I/A life-size poster of the recent Salman Khan-starrer Ready is propped up in the reception area on the second floor of the T-Series office. T-Series, the biggest music label in the country, has co-produced the film, with an investment of `550 million. The entire building, located in one of the bylanes off the heavily-congested Andheri Link road in North Mumbai, is owned by Super Cassettes Industries Ltd (SCIL), the parent company of T-Series, which boasts an annual turnover of over `5 billion.
The second floor buzzes with three TVs mounted in a row on the wall, each tuned to a different Bollywood music channel. Employees walk around, stopping to enquire after the ‘boss’ at the reception. They want to know if Bhushan Kumar, the music label’s 33-year-old managing director is in. The son of the late Gulshan Kumar, the company’s founder, Bhushan took over the company when he was 19.
‘Character Dheela’, this summer’s popular number from Ready, plays on one of the channels, and it’s almost as tough to look away from Khan’s histrionics as it is to keep staring at the screen. The blinding red and silver floor mosaic and matching furniture take time for me to adjust to, as I wait for Kumar to wrap up a meeting with film maker Anubhav Sinha. Sinha is the director of Ra.One, Shah Rukh Khan’s ambitious superhero flick and the next big release for the label. Other recent music acquisitions include Desi Boyz, Rockstar and Mausam, some of the film industry’s biggest upcoming productions.
The interiors of Kumar’s sprawling office are also overwhelming—sofas with faux fur and, in the centre of the room, a pillar inlaid with mirrors. The music scion answers my queries in a dispassionate monotone, often referring to music produced by his company as “software”, a curious term for a music industry professional.
On August 12, 1997, his father had been brutally gunned down by three unidentified men as he emerged from a temple in Andheri West. Suspicion centred on Kumar’s professional rivalry with Tips Music Industries’ Ramesh Taurani, who was charged with hiring Dubai-based mafioso Abu Salem to eliminate Kumar. Abu Salem is supposed to have masterminded the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, but it is said that Gulshan Kumar’s murder was his real rise to fame. It created an atmosphere of terror in Bollywood and exposed links, long suspected, between the industry and the underworld. The allegations against Taurani, however, were later dismissed because of lack of evidence, and in 2002 all charges against him were dropped. In 2010, a key conspirator in the case was acquitted, also due to lack of evidence, and an accused was granted parole.
After Gulshan Kumar’s death, T-Series kept a low profile. As a result, rivals like Tips and Venus surged ahead; and Magnasound signed on Adnan Sami, then a prized composer-singer, dealing the company a body blow. Multinationals like Universal and Sony entered the Indian market and started to acquire music rights for major films such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The aura that T-Series possessed seemed, eventually, to fade.
Fourteen years and some gambles later, Bhushan Kumar has managed to turn the tide. He learned the ropes from his trusted aides, invested in any music genre that he thought would sell large numbers, schmoozed with Bollywood stars at highly-publicised parties (drawing flak for his vibrant floral-print shirts) and painstakingly put together what had fallen apart after his father’s death.
He’s a little wary when we begin chatting, and often looks at his phone, which though on silent, blinks almost constantly. I realise there’s a half-truth in what composer Pritam Chakraborty, the label’s new favourite, had to say about him: “He’s very approachable. There’s no red tape involved.” Kumar is one of the few chief executives who will willingly go on the record, instead of directing you to the label’s spokesperson. Though his approachable manner does need some work: he doesn’t bother with niceties, getting down to business straightaway with “So tell me.”
It all began in the late 1970s, when Gulshan Kumar sold HMV gramophone records at his father’s 40-ft juice stall in Daryaganj, a market area in Delhi. After his family acquired a shop that sold records and cheap audio cassettes, Gulshan—along with his brother Gopal, also an electronics nerd—started a small studio where they would record songs in Garhwali, Punjabi and Bhojpuri. After facing challenges in packaging the songs, they set off for Japan, Hong Kong and Korea with some borrowed money to study cassette technology. They returned to set up a factory to produce magnetic tapes that gradually became a manufacturing plant for cassettes and silicon paper.
