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How a maker of knock-off Bollywood bands became the king of YouTube

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PewDiePie was in trouble.

The snarky Swedish internet sensation, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, had long been the distinction that he had the most subscribers on YouTube. Now he was about to be dethroned.

He complained to his "9-year-old army" – the youthful audience that devours images of him playing video games and jokes in color – that a new contender piled up subscribers at an unprecedented rate.

The threat was called an Indian production company T Series, whose 29 YouTube channels feature thousands of smoothly-produced Hindi music videos packed with thumping bass and bare skin.

The two operations exchanged the lead for weeks. On March 31, with around 100,000 subscribers, Kjellberg posted a diss-track with the name & # 39;Congratulations"- a four-minute rap video that contained a rule about Indians who have" poo-poo in their brains ".

T-Series persuaded a court to block the video in India on the grounds that it was racist, and a few weeks later it took an impressive lead. It now has 118 million subscribers, 16 million more than Kjellberg.

"Dheere Dheere", a cover from a classic Hindi movie song from 2015, became a hit for the T series. (YouTube)

"It was a childish war, but it helped us," said Neeraj Kalyan, the president of the company. "Now people around the world know what the T-series is."

What most people don't know is the story behind the T Series – how a family-owned company dominated deep-rooted rivals, legal challenges, dissatisfied artists, murderous gangsters and private tragedies on their way to Bollywood, as India & # 39; s productive entertainment industry is known .

The rap of PewDiePie, in its pinballing way, focused on the checkered origins of the studio:

Now you are number one, hope you didn't do anything wrong /

Like starting your business by selling piracy numbers.

(Shashank Bengali / Los Angeles Times)

In the 1970s, long before digital subscribers counted and social media wars, a young man named Gulshan Kumar led his father's record store in New Delhi and saw an opportunity to take advantage of a groundbreaking technology: the cassette tape.

Then, as now, the most popular music in India came from Hindi films, which are usually closer to music theater than Western cinema, with extensive song and dance sequences sandwiched in by-the-numbers plots. The arrival of cassette decks meant that customers could compile songs from different soundtracks on one cassette.

With hardly any copyright enforcement, record stores have dubbed and sold countless unlimited rip-offs from LP & # 39; s. The pudgy, curly-haired Kumar had a genius to anticipate and remove the mixbands that listeners wanted.

"You can't call it piracy because it happened in every store," said Kumar & # 39; s son, Bhushan, 41. "Everyone re-recorded a song and sold it."

Kumar founded the T-series in 1984 and within a few years had built an ultra-modern facility outside New Delhi that produced 80,000 cassettes per day.

Gulshan Kumar built the T-series from a record store in New Delhi in a giant Bollywood studio that now claims the most subscribers of every channel on YouTube.

Gulshan Kumar built the T-series from a record store in New Delhi in a giant Bollywood studio that now claims the most subscribers of every channel on YouTube.

(T-Series)

As the Indian authorities became more stringent in terms of copyright infringement, Kumar broke his following breakthrough: exploiting a loophole in copyright law that allowed producers to release cover versions of original numbers, only by notifying the licensee and a small pay compensation.

Kumar found little known singers and musicians who could perform pitch-perfect performances of beloved, growling Bollywood oldies. He brought the artists to his studio to record fresh versions in a clear, stereophonic sound, and sold the recordings – often the same name as the originals – for only a quarter of the price.

Suddenly, music from the T series was everywhere in the cities of India.

Tapes with the red T-Series logo were repaired on sidewalks, in tea stalls, at watch shops. Taxi drivers installed cassette decks and destroyed the new numbers with the windows turned down.

The number & # 39; Hawa Hawai & # 39; from the Bollywood movie from 1987 & # 39; Mr. India & # 39; with actress Sridevi, was an early hit for the T series. (YouTube)

"He made music much more easily available to the masses," says Smruti Koppikar, a long-standing journalist in Mumbai, the capital of Indian entertainment. "It was a mini revolution."

& # 39; Has he broken any rules? Yes, he has broken some rules. But he made the T-series out of the blue. & # 39;

Record companies have spent huge amounts on court cases, but could not delay the rise of the T-series.

By the end of the 1980s, 70% of the Indian music market would be controlled. The artists that Kumar plucked from the dark became stars and broke through the monopoly that a handful of singers had left the industry for decades.

"T-series was banned by the forces in the music industry," said Gautam Chintamani, a film historian. "They treated Gulshan Kumar as an outsider. He used that to his advantage and created this aura of an underdog. "

la-fg-t-series-youtube-03.JPG

Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif played the lead role in the film & # 39; Bharat & # 39; from 2019, produced by T-Series, which has grown from a music label to the largest film studio in India and the number 1 channel on YouTube.

(T-Series)

There were also other innovations. A devout Hindu – he attributed his success to the goddess Mata Vaishno Devi and said the & # 39; T & # 39; in the name of his company stood for the trident of Lord Shiva – Kumar was the first to bring recordings of devotional songs into the mainstream.

He also produced music in regional Indian languages, giving him access to more than half of the country for whom Hindi is not the native language.

But in 1994, things went too far for Kumar.

That year's blockbuster "Hum Aapke Hain Kaun" – "Who Am I to You", a healthy romantic comedy aimed at family marriage – had a soundtrack that every producer wished he had.

Kumar quickly went on the market with his own version that used the title of the original on the cover and imitated his color scheme and layout. He even recorded a photo of the stars of the film.

Column one

A showcase for fascinating stories from the Los Angeles Times.

The producer of the soundtrack, the Gramophone Co. from India, has filed a lawsuit. Kumar would not live to see the solution.

One morning in August 1997, the 41-year-old left a temple in Mumbai when three men shot 16 bullets in his neck and back.

It was the most sensational murder in Bollywood. While research in the national media was not flushed, it revealed the worst kept secret of the film industry: the growing influence of organized crime.

At a time when the socialist economy of India was opening up and film producers struggling to finance, underworld figures grabbed hold of money laundering.

Kumar staff said he had refused the demands of representatives of Dawood Ibrahim, India's notorious gangster, to pay nearly $ 4 million of his estimated $ 130 million fortune as protection money, according to Koppikar, who murdered a national magazine covered.

Bhushan Kumar said his father had received an impending call the day before he died.

"He still went to the temple without any security," he said. "He believed that," if something happens to me, it's just because God wants me. "

An Ibrahim employee eventually confessed to the murder and is serving a life sentence.

Control of the company was in the hands of Bhushan Kumar, who was then 19 and led a privileged life with exotic cars and foreign vacations.

"He wanted me to enjoy my childhood like he never could," Bhushan Kumar recalled.

T-Series chairman Bhushan Kumar

T-Series chairman Bhushan Kumar took over India's largest music label at the age of 19, when his father, Gulshan Kumar, was murdered in 1997.

(T-Series)

T-Series struggled to maintain its priority. In 1998, a Delhi court ruled against the company in the soundtrack case and laid the foundation for stricter regulations that put an end to the ability to massively market cover numbers.

It took years for management to return with a whole series of original films and albums. However, a new threat emerged in 2007: YouTube.

The largest video sharing platform in the world went online in India the next year and T-Series, like other media companies, soon found its songs on the site without permission.

T-Series, so long accused of stealing the work of others, sued YouTube for – yes – copyright infringement. The legal battle ended in a settlement in 2011. The company soon launched its first YouTube channel and began digitizing its huge music library.

The song "Nimboda Nimboda" was adapted from a North Indian folk melody for the 1999 film "Hum Dil De Chuke Saman". The soundtrack of the T-series is one of the most popular Bollywood albums of recent decades. (YouTube)

The clips attracted middