MUMBAI —Today’s leading Indian music label, T-Series, overtook Swedish internet sensation PewDiePie, becoming the first YouTube channel to surpass 100 million subscribers.
The two operations traded the lead for weeks. Trailing by about 100,000 subscribers, Kjellberg posted a track called “Congratulations” — a four-minute rap video which T-Series persuaded court to block the video in India on the grounds that it was racist. T-Series now boasts 118 million subscribers, 16 million more than PewDiePie.
“It was a childish war, but it helped us,” said Neeraj Kalyan, the company’s president. “Now people all over the world know what T-Series is.”
The journey of the music company started in 1970s when the late founder Gulshan Kumar, who was managing his father’s record shop in New Delhi, saw an opportunity to capitalize on a breakthrough technology: the cassette tape.
Then, as now, the most popular music in India came from Hindi films. The advent of tape decks meant that customers could compile tunes from different soundtracks onto a single cassette. “You can’t call it piracy because it was happening in every shop,” says Bhushan Kumar, chairman and managing director of T-Series. “Everyone was re-recording a song and selling it.”
In 1984, Gulshan Kumar founded T-Series, and within a few years had built a state-of-the-art facility outside New Delhi that was manufacturing 80,000 cassettes a day. Kumar found little-known singers and musicians who could perform near-perfect renditions of the beloved oldies. He brought the artistes to the studio to record fresh versions in crisp, stereophonic sound, then sold the recordings — often carrying the same name as the originals — for as little as a quarter of the price.
(Incidentally, this game of “covers” was started by HMV, India’s oldest music company, when its first significant rival, Polydor, arrived in 1970, and had some hit soundtracks. Soon, Polydor did the same with some HMV soundtracks! But they were all gramophone records.)
All of a sudden, T-Series could be spotted all over India. By the 1990s, it was believed to control 70 percent of India’s music market. The artistes Kumar plucked from obscurity became stars, breaking the monopoly that a handful of singers had held over the industry for decades.
A devout Hindu — he credited his success to the goddess Mata Vaishno Devi and said the “T” in his company’s name stood for “trishul” (the trident) wielded by Lord Shiva — Kumar was the first to bring recordings of devotional songs into the mainstream. He also produced music in regional Indian languages, tapping into more than half the country.
After the tragic demise of Gulshan Kumar, the control of the company fell upon his son Bhushan Kumar, who was 19 at the time and living a privileged life of exotic cars and foreign holidays. “He wanted me to enjoy my childhood the way he never could,” Bhushan Kumar recalled.
It took years for management to bounce back with a slew of original films and albums. In 2007, however, a new threat arose: YouTube.
The world’s biggest video-sharing platform went online in India the next year and T-Series, like other media companies, soon found its songs showing up on the site without permission. T-Series channels include Hindi, regional music, children’s programming, religious songs and fitness.
The duel with PewDiePie earned a lot of hype, but the company officials say they are more focused on total views, which determine how much advertising revenue YouTube videos earn. Working out of an industrial park outside Delhi, where trophies and plaques from YouTube bedeck the halls, a dozen employees upload new music videos and movie trailers almost daily as T-Series expands one of the biggest song catalog— 180,000 tracks — and produces as many as 20 films a year.
In 2019, T-Series has produced several hit films and music videos and is busy co-producing several films across all genres. Their slightly humbler productions are now being made under the SCIPL banner — the original Super Cassettes Industries Pvt. Ltd. banner.