Hitting The High Notes

By

Vikram Mehra, Managing Director, Saregama India Ltd.

Music has the been the oldest form of entertainment. It was, is and will continue to be the most consumed form of media not just in India but globally. Vikram Mehra, Managing Director, Saregama Limited talks about changes in music consumption trends across demographics and how Saregama found a sweet spot for success and hit all the high notes with its strategy in recent years.

1. The music industry has seen several disruptions in the last couple of decades. What are the key factors for this change?

The biggest cultural and social change that is happening now is how we consume content. Twenty years ago, entertainment was consumed in groups. People would listen to music, watch television or go to the cinema together. Music was the first thing that people started consuming individually. It became common to plug in your earphones on your Walkman, Discman or iPod and listen to music by yourself.

The same is now happening with television and film. People are consuming content by themselves. On their laptops, on their phones, on the go. With a shift from collective to individual consumption, the job for the creator also changes. He or she no longer has to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Creators can now develop content for individual segments as well.

2. Most platforms - iTunes, Spotify, Gaana, Saavn etc.  have almost the same product offering and music catalogue. What do you think differentiates one from the other? What’s next after streaming?

Companies that react faster to what people want are the ones who will do better. I think that in today’s technology driven market, a lot of people think they know better than the customer. The moment we undervalue the customer’s ability to know what he or she wants, there’s an issue.  If we study a customer’s behavior, see what he or she has consumed, and cater to that, then we are increasing the chances that the customer will stay with the platform.

At Saregama, we create playlists through data analysis. On average, we get 3.7 - 4 billion data points on data consumption every month. We use that to create playlists. We don’t allow individuals to define playlists any more. Consumption data allows us to see what people want to listen to and in which order. This method of playlist creation is a more refined way of hearing what customers want, and it enables us to better respond to their needs.

3. As India’s oldest music label, Saregama has had an interesting history. Tell us a little bit about some of the interesting milestones in the journey so far.

Saregama is the single largest music catalogue owner across all Indian languages and genres. While we are a commercially viable business, we also recognize our job as the custodian of India’s biggest musical heritage. We own some of the greatest songs ever sung in this country. We do take that seriously and respect that.

Whether we are talking about the process of digitizing this music or how it’s presented to the outside world, we take the extra effort. We move along with the times. Somewhere along the way, when digital technology was picking up, we did lose the way. We didn’t react fast enough. But, in the last 5 years, the company has turned around.

We made the right investments in getting the catalogue ready for the digital world. Every song that we own has not only been digitized, but we also have some of the richest metadata possible behind a song. Often, people think that the composer, singer, musician, film, are the only pieces of metadata associated with a song. That’s not true. We’ve gone further and put not only the genre of the film, but the situation of the scene in which it was presented. This helps a filmmaker looking for music for a film or a commercial to find the right music.

The year 2015 was an important milestone for us. We conducted a massive qualitative research study across the country to find out how music was consumed. It really surprised me when people told me that consumers do not want to pay for music. I believe if you understand what your customers really want and offer them the right value, then customers always pay. This study prompted everything; from the way we create playlists, to the music we acquire and the creation of Carvaan. We pride ourselves for being a 110-year-old company that is reinventing itself constantly. We started as a pure play music company and now we are a music, film and television company.

4. Tell us about the genesis of Carvaan. With everyone looking at streaming, Carvaan is a unique offering in the space. How did you determine a need for it and take the decision to go the other way from the herd?

We started by acknowledging that we might not know what the customer wants. Just because we use apps and all our friends use apps, we didn’t assume the whole country would. We are a country of 1.3 billion people; we thought we should ask them what they want. When we did, we realized two things: First, there is a fear of technology. Second, a lot of companies are trying to make music a lean forward activity, which is fine for my son, but not for me.

Why can’t I come home, shut my eyes, pour a drink, and just listen to music?

The decision to start Carvaan may have been against the tide of apps. We’re not running away from apps, but we’re saying, maybe there is also a case for a device.

During a focus group, a woman in Kanpur told us “Our generation was great, we’d turn the radio on in the morning, I’d cook while the radio played, the kids studied with it on, and when my husband came home, he’d have his tea with the radio still on.

For me, this was a scene out of my own home. That’s how I grew up and was exposed to music. I thought, maybe there’s a big thing here. Why do we assume that just because 65% of India is below the age of thirty, that the remaining 35% want the same thing? We have to understand what this segment really wants. Carvaan came out of nothing but listening to the consumer, and realizing maybe they know what is best. We have to be true to what consumers want.

