Rishi Malhotra and the making of Saavn, the South-Asian soundtrack
Saavn CEO and co-founder Rishi Malhotra on building one of India’s leading music apps, being a musician and eating data for breakfast
Every day, except when he is travelling for work, Rishi Malhotra plays his red electric guitar dutifully. Sometimes, he uploads a short video of himself playing on Instagram. Not long before he joined Saavn in 2008, spearheading its journey to become one of the leading music apps in India, he would jam with country musicians in Nashville, the “music town” of Tennessee, US, where he was born. He grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Miles Davis, while still remaining true to his roots, humming to the songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Lata Mangeshkar and Pankaj Udhas, thanks to his India-born parents. “My inflections are a bit Indian sometimes,” he says as he plays an Instagram video of him playing a blues tune.
The digital music industry—downloads and streams—is estimated to be generating more than 70% of the over Rs12 billion music industry’s overall revenue in India, according to the 2017 “Indian Media And Entertainment Industry Report” by KPMG India and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci). And with its 22-million subscriber base, New York-based Saavn is an important player in the industry.
We are meeting at Saavn’s office in Mumbai’s Andheri East. The conversation is peppered with data, graphics and charts that Malhotra, 41, keeps plotting on the wall in the conference room where we are seated. Malhotra, who is sporting a light stubble, has a certain flamboyance about him; this quality might have to do with his experience as a musician and being a regular at talks at technology forums.
It was during one such event in 2008 that Saavn co-founders Vinodh Bhat and Paramdeep Singh approached Malhotra. Founded in 2007 in New York, Saavn was a B2B company, digitizing Indian music and distributing them to American services such as iTunes, Hulu and Amazon. The business was at that time making $100,000 (around Rs63 lakh now) a month from just iTunes downloads, but the co-founders felt there was potential to do something bigger. Bhat and Singh were aware of Malhotra’s work for HBO, where he had “helped define cross-platform content engagement and marketing”. He had expertise on things such as time-shifted streaming—the recording of live TV programmes for later viewing.
Malhotra was also looking to leave HBO, where he was vice-president, and start his own venture. “The three of us would meet every month over post-work drinks and discuss how we could transform Saavn from a music aggregator into a music platform for a wholesome consumer experience,” says Malhotra. “The conversations would also be about helping them think through video for Saavn.”
Malhotra could’ve been a professional musician. His father, though, had one suggestion: that he should least finish college before taking a career-related decision. He is a bachelor of science in biology from Washington University in St Louis but by the end of the term in 1998, he was sick of it. “I don’t like hospitals, I don’t like blood. I can’t be around it, I can’t be the best in this,” he remembers calling up his parents in Tennessee and telling them six months before graduation.
While in college, he had been thinking about a corporate job. Malhotra finished his credits a semester early and used that time to work as an intern at stock brokerage firm Smith Barney.
“It’s not that I don’t love writing or playing music, but I also love building a business, working with people, leading teams,” he says. The internship led to a management consultant job at PwC in New York in 1998. For the next two years, he was working with companies, helping them manage their businesses and growth. Then he joined internet consultancy Proxicom.
One of his clients at Proxicom was HBO. They approached Malhotra to take charge of their new venture: HBO On Demand, one of America’s first video-on-demand services. Malhotra joined in 2004, which was his first step in the business side of entertainment. By the end of his four-and-a-half year tenure, HBO On Demand had become a $100 million property for the network. Some of the shows Malhotra worked closely on at HBO, including The Wire, have become the foundation stone for the current creative renaissance in television.
“A big part of what we do here in Saavn,” he says, “the root comes from a lot of learnings from HBO. Both HBO and Netflix built a very big audience with licensed content first and then they built their brand with original content.”
