Interview of the Week- Neeraj Kalyan, President, T-Series

T-Series, India’s biggest music label, was founded by Gulshan Kumar in 1983. Known primarily for its Bollywood, devotional and Indi-Pop music catalogues, T-Series is headquartered in Noida and apart from music has diversified into film production with great success. In addition, it also boasts the record of the most subscribed YouTube channel in the world (123 million) followed by PewDiePie (102 m).

After Gulshan Kumar’s untimely demise, the company was taken over by his son, Bhushan, who is the Managing Director and CEO and has a core team that runs the business, where Neeraj Kalyan, heads the digital – most prominent revenue & distribution stream.

Neeraj started his career with T-Series in 1996 as a Manager and played an integral role in the company’s stupendous success, resulting in his being elevated to the position of President of the Company.

Kalyan’s career of 23 years in the organisation has taken him through several transitions in the music business, especially the shift from physical to today’s digital market. Kalyan oversees Copyright Management, Entertainment Licensing, Digital Music, Negotiations, Strategic Alliances, Business Development, and more.

Music Plus sought got the opportunity of speaking with the corporate and commercial mind behind T-Series that is Neeraj Kalyan.

Music and Beyond

Super Cassettes Industries Private Limited, known as T-Series, started in the mid-80s at a time when the record label business was just blossoming. It began putting out music that included cover versions of popular film songs, created its own devotional catalogue and quickly got into the acquisition of film soundtracks.

1988 was a breakthrough year for the organisation when Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, became one of its best-selling albums with reportedly over 8 million copies sold.

Success followed success thereafter and in the span of 36 years, T-Series has grown into not just the industry’s largest music label but a media conglomerate that owns an approximate 70% share of the new music market.

Today, when the avenues of music consumption and distribution have changed, Kalyan throws light on the Company’s strategy and business outlook.

“Music is undoubtedly our core. Yes, we have diversified into film-making, producing at least 18- 24 films a year. This year we had Bharat, Saaho, De De Pyar DeKabir SinghBatla HouseMarjaavaan, etc. Next year is even grander with Tanhaji, Street DancerShubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan, Satyamev Jayate 2, Malang, Ludo etc.”

Keeping the next five years in view, he says

“The focus in the upcoming years will, however, remain on two things i.e., music and movies. To be very honest, every year has been a challenge for us. Now we have also expanded our production to making originals on OTTs like Netflix, Hotstar, etc. We will more or less remain within this same space of entertainment viz., music and production”

Not only film music but T-Series is also equally enthusiastic about making music outside of films. Talking about non-film music, Kalyan says,

“It is not a new phenomenon. In the late ‘90s, Gulshan ji started albums with artists like Anuradha ji (Paudwal), Kumar ji (Sanu), Sonu Nigam etc. In ’98-’99, Bhushan ji gave serious thought to this idea of pop albums and we achieved major success in the form of Deewana by Sonu Nigam”

Deewana was released in 1999 when the Indipop scene was booming, yet an album of eight songs, coming from a playback singer was a relatively new concept.

“During that time artists had no conviction that music beyond films could also work. They were more interested in playback singing. Sonu out of courtesy agreed to dub it after Bhushan ji cajoled him. The entire music was supervised by Bhushan ji, Sonu just recorded the songs and even refused to appear in the videos.”

T-Series, after the success of Deewana, released Jaan and Yaad, on which Sonu sang every song and appeared in every video. Apart from Sonu’s success, the company also had hit albums by artists like Adnan Sami, Pankaj Udhas, Jagjit Singh, Abhijeet, Udit Narayan and many others.

“Today there are so many artists like Guru Randhawa, Arman Malik, Jubin Nautiyal, Neha Kakkar, Tulsi Kumar, Dhvani Bhanushali who are our artists, making non-film music. Over the years, non-film pop music has come a long way”

Dhvani Bhanushali’s non-film song, Vaaste was one of those to enter the list of ‘YouTube’s Most Viewed Songs of 2019.’ It stands at 685 million views currently.

Recreation or Remakes?

The phenomenon of remaking a song is certainly not new is also something that started in the late 90s during the Indipop era. However, it was the success of Kaanta Laga in 2002 that set the foundation for what we now call “remakes.”

Asking Kalyan if there is any “funda” behind remakes and why they do it, he says,

“To understand why we do it, you have to understand some science behind it. Consumers are essentially unaware of songs released before they were born. If you offer them the same kind of music and compositions from the ongoing era, they may not like it. Tamma Tamma, for example, is a new song for today’s generation. There is definitely a recall value but remakes repackage the same song into what works now”

Bearing out his theory is the fact that remakes definitely have seen a huge hit rate in the recent past.  For example, songs like Aaj Phir Tumpe Pyar Aya Hai, originally from Dayavan, a 1988 movie; So Gaya Yeh Jahan (Tezaab,1988); Dilbar Dilbar (Sirf Tum, 1999); O Saki Saki (Musafir, 2004); Aankh Marey (Tere Mere Sapne, 1996)…the list is endless.

