RadioandMusic
| 20 Sep 2019
Can Saavn change the dynamics of radio in India?

MUMBAI: For a streaming service that began as a movie service in 2006 in the United States, Saavn's decade-long journey and expansion involved not only systematic penetration to varied regions, but branching out to other forms of entertainment.

Saavn - in 2006 - licensed Bollywood films from India, and brought them onto cable platforms, such as Time Warner, Comcast and Cablevision, and ten years later, the 'Spotify of India' has executed unique ten  original programming series catering to mainstream and niche audiences.

With personalities from radio, music, TV and other forms of entertainment associating with Saavn for the programming series, the entertainment ecosystem appears set for a re-imagining of its plans and strategies.

Saavn did not take long to amass an impressive user-base. With a heavy catalogue - understandably dominated by Bollywood songs - the US-based company focused on content tailor-made for mainstream Indian users, the company, today, possesses 20 million tracks in 13 different languages and has over 18 million monthly active users.

Curse or Boon for the Radio industry?

"Radio continues to hold its ground - at least for now." The FICCI Report 2016 carefully chose these words to describe the evolution of radio in the second decade of the new millennium. The growth of radio - globally - deserves to be acknowledged, however, the question that haunted the industry for several years now returns to invoke the similar doubt - "for how long?" The YoY analysis for radio industry suggests the size of the industry has grown almost twice in the past five years, and generated revenues of over INR 19.8 billion. The stability and the presence continued largely  due to lack of competition in the streaming service space. New York-based Saavn entered the market a few years ago, but it is only now – with its latest programming series catering to audiences with various forms of entertainment - it holds the potential to change the nature of the market, and how digital streaming services are perceived.

"The listeners care about the content, and not the platform. As long as the content is good, any platform would succeed," says Radio City CEO Abraham Thomas.

While Saavn's programming has the opportunity of being anywhere and anytime, it does not have the content exclusively curated for a particular region. The fragmented radio business has a localised reach, and Saavn (and other services) can bank on this very factor. That and the growth of smartphone users in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, patiently waiting for the penetration of 3G and 4G services.

"Fourteen radio stations currently operate on Gaana.com, as part of the partnership. Radio Mirchi attracted a million listeners on our online radio station. Tie-ups of radio stations with streaming services is, indeed, a good idea," says Radio Mirchi EVP, Head - Digital initiatives Rahul Balyan. The digital reach for Gaana and Radio Mirchi improved for both the parties involved and although the partnership was an in-house  collaboration, Saavn remains open to the idea of similar associations.

On Saavn's plans to acquire archival content from radio stations, Balyan commented, "The resurrection of archival content is good, but it needs to have a value too. Most of the content created by radio stations is designed with an FM perspective. A lot of content is contextual, defined for a particular period. Streaming services will have to carefully choose the archival content that can remain relevant today."

"Saavn's strategy to acquire archival content can be a tricky business. In fact, the radio stations would now start to create content specifically aimed at digital services. Commercially, Saavn's ambitions would pay off  well," avers marketing strategy expert Harish Bijoor.

The strategies differ for Indian and international audiences. While Indian audiences enjoy the mix of local and western musicians' content, the approach for non-residential Indians revolve around providing the otherwise lesser accessible Indian music content.

The podcast has been a well-established global format, and although Saavn began the venture in India by providing mainstream entertainment, Saavn’s Vice President for Original Content and Entertainment Gaurav Wadhwa deserves the credit for tapping on emerging. genres of entertainment. Said Wadhwa, "Music will be the mainstay. One of the original programming series - Maed In India - totally curates to the audiences from the alternative music scene. We have also collaborated with Penguin Random House to put out audio books. The goal is to provide exclusive content never heard before. In a way, we have mastered music, it's only logical now to travel beyond."

India's most popular electronica act Nucleya was announced as Saavn's 'Artist-in-Residence', and the musician, who received 5,000 downloads on his official Soundcloud page, touched a whopping 20 million Saavn users globally with his latest album on Saavn.  The company understood how college students or teenagers, to a certain extent, define the musical taste of the nation, and bringing Nucleya to the mix at the right time fuels Saavn's progress among the non-mainstream market even further.

Another interesting collaboration came through popular radio personality Neelesh Misra, as the reputed RJ will host two original programs on Saavn. Misra acknowledges the evolution of the medium of storytelling, and the former Big FM jockey seemed optimistic with the association. "With Saavn, my voice will be reaching a global audience. With radio, the audience was restricted to certain geographies. Associating with Saavn was the natural progression of my storytelling. This is a win-win situation for us. I can migrate my loyal listeners to Saavn, whereas Saavn provides me a bigger platform to be heard. In radio's case, digital vertical was never their core business. However, some radio agencies need to wake up to the evolving trends. Radio people are fossilised and parochial. Henceforth, I believe, digital medium will be my primary home."

A concern for record labels too?

During the original programming launch, an optimistic Nucleya stated, "Saavn potentially becomes my record label, agent, promoter and soon." The DJ gained massive popularity even before Saavn came into the picture. So what does the association mean for the record labels?

"Saavn is doing all those services that a record label offers. The fact of the matter is, everyone is becoming a content creator. Saavn has signed someone (Misra and Nucleya) who are already established. But that does not mean, every artist would knock on Saavn's doors for the promotion of their music," comments Turnkey Music & Publishing managing director Atul Churamani, a music industry veteran. Saavn's motives are in the right places, but beg the question – why did not established streaming services of the West find India as a potential market to execute similar strategies (implemented in emerged markets). "The reason why big streaming services hesitate to invest in Indian markets are, (a) They haven’t understood the music (or the industry) here, and (b) their inability to license the music," says Churamani.

Spot-on marketing

Ambitious programming plans need to be combined with savvy marketing in order to achieve success. Saavn appears to have got the mix right.

Music and media specialist Vehrnon Ibrahim, also a radio industry veteran, explains how a 360 degree contract with agencies has worked effectively for musicians. Said Ibrahim, "360 degree contract with record labels has been executed before. Now, everyone is doing it. Marketing can be done online and Saavn's online presence would benefit Nucleya and vice-versa. For non-Saavn users, the huge campaigning leads to curiosity, leading to consumption of the content on the app. Indian audience, historically, has been shy towards paying for the services provided by these players, and hence the focus on NRI audience and the launch of Saavn Pro allows Saavn to monetise on the content, while continue to satisfy its biggest market - India." However, Ibrahim adds, "If Saavn can lure a million listeners to one whole show, then that would be success of the series, for me."

The strategy to provide more than music has driven several services to branch out into other forms, but what distinguishes one service from another is the approach. What began with music, would not continue to remain so, and Spotify's latest announcement to curate original video content remains another good example of the same.

As Churamani puts it, "Eventually, they are all businesses done by the businessmen."