I try not to be envious of Vikram Mehra, whose workplace plays vintage Hindi music from 8.30 am-8.30 pm every day. Dilip Kumar and Madhubala posters hang side by side above a turquoise love seat. Song lyrics are painted on bright pillars and the lights are shaped like musical instruments. The managing director of India’s oldest music label, Saregama, understands the power of music. He knows songs even contain the magic to bring a parent back to life.

When he hears the soundtrack of Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, for instance, he’s transported back to the 1970s, watching that film with his mother, three evenings in a row, at a single screen theatre in Dwarka, Gujarat, because there was nothing else to do as they waited for his father to return from work. “Every time Amitabh Bachchan rode his bike on Marine Drive, I used to stand up and sing along. Mom is no more. It’s not just a song for me, it’s a memory."

Saregama harnessed this power in its November 2017 launch ad for the Carvaan—the company’s best-selling digital audio player with 5,000 preloaded songs—which used our all-time favourite Hindi sad song, Lag Ja Gale.

Indians love sad songs, Mehra says, adding that after Woh Kaun Thi’s Lag Ja Gale, we listen to Tum Aa Gaye Ho from Aandhi and Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye from Anand the most. He should know; his company has a musical archive of 120,000 songs—including virtually every Hindi song from 1903 to the 1980s—and his songs are played about five billion times across platforms every month, giving him a clear idea of our music preferences.

“Heartbreak songs always last longer and are more popular than happy songs," he says when we meet at his employee-designed, music-themed office in Mumbai, once the headquarters of pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson. The day we meet, he has got data about the top song we listened to on 25 February—Pehla Nasha from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (I took a break to revisit it when I was writing this column).

Among the Carvaan’s senior citizen users, the average listening time is 7.5 hours every day. “It reminds me of growing up in the 1970s when mom always had medium wave (MW) on at home. My Mukesh-for-Raj Kapoor exposure was all courtesy MW," Mehra says. “The radio never went off, it just moved from room to room, always running in the background."

Mehra shares insights on how he sold a million of these magic music boxes in less than two years (903,000 of them in 2018-19).

Know who your audience is—and isn’t. The Carvaan has always been clear that its audience is an older crowd for whom music is a lean-back-and-enjoy experience. “We want to believe that everyone wants to control every minute of their life. But at times we want someone else to take a decision for us and if it’s an okay decision, we are happy," says Mehra.

“This has always been for people who say, I go home, I have my tea or my drink and I want my music to play in the background…and yes, I am a huge Mohammed Rafi fan," says Mehra. “It’s not for those who say, ‘Why can’t I select my own music?’ For that there’s a host of music apps."

In this world, old is gold. “We are very clear 21st century music is not entering this space," says Mehra, who believes that positioning is not only about who you are but also who you are not. And there’s no space for remixes or reinterpretations of 1900s music either.

Older people liked the idea of preloaded songs but they said the Carvaan felt like too much of a self-indulgence. Bluetooth was introduced to tell this group “When your grandchildren come over, they can listen to their music too." Suddenly, the value proposition clicked, says Mehra. The box was also positioned as the perfect intimate gift for older family members.

Don’t outguess your customer. Though he says this number has fallen recently, in the decade to 2015, Mehra met at least 25 customers at their homes every month to find out what people wanted. “I am a huge fan of (Apple’s late co-founder) Steve Jobs but in one area I have a disconnect—he believes the customer doesn’t know what he/she wants," he says. Much of the Carvaan’s innovation and evolution is because the company listens in. “And please don’t assume that by talking to your driver and your partner, you know your customer," Mehra says.

At first, the Carvaan’s young designers used touch buttons that were in vogue, but customers hated these and said they couldn’t tell when they were switching channels. So the Carvaan has mechanical buttons that make a comforting sound when you press them.

When Mehra first told Harit Nagpal, his former boss and Tata Sky CEO, about the Carvaan, Nagpal suggested they load radio frequencies on the device. Even though most of the team felt this was unnecessary, they did this and FM was available on the first generation of Carvaans. The radio function was such a hit in smaller towns that even the Carvaan Minis, a later iteration with fewer songs, offered the radio option.

Original Carvaans had artist-based stations—singers, lyricists or composers—but Carvaan’s audience wanted songs to be categorized by their favourite actors because that’s how they remembered them. For example, a channel for Bachchan songs even though most of them were sung by Kishore Kumar. The company incorporated this tweak last September. Since devotional music is the most popular segment after romance, the company launched Carvaans that just played this genre.

Innovation is anthropology, not technology. Carvaan Go, the latest launch with an audio jack, longer battery life and even lighter than a small iPhone, was born because the middle-aged crowd wasn’t listening to Carvaan enough. Why? Because they were out of the house all day. They only had time while commuting or exercising. This version comes with a tin container to store it, an idea from Indigo airlines’ wildly popular cashew-nut boxes.

The Carvaan Gold, a good-looking version with a metal body, happened because some customers complained that while they liked the idea of a preloaded song bank, the sound quality just wasn’t good enough. This version incorporates Harman Kardon speakers.

“I have said this before too," Mehra says. “I am a firm believer that innovation is about anthropology and not technology." I wish more brands would tune in.

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