From a music cassette company in the 1980s to an entertainment conglomerate, T-Series has come a long way under the guidance of its CMD, Bhushan Kumar.
By Vinita Bhatia
Bhushan Kumar likes to spend time with the 600-odd T-Series employees, based across India whenever he gets a chance.
At a time when youngsters were planning where to relax with their pals, Bhushan Kumar was handed the reins of T-Series, a popular record label, which was founded in 1984, with a fledgling production house. The 19-year old had to take charge of the company in 1997, following the untimely death of his father, Gulshan. He barely knew the business, and producers who had committed to work with the company started backing out, worried that he would not be able to promote their film’s music the way his father did.
“I tried convincing them, but they were unmoved. I requested for one chance and did the promotion of one film, which worked. That paved the way for the second and third film. Then we did non-film music with Jagjit Singh, Lata Mangeshkar, Pankaj Udhas, amongst others, and luckily they were all successful,” Kumar reminisced.
Still, some leading movie banners were reluctant to work with T-Series. For instance, Rakesh Roshan’s Filmkraft Productions had an existing relationship with HMV Records and hence could not work with T-Series. Gradually, Kumar was able to forge relationships with big names, including Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Dharma Productions. “Today, we have music from most top banners, but it was extremely challenging to do all this after my father’s demise. My mother, my sisters – Khushali and Tulsi –, Ved Chanana and my uncle, Krishan, stood rock solid with me during that vulnerable phase,” Kumar said.
Kumar’s story is an incredible journey of persistently focusing on building a brand that encompassed the entire ecosystem of entertainment. And he knew that he could not do this singularly. Hence, he decided to rely on professionals who could aid him in building a media conglomerate. This included the expertise of Neeraj Kalyan, who is the currently the president of the company and Vinod Bhanushali, who is president, marketing, media and publishing of T-Series..
“Given that making music and movies are both extremely collaborative processes, it is imperative that various departments come together to produce content that is engaging, entertaining and ultimately makes good business sense. It is not something that I can do alone just because it is my company; I need the help of my team and various department heads,” Kumar explained.
Talking about Kalyan and Bhanushali, he added, “Some of the key talent in T-Series has been around with us for many years. I have faith in their abilities to steer their departments individually. They keep me abreast of the progress, or the lack of it, from time to time. While I do believe in giving a certain amount of freedom to teams to function optimally, I like to be involved and remain hands-on with everything that is happening.”
Bhanushali joined T-Series in 1994, when the company established itself as a leader in music creation and distribution. “Today, 360-degree content is king, and under Kumar’s guidance for the last two decades, we have slowly and surely evolved into a 360-degree content company,” he said.
To be able to position itself as a content behemoth, T-Series has a well-defined business segmentation with music and films as its two primary verticals. These are further divided into theatrical distribution, digital platforms, radio, satellite TV, public performance, etc. Kalyan and Bhanushali are the key revenue heads for distinct divisions and work closely with Kumar.
Bhanushali is responsible for licensing of satellite TV (music and films), marketing of music and films, sync licensing and managing the theatrical distribution for the company, whereas Kalyan is entrusted with the licensing and promotion for all digital platforms including YouTube, music streaming verticals, Telecom VAS, SVOD platforms of Amazon and Netflix, licensing for FM radio, international publishing and public performance in addition to managing legal needs of the company. Shiv Chanana, SVP, Films looks into film production along with Kumar. The latter also directly supervises content creation and acquisition and is assisted by Bhanushali.
T-Series transition from a cassette manufacturing and distribution company in 1984 to India’s leading music label and film production studio came with its own share of challenges. The biggest of these was the change in the consumption patterns amongst users, due to technology as well as rampant piracy, which had a direct effect on revenues.
“Despite these handicaps, which also included adverse regulatory frameworks, large and established media conglomerates having multiple interests in distribution platforms like radio, TV and internet, we maintained a brave front and always looked towards the future, which certainly lay in the digital domain. With the digital and online consumption steadily increasing in the country through the growth of mobile handsets, ever-improving Internet penetration, growing bandwidth, decreasing data costs and young audience (today 52 % of Indian population is under 27 years of age), we saw the opportunity and were the first Indian label to ride the digital wave in 2004,” recalled Kalyan.
However, back then, the big task was how to grow the music business and set an achievable goal for annual revenues in the forthcoming decade. “It was all about setting the right foundation in terms of content digitisation and meta tags, getting the right people on board and putting distribution pipes in place for seamless delivery in the future. That hard work over the years is giving us the edge over competition today,” Kalyan stated, alluding to the fact that the company currently has 40 million subscribers on YouTube.