Gulshan Kumar’s long and chequered relationship with music legality began soon after, in the 1980s. He exploited the “fair use” clause of the Indian Copyright Act to produce cover albums of classic Hindi film scores at heavily marked-down rates. T-Series issued thousands of cover versions of classic film songs owned by the Gramophone Company of India, particularly those that HMV itself found to be unfeasible to release. HMV, then the biggest player in the market, saw its sales crash overnight, and Kumar became the Cassette King.
His company, in fact, had created a new class of Indians: the cassette consuming public. The growing middle class fed the consumer electronics industry through the 1980s; and, aided generously by the state’s relaxing of import restrictions and reduction of duties, T-Series spawned a furious breed of local cassette player manufacturers. Record dealers switched to cassettes en masse and by the mid-1980s, cassettes had taken over 95 percent of the market, with sales going from $1.2 million in 1980 to $21 million in 1990. By the end of the 1980s Indian consumers were buying about 2.5 million cassette players, and India had become the world’s second largest manufacturer of cassettes.
Gulshan Kumar showed himself to be skilled in reading changes in demand, anticipating the decline in the dominance of Hindi film music. T-Series flooded the market with a variety of new genres, ranging from devotional music to regional language songs.
Bhushan, too, believes in quantity. T-Series’s revenue model, he says, has been built for quantity. The label’s website states that they release an album a day—that could be of any genre: film, devotional or regional. Among other strategies, the label tries to ensure that they get the music rights for as many A-grade films as possible through strategic alliances with big film corporations. Last year they acquired Reliance Big Music’s catalogue, and more recently they bought Eros Music’s catalogue—which means they are the exclusive owners of the music and audio-visual rights of those company’s films across markets and formats: radio, television, mobile and digital.
“We buy the rights for 40 to 45 films a year. Of these, at least 15 to 20 should be of quality. So even if one of those 15 to 20 films have one good song, we pick it up. Few companies do this. If our overall investment is 150 crores, and we earn 200 crores, then 50 crores is our profit,” explains Bhushan.
The man knows his numbers, but isn’t challenged when he discusses music, either: “These days, one song is worth a lot. It gives you great revenues. Last year, we had Dabangg, which was the biggest musical hit ever.” The label’s latest chartbuster is ‘Character Dheela’, composed by Pritam Chakraborty. Kumar signed on Chakraborty soon after he fell out with composer-turned-actor Himesh Reshammiya. Reshammiya had starred in two films for T-Series; but the second, Kajraare, had a very low-profile release and sank at the box office.
Chakraborty sounds in awe of Kumar: “He’s extremely passionate about music and very hands-on. He sat down with us when we were working on the music of Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai and made a few suggestions when we were stuck while composing ‘Pee Loon’. His gut instincts about music are right.”
Kumar, meanwhile, credits Salman Khan entirely for the success of ‘Character Dheela’. Their relationship goes back 13 years; Gulshan Kumar had been promoting the music for Khan’s Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya when he was murdered and Bhushan had to step in. “Salman bhai,” says Bhushan, “takes the final call, because he has a great sense of music. He gave us ideas, and also approved the main basic tune and hook words such ‘Character Dheela’ and ‘Dhinka Chika’.” Kumar adds that the lyrics of ‘Character Dheela’ were completely rewritten 20 times.
That 90 percent of Hindi film music is released on the T-Series label allows Kumar some liberties. “If I don’t find the music commercially viable for the film and for us, I raise an objection. I request the composer and director change the groove, tune or lyrics. Whatever’s not working out, we work on it together—and since I have a track record of making good suggestions, they agree. When we are involved with the music, 90 percent of the time, we get great results.”
Superpower status is new to t-series. After Gulshan Kumar set up SCIL in 1983, and moved to Mumbai, the label got lucky with two big musical hits—Tezaab and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak—in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, he collaborated with the Bhatt film-making family, and promoted his label’s home-grown talent, Anuradha Paudwal and Kumar Sanu, for the soundtracks of their hits Aashiqui and Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin. “My father had such an ear for music that that gave us great software, which I sell till date. It’s the backbone to our company,” says Bhushan.
