Interview of the Week- Bhushan Kumar, Chairman & Managing Director, T-Series

With over 35% market share, it does not get bigger than T-Series in the Indian music industry. The record label is the largest in India and the flagship YouTube channel it operates is the most widely subscribed to and viewed with 164 million subscribers and 132 billion lifetime views respectively. T-Series’ film production company too, has had a good run this year with Netflix’s Ludo garnering rave reviews for both its production values and its music.

Helming the operations for over 22 years is Bhushan Kumar, Chairman, and Managing Director, who took over from his father, the late Gulshan Kumar, in the most tragic of circumstances. Finding the ropes of the business at just 19 years, Bhushan has had to navigate through many tough scenarios before setting a T-Series course on cruise control. Times have changed and with it, the various trends of music in India.

For our Interview of the Week, we chat with Bhushan Kumar about “the times they are a-changin’.”

How has T-Series been keeping up with changing patterns of music consumption in the country?

In the days of cassettes and CDs, we used to get excited about things like “This album has sold one million units or 2 million units”. Back in the day, digital music pretty much meant pirated Bollywood music coming from Pakistan. They would take Hindi film songs, make pirated compilations and upload them online free of cost, taking advantage of the laws at the time. While we were very wary of it, we started to engage with the mobile platform, first via ringtones and then through callback tunes. We realised that there was some revenue in giving these mobile service companies access to our music. This was followed by the streaming business, where we shook hands with Hungama and started our digital platform business. What started with YouTube, then went on to become sturdy partnerships with Saavn, Gaana, etc.

Now I get very excited about digital. Earlier it was a very tedious job: You make a CD, then sell it to the wholesaler, then the sub-wholesaler, then the retailer, and finally the customer! The whole value chain was the customer-wholesaler-jumbo wholesaler-record label. It was a big chain. You also had to contend with the money issue of people not paying on time, or not at all! Today, in the digital world, you have better systems in place to check on piracy; you could flag a problematic video and YouTube would have it blocked. Now, when we upload a song on our YouTube channel, it reaches the rest of the world in a minute.

How has your YouTube phenomenon changed the way you function?

Access to YouTube in rural India is increasing by the day. As long as our Internet penetration increases, so will people’s interest in YouTube. Think of it this way: When a man in a village first gets a mobile phone, he wants to change his ringtone. He wants to access videos on YouTube that he’s heard about from others. People are recording music on their mobiles today and uploading them on streaming sites.

Today, we’re the no. 1 music channel in the world on YouTube. The kind of penetration we’ve got through YouTube has made it very easy for us to reach out to our audience directly. By observing their comments, seeing what age group they belong to and from which part of the world they come from, we get a song-to-song awareness of what works and what doesn’t.

Can statistics help you determine the next blockbuster in this day and age?

I have inherited a great ear for music from my father, and I know how to select a good song. We at T-Series make songs based on what the public wants. Personally, I don’t really have a preference for what genre of music I want to listen to or relate to. But even before we had this ready digital data on audience behaviour, we were constantly gauging their reaction to our music.

I am constantly thinking of what works for the audience, what can be added to the experience, what can be toned down a bit… I believe that’s the main part of running a successful label. And it is inherently present in me thanks to my father. He has been responsible for so many superhit songs—be in film music, solo albums, devotional music, songs sung in a whole host of languages. No wonder then that we have such a massive catalogue of music spanning Hindi, Bhopuri, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and more, of film, non-film, and devotional music, as well as remixes.

Remixes have been such an intrinsic part of the T-Series way of doing things, so much so that no other label has as many remixes as you do. How do you view the shelf-life of remixes and when do you take a backseat from them?

Remixes are a whole different form of art to study. Today, if you take a really famous song and remix it, it probably won’t work with (the audience). There was a time, in the early 2000s, when remixing old songs was a big deal. Songs like Kaanta Laga and Chadti Jawani went on to become big hits. Back then, all you needed was a song with a good tune, have it sung again with a new singer, give it a big beat, and shoot the video in a slightly erotic manner. We have done that also when people wanted to listen to such songs. Yet, we must bear in mind that all these things have an expiry date. These concepts work for a few years and then make way for newer ones to come along.

