The late Gulshan Kumar allegedly started his career by selling pirated Bollywood songs. In 1988 he founded the music label company T-Series, which became a household name in India soon, even earning Kumar the moniker ‘cassette king’.
The company’s success came from recording Bollywood songs, but its business really soared thanks to devotional content. Kumar himself sang many of these devotional songs and had a cult following.
Gulshan Kumar’s life came to a tragic end in 1997 when he was murdered by the organised Mumbai underworld syndicate D-Company. His son, Bhushan Kumar, took over the business at the age of 19.
The son has since fought off the piracy market, taken T-Series to greater heights in the digital market and started producing Bollywood films as well.
Kumar says the internet, which he considered to be a foe, has become the biggest source of revenue for T-Series. The Mumbai-based company now earns revenue from OTT services such as Spotify and Hungama, and also short-video apps such as TikTok and ShareChat.
In a conversation with The Passage, Bhushan Kumar, chairman and managing director at T-Series said the company is now working with Netflix and Hotstar to create web-only content. Edited excerpts from the interview:
The Passage: T-Series has had a longstanding tiff with PewDiePie on YouTube. You not only dethroned the Swedish YouTuber recently to be the most subscribed channel, you were enlisted in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first YouTube channel to have 100 million subscribers. What went behind the scenes?
Bhushan Kumar: It has nothing to do with competition with a channel or an individual YouTuber. T-Series has been successful only because we put out good content, which we make every now and then across all languages. Our content connects with viewers around the world, OTT platforms and YouTube listeners.
We were never looking for this recognition, we were just doing our job. When we became the number one channel in the world we knew it was a very big achievement. Getting into the Guinness Book of World Records is a very big achievement for us. We are the leader in non-film music too, which doesn’t focus on big actors but singers. We promote singers with great videos.
For becoming the number one channel, I would credit my team who has worked day and night in making great content that matches the taste of listeners and viewers. If you have to run a successful music company, it’s imperative to understand what your audience wants. By the grace of God and my father, we have got that covered.
The Passage: Please explain the growth of T-Series from a cassette business to one that produces Bollywood movies?
Bhushan Kumar: We started with being a cassette company. During my father’s time it was mostly limited to cassettes and CDs. Then DVDs and BluRays came.
My father had made a lot of content in devotional music, which was a very big market for T-Series at that time. We were the largest cassette-selling company in Asia. Even when I took over, cassettes and CDs were at their peak, but things were changing as mobile was kicking in.
When the mobile phase came in, we began giving our songs to telcos to be used as ringtones. That was the first time we started experiencing the digital market. It started giving us revenues.
The main threat then was the internet. All these illegal websites would put up all our songs for free. They would earn money from advertisements online. Thankfully, companies like Hungama.com came in and started OTT platforms. Then YouTube and various other platforms came which gave this piracy market a legitimate status.
We reached survival point because of the arrival of such platforms. We went to these platforms and started selling our music. Even television was a very good market for us and there were so many music-related talent shows like Nach Baliye and Indian Idol that bought our songs. That was a good change for music companies.
We were initially very scared as to what would happen if the physical business gets over. But it has become much easier now to distribute our music all over the world. Now that the distribution network is taken care of, we are focusing more on creating great music for our listeners.
The Passage: What helped you become so big online? Is it just the right kind of partnership or is there something more to it?
Bhushan Kumar: The right kind of partnership had a lot to do with the success. But the main thing was creating good content, that’s the main reason for our success. Even if you have good partners but the content is not good, users will not consume it even if it’s for free.
Obviously there are other reasons as well. Our team markets the songs and albums to a level where it becomes popular and then people start consuming it on different platforms. But it’s impossible to achieve what we have achieved today without great content.
I am very happy that we know how to make content that people would like to consume again and again.
The Passage: How do you monetise the digital platforms?
