On a smoggy, mid-January morning in New Delhi, a lanky foreigner stood in front of the wrought-iron gate of T-Series’ Noida office. YouTuber and guitarist Davide Biale had flown all the way from Hong Kong just to make a video of himself playing Bitch Lasagna, PewDiePie’s diss track against the Indian music giant. In the video, Biale, whose YouTube channel is called Davie504, is seen strumming his guitar in various locations around Delhi, as the track plays in the background. The text flashing on the screen implores viewers to subscribe to PewDiePie.
Born Felix Kjellberg, 29-year old Swedish YouTube sensation PewDiePie has come a long way since he quit his job at a hot dog stand to play video games on camera. As YouTube’s most followed content creator for the past six years, he now has over 83 million subscribers. To put that into perspective, that’s close to the population of Germany. American late-night show host Stephen Colbert christened him the ‘Emperor of the Internet’, back in 2015. Thus it was unthinkable, even two years ago, that another YouTube channel could surpass the Swede’s subscriber count.
In the last week of January, its subscriber base was over 83 million, just a hundred thousand or so short of its rival, so it is safe to assume that by the time you read this, the company will become the world’s most popular Youtube player.
Last year, however, PewDiePie realized that there was a challenger emerging. Mumbai-based T-Series – which had around 30 million subscribers in January 2018 – had suddenly begun adding new viewers at a faster rate than ever before (around 5 million a month), which helped it reach 60 million subscribers by September. A worried PewDiePie rallied his fans into overdrive, to keep him on the throne for as long as possible. YouTuber MrBeast plastered his face all over his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, while Justin Roberts put up an ad calling for subscribers to join PewDiePie’s channel on a billboard in New York’s Times Square. One person even hacked printers worldwide, with a message encouraging people to subscribe to PewDiePie’s channel.
T-Series’ growth has been relentless, however. In the last week of January, its subscriber base was over 83 million, just a hundred thousand or so short of its rival, so it is safe to assume that by the time you read this, the company will become the world’s most popular Youtube player. The historical viewership of T-Series now tops the 60 billion mark, increasing at the rate of close to 4 billion a month, which is a staggering statistic even by the standards of the modern day internet.
The company’s rise has created waves within the tight-knit community of online personalities. YouTube is the world’s biggest video platform, and has traditionally been seen as the primary avenue for individual creators of video content. That a corporation is going to become Number One is seen by the creator community as a symbolic end to everything indie about the platform. Add to this the fact that it’s an Indian corporation, which is probably not easy for many to digest around the world. Regardless of the motivations driving the backlash against T-Series, one can’t ignore the subtle change in the power dynamic of influential online brands and personalities, as internet use becomes more global.
Even as this online battle spills into real life, Bhushan Kumar, who has owned and run T-Series as its chairman and managing director from the age of 19, after his father’s untimely death in 1997, remains unaffected. “I didn’t even know who PewDiePie is. I became aware of him when he started attacking us. I also never really bothered with tracking subscriber numbers. It’s the people at YouTube who keep informing us. What will T-Series get by being No. 1? Nothing,” he says with a shrug, adding “He (PewDiePie) has taken this too seriously. He’s big individually, while we’re big as a company, so there shouldn’t be a comparison,” he says.
Kumar is a teetotaler with a penchant for fancy cars. Despite his obvious wealth and immense clout in the world of Hindi music and films, he seems to keep a low profile, while still being part of a community that virtually lives on social media. I met him in his mostly white, sprawling office on the top floor of the T-Series building, in suburban Mumbai. On the oversized table between us sat two Mac monitors, surrounded by many landlines and mobile phones. On the equally long console table behind him, film trophies jostled for place along with jars of Indian snacks. On the wall facing him was a large portrait of his late father and T-Series founder, Gulshan Kumar.
KING OF MUSIC
Kumar Sr.’s was a textbook rags-to-riches story. Born into a Punjabi refugee family, he was an obscure fruit-juice seller on the streets of Daryaganj, in Delhi. When his family acquired a shop selling records and cassettes, the then 23-year old spotted a business opportunity and began producing cheap cassettes. Super Cassettes Industries (SCI) started as a musical hardware and software company, peddling pirated film and devotional albums at a fraction of the cost. He worked a loophole in the copyright laws to his advantage, making unknown singers sing cover versions of hit songs. These cassette albums were, then, sold at prices lower than the leading music labels.
