Bhushan Kumar. (Jayachandran/Mint)
Bhushan Kumar. (Jayachandran/Mint)

Bhushan Kumar: Top of the pops

  • The head of music company T-Series talks to Mint about their YouTube record, his instinct for music, and his song selection process
  • The music baron says that though he may not be recognized on trips to Spain and France, his record label is now a familiar name

Bhushan Kumar, chairman and managing director of the music record label T-Series, is almost dismissive of the new record his company has created—that of becoming the most-subscribed YouTube channel in the world. He says he didn’t even realize they were on to something until it was brought to his notice.

Yet, as the 41-year-old talks about T-Series becoming the first YouTube channel to breach the 100 million subscribers mark (at the time of writing, T-Series had exactly 105,246,690 subscribers), he accepts that it is a big deal for an Indian company to get to this figure. The feat has got them a place in the Guinness World Records.

In the run-up to becoming the most-subscribed channel, the intense head-on contest between T-Series and its fans and Swedish video-blogger PewDiePie and his followers has become the stuff of internet legend. The competition between them turned so acrimonious at one point that T-Series went to court against two diss-tracks by PewDiePie that made fun of the company. Then, in March, Kumar appealed to his subscribers’ patriotism with a #BharatWinsYouTube campaign. Backed by popular contemporary singers and a country that loves its Bollywood music, it did the trick.

When we meet at his top-floor penthouse home in Mumbai’s Andheri on a Saturday, Kumar, dressed in a fatigue-style shirt, blue suede slacks and Asics sneakers, walks in humming a song. He can’t remember later which song it was, but it was probably an unreleased number that was playing in his head. The music baron is particular about the music his company produces—he approves most of the songs personally. He often pauses to check his phone during this conversation, because, as he explains, a lot of his work happens over WhatsApp and all the songs he listens to are on his phone.

T-Series, founded in 1983 with 750 employees in Delhi and Mumbai, has 29 channels on YouTube hosting music videos and film trailers, transitioning successfully from the cassette-tape era to the digital era. The digital revenue share of the overall business is 50-60%, according to the company. Though he may not be recognized on trips to Spain and France, says Kumar, his record label is now a familiar name.

Kumar, who studied commerce, took over the company when he was still in his teens, after his father Gulshan Kumar, the founder of Super Cassettes Industries Pvt. Ltd (the parent company of T-Series) and a pioneering force in the Indian music industry, was shot down by gangsters in 1997. Those were difficult days for Bhushan—apart from the trauma of losing a parent under tragic circumstances, he was new to the business, there were labour issues at factories, and judicial challenges.

“People would not take me seriously," he remembers. “They would say: Your father was a genius in marketing, what can you do? I had to convince them, literally with folded hands, to trust me."

He had steady support from family—his mother, sisters Tulsi and Khushali (both singers), and uncle Kishan, as well as his father’s friend Ved Chanana. The industry rallied around, he says, as he went about consolidating his business.

“In the initial days, I used to get so paranoid: What if some song does not do well? There were so many what-ifs… till I made my first album, Deewana (1999), which was a success and gave me a lot of confidence that whatever I make based on my taste could work."

Though the bulk of their music is for films, the company offers a bouquet of non-film music albums, dance numbers and remixes. He says remixes and recreations work because listeners want new-sounding songs sung by the current generation of hit singers. “If I just remix and release, no one will listen," he says. “I am adapting, changing the song and merging a new song into an old one."

He offers the example of last year’s hit song Dilbar, sung by Neha Kakkar, which is a recreation of an older version. “It starts with a new tune and then lands into Dilbar, Dilbar, Dilbar…," he says, singing it softly. “Recreation is not remix, it’s the demand of the season. Not all recreations work, but 95% of what we have made has worked. It is not easy to recreate a song."

In music, T-Series works in every regional language—be it Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Bhojpuri, Kashmiri, Haryanvi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, or any other. In movies, it works in Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu.

T-Series has moved aggressively into non-film music as well, says Kumar, and is revamping its devotional offerings by improving the sound and making today’s singers sing on a different note. Punjabi pop, of course, has always had a big market.

Kumar explains his process of song selection through one scenario. When a film-maker or director gives them the song situation, they get the tune and the lyrics in place. When a song comes for his approval, he may suggest changes in, say, the melody. With Dilbar, for instance, Kumar initially didn’t like the way it started.

Then they get the sound producers on board, work on the baseline, the groove, and decide on the singer. The company has around 20 singers, like Neha Kakkar, Armaan Malik and Jubin Nautiyal, working with them, though they work with other singers as well.

“Music is just ear sense, which I inherently got from my father. The ability to judge a song came from him as well. I am not trained in music…," he says.

“I don’t listen to any music except the ones which are not released, which we are making. I get it almost immediately—whether the song would work or not—and then it is improvisation. Then I listen to it a few times to get it right. In some songs, there is space to put a bridge—a different tune that connects the start to the end. I keep humming songs that we have made and are popular because they are fresh in the mind," he says.

“Our responsibility is not just to make films for music but to make music for films," he explains. There was a time when T-Series had a reputation for making movies only to promote its music but it has ventured aggressively into movie production of late—they have about 17 releases this year, with some of the recent ones being the Salman Khan-starrer Bharat and the much discussed Kabir Singh. He is excited about the Ajay Devgn film Taanaji: The Unsung Warrior, set to release early next year.

The move into movies was strategic, he explains—his father too had been keen on it. Films that are produced or co-produced by T-Series begin with a “Gulshan Kumar presents" logo because from the day Bhushan Kumar took charge, he felt his father continued to be with him.

Kumar’s instinct with films, he confesses, is not as refined as his musical sense. “You give me a song now, I will give my judgement, and 90% of the time I will be right. It is simple for me but is otherwise tough to do. But there are times—because I am not God—10% of the times, when a song has worked though I said it would not."

He insists that beyond passion and creativity, movies are a business. “You have to work towards the cost. I have never worked so passionately on a film that I have forgotten the cost. I am a strict businessman. If I am spending 20, I need at least 20% back on it."

Some time back, the company had announced a film, Mogul, which was to be based on the life of Gulshan Kumar. It got postponed, but he says work on it will start next year, though he is not ready to disclose the director and actor heading the project. “We want to tell his (Gulshan Kumar’s) inspirational story in a commercial way because everything we have is due to him. He is the guiding force, because it would have been (otherwise) practically impossible for a 19-year-old to handle such a big empire."

The next move for their production company is to get into web series and movies for digital streaming platforms.

As the interview winds down, Kumar gets restless, checking his phone more frequently. I ask about his passion for supercars—there was a time when Kumar used to have an enviable collection of high-end cars. He says he didn’t have the time to drive them and felt it was a waste to have them standing in his garage.

He remains enthusiastic, however, about his new Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV. He can sit in the back seat in comfort, switch on some music on his phone and maybe sing along.

***

Favourite old-time singer/composer

Kishore Kumar/R.D. Burman

Actor he would like to work with

Shah Rukh Khan

Favourite song

‘Chura Liya’

Preferred holiday destination

Switzerland

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports and lifestyle.

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