| 23 Sep 2023
T Suresh: 'You must control your content'

T Suresh is a young veteran in the Music business with 20 years of multi-faceted experience across consumer goods and entertainment. He is a sales and marketing professional whose passion for entertainment products took him to the music industry way back in 1996 when he found an opportunity to head national sales at Plus Music. He subsequently went on to head Times Music before moving on to EMI Music -- India in 2006,  which he continues to lead today as its Managing Director. He believes that the music industry is a very exciting place to be with its amazingly diverse range of content, evolving consumer tastes and ever changing content delivery modes. In conversation with Pavan R Chawla, Director Content & Chief Strategy Officer – IndianTelevision Group and Editor –, Suresh speaks about, among other things, the  music business, the priorities of EMI Music – India, the need to control one's content, his professional learnings and beliefs and his management style. Excerpts.

There are several reports floating in the industry pegging the present and predicting the expected size of the music industry. What figures do you like?

Yes, there are several reports on the size of music industry in India, but the most widely considered report is the FICCI KPMG report which puts the size of the industry at Rs 411 crore in terms of physical sales, with digital at around Rs 343 crore, plus around Rs 27 crore from PPL and Rs 57 crore from TV and radio. So the industry is estimated to be around Rs 838 crore. Having said that, let me add that this is 2009 calendar year data – today digital is already bigger than physical.

What does your catalogue comprise of?

EMI Music India is a company fully owned by EMI music which is one of the top four labels internationally. Apart from that we are also licensees for Warner Music in India and certain number of other international labels. Our catalogue currently consists of 65 to 70 per cent international music,  while around 30 per cent is from the domestic market; primarily non-Bollywood. As we move ahead, we plan to increase our domestic content.

What is the revenue pie for EMI Music in terms of digital, and physical sales?

Currently, the larger slice of our revenue comes from International Music. As regards Indian Music, we are a pure non-film company and a large chunk of what we give out is music we record. Devotional music, young bands, classical music, Sufi, ghazals and cross-over music plus new interpretation of old music are our major offerings   

The number for the total revenue from physical and digital sales is volatile and keeps changing  Any figure given today will not be applicable in the near future. Till a few years ago it was physical that was way ahead of digital, but today, both are running neck to neck with physical only marginally ahead. Digital is dynamic and it is difficult to predict because the swing in the medium is very sharp.

What is the kind of revenue you earn from public performance, since a catalogue like devotional does not lend to performance as such.

We have a huge international catalogue and the bulk of the music you listen to in clubs, malls and even public places in the cities is international music including and ranging from lounge to pop. Hence a large chunk of our international music catalogue is used widely in public performance.

What are the opportunities you foresee in the digital space?

Till recently, this was a 30-second cut-based medium. Digital was caller tunes in the past. It was not the user who consumed the music but others who listened to it. But going forward, India will be similar to other countries where people consume full tracks. In India consumers face several problems including low internet/broadband penetration and lack of high speed mobile networks.

In future, with 3G and broadband I perceive there will be a growth in full track services, streaming services and  manufacturers and providing  subsidized services. A good example is the Nokia Ovi music store, which has an excellent full track service that provides legal downloads at a certain price. It is encouraging people to sample millions of tracks and then download what they want.

Apart from these, the market for streaming services like Spotify also has great potential to cause a jump in consumption of full tracks. Increasingly, we will also see genres that are currently not doing well in the ring-back tone (RBT) world gathering pace,  and consumers becoming more active.

Why is EMI steering away from Bollywood music?

Bollywood is basically an acquisition game where you are not the creator of the content. You are just a buyer of the product over which your control is limited. It works on the principle of market forces. It is similar to an auction, and the number of people that can survive in such a market is limited.

At EMI we focus on content creation. I think it is better to take charge rather than be dependent  You must control your content. Bollywood music is one of the most powerful genres and wields tremendous influence on the music industry as a whole, your role is more of a distributor of music than contributor.

It must be frustrating to a label like yours that radio stations and television channels are so Bollywood-music-driven and give only a little or no airtime to non-film music.

We would rather focus on our strengths than brood over our limitations. We need to lend support to every new initiative that helps in promoting legal music on the digital front. We are recording 35 albums a year and acquiring new catalogues down South. We are planning to expand in several other markets, geography by geography  

In an average month we have at least 50 new releases, out of which 20 are Indian products. Some of these are absolutely new, while other are releases from labels that are now not active. From the International catalogue, we release around 30 albums between EMI and Warner, and the rest is imports. Though it is indeed a challenge to present international albums to a store where people do not understand English, it is a task that needs to be done: drive interest in a number of people.

Apart from this we also need to constantly come up with new products that will get the customers coming to the store. Your top products in a store cannot be old. You need to keep reinventing and refreshing.

How do you do this on digital stores?

There, we encourage music discovery. We try and encourage them to consume new products. On the Digital front, the  opportunity for music discovery and broadening of consumption is immense; much more than it is in the physical space

How are you marketing your products?

There are a few radio stations and tv channels that promote international music,  including Radio Indigo, AIR, VH1 and ZEE Caf?©. For international music fans, as of now, the internet is a major source of information and a large section of our international music-consuming audience is very active there. On our part, we create special platforms on music channels where there is a heightened promotion for the artiste for a month.

