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September 24, 2023


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Nostalgia on tap: How tech revived India’s entertainment industry

9 min read

“Be it in the era of LP (long playing phonograph) records, then Binaca Geetmala (popular radio countdown), audio cassettes, CDs, or now streaming platforms, this has been the top performing song for the company,” says Vikram Mehra, managing director of Saregama.

From Mehra’s succinct quote, we get to learn how far this music company has traversed through various formats since its first recording in 1901. We also learn that some things don’t change. Like Lag Ja Gale, which continues to enthrall Gen Z, millennials and their parents and grandparents alike. The medium to listen to the song may differ, but Saregama has hit the jackpot with its repository of music built over a century. As have several other filmmakers, studios and music labels who are monetizing their intellectual property (IP) in the digital age.

Audio and video streaming platforms have become the new money spinners, not just for mainstream companies like Yash Raj Films (YRF), but also defunct production houses. Entertainment industry experts estimate that big companies easily make over 100 crore per month from YouTube alone, ensuring consistent cash flow. Some have even ploughed back these revenues into new ventures that fit seamlessly with the digital age, like web production verticals or their own streaming platforms.

While YRF has always publicly insisted on retaining sole rights to everything they back, ailing production houses like RK Films, Venus Worldwide Entertainment, Mukta Arts and the families of veteran filmmakers like Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra, among others, are now reaping the benefits of owning rich libraries of movies and songs.

Having grappled with declining sales from satellite TV rights, these companies are renewing digital movie and music deals with streaming platforms every couple of years for hefty sums. “If you’re investing in good quality IP, you’re creating a legacy that generations will keep benefiting from,” says Mehra.

Home video leaders like Shemaroo Entertainment and Ultra Media and Entertainment have used this revenue from IP to launch their own streaming platforms and cater to newer audiences. Saregama, on the other hand, has ventured into film and web content production. Besides, it is dabbling with the newly emerging stream of live musicals, based on songs that it owns. Would any of this have happened without that exhaustive catalogue of old hits to fall back on? Quite unlikely.

Why IP matters

The concept of copyright did take some time to evolve in India, primarily because it has been a market dominated by standalone producers.

Sushilkumar Agrawal, CEO, Ultra Media and Entertainment Group, says there have been many challenges in the past where producers have either denied sale of rights or sold rights of the same film to multiple parties, causing legal hassles.

The entry of foreign media giants, such as Walt Disney and Sony Pictures, to India in the mid to late-2000s meant that contracts were drawn up better, different rights discussed and the share of all stakeholders finalized. Indian companies themselves became better aware of monetization opportunities and revenue streams.

But then, Indian companies started struggling with piracy as digitization kicked in. Around 2004, piracy and unauthorized downloads of music became routine. And then came mobile technology. The rivalry among telecom companies saw huge cuts in data prices, facilitating easier access to music across digital platforms. It altered the landscape of the entertainment industry triggering a spike in content consumption.

“This was the turning point for the industry and content IP owners,” says Kumar Taurani, managing director of Tips Industries, an Indian music record label and film production company.

There are three distinct players in the world of entertainment—the ones who create content; the companies they license it to, which includes intermediaries like television broadcast players; and the ones who take it to the customers, including distribution platform owners or, in the digital age, streaming platforms who also acquire content themselves.

At the bottom of the pyramid as far as value of IP goes, is news and current affairs. In terms of volume, the segment is huge but its life cycle is the shortest due to topicality. Up next comes television series, followed by films and music at the very top. Why is music at the top? “You can keep listening to your favourite song till you die. Music can take you back to your formative years. Our endeavour is to keep putting assets back into the open market while creating newer IP,” Mehra of Saregama explains.

He adds that the richest and safest vertical to be in is IP ownership. Everything else is subservient to the technology of the time—while platforms are more glamorous, they are vulnerable to changes in technology.

According to industry experts, there are two crucial aspects to owning IP—how to ensure its relevance and how to keep monetizing it. Saregama has done a good job of both.

The Saregama model

Mehra calls Carvaan, Saregama’s portable music player with preloaded old Hindi and devotional songs, a trump card that helped older IPs reach younger audiences.

“We have an advanced data analytics and performance modelling team, which works on tracking every song released across India. We have data that shows a high correlation between songs available on Carvaan and those growing on streaming,” says Mehra.

What the company initially thought was a coincidence was actually a behavioural change where younger children and adults became passive listeners to the music their parents and grandparents were playing on Carvaan at home. Given that the device has reported less than 2% usage of earphones, several old songs have been rediscovered and heard on loop when played at home by the seniors.

To build on its library, Saregama has digitized its entire 162,000-track catalogue. It has added metadata on not just singers, composers and lyricists, but also actors, moods, situations and genres making it easier for listeners to discover them on YouTube, Facebook or any streaming platform.

Companies are also relying on spinouts to monetize their IP. Saregama has, over the past year, allowed end users to be involved in the recreation of older songs. So, a regular listener can record a video on any song from the Saregama catalogue, release it on the company’s YouTube channel Saregama Open Stage and make 10% of whatever royalty comes in. With 9,000 videos of user-generated content over the past seven months, the trend that started with Hindi is now moving to Bengali and Tamil. If the video does well, it gets a place on Saregama’s official YouTube channel.