But back then, labels such as Venus (Baazigar, Deewana, Dhadkan, Dil Se) and Tips (Gupt, Raja Hindustani, Pardes) were the big players. “Most people had boycotted T-Series because of the cover versions that they were doing, and Gulshanji had also alienated himself from the rest of the industry,” says singer Sonu Nigam, who began his career with T-Series at 19, and was known for his Mohammed Rafi covers.
So Kumar Sr, always ambitious, decided to try producing his own films, launching his brother Krishan Kumar as an actor in Aaja Meri Jaan in 1993. The film tanked, and the label’s credibility took a hit. Not only did winning scores slip out of their reach, but the even younger label, Magnasound, set up in 1989, was riding the Indipop wave with artists such as the Alisha Chinai (whose Made in India, released in 1995, sold close to four million tapes), Colonial Cousins (whose smash debut in 1996 made fusion mainstream) and Sonu Nigam, a T-Series discovery.
By the time Bhushan took over, the label hadn’t seen a single big hit since the 1992 Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit-starrer Beta. To start off with, he wanted to replicate Magnasound’s success, and so he turned to Nigam for help. Nigam says: “I repaid the label when I did three albums in a row for them—Deewana, Jaan and then Yaad. I was with Magnasound when Gulshanji passed away and Bhushan asked me for help; I knew my label then wouldn’t like it, but I had to oblige.” No stranger to undercutting, the label also lured Sami away from Magnasound; he was then riding high on the success of his 2000 album Kabhi Toh Nazar Milao, the title song of which was a duet with Asha Bhosle. In 2002, they released Sami’s Tera Chehra, aggressively promoting it on TV with videos featuring stars such as Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee.
A hit a year began trickling in starting with the Salman Khan-starrer Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya (1998), which incidentally included Reshammiya’s first big win, ‘Odh Li Chunariya’—and Salman’s famous shirtless debut, ‘O O Jaane Jaana’, composed by Jatin-Lalit. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Dil Chahta Hai (2001), which memorably launched the music composers Ismail Darbar and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, grounded T-Series more securely in the film music market, even as its Indipop albums grew hugely popular.
Kumar’s next shrewd creative call was his signing of Reshammiya, who delivered two colossal hits in Tere Naam (2003), touted as Khan’s comeback film after a series of flops, and Aashiq Banaya Aapne (2005). Both Reshammiya and the label had a similar USP: populist, predictable music; and so 2006 became the most prolific year for their partnership, with a string of releases—Aksar, Humko Deewana Kar Gaye (co-composed with Anu Malik), Tom, Dick & Harry, Anthony Kaun Hai, Phir Hera Pheri and Chup Chup Ke. The label had finally arrived. Unsurprisingly, Reshammiya’s name figures ahead even of that of the iconic Lata Mangeshkar on the label’s website.
Kumar adopted strong-arm tactics with both TV, making sure music channels flashed the label’s name, and private radio, which had just taken off in 2002, threatening to file copyright infringement suits if they didn’t pay up. Indipop was on its way out, but remixes were shoving their way in. Here, again, T-Series took a different, lower-cost route from its rivals: while others signed on DJs—Akbar Sami by the relatively unknown Times Music, and Aqeel by Universal—T-Series promoted not the DJ but remix videos, such as the trend-setting ‘Kaanta Laga’, releasing a rash of racy, low-budget clips. “It was also a big panic situation at that time, because we felt that if all our songs were being played on radio, then nobody would buy the CDs,” recalls Kumar. “But slowly, when the recoveries started coming from radio, ringtones and TV then we relaxed. The physical sales were going down, but the digital was going up.”
He made some big mistakes, too—giving up on the music of Hrithik Roshan’s debut Kaho Naa …Pyaar Hai for example—but learned quickly. Unlike his father, he reached out to the film fraternity, placing faith in newer filmmakers such as Mohit Suri, Sajid Khan and Anubhav Sinha. By 2006, composers had begun experimenting with newer voices, such as Atif Aslam’s (Woh Lamhe), Mohit Chauhan’s (Jab We Met) and Neeraj Sridhar’s (Heyy Baby). Their range may have been limited and the compositions typical, but T-Series subverted the old tradition of a handful of vocalists dominating the playback industry.