“Our employees who lead marketing, production and promotions, are in the age group of 25 to 35 years. So, they understand today’s youth, what they want and how they use technology. They also understand how T-Series must use technology to reach our target group and convert it into sales, be it our music sales or in the theatres.”
– Vinod Bhanushali, president, marketing, media and publishing, T-Series.
BETTING ON THE BOLLYWOOD BUG
With everything else inexorably falling in place and the music business getting consolidated, getting into film production was obvious for T-Series. Initially, the company invested in films with modest budgets and as it tasted success it scaled its operations in film production.
When T-Series made its first tentative move into film production, it realised that the only way to succeed was to create content that would resonate with customers – a mantra that is also true for its music label business. At a time, where there is content overload and excessive options available to consumers, this is easier said than done.
Hence, T-Series invests heavily in promotion and creating lavish videos for its artists, which results in higher recall and repeat consumption, which ultimately leads to improved marketshare. “We are the biggest investor in new content generation and spend heavily on discovering and promoting new talent and there is no choice other than to keep investing substantial budgets year on year to maintain market shares,” Kalyan emphasised.
“With the success of Hindi Medium and Tumhari Sulu, we felt confident to soar higher and are producing nearly 12 films in 2018. Our films Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety and Raid were very successful and crossed the Rs 100 crore-mark in earnings,” Kumar proudly claimed.
Kalyan recalled how until 2012, T-Series was moonlighting with film production and producing limited number of films. However, the proliferation of multiplexes, growth of satellite audience and launch of large global SVOD platforms like Amazon and Netflix gave the company the confidence to dive deep in film production. “Today, we are one of the largest film production studios in the country with an annual output number of eight to ten films annually. Currently, music is a small-ticket business with large volumes, whereas films is a large ticket business with small volumes. The revenue split ratio for music and films in the company is roughly at 70:30,” Kalyan added.
THE RIGHT FIT
Over the past decade, T-Series has invested a substantial amount of money and efforts in digitising its entire music and video catalogue. It deployed technology for seamless content delivery through customised XML files to all its content partners. Currently, its entire data and content is DDEX ready and is amongst the few music labels in India that have their own in-house designed and developed media asset management system (MAM) and archival system, to manage 2 lakhs audio and 90K videos and corresponding metadata within the system itself.
“Technology has helped us achieve the goal of managing all our distribution partners directly, without any aggregators, and given us automated and seamless content delivery capabilities,” Kalyan stated. To help the team make better decisions based on the data available on hand, the company uses certain web and data analytics tools that provide consumer engagement, conversion data and other important data points. These are analysed to ascertain consumption patterns and helps it fine tune its content and marketing strategies. YouTube has proven to be one of the most exquisite tools to serve audience and test content adoption rate, according to Kalyan.
Recently, T-Series signed a contract with Amazon to distribute its movies. Now, for any film studio, satellite and digital distribution deals are the most important elements in its portfolio, in addition to a worldwide theatrical release, to ensure the commercial viability of a project. With digital distribution and satellite distribution in place, the company now needs to focus only on creating quality content, to get a good head start. “A theatrical window is of eight weeks and after expiry of these eight weeks from the first theatrical release date, films are released on SVOD platform of Amazon or satellite channels,” Kalyan explained. Answering whether T-Series plans to create original content for OTT platforms like Amazon or even your own digital platform, he added that T-Series is a content company and not a music or video distribution platform. “We would like to play to our strength, which is content and may not enter into any OTT space because we believe that by doing so we will be competing against our own distribution partners and that would not be fair.”
So, apart from producing music and films for distribution across platforms, the company is also creating original web series for OTT platforms. Last year, it created Mix Tape for YouTube, which received tremendous response on the platform. Mix Tape Punjabi, followed this, again on YouTube. Currently, it is working on a unique collaboration series involving talent from India and Pakistan, which it hopes to release it in Q4 of 2018.
Talking about investments, Bhanushali pointed out that it is not always about money or technology, but also about investment in time and people. “Our employees who lead marketing, production and promotions, are in the age group of 25 to 35 years. So, they understand today’s youth, what they want and how they use technology. They also understand how T-Series must use technology to reach our target group and convert it into sales, be it our music sales or in the theatres. Using technology and taking the right decisions is something we try to keep ourselves not only in tune with but also ahead of,” Bhanushali pointed out.
Life has come full circle for Kumar. Many film producers who earlier preferred not to work with T-Series are gladly entrusting their music to the company. And many of these producers want to deal directly with Kumar – the same 19-year old who they were once reluctant to do business with!