We also get ample visibility on print. All our big albums are covered by the major English dailies. No longer can one medium tap the market and bring the potential consumers.

We are not doing heavy-duty online marketing as of now apart from the usual Facebook updates. And for international music  product, point of sales visibility at stores is very important.

When do you see radio supporting your kind of genres?

I think it will be able to promote varied genres of music when the government will allow multiple stations per operator. That will help in promoting niche music.

What is the one big thing you believe the government should do to crack down on piracy?

Government as a regulatory authority needs to enforce laws, and the courts need to pass quick judgments. The industry on its part needs to keep lobbying. If the government cracks down on piracy then the industry will definitely grow, get bigger  But we music labels are not banking on that to forecast our revenues for the next year  We are doing what we can in our capacity as an industry. But as I said before, it is better to focus on our strengths and work towards them rather than brooding over things.

What is your take on the Copyright issue over FM royalty?

We believe content owners need to protect revenue, and any kind of legislation that infringes on the right to control content is unfavorable. If you make stuff mandatory to license and the fees decided are really small,  it means that you as an industry are not permitted to control your content.

What according to you would be fair share?

Right fair compensation is what we are asking for through PPL. There is a tariff that PPL publishes. In this subject, it would be prudent at this stage not to be making separate comments.

How do you go about breaking into a market like devotional which already has so many competitors?

The focus point here is creating differentiators, otherwise how will you work with an artiste who has already come up with several albums and is working with various other labels? One needs to know what competition has done in the space.

In the devotional space, people have certain beliefs that cannot be undone. So we need to create new sound in a different way or add a concept-driven idea with modern sounds. Pandit Jasraj and Jagjit Singh are some of the artistes we experimented with in terms of new ideas and sounds which worked well 

After which we targeted children via their parents. We came up with basic chants that the parents will want children to learn, which would also be enjoyable to the kids at the same time. It is very important to identify how the product needs to be placed and packaged and which track needs to be pushed. There are numerous differentiators we are experimenting with in devotional, classical, sufi music and others – the opportunities are endless and that challenge makes the creative process exciting . On the digital store front, also we keep encouraging them to draw people into experimentation and introduce them to new genres.

How do you see the music industry in the coming years?

Consumption of music is really big in the country. The basket of consumption is widening and the potential for growth is tremendous. Technology will soon offer services that will present substantial elements for a certain sum. This will happen in the next year or two: it's only a question of time. But that is the direction that the music industry will ultimately take to grow – driven by technology and growing consumption. There are no definitive answers, you must do what you think and believe is right in the light of your own experience, and then the market will take its own course.

Having looked forward, let's look back a bit, too. What are the key learnings you brought from your past assignments to your current profile, which have helped you in your functioning?

The initial phase of my career was spent on unconventional marketing assignments working on products that were, well, �new to the country'. After a brief stint in industrial marketing at Godrej, I moved on to launching the 3rd new product in the Eureka Forbes stable –the Euroair Air Purifier. This assignment turned around my thinking on marketing -- from textbook theory I got into the habit of speaking to consumers, observing consumers and getting into their mind. This probably shaped my approach to business – get to the bottom of things, understand how consumers think and act.

My next learning came from the launch in the mid-90's of the Real Value Vacumizer food preservation system – I saw marketing spends on an unprecedented scale for the time, but observed how it is the fundamentals and not money alone that works with new products 

A passion for the entertainment business led me to the music industry in January 1996, and I have remained there since. At Plus Music and at Times Music, I managed to test several of my theories, and these learnings will always stay with me. The industry has several unique features to it and the best learning comes from working on the key functions – sales, marketing and A&R. I was lucky in getting to work on these three areas directly in my initial four years in the music industry, and in subsequent assignments, it has always been easy to co-ordinate these three key arms of the business for best results.

What are the key beliefs that have helped you, and what is your management style?

Some of the things I believe in are: one, that Content is the core of our business. You need to get your content strategy right and you need to take personal accountability for it regardless of who you hire to support the function. Also, the Indian market is diverse with several opportunities – I believe that rapid growth in â€?content that works' is an imperative for all organizations in the music industry 

Two: Sales and marketing functions need to be sensitive to the nuances of the music product. I like to recruit people who enjoy music. And the next step is to train recruits to understand what consumers want and avoid the pitfall of going by personal preferences. You get this right and the team will deliver.

Three: The major functions in our business have creative differences all the time. It is important for the business head to ensure that the sales-marketing-A&R functions work with a level of mutual respect and with the full use of one another's insights.

The fourth is to do with discipline. Measure the impact of all that you do – revenues and cash must be tightly monitored. Good financial controls and a strong finance team maintain discipline in our industry. A creative business needs discipline as well – a strong finance team and supply chain are core to the business.

Number five on my list of strong bliefs is that win-win partnerships are very important. Our business makes it necessary to form partnerships in many areas of content delivery, creation etcetera. It is necessary to be fair and figure out a win-for-all to make long-term relationships work

Number six on my list is speed – think of what consumers want,  but think fast. Speed is absolutely mandatory in our industry to be â€?best in class'.

As for my management style, well… rather than talk of a management style, I would say that my role is to ensure that all of these are in place. And that we deliver these better than the competition.