Then we started recreating songs. We would take the hook line of an old song and make it into a new song. Then, we’d merge the new song into the old one and make it like a mashup. Similarly, when we launched our unplugged property Mixtape, we would take two songs from the same raga or songs that had similar chords and merge them to form a new song. This has become a hugely successful property for us with Amazon wanting to present the third edition of it.

While recreating, initially everyone goes ga-ga over a new way of doing it. But you also have to contend with the criticism. My idea with recreation is that it not only gives so many people their livelihood but by getting newer singers to sing them, we get a chance to showcase new talent. There are many composers and musicians who are enthusiastic about it, while there are some others who are critical of it. They feel we’re spoiling iconic songs of theirs.

Now we’ve consciously stopped remixing and are concentrating on original music. We make these choices solely based on our interactions with the public. T-Series have done the maximum amount of remixes in this industry, most of which have gone on to become blockbusters. While my own personal journey of recreating songs has been superb, I have also received enough criticism lately to have spurred us to hold back on doing remixes for a while.

Apart from remixes, the Internet too provides a wider spectrum of new talent. What does it take for a record label today to spot the right upcoming artist?

Today there’s an abundance of good talent. We too get overwhelmed or confused when it comes to narrowing down great talent. People continue to send me compositions via WhatsApp, and we are constantly tracking Instagram, TV reality shows, and YouTube. So many composers and music writers have come up like that. Recently we launched Dhvani Bhanushali and even revamped Jubin Nautiyal’s career. Inadvertently, the pandemic has meant no films releasing for months on end. So, we took advantage of that and concentrated on non-film music. We have a lot of singles primed for release. The response to this has been great, even more than what we usually receive for film music!

You mention having singles ready for release. While catering largely to a generation that listens to singles—not albums—are you consciously looking at releasing singles over albums?

The era of the full-length album has gone. Those people who still are looking at releasing their music via one comprehensive album are those of the older generation who have been accustomed to releasing new music that way. This, however, is the streaming generation. There’s no economic logic in releasing an album today. For example, we’ve planned to release Guru Randhawa’s music through one single per month. In that way, over a span of 7-8 months, Guru has put out an album’s worth of music.

Earlier, people who bought CDs for INR 99, wanted their money’s worth. They would not be willing to shell out money to buy singles. Today, however, people want to listen to a song. So if you release an album but do the visual of only one or two songs, there are 5-6 more songs that don’t get the attention they deserve. Nowadays it has become important to make a visual for the songs too. People continue to consume music visually and as a record label, it is our job to help in penetrating the song into the market.

The role of the record label has changed with the times. Do you feel in some ways, labels aren’t the necessary evil of the industry?

I can answer this briefly but perhaps it’s helpful if you ask an artist who is not thankless. There are artists who are thankful for the contribution of the label in their careers, but there are also some who were grateful before but aren’t anymore. Some of them feel their success has everything to do with their own talent and not even mention the role the label did in guiding them.

That said, you definitely need a label to help you build your persona. If a song is introduced on our channel on YouTube, it gets so much visibility because we’re the biggest channel in the world. When we place our catalogue on Gaana or Saavn, we are constantly also releasing new music, so these songs will come to the fore. Our relationships and partnerships with various platforms and the connectivity a label has across various markets takes good music to as wide an audience as possible.

Individuals or smaller companies cannot have that kind of placement, nor do they have the depth of musical catalogues as we do.

Using music from your catalogue devoid of licenses has seen T-Series take action against several Short Format Video apps this year. Do you think they are finally taking royalty and rights seriously?

