| 13 Apr 2024
Times Music's Mandar Thakur talks about new territories for the record label business

A very interesting and insightful discussion on the current scenario of record labels and streaming services took place at The Exchange. Times Music COO Mandar Thakur, who was on the panel, spoke about how the record label business today is 'Work in Progress', and the business model has to constantly evolve. Record labels, music distribution companies and streaming services are all intertwined in the music ecosystem today and have to function together. Streaming services take the centre stage of music consumption today and contribute a great deal to the record labels. In this interaction with, Thakur talks about the current state of the record labels, new business avenues, and the relationship between distribution companies and streaming companies.

In The Exchange panel discussion you mentioned that Times Music is focussing on other sources of revenue? Can you elaborate what these avenues are?

All record labels are focussing on other forms of revenue. Recorded music sales certainly aren’t just enough to keep the gas burning for anyone, not even for the artists. These may vary from label to label, some have gotten into artist management, some are creating music festivals/events, some even do stuff outside of movies in other genres like kids’ entertainment, comedy, etc. At Times Music we are also on a well evolved path and believe in taking one step at a time. We have been focussing very deeply over the last few years to create a global industry, grade, digital and music publishing distribution system, back end, global relationships, to exploit digital and music publishing catalogues, and a great marketing machinery that, apart from another label or so, is unparalleled. Now we will focus on some other business streams, namely, the talent management business and the business of branded music. We already have Times Living – which is our ‘wellness’ vertical that has been in existence way before the wellness trend started here.

You mentioned that streaming services are critical, but also mentioned they are not the only source of revenue? How much of your revenue in percentage terms comes from streaming?

Times Music is a privately held company hence I am unable to break out any numbers. But to give you an indication, streaming certainly contributes a decent and quick growing percentage of our income. The growth picks up every year. Unfortunately, streaming companies yet have a large learning curve ahead in terms of analytics, and here everyone chases Bollywood music. That creates a radio like effect of having the same music out everywhere, hence keeping the industry size same for many years. We need to learn to have a more data-driven approach to music programming and curation and push heavy genre classification.

You also had a view on the value of a song, with streaming becoming the most popular way of consuming music. In your opinion has the value of the song/artist decreased as it costs hardly anything?

I am not a big believer of free music and the fact that everyone wants it free. Subscription music services, iTunes, Netflix, etc., would not be around as businesses valued in the billions if that were true. People want value. Today the fight is not about people not wanting to pay for music. For the consumer it’s about what will stretch your rupee more. In an era of no internet and social networking and no retail and no mobiles etc., all people had was music to bring back their emotions and memories and moments and phases in life. Now we have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., that give us instant gratification. Especially when music is available today in a commoditized form, there will be a certain value that will depreciate, that’s about it. So people have started consuming more live music, that sector will grow.  People want music in a more ‘visual’ mode – hence the growth of YouTube and the MCNs and the like. All this is great, because for a content owner, the more the vehicles to reach consumers, the better it is.  We have a very human habit of judging everything by our own standards and do not look at pre-teens and generations below us to understand what those kids want, how they will consume and shape our businesses accordingly for the future. I have publicly said years ago and I still stand by it, that piracy or rather the creators of P2P networks etc., forced the music industry to grow up and embrace a consumer and technology first current culture. That is why we are still in business  

Do you feel that record labels should have their own distribution capability? Or are record labels/Times Music very much dependent on distribution companies?

That depends on the size, content and the ambition of the record label. At Times Music, we take an extremely progressive approach, and in many cases distribute directly, while in many cases also have the technical aspect of distribution done by experts like The Orchard. In any case, we still maintain a direct relationship with all the digital music services globally and locally for programming and curation of our content and for the very significant marketing advantages and opportunities that Times Music brings to the table, hence we are able to exploit these revenue lines better . It is of prime importance for anyone looking to get into their own distribution game to understand technology, deep metadata, formats and requirements of collection societies, publishers, digital distributors etc., across the globe, and have serious back-end capabilities. Distribution is now a man’s game and size of repertoire and operations is critical to decide whether to – or – not to.

Anyone can place anything on iTunes or YouTube. That certainly is no rocket science. It is the experience of operatives handling all those verticals, relationships with the digital companies, CMS functionalities, metadata, linkages with social media, cross pollination, superior operations, and the sheer tremendous marketing actions after that point that contribute to revenue growth.

How many distribution companies does Times Music work with, both Indian and International?

Times Music works with many digital services directly, and in many cases we have technical distribution done by The Orchard for several years now. They are a great company to work with. Like I said before, in all cases we spearhead the programming, curation and the marketing of our content ourselves. Digital aggregation and distribution companies will not bring marketing strengths to the table. The roles and the expectations are quite well defined in this business. So labels certainly have the onus to market and promote their own content. At a core level – I’d say we are one of the few companies with almost 100 percent coverage of the digital services globally.

On the music publishing side, we are registered with and work with a collection societies across the world and with individual sub-publishers in multiple countries, almost 12 to 13 of them. In fact, the other way around, we represent two of the world’s largest music publishers in India – Warner Chappell and Peer Music.

There was lot of discussion on independent artists, is Times Music now actively looking for independent artists from the country?

This would be a question I’d say yes to in 1998. But since then, which was before my time here, and ever since I’ve been here, Times Music has been the pinnacle of independent artists .We work with the tent pole acts in almost all genres and also with some rank newcomers. Recent and past albums have included works by Indian Ocean, Papon, Midieval Punditz, Gaurav Raina, The SkaVengers, Mekaal Hassan Band, Suraj Jagan, and many many more. We sparked the remix era a few years ago with a couple other record labels. Today we also have a brand new act that we’ve signed up, Achint. His is the most progressive video for a new act in his genre. What we are most keen on are songwriters who can understand the difference in writing a good song and writing a hit song. We’d be very happy to work with more writers

In India, ‘Indie’ has become a very ‘social status’ term. I actually hate that word. So if you’re not a cool band, or act and even if you’re independent in some other genre, nobody will call you Indie, you’ll be a ‘new artist‘. There are no genres ever in my mind. And like a mentor of mine once famously said, there’s just good music or bad music

Do you see any demand for Indian independent music abroad for sync or performance rights?

Not much at this stage, to be honest, and I say that with some confidence, as we’re probably the only label/publisher from here so deeply involved with sync in many countries. Although having said that, we did garner a sync deal for the SkaVengers from Russia. However isolated deals are not much of a sign of demand. With more evolved writing – there is certainly bound to be some demand at the right time.

Over the years, the music industry landscape has drastically changed. How profitable is the record label business in India today? Do labels still hold the same importance as in the past before the digital era?

Labels certainly have a fairly large role in the ecosystem to play still. The question is whether they will play the same role or a different or increased role vis-à-vis their specialty areas. It also has to be seen if every label has what it takes to grow ahead, and that’s nobody’s fault, these are indeed very challenging times for the recorded music industry wherein we are seeing the playground change every day.  This digital era thing is a big myth among the have-nots in the music industry who may still like to believe that labels as a business are redundant today. The fact of the matter is that the business models are redundant and every music business will eventually merge and morph into the other. That is just normal evolution that every industry sees and adapts to. Profitability is a light that everyone’s still chasing, but if you’re a bit conservative on head-end costs and manage your operations better, then perhaps a tiny amount of profitability can still be squeezed out.