So, do remakes depend on the movie?

“It depends on the need of the song. Then we approach the owners and if they agree, we take all the rights that are required for us to make a new song,” says Kalyan

It is not only the songs from films that have been “repackaged,” non-film songs have been remade equally for films.

For example, the original version of Coca Cola by Tony Kakkar was remade for the movie Luka ChuppiYeah Baby by Garry Sandhu as Hauli Hauli for De De Pyar DeChitta Kukkar, a folk song, became Lamberghini ft. Jassie Gill for Jai Mummy DiDheeme Dheeme by Tony Kakkar for Pati Patni Aur WohPatola by Guru Randhawa for Blackmail.

These songs are from various other labels hence, T-Series has been remaking songs not only from their label but also other labels viz., Desi Music Factory, Fresh Media Records, “Universal, Times, Lahiri, and Moviebox.”

So how does a song placement happen? Is it the record label that approaches a production house with an available remake or vice-versa?

“It is a complete combined effort. We don’t create music to sell. It doesn’t happen that way. The production house in case of Tamma Tamma, was Dharma Productions who approached us and sought our advice. By understanding the requirement, our team works on it and we offer suggestions and after many trials, a new song comes out altogether. Whenever we acquire any kind of song or a movie, we work on it right from the beginning, irrespective of the production house”

While the spree of remakes might last for some time, the value of music is something to think about. Also, it is hard to decipher what must be harder; quoting a price for a song of the 1980s or evaluating the price of an original from 2019? Sharing how this works, Kalyan says,

“It is very difficult to put a value on content. You have to look at what kind of traction you will be able to derive on a service. Based on that, we simply arrive at a fee which is acceptable to all parties involved. It is mutual. It’s all about negotiation”

Worldwide Attention

A Swedish YouTube channel, PewDiePie, owned by Felix Kjellberg, who makes comedy and commentary videos, got into a tussle about the title of the most-subscribed channel on YouTube. PewDiePie’s channel had the most subscribers from 2013 until February 2019, when it was surpassed by T-Series.

“We didn’t even know who PewDiePie was,” reveals Kalyan.  “There are a lot of differences between PewDiepie and us and these differences actually mean that there is no competition.  However, this was probably an opportunity he saw to promote himself in this part of the world through us but ended up promoting us instead. Most people around the world might not have been aware of who we are, viz., in Japan, Australia, Europe. We were only known to the Indian diaspora. This incident made everyone know about us and helped us a lot”

While the global viewership of the channel is primarily driven by Hindi language songs, the Company has dedicated itself to content in other Indian languages such as Punjabi, Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, Bhojpuri, Marathi etc.

“Music, as we know, has no language. While 50% of our music is consumed in India, the rest is from outside the country where the diaspora plays a huge role. However, it isn’t possible to know who is consuming our music. So, counting on the diaspora alone is difficult,” explained Kalyan.

Consumption and Revenue

On the change in technology that collapsed the physical format, how has the change been for T-Series that owned its own cassette and CD manufacturing plants?

“The highest revenue source today is from digital. It is the only mode of distribution available now. We haven’t produced a single CD in the past 5 years. We have shut our factories. More than 60% of our revenue is from digital, the rest from other mediums. 

The maximum number of online content consumers lie within the age group of 14-30 years. That is where internet penetration is the most. The transition in music consumption is improving with technology. Streaming has made everything easy and transparent. We are actually happy about this,” says Kalyan.

On the other sources of revenue, Kalyan says,

“Public Performance is something we all are working hard to build. However, the problem lies in the ones consuming music who think music is for free. The consumers do not understand that a lot of investment and time has gone into producing it and all music has some value attached to it. It’s the same principle as to why you can’t take a famous painting and simply copy it. Whether it is a shop, restaurant, mall, club using music, the users need to respect copyright”

The availability of thriving stalls where a CD, pen-drive or mobile phone can be filled with downloaded (read pirated) music, is testimony to how piracy is taking place today. The transition of physical to digital piracy is something that Kalyan believes, is not impossible to curb.

“The Government, as well as the IMI, is working on it and we are hoping that there should be a solution to this too. If the government can control many internet applications viz., pornography at an ISP level, it very much can control piracy of music and movies. The government needs the will to do it”

Kalyan continues,

“Music is just one part of the industry but if you look at music accruing to other industries like telcos and OTTs, they cannot sustain without music. One CRBT sold by a premium telco is about INR 15 from where the music industry receives just INR 3. Sometimes even lesser than that. There is a huge gap. Publishing revenue is even smaller. Despite our industry being the fuel to  this drive, the music industry is at the fag end of the pipe”

Text by Aakanksha Sharma

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