Yes, we have had to send notices to a lot of Short Format Video apps to garner the fees due to us for using our music without our explicit permission. There is a law protecting the interests of those whose music we own. We ourselves have bought this music at such high costs. And there is an important concept called the license fee. Then how are you using our stuff without paying us? What makes one think they could use such music for free? We have paid for it, so we have to recover the costs that we’ve incurred to protect these rights. It’s simply the law of the land. We’re only enforcing it.

Now we have licensed our content to so many platforms like Sharechat, Chingari, etc. People are now more aware of the laws in place. Those who are starting out in the digital world today are coming in better informed. That culture of responsibility has to be set because who wouldn’t want music for free? It’s the assertiveness that we as labels show from Day 1 about how seriously we look at protecting the interests of our catalog of music. We’re not being bullies; just asking you to pay us for the service that our licensed product has rendered to you.

How seriously do you consider Short Format Video apps?

I see them as a different entertainment setup, not a music entertainment setup per se. What song can you really enjoy in 30 seconds? I used to watch TikTok and similar sites and wonder how can one get the mood or feel of a song in merely 30 seconds? It is entertainment; where people shoot themselves doing fun things, upload those videos on these apps, and have people commenting on them. People are voraciously consuming such content and the platforms are getting ads; it’s solving their purpose.

That said, these apps are also a huge source of marketing and revenue for us too. If anybody is listening to our tune for 30 seconds and he/she likes it, then he’ll definitely go to our YouTube channel and watch our videos. These apps provide a gateway to our work and have the potential to drive traffic towards our catalogue.

And a situation like a lockdown would have certainly seen increased interest in your music thanks to people have more time on hand to stream content. How has T-Series navigated through the lockdown?

We have taken the opportunity of no films releasing during much of the lockdown and worked on our maximum non-film music being created and released into the market. T-Series has not had a bad time in the lockdown. Initially, we started with some lyricals, where we put in some stock shots and made the videos. Then when things started opening up, we started shooting videos featuring our artists. We popularised and promoted those, got a good window on radio channels, streaming sites, among others to promote the music. Slowly, our non-film music developed its own identity that was no longer overshadowed by film music.

Now every label is doing that kind of singles release strategy.

The lockdown was good for me because I was at home and constantly in touch with my music composers and lyricists over the phone. The time at home gave us all the space and distance we needed for creativity. We made some 100 songs, which—according to me—are very good songs. They will slowly be released into the market. Normally I don’t get so much time for non-film music because there’s so much happening in Bollywood itself, but the lockdown has inspired me to keep at it and perhaps aim to release 50 non-film songs a year hereon.

T-Series has always worked as a family and our artists are an integral part of the family. They stand by me, I stand by them. We have all needed our nerves to be calmed in this lockdown and I must say they have all been very cooperative. Touring has not been possible, so a big part of their live performance revenue has been affected.

How do you see the live music scene in the country today?

The live scene is in a fix because it is hard to figure out when it is okay to open up. Perhaps by the end of 2021, we should be in a better space. People are taking to the digital medium to replicate the live experience and it is a good option temporarily, but it isn’t the same as an on-ground experience. Normally at this part of the year, my singers would be very busy with wedding functions. In Punjab, conducting morning shows is quite common. So, our singers would be swamped with two concerts a day through the wedding season. This year it isn’t quite the same.

The statutory licensing rate was fixed at 2% of the net advertising revenues of the private radio broadcaster in 2010 for a period of 10 years.  Now that the duration has elapsed, how do you see this rate improving?

We all feel that this is very less. It is also not fair since nowhere in the world is it pegged at 2%. We’re having these discussions and productive sessions with the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB). This revenue should be improved because it comes under statutory license; they should create margins and decide their price… where we should also get our due. Without our content, radio stations are nothing. How can you work without our content? It is very unfair that they’re making huge profits and we’re just getting 2% of that. It is to be decided by the IPAB, so we are definitely putting our face to this conversation as a music label, and as a member of this music industry, we are very much a part of these discussions.

There should certainly be an increment and it should be on par with other international countries.

Words by Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

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