it happens", says the engineering graduate who started making reels in 2020.
"Is it a copyright-related issue? But then I use music from Instagram's music library" asks a confused Jadhav.
Why Are Instagram Reels Getting Muted?
DECODE reached out to Instagram inquiring about their revenue system and the copyright issues but did not hear back from them but a close examination of their policies indicates that users can use copyrighted audio from the Instagram music library which includes music from films, TV shows etc, as long as they are attributed or linked to the artist and includes the name of the track. However, audio tracks can become muted as a result of changes made to agreements between the platform and music rights holders.
Jyotirmoy Roy, founder, and owner of JMR Music, an independent music company based out of Kolkata, tells DECODE that Instagram and Facebook use an Artificial Intelligence scanner to differentiate between third-party users who use copyrighted music and music labels and musicians who have copyrights. This is done by 'whitelisting' profiles of musicians and music labels.
For a musician or music label's profile to be 'whitelisted', they need to share their International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) and their Instagram profiles. This process which takes up about a week allows music copyrights owners to use their music on their profiles without the threat of being muted, and earn revenue from their music being used by others.
'Whitelisting' explains why Gangubai's music is audible on reels saved and shared by Sanjay Leela Bhansali Production's and Saregama's Instagram pages, while the same audio has been muted for reels made by creators. In the list of creators' Reels being muted for using songs like 'Dholida' and 'Jhume re Gori' fall both promotional reels made with influencers like Sonal Devrajand, Anam Darbar and smaller accounts.
Rahgir, the musician behind Instagram's viral reel music 'Admi Chutiyaa Hai' tells DECODE that as an independent musician it was easier for him to distribute his music through the fully virtual platform CD Baby. This required him to sign up for one of the four different packages for singles and albums.
The basic plan starts from $4.99 that includes digital distribution to Spotify, Apple music, Amazon Music, and 150+ more streaming platforms. It also includes making the music available on Instagram and Facebook's music library and the likes.This entails a contract between a musician and/or music label, distributor with Instagram for a stipulated period of time whereby the copyrights owner agrees on extending 'Reproduction Rights' to users and content creators on that platform.
Platforms like CD Baby partner with Meta owned platforms Instagram and Facebook, where they upload the music into Facebook's Rights Manager to scan anyone using the content. Rights Manager launched in 2016 is a customisable tool within Facebook's Creator Studio Platform that lets creators and copyright owners to have control over when and how, their original content is being used.
Once the content is uploaded on Rights Manager, iterations of the content is monetised as and when the content gets matched by the system. The music delivered to Rights Manager becomes available on Facebook and Instagram's music libraries for Stories, Reels and Lip sync live. When users add music to their Stories and Reels, by searching for the title or artist in the music library, each use gets monetised and calculated under the ID of the artist and the copyright owner. As part of the agreement between CD Baby and the musician, they keep a certain percentage of the revenue made for themselves and pass on the rest to the account of the musician.
Roy tells DECODE that in the last few months, many videos have been muted because of the termination or non-renewal of the contract between Meta-owned platforms - Instagram and Facebook, and the third-party company that is in charge of audio identification, hinting that the lapse can be because of the former's interest in developing their own AI scanner.
Cost of Creation
With the boom of the social media creator economy and the success of reels, celebrities are seen collaborating with social media influencers to promote their films and music.
Mirchandani tells DECODE that Reels have taken the shape of an effective marketing tool where actors, filmmakers, and music labels, during their promotions, encourage creators to make Reels and 'show them love'.
Recently, Instagram has been collaborating with artists like Somlata Acharya and many others from all over India, asking them to make 1-Minute Music catering to Instagram Reels. The independent musician based out of Kolkata, tells DECODE that the copyrights remain with the musician and the revenue earned will be directly transferred to her account. Unlike other distribution processes, where the revenue earned gets passed from the platform to the artist via a distributor, this agreement is solely between Instagram and the musicians, and the revenue made gets transferred to their accounts directly.
"However, it is difficult to tell for both this song and other songs that have been distributed to Instagram, how much revenue is earned per Reel as we receive the revenue in a bulk," adds Acharya.
For an easier understanding of royalties to be distributed between musicians and the label, JMR Music owner Roy divides the revenue earned from Instagram by dividing the number of creations by the number of songs under the label which is further divided by the revenue made from the platform. He mentions that to distribute music and make it available on Instagram music library, every artist needs a distributor. No artist can do it by themselves.
Adrita Saha, an Intellectual Properties Lawyer, working with S. Majumdar and Co. explains 'Royalty' as a recurring payment made to the copyright owner of intellectual property, in exchange for permission to use it in any capacity. She tells DECODE that in cases of a breach, despite earning royalties from the 'reproduction' of an intellectual property like a song, the copyright owner can take down the said 'reproduction' from any platform.
However, unlike platforms like Youtube, where the content creators get notified on using copyrighted music, Instagram's muting of audio despite making copyrighted music available on the platform, seems unfair.
Creators like Mirchandani and Bhattacharya ask the same question, "what happens to our cost of production and our time?"
Bhattacharya estimates a budget of Rs. 20,000-25,000 thousand for a day's shoot. She says that this budget includes- a cinematographer, studio, costumes, and make-up. Apart from this, every scheduling of the shoot requires enormous planning.
"All of which goes to waste when the Reel gets muted and we end up not even getting the desired reach," says a disgruntled Bhattacharya.
Mirchandani with 140K followers, charges his collaborators Rs. 15,000 for one Reel, for some Reels where he is performing himself, there is an investment of 20,000 that just goes into, renting a studio, make-up, costume, and filming.
"These Reels are only shot with the hopes of getting views and for the reach, to attract more clients, but when these Reels are muted, all of it goes to waste because nobody knows which song I am performing to", says the Mumbai-based choreographer. Mirchandani recollects that songs like 'In ankhon ki masti', 'Mohe panghat pe', 'Jhume re Gori', 'Hoton pe aisi baat' were all muted despite being available on the Instagram's Music Library.
Bhattacharya tells DECODE that Stage for Change at present has 17 videos that were muted, some a day after being uploaded, some a week, and some after months of being uploaded. However, she recollects that - "after Saregama's Instagram page had reposted one of our videos, many of our videos got muted after that. However they remained audible on Saregama's Instagram page."
Further, having a personal creator's account she claims that some videos are audible when accessed from her own creator's account but are not audible when accessed from Stage for Change's account, thus hinting that different accounts have different kinds of settings. Bhattacharya by now has raised many complaints on Instagram, while most go unanswered, sometimes the audios do get restored with no credit to the musicians, but get updated with a '.' in the place of the names of the musicians. For a growing page like theirs, it serves little to no purpose, as in the places of getting at least 10K views in a day, they hardly manage to get 2K in total. Additionally, it doesn't get listed under the song which also affects their reach in the long term.
However, since the time Instagram released its 'Boost the Reel' feature, it has been pushing content creators to run their reels as advertisements. Social media executive Divya Debnath tells DECODE that it is a double edged sword for small content creators, while they might get the desired reach for a 'not-so well' performing Reel initially, Instagram will then restrict the organic reach of the other reels that were not boosted.
"So essentially the cost of production and time in producing a Reel that gets muted goes to waste, even if we 'boost' that Reel, because it ends up limiting our reach in both the short run and long run", says a disgruntled Bhattacharya.
Digital content creators are increasingly finding it difficult to use copyrighted music on Instagram. On one hand they are unable to understand why music labels would mute videos despite making them available on the platform, especially when it adds to the revenue generated for the copyright owners and adds to their publicity. On the other hand they are bemused by Instagram's lack of transparency about their copyright policies.