The ascent was swift, and SCI was soon sitting at the top of the non-film music business. Even as the company diversified into agarbattis, bottled water, detergent and even biscuits and real estate, he moved to Mumbai to conquer the world of Bollywood music. The soundtrack of Aamir Khan’s debut film, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, was the company’s first hit album. T-Series as a brand was born with the release of the Mahesh Bhatt sleeper hit, Aashiqui, in 1990. According to industry lore, the name T-Series was derived from the Trishul, a symbol of Mata Vaishno Devi, whom Kumar credited for his success (Aashiqui continues to be one of the best-selling Bollywood albums of all time). Chart-topping albums like Dil and Sadak helped the T-Series juggernaut roll down the path to becoming the biggest music label in the country.
When T-Series ventured into producing movies, it rode the belief that it could create stars, just like it had in music with Anuradha Paudwal and Sonu Nigam. A lot of money was pumped into launching Krishan Kumar, Gulshan’s younger brother, but his first three films failed to make a mark. Even as the industry was sniggering about these foolhardy attempts, the businessman went a step ahead and announced that he’d direct Krishan’s next film—Bewafa Sanam. The laughs continued, but Bewafa Sanam became a massive hit.
The ‘90s music boom, coupled with its founder’s buccaneering ways, made T-Series a power to be reckoned with, less than a decade after Kumar had moved to Mumbai. Then, the music baron was shot dead by gangsters outside a temple in Mumbai on August 12, 1997. Months later, when his son Bhushan took over the reins at just 19, the future looked uncertain. Today, at age 41, having signed a global content deal with Spotify, the world’s biggest music streaming service, he is steering the business in a new direction.
For the first five years after Bhushan Kumar took over, T-Series continued to be a leading manufacturer of cassettes and CDs. With hit albums like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Sonu Nigam’s Indipop album, he quickly established his credentials as someone who could spot a hit song. In the early 2000s, as physical album sales started dwindling, the company started adapting to radio, internet and mobile. “Everything was going digital and we understood that that’s where our future lies. It started with ringtones, and now streaming sites are huge,” says Kumar.
Neeraj Kalyan, T-Series President and Digital Head, remembers a time when they didn’t think digital could be commercially viable. “In 2003-2004, we were approached by people for 30-second ringtones, and in turn they offered us some Panasonic handsets. We got very excited about getting 10 handsets for 10 ringtones of 30 seconds each, and saw no harm in it,” Kalyan says with a laugh. But it didn’t take long for him and Kumar to understand how the market was changing. By 2005, T-Series had inked an exclusive agreement with digital company Hungama, to distribute its content online and with telecom operators.
“The law clearly states that nobody can play your songs without taking a license, whether it’s television, radio or streaming sites. Slowly, people started paying and today, we have 40 channels that play our music on television, 10-12 main operators on radio and another 10-12 streaming sites.”
Around the time the label embarked on its digital journey, T-Series decided that other businesses playing its music on their premises had to pay royalties. It identified over 55 types of businesses, including hotels, airlines, airports, departmental stores and even dance bars that played T-Series’ music. These were asked to either pay up or face legal action. By 2007, ground revenues (licensing from ground events and physical businesses) became a sizeable part of its income.
T-Series also trained its eyes on the television industry. “Serials would use our songs, and all we’d get was credit. Initially, we thought this was a way of promoting our songs, but when physical sales started going down, we thought we can’t let anyone play our music for free. The law clearly states that nobody can play your songs without taking a license, whether it’s television, radio or streaming sites. Slowly, people started paying and today, we have 40 channels that play our music on television, 10-12 main operators on radio and another 10-12 streaming sites,” explains Kumar.
It was during this ‘age of litigation’ that T-Series’ relationship with YouTube kicked off, albeit on the wrong foot. “In 2009-2010, we were in litigation with them. The site had so much of our content without the proper licenses,” explains Kalyan. YouTube was one amongst the many online entities the music label took to court during those years. An amicable settlement with the platform was signed in the last quarter of 2010, and on Jan 1, 2011, T-Series began to seriously look at YouTube as a legitimate content distribution partner.
