Bhushan Kumar has a blank, almost forbidding expression when I walk into his office. It is the evening of a warmish day at the Super Cassettes Industries, better known as T-Series, building in Mumbai. This is the first time we are meeting though we have spoken on the phone several times. Kumar who runs T-Series, India's largest music label and now a budding film studio, is unfailingly prompt in responding to a message or request. So I wonder if he has had a bad day. But the moment we start talking Kumar, 35, turns chatty. Talk to him about Aashiqui 2, a huge hit from the T-Series stable earlier this year, and he is positively garrulous. He has the single-mindedness of someone who is focussed on whatever he does to the exclusion of everything else. That makes him uncommunicative unless you are discussing the company, music, singers, films or digital media with him.
In 1998, at the age of 19, Kumar was thrust into the chairman and managing director's chair. His father Gulshan Kumar had been brutally assassinated on the streets of Mumbai. And the family deemed him to be the best replacement. His fight to keep what was then a Rs 100 crore business running, and to grow it was a lesson in business management and personality building. From a boy trying to get the senior guys at T-Series to listen to him, Kumar is now his own man: one who has taken the company to Rs 500 crore, based on decisions he made. The biggest among these has been his embrace of digital media. It has ensured that T-Series not just survives, but stands out as India's largest, most profitable music company.
"What I gained in these 15 years is a lot of confidence," says Kumar, as I take a sip of my black tea. He pauses for a minute, "It is not ego but confidence. I have checked my ears for their music sense and discovered that I have it," says Kumar glancing quickly to the left where a large picture his father stands. "Everything I learnt was taught and put into my mind by my father, he used to love music," he adds.
Gulshan Kumar really rocked the industry's boat in the eighties. First he exploited a loophole in the Copyright Act by getting unknown voices to sing popular songs or version recordings. He priced these at Rs 10-15 per cassette against the ruling price of Rs 25 plus then. He then sold them through every possible outlet including paan shops. In the staid, HMV (now Saregama) dominated market, this was revolutionary stuff that expanded the market. At a time when 90 per cent of the music sold was from films, Gulshan invested in non-film genres such as devotional and ghazals. They became not just profitable businesses for T-Series but also spawned new companies.
His belief that non-film music does not get its due in India was carried by the younger Kumar. In the late nineties, when MTV and music channels came, indie pop took off. A very raw Kumar put together a pop album and chased Sonu Niigaam for three months to sing for it. But Niigaam, a T-Series discovery and then with (the now defunct) Magnasound, proved elusive. Finally Kumar invoked his dad's name to get Niigaam to sing for the album.
Every song in Deewana (1999) was a hit and the videos, created with models since Niigaam's face could not be used, were played over and over on music channels. The album eventually sold a record 2.5 million copies. It gave Kumar the confidence to forge ahead in inspite of the derision he faced. He started experimenting, going to artistes such as Jagjit Singh, who had never worked with T-Series before. He even gathered the confidence to start picking up the music rights for films. Most paid off with successes such as Dulhe Raja (1998) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) to Ready (2011) and Cocktail (2012) among dozens of others.
When the net started hitting the industry's revenues through piracy, Kumar went through the usual worries. "Everything was physical sales then. But every time someone approached me for selling our music online, I told them to go ahead. The margins were not great, but the network for sales of the music increase," he says. He took on illegal sites and streaming by filing a suit against Google's YouTube in 2007. The argument - YouTube allowed users to upload copyrighted content on its platform, enabling infringement. Then it used the eyeballs generated to make money through advertising without sharing these revenues with copyright owners. In 2008, T-Series and YouTube settled out of court. In 2011 when YouTube started a partner programme in India, T-Series joined in. It has been the number one channel out of India on YouTube for over three years now.
Super Cassettes Industries' enthusiastic embrace of digital ensured that unlike other Indian and global music firms, it rode the digital storm successfully. Of the Rs 450 crore it made from music in March 2013, more than 90 per cent came from, "non-physical formats", says Kumar. This includes the fees it charges restaurants and pubs among other public places for playing its music. But a bulk is actually from selling or streaming its catalogue online. This includes 200,000 audio songs across 16 languages and over 10,000 videos songs. Kumar is in fact very bullish about online because he believes that it systemises things.
One part of his enthusiasm stems from his youth and consequent fascination with technology. It is evident in the huge white and glass room that functions as his office. A customised software manages his schedule and Kumar shows me how it works, on his giant Apple screen.
Currently, he looks like a man in control of his life and his company. What is the big challenge that he sees looming?
There is no pause as Kumar admits to his Achilles heel. He reckons his talent is for a certain kind of popular music. For instance, the Lungi Dance song was included in the Chennai Express (2013) album at his insistence. It proved to be the biggest hit in the whole album. Ditto for dozens of other songs and albums that he has green lighted. But he rejected the music rights for Murder (2004), which had hits such as Bheege Hoth Tere. "I heard the music for Rang De Basanti (2006) three times and left it," he says. The music went on to become very successful. Similarly, though he picked up the different sounding and successful Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), they were not "in my zone", says Kumar. "I make music by public taste, However, 90 to 95 per cent of the time my judgment (and that of my team) is right, initially it was 100 per cent, but now as the market changes, it has gone down," he admits. This worries him, in spite of successes such as Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013).
Kumar thinks that understanding the music or film in which he invests is so critical that he does not want to go into Tamil or Telugu or other languages. Super Cassettes Industries makes and sells Hindi, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and some amount of Marathi and Bangla music. The only other serious expansion he has attempted in the last year or so is film-making. The company will be ramping up from one or two films a year to four to five. From Rs 55 crore in March 2013, he expects the top line from films to hit Rs 150 crore. That is seriously big in the fragmented world of the Indian film industry. Is he raising capital for this expansion? "No. We don't borrow money from banks," he says. There is that closed expression again.
Clearly, he is determined to make a go of it, on his own. The idiosyncrasies of the film business, however, are a discussion for another day over another cup of tea.