When Malhotra joined Saavn, smartphones were just beginning to make their way into the market and Saavn was looking at a market where most people were still using traditional or pirated ways of listening to music. But there were a few more problems. “Indian music is fractured,” says Malhotra, “spread across different languages and music labels of different regions. So bringing it all together on one platform was complicated.” Some basics, seemingly unimportant but vital, needed to be fixed. Consumers looking for Indian songs would often misspell names of musicians or songs. Many, as it was found, would be looking for songs with the name of the actor who featured in it—a quintessentially Indian thing to do, considering that most of our pop music is essentially film music.
“We thought, why not build a service where you can search for anything, the song title, name of film, composer, actor and even if you misspell it, we should be able to serve you,” says Malhotra.
They started putting the name of actors, singers and others in the metadata. And now, even if one misspells the name of the singer or the composer, the app suggests the correct name.
They created a prototype for the app in 2010. Malhotra remembers handing the phone to his mother, asking her to search for any song. “She found a song she hadn’t heard in years, it made her emotional,” he says. Malhotra remembers calling Singh: “There’s some magic moment to that. We need to build this.”
Saavn.com was launched as a streaming service in 2010 with about 150,000 songs. The early numbers were small—20,000-30,000 a month. “But the engagement was extremely high and the product affinity was palpable. We could tell early on that this was going to change people’s lives,” says Malhotra. Today it has close to 36 million tracks in 15 languages.
In 2015, Saavn raised $100 million from venture capital firm Tiger Global Management Llc and other investors in a deal that valued the firm at $400 million. It has also got investments from Liberty Media, Wellington Capital Management, and individuals like former Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin.
In 2017, Saavn’s listening hours increased by 70%, according to the company, which currently has 22 million subscribers globally; the other major player in the music-streaming apps field in India is Gaana, which claimed to have 35 million registered users in 2016. One of the areas where Saavn has shown growth in terms of time spent on the app has been in English language music, which grew by 176% in 2017. Two years back, this would have been surprising as the perception was that Saavn had more to offer to the Bollywood fan.
Since 2016, Saavn has made a conscious effort in acquiring international and independent music. In February 2017, it launched Artist Originals, a platform through which it aims to promote independent musicians, with a track by Mumbai-based underground hip hop musician Naezy. Other artists such as the indie singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad followed. It has featured, among others, electronic music producer Nucleya in its artist-in-residence programme, where he produced new music, hosted audio shows and curated playlists. The programme started in 2016, and has featured Raghu Dixit and Papon. Malhotra likes to think of Saavn as a music platform built for artists. They have started streaming live sessions, often conducted on the stage built at one end of the Saavn office in Mumbai. Malhotra has performed on that stage as well. “We run the company the way artists and musicians might do,” he says.
But Saavn’s success ultimately is powered by data—“Eating technology for breakfast, that’s the phrase,” Malhotra says. The company has a rich bank of data accumulated over seven years. Malhotra goes to the extent of describing Saavn as an “equal part data and music company. When we want to green light content, we look at what the audience is, what the demographics are. When you build a company from the onset... you have to listen to that data,” he says. Saavn’s knowledge of what the audience is more likely to consume has encouraged them to dream beyond music. Soon, from being a music-streaming app, it will expand to videos—the behind-the-scenes videos of their popular celebrity chat show podcast #NoFilterNeha, hosted by actor Neha Dhupia, is already underway. “We’ll become a bit of Netflix, a little bit of MTV…but we’ll be Saavn at the heart of it,” he says.
Headquartered in New York’s Park Avenue, Saavn caters not just to people in India, but the entire South Asian diaspora spread over the world. This reflects in its choice of artists as well: in August 2017, Artist Originals produced the English-Punjabi number Bom Diggy that brought together Zack Knight, a British-Punjabi musician of Pakistani descent, and Jasmine Walia, a British TV personality and musician of Indian origin. The people who run it—Malhotra, Bhat and Singh—are all non-resident Indians (NRIs).
As we wrap up, Malhotra gets a message on his phone. Singh and Bhat are waiting for him for another meeting. But before I leave, he plays me an audio clip on his phone: his version of Tujhe Dekha Toh from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) on the guitar. It sounds like the perfect closing note of this NRI success story.