Kumar is still dismissive of vocal talent. “Singing is not a big thing today in films. So many newcomers have come and gone. Audiences no longer think ‘Adnan Sami gaana gayega, so it will be a superhit’.” Nigam disagrees, though: “If there’s one thing that Bhushan hasn’t been able to do that
his father did, it is patronising artists. The company has cut-throat businessmen now. The focus is single-tracked—to make money.”
The music business, like any other, is based on supply and demand. T-Series in particular reposes their faith in quantity over quality, and is thus given to excess. In 2006, for instance, they bombarded private FM stations until audiences got tired of the Reshammiya sound, which reached a point at which Reshammiya’s nasal singing began to be ridiculed. While this excess was meant to prep the audience for the composer-singer’s acting debut in Karzzzz, the T-Series’ remake of the 1980 Rishi Kapoor blockbuster Karz, the film “didn’t do well”, in Kumar’s words. Reshammiya had signed a three-film deal with the company, but after Kajraare was under-promoted and went unnoticed—quite unlike any other T-Series venture—the third was shelved, and Kumar was quoted as saying that the audience didn’t think much of Reshammiya’s acting and that he should focus on his music.
While neither Kumar nor Reshammiya will admit to having severed ties with each other, the scorned composer announced plans of kicking off his own music label last year. “My songs,” he says, “have been hits whether the music released on Eros or Sony or Venus or T-Series.”
Music professionals reluctantly admit that the T-Series hegemony has as much to do with their quickfire response to new media as it does to their brass-knuckle marketing tactics and sheer distribution volumes.
That response has been swift indeed, though. The ringtone market evolved with great speed: a 2010 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India suggests mobile value-added services such as caller-back ringtones began taking off in India in 2007, but by 2009, service provider Airtel had declared over 200 million music downloads, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report. Yet as far back as 2005, two years before the ringtone market could even evolve, the label tied up with Hungama Mobile, a Mumbai-based mobile and digital entertainment firm, to promote its entire music catalogue. In 2006, the label launched the music of the Don remake on iTunes.
Like any seasoned businessman, Kumar is unwilling to share revenue figures. He’s willing to concede, though, that digital sales, which include online and mobile platforms, contribute 30 percent of his company’s revenue, followed by 25 percent from radio, 20 percent from publishing
and licensing and 20 percent from physical sales. In the physical segment, 60 percent of T-Series’s content is film-based, and most of the remainder, 25 percent overall, is devotional music.
Indeed, T-Series recently launched a mobile handset branded ‘Bhakti Sagar’, pre-embedded with devotional songs, videos and other content. Devotional music constitutes almost 30 percent of their digital catalogue. Kumar explains how it works: “Devotional doesn’t have a trend change. You won’t listen to a rock Shivji bhajan in a mandir. Again, here too, we’ve done purely mass devotional music on every god and goddess in India, so we have a massive catalogue.” In the 1980s and early 1990s, the genre paid the salaries of the label’s employees.
Kumar says that their earlier mainstay of cassette sales is no longer a promising business, claiming sales have dropped to 10,000 a month, mainly in UP and Bihar. A music composer, who wishes to be unidentified, isn’t willing to buy these numbers. The cassette industry is alive and thriving, and labels like T-Series continue to earn their biggest revenues from it, he argues. “Music sells only in the form of cassettes in rural India. T-Series has complete monopoly over the distribution chain—and, more importantly, over the piracy chain. They’ve built this system where they pay up front for music, and producers use this money for making their films. There are films for which `14 crore has been paid for music. If you’re paying out that kind of money, no one’s crazy to keep losing money. If you’re losing money, why are you buying 90 percent of films?” asks the composer. Cassette piracy is non-existent in the country, insists Savio DeSouza, general secretary of the Indian Music Industry (IMI), a body that represents the recording industry distributors of the country.