YOUTUBE AND INDIA
When the localised edition of YouTube launched in India in 2007, the most popular channel was lonelygirl15, a web series about a vlogger; Nyac and Milo, two sea otters from the Vancouver Aquarium that became overnight celebrities when a video of them holding hands went viral, with over one million views within a fortnight; and Charlie, who bit his older brother’s finger… again.
Four years later, when T-Series started posting trailers and music videos on YouTube, most of India was still offline. The trailer for the Akshay Kumar-Anushka Sharma drama Patiala House was its first video to garner a million views, but growth was mostly slow at first; videos clocking views in five figures were considered viral. Within a year, T-Series’ YouTube channel became one of the first Indian channels to have over 1 million subscribers.
India’s mobile revolution received a big boost in September 2016, when Reliance Industries launched the country’s first 4G network and slashed prices for internet access. Having added 200 million subscribers in two years, Reliance Jio didn’t just bring the internet to people who previously didn’t have access; it was introducing people to a brand new world of entertainment. In a country where literacy is low, video is more often than not the primary format for content, and that’s where India’s entertainment industry found the ideal partner in YouTube. And if there was anyone who benefited from its years of experience making content for the Indian masses, it was T-Series. The internet wasn’t catering to just the cool youth of the country any more – it was reaching everyone everywhere, and that has historically been the strength of the label. Suddenly, a few million views were run-of-the-mill, and its channel had leapfrogged into the big league.
T-SERIES’ BIGGEST HITS
Guru Randhawa – Lahore
661 Million Views
Guru Randhawa – High Rated Gabru
605 Million Views
Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya – Badri Ki Dulhaniya
510 Million Views
Prem Ratan Dhan Payo – Prem Ratan Dhan Payo
410 Million Views
Baaghi – Cham Cham
400 Million Views
CONTENT IS KING
The three-decade-strong catalogue, however, has always been just the foundation for T-Series. It isn’t tough to imagine a new Indian user on YouTube searching for their favourite song growing up, and landing on the T-Series channel. While it’s Bollywood content, old and new, that drives most of these discovery-led subscriptions, it’s their ability to find and nurture fresh talent with mass appeal that keeps them relevant to the burgeoning youth of the country, and brings the spikes in numbers.
“Our biggest song is a non-film song, Guru Randhawa’s Lahore,” says Kumar, while talking about the label’s renewed focus on nonfilm music. “We keep on improvising as per the tastes of our listeners, and what kind of music they want to listen to. We study what people like in discotheques, in their cars, particularly the youth.” Punjabi singer and composer Guru Randhawa’s video for the single Lahore has close to 670 million views. “I created that song in my bedroom. I knew we had something good on our hands, but couldn’t imagine it would become this big,” a buoyant Randhawa says on a phone call between studio sessions.
The musician is now gearing up for the release of his first collaboration with an international artist. “I have a song with Pitbull launching in a month or two. The video for it was shot in Miami. I am very happy that an artist of Pitbull’s stature has collaborated with me,” he says. Kumar is understandably upbeat about this new single. “It’s a collaboration which is happening for the first time, with such a big artiste from abroad and a Punjabi artiste—the song is in Spanish, English and Punjabi. There are now many other artistes from abroad who want to collaborate with our Indian artistes, and they want to do it with T-Series and host their videos on our channel,” he adds. Also in the pipeline is an Arabic song collaboration.
Artistes, over the decades, have proven that language isn’t a barrier when it comes to good music. While it might have taken a whole lot of confidence from a music label in the past to launch a Shakira outside her home market, the internet has paved an easier path for non-English music in more recent times. When Korean rapper PSY had a surprise hit with Gangnam Style in 2012, he opened up the doors for K-Pop to go global, and bands like BTS have ridden that wave.
Is the next international sensation, then, sitting somewhere in India? If it is, T-Series seems to think it has its finger on the pulse. “The world is becoming completely flat, and Indian music is no longer restricted only to India. The popularity of Bollywood is expanding to a global territory, because good music has no language. That’s helping us grow in new territories like Russia, Portugal and Latin America. It is giving us extended reach, which means higher revenues for artists through concerts and live performances, as the audience is broadening,” explains Kalyan.