Bhushan Kumar: We have different kinds of monetisation plans that differ for users and businesses such as Amazon Music, Apple, YouTube, Spotify, etc. With some we have a revenue-sharing model on the basis of advertisements they get on their platform. We get revenue for every song that is played on the internet or OTT services.
Around 70% of the revenue comes from online business, as we get royalties on our music played on these platforms. What was earlier a threat became not only an enabler but a necessity for us. It’s the best way to distribute the music.
The Passage: When you took over the company from your father, Internet had just come. What were you main challenges in turning this traditional company into a new-age company?
Bhushan Kumar: When the shift was happening from cassettes to CDs and then to digital platforms, I was 19 years old. I am 40 today.
My father had built this business in less than 10 years. Then that tragedy happened. He has made such great catalogue of music for us to exploit. The only thing that was to be done was to convert that catalogue to different mediums that were coming up. Of course, we added new content as well.
My team and I travelled across the world, attended various music conferences and met people in the industry to understand the changes and deal with them positively. We decided we should not be afraid of the Internet as it’s a great medium to reach millions of people in five minutes. Our team thought through it and executed the plan.
Be it Spotify, Facebook or any platform that wants to launch its services in India, they come to us first because we have the largest number of songs which are consumed.
The Passage: Was the pressure to handle such a big company too much for a 19-year-old?
Bhushan Kumar: That pressure was there. But I handled it with one thought in mind — that I have to run my father’s company and take my father’s dream ahead. That’s the only motive that pushed me.
Becoming a film company was my father’s dream, and I just started it two-three years ago and I am very happy how our films are doing. T-Series is not looked at just as a music label but as an entertainment company.
We recently released a film, Kabir Singh, which is breaking all records. As a producer we have to choose what to make. If your decisions are being accepted by the audience, you feel much positive and charged about it.
The Passage: How do you see the growth of short video apps in India?
Bhushan Kumar: These platforms have become legitimate for us as they pay for the copyrighted content they use. We earn very good revenue from these platforms.
That’s one thing, but the kind of promotion and penetration we get from these platforms is also very huge. The trend we see is that people listen to song clips on these apps and then go to our YouTube channel or OTT platforms and consume our music. It’s a very good way of spreading our music among the young audience.
The Passage: Although you make revenue, these apps say they don’t make any money. What do you think about this gap?
Bhushan Kumar: These apps are free for customers. But money is made from the valuation they create from these platforms in terms of viewership, which will lead to advertisement revenue.
If you see all these apps, advertisements are growing day by day. The revenue they share with us comes from that.
The Passage: We read that ByteDance is going to launch a music app in partnership with T-Series. How close are you to finalising that deal?
Bhushan Kumar: Any such platform will look at an extension into music. Amazon started with Amazon Prime but then they launched their music platform also. Similarly, TikTok has gained huge popularity all over India. Obviously, they can easily add an extension to the app with an OTT music service. My team is talking to them but the deal is not finalised yet. We have partnered with them to allow our music to be played in their 15-30-second slots. It’s a win-win situation for both.
The Passage: Will you also make original web-only video content for T-Series, like Hotstar Originals?
Bhushan Kumar: Yes, we are already making web series and movies for Hotstar, Netflix and Amazon. It will come out in a few months.
The Passage: But will you also come out with standalone platforms such as Hotstar?
Bhushan Kumar: No, we are into creating content. We are not in the game of making a platform or an app. It doesn’t make sense to deviate from our core expertise. These platforms need good content, which we can provide.
The Passage: How will you market the web series differently? And how are the new formats of content affecting the TV and theatre businesses?
Bhushan Kumar: Movie-going business is not getting affected by web series and web-only films. The markets are different.
People who go to the theatre seek entertainment specifically on the big screen. They eat outside, it’s an outing experience for them. People even go to watch movies just because they want to watch the songs of that film on the big screen. That’s the kind of audience we have in India.
At the same time, web series is growing because the home audience is also huge. There is room for everything as long as there is entertainment.