Moreover, Saregama produces TV shows for Sun TV, a Tamil-language general entertainment television channel. Here, it uses retro Tamil songs from its catalogue.

Saregama is also betting big on live shows and concerts, based on its soundtracks. It is acquiring rights to the movies featuring the songs, to draw up story lines for the shows. For instance, Disco Dancer, the show based on the 1982 hit film featuring Mithun Chakraborty, was launched last month in Mumbai after premiering in London in 2022. Going forward, Saregama is looking to adapt other Bollywood hits on stage, and organize concerts and tours.

Shemaroo survives covid

Shemaroo Entertainment started in 1962 and made a name in the distribution of home videos. Over the following decades, it ventured into digital post production, overseas distribution of films, film production, animation films, and now, an over the top (OTT) platform—it runs a streaming platform called ShemarooMe. The strength of its library of content helped the company do well even during the covid-19 pandemic.

“It enabled us to not only stay afloat but also provided capital to invest in our newer B2C (business-to-consumer) business,” Hiren Gada, chief executive at Shemaroo Entertainment, says.

The Shemaroo film library includes 1,500 titles owned in perpetuity and 1,200 with period ownership—in such contracts, the company has to renegotiate deals after the contract expires.

The company serves 200-plus partners across TV and digital, both in India and abroad. Its YouTube base of 50-plus channels together commands a subscriber count of 200 million.

“Our library is the backbone of our YouTube business. In India, two of the three largest categories on YouTube are movies and music. Our catalogue strength across these categories has helped us build a strong business on YouTube, delivering consistent growth over the past 10 years,” says Gada. The Bollywood library also drove new initiatives like ShemarooMe, while the Marathi library propelled the rollout of Shemaroo MarathiBana, its TV movie channel in that language.

The appeal of old IP is not just limited to digital platforms. Earlier this year, Shemaroo re-released its romantic comedy film Jab We Met in cinemas for Valentine’s Day. Even though the Shahid Kapoor-Kareena Kapoor Khan starrer is available across satellite television, YouTube and streaming platforms, the film managed a theatrical run of nearly 200 shows across four weeks.

The popularity of older films and songs varies across streaming platforms, with classics often faring better on platforms like YouTube and Meta, while newer content dominates platforms like Disney+ Hotstar and Netflix, says Shreyans Hirawat, director of NH Studioz, a copyright management company.

However, classics consistently attract audiences across all services, proving that ‘old is gold’. The company’s library, which consists of over 2,500 feature films and 9,000 songs, reaches audiences through a diverse range of platforms, including 15 TV stations, 35 OTT platforms, 14 cable channels, 22 airlines, and 34 owned and 55 plus third-party social media channels like YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Daily Motion, adds Hirawat.

Tipped for success

The history of Tips Industries dates back to the 70s. In 1975, Kumar Taurani, along with his brother Ramesh Taurani, started trading in LPs for HMV, Music India and CBS. Later, they ventured into their own record label. On its website, the company states that it holds soundtrack copyrights of at least 50 Hindi movies, “while the soundtrack copyright of each movie costs about a million dollars”.

Of course, Tips is vastly diversified as a company today. It has recently announced its foray into web originals with Ajmer Files, a show whose cast and crew are being finalized. Other than that, the firm has produced Gaslight, a film starring Sara Ali Khan and Vikrant Massey. It is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. More films are in the offing. Two Hindi films, Merry Christmas (starring Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi) and Ishq Vishk Reboot are slated for release later this year. Tips has also bought the rights of the book Mr and Mrs Jinnah.

Pursing these new ventures has been easier because of the cash flow the company’s IP generates, media industry experts point out. Tips Music has a library comprising over 30,000 songs in multiple languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Haryanvi, Marathi, Gujarati and Bhojpuri. These are licensed across audio platforms.

But when it comes to movies, Tips prefers exclusivity, having recently sold sole rights to Zee Entertainment, allowing audiences to consume their content on the company’s OTT platform ZEE5 as well as channels under the Zee umbrella. Tips’ online presence includes 19 YouTube channels that collectively command a subscriber base of over 82 million.

Similarly, Ultra Media and Entertainment Group’s library currently comprises more than 2,500 films across languages and genres, besides a slate of over 2,000 hours of TV serial content. These are syndicated across theatrical, cable, satellite, direct-to-home, airlines and cruise lines, OTT, YouTube and other user-generated content and digital platforms. The company also owns a stable of more than 17,000 song tracks; operates 85 YouTube channels across various languages and genres; has over 20 crore subscribers. Half of the group company revenues come from its content syndication business. It launched its Marathi OTT platform, Ultra Jhakaas, in March without any external funding.

“We have been acquiring Marathi content for the past 35 years and have built a vast library in terms of films, TV serials and non-film content, which we will be using at regular intervals on our OTT,” Sushilkumar Agrawal said, explaining the importance of older IP in launching newer ventures.

The learning from all this? IP ownership lies at the heart of the entertainment business.

“A useful analogy is one of real estate,” says Sanjeev Lamba, executive producer, Hungama Originals, which owns an audio streaming platform. “If you own property, you continue to receive rent for it. If you don’t own it, there is no intrinsic value to anything.”

And much like a good bungalow built years ago, even a 60-year-old song can yield handsome dividends. You would realize this the next time you hum Lag Ja Gale.

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