While T-Series is cashing in on the sudden globalization that the internet affords it, it hasn’t forgotten its roots. While its bread-andbutter came from cover versions in the ‘90s and remixes in the early 2000s, Kumar talks about a new wave in the Indian music scene. “Now is the time of recreating old Hindi songs. Recreating is different from remixing; you take the hook line of the old song for recall value, but 90 per cent of the song is new. This started happening in 2015 and got us many views and subscribers on YouTube, and streams on other sites.” One of its first successful recreations was a reboot of Dheere Dheere Se Meri Zindagi, with Yo Yo Honey Singh, that’s clocked over 400 million views to date.
Apart from its main music channel, T-Series also has 28 other channels that include regional music, health and fitness, devotional and multiple kids’ channels. “We have tried to cater to as much of our audience as possible. The kids’ content is very generic; everyone has it, because nobody owns the copyrights. When we saw that YouTube was doing well in Portugal, Spain and Latin America, we started dubbing it as well,” says Kalyan. T-Series is also looking inwards and developing a regional catalogue, with a focus on Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi and Marathi music.
THE SPOTIFY DEAL AND BEYOND
T-Series has no doubt mastered the YouTube game like no other Indian player, and in the bargain is most likely the biggest Indian content supplier. Market estimates put T-Series’ earnings from YouTube to be in the region of Rs 70 crore to Rs 100 crore a year. This is however a only a small part of the company’s total annual revenue, which according to its website is around Rs 840 crore, coming from its ‘core business of music and films’. It is no secret that the company is among the big players in the film production business as well. The website informs us that the company broke into the exclusive Rs 100 crore club last year, with its big hit Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety. It talks about 2019 being even bigger, with 12 to 15 new releases planned, including names like De De Pyaar De, Kabir Singh, Bharat, Batla House, Taanaji, Netro and Marjaavaan, which is touted as ‘India’s biggest dance film’.
It is in its core area of music, however, that the company is facing some new threats. With a market share that is estimated to be between 30 to 50 per cent, T-Series is India’s biggest music label, a market that it has dominated for two decades. While traditional music players like Sony, Universal and Saregama have made peace with the fact that they don’t have the money power to match T-Series’ clout while bidding for new film soundtracks, the entry of two new players has the possibility to change the market dynamics, going forward. Zee Music, which launched a few years ago, and the more recent Jio Music – owned by Reliance Entertainment – have pockets that are deeper than T-Series, and they have already been making forays into films and music soundtracks.
The other big change that has come about in the last few years is the exponentially growing popularity of Indian music streaming platforms. The various platforms put together already have a subscription base of more than 100 million. That the future of music is in streaming was abundantly made clear in March last year, when Jio Music bought and merged itself with Saavn in a jaw-dropper of a deal that was worth nearly Rs 6500 crore. Just a month before that, Gaana, another big player, received funding worth around Rs 660 crore from Tencent, the Chinese internet company. There are at least another half a dozen major players battling it out for market share in this growing business, including Airtel Wynk, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Google Play Music and Hungama. To top it all, the Swedish company Spotify, which is the world’s biggest digital music platform, is expected to enter the Indian market in the next few weeks.
With its massive catalogue, T-Series obviously stands to make a huge amount of money as music content supplier to all these platforms, and both Kumar and Kalyan are quite clear that they don’t want set up a music-streaming platform of their own. “We’ve decided that we don’t want to do that, firstly because we’re not a tech company and don’t have an expertise in that area. We are a content company and that’s our expertise, and we’d like to stick to that. Secondly, we don’t want to compete with our own licensees, be it Saavn, Gaana, Hungama or anybody else. That would be very unfair,” says Kalyan.
Instead, T-Series has signed a global content deal with Spotify that will allow for its entire music catalogue (of over 160,000 songs) to be streamed on the latter’s worldwide platform, which already has 200 million subscribers “Spotify, though a late entrant into the Indian market, is already a successful service in other parts of the world, and I hope the expertise gained in other mature markets will help the Indian streaming industry,” says Kalyan. The tie-up will no doubt be a major boost for Spotify as it begins operations in India. Besides the legacy music, it will also, probably, allow it priority access to all new music from T-Series. For T-Series, the partnership will be a bulwark, as it takes on the might of the likes of more deeppocketed competition.