5. What’s in the pipeline for Carvaan?

Carvaan caters to people above 35 years of age. Our main goal is to make our music available to every person in the country who wants to listen to this music. The Carvaan models are priced from Rs.2500 to Rs.7400. You’ll see many more models coming out soon targeting different consumer segments. The earlier models had music selection based on singer, lyricists, or composer. The new models have the same music based on actors like Bachchan Sir, Rajesh Khanna, Dilip Kumar, Sharmila Tagore, Asha Parekh etc. Consumers said this is what they wanted, so we offered it.

6. How has the partnership with Amazon played out so far? What are the next steps ?

Amazon is a partner just like everyone else including Gaana, Airtel Wynk, Jio, Saavn, Hungama, Google, Apple and Idea. We are also available on Spotify and Deezer globally. We are very happy with Amazon just like we are with everyone else.

7. Vinyl Records seem to be making a comeback. Is this just a fad?

As a company, we don’t bet exclusively on technology; all options should be available. If vinyls are making a comeback, we are ready. The playlists for the first 100 vinyls that could be released from our site are already ready using customer usage data. If we think it’s going to take off, we’re ready to stamp them. For me, the bigger issue, is the player. A good quality player at a good price point is an issue for people right now. We are clear though; if it takes off, we are ready to go.

8. Yoodlee Films is young and fresh as reflected by its content. This is a bit of a contrast to the retro music space that Saregama seems to own. Tell us about the strategic differences in positioning strategy between the two.

The genesis of Yoodlee also emanates from the 2015 research study, where we tried to understand the entertainment content consumption patterns, in addition to music. We found that, while the younger crowd still loved watching mainstream Bollywood or Hollywood films, they also wanted to see realistic cinema. They were disappointed that India rarely offered consumers realistic cinema. That got us thinking about the possibilities.

In India while making a film, minimal investment of time or money is put into a script and maximum on stars and production. We want to change this. Yoodlee Films is positioned as a Writer’s Studio. In our films the only hero is the story, and everything else is subservient to it. This is easier said than done. To prove we mean business, Yoodlee films offers profits sharing to the writers. All these efforts have already started bearing fruit. We have three films already on Netflix: Ajji (showcased in 34 international film festivals and officially invited to compete at the 2017 Busan Film Festival), Brij Mohan Amar Rahe and Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz.

Yoodlee is not the conventional art cinema. It’s high concept, high entertainment, but the real hero will always be the story and nothing else.

9. What is the role of copyright in the music industry and what are some of the challenges that the industry faces today?

A lot of people have a belief that if we steal something that does not have a physical form, then, it’s not stealing. I think as a society, we have to evolve. We are realizing that western countries are taking copyright protection seriously, and intellectual property is as much an asset as anything else. The 2012 Copyright Amendment was a huge step. We are happy that IPRS is now a registered society and under the leadership of Javed Akthar it is taking concrete steps to protect and strengthen copyright and gets its owners their rightful share.

10. Saregama owns a huge library of music and rights. What steps do you take to ensure copyright protection in an age prevalent with piracy?

Any problem is best solved through the carrot and stick approach. The government is very receptive to our issues. But at the same time, as industry, we need to make it easier for an individual to access legitimate content.

Some years ago, if you wanted to buy a song such as Lag Jaa Gale and you weren’t an Apple customer, there really wasn’t a legitimate way to buy it. I give a lot of credit to homegrown platforms like Gaana and Saavn that have made it easier for consumers to buy music in a legitimate manner. As a company, we’ve put up our entire catalogue on our app and website so that people can buy songs easily and at an affordable rate.

 

- Vikram Mehra is the Managing Director at Saregama India Ltd., India’s leading end-to-end entertainment service provider. He joined the company in October, 2014 and is at the helm of affairs for diversifying the brand’s business across audio and video platforms. The core aspect of his role is the enviable task of transforming an old-world music label into a digital business and exploring avenues for business expansion in both audio and video segments through B2B and B2C initiatives.Vikram brings with him vast industry experience of over 20 years in varied fields from Media and Entertainment to Automobiles and IT. He is a Tata Administrative Services (TAS) officer and has stints across various Tata group companies including Tata Sky, Tata Motors and TCS. Vikram has also worked with Star TV, where he led Star’s entry into DTH and cable services. Vikram is an alumni of IIM Lucknow and holds a Computer Science degree from IIT Roorkee. His schooling days were spent at St. Xavier, Jaipur and Colvin Taluqadar’s, Lucknow.

 

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