What irks artists, including composers, lyricists and playback singers, is that even if the medium is making money, they don’t. While the music industry across the world operates on a revenue-sharing model, in India they are stripped of their rights and royalties. For close to a decade now, the music industry has been in an open feud with the Indian Performing Rights Society Ltd (IPRS), which is responsible for protecting the rights of composers and lyricists, and for collecting royalties from record labels on their behalf. T-Series is not a part of the IPRS and collects revenues generated from various media including radio, digital and TV on its own. “When talk of royalties arise, the first thing that T-Series or any record company says is that then we will have to cut down the money we pay the producer,” says the composer, “For the producer this is unacceptable—because they’re using the [up-front] money to make the film.”
Another industry insider shares a perspective on the matter: “The entire IPRS is run by record labels via proxy. PRS, the international wing of IPRS, by rule requires and comprises artists, not labels. So IPRS have one proxy lyricist and composer to their name—ancient guys who have nothing to their credit—to show the international body that they operate as per their rules when they don’t. No composer or lyricist has collected cheques from IPRS, because they want us to sign a letter saying that they are the owners of the music, and the money being given to us is some kind of goodwill gesture. It’s a trifle to start with—and unacceptable to say that it’s some charity donation that they’re making to composers and writers.” That leaves composers and artists, who have signed away all rights to their music across existing and yet-to-be-invented mediums, with nothing more than their composing fee.
In 2010, the matter of artists’ exploitation flared up as a committee made up of artists and lyricists, chaired by Javed Akhtar, approached the Union human resources development ministry to seek amendments in the Copyright Act of 1957, which would allow composers and lyricists to claim royalties on their songs if used in “any form other than part of cinematograph or sound” despite signing off their rights in a contract. This meant they would be paid when their songs were used as ringtones, live performances or on radio, all of which labels like T-Series make money from. But a corresponding lobby of film producers contested this claim and used their influence to bury the issue. Introduced in the Rajya Sabha in April 2010, the Copyright Amendment Bill is currently being examined by a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which is going through views and suggestions on this subject.
T-Series remains unruffled. They are concentrating their energies on establishing themselves in film production, which they’ve been trying to get a foothold in since 2001, with Anubhav Sinha’s Tum Bin. Trade analyst Amod Mehra is not entirely sure if this plan will work. “The availability of stars is rare. One big film and two or three smaller films with lesser stars seems viable, but they’ve wanted to realise this film production dream for a long time, without much success.” However, he adds: “Since they [now] have the money and power, maybe they will be able to pull this off.”
In their earlier attempts at film production, T-Series’s strategy was to focus on their strengths. “Since music was our forte, we worked extremely hard on it and recovered our costs just from the music. And it worked but only to an extent,” says Kumar. He has devised a new model. “I want to make two to three films in a year—one in the range of `50 crores, the second with a budget of `25 crores and the third in the range of `10 to 15 crores,” he says.
He might get it right this time. Ready, which released on 3 June, opened to packed theatres across India and a net collection of approximately `131.5 billion at the box office, just a little behind Dabangg, the biggest grosser of 2010, which made `145 billion.
Kumar’s wife of six years, Divya Khosla, an actor who hopes to turn director someday, has been a big strength, he tells me. Khosla has directed a music video vaguely inspired by Britney Spears’ debut ‘Baby One More Time’, for a song titled ‘Radhe Shyam’, sung by Kumar’s sister Tulsi.
A call interrupts our chat and Kumar wants to leave pronto. It’s from Amitabh Bachchan’s office: Kumar has to sit in on the music production of Bbuddah... Hoga Terra Baap, in which Bachchan is back to singing. Kumar gets up to check his reflection in the mirrored pillar and pats his hair in place as he mumbles a ‘bye’.
I leave the building and spot an impressive fleet of cars lined up—there’s a Benz around, but all eyes are fixed on the blazing yellow Audi R8 Spyder, just launched in limited edition. I recall Kumar’s opening line: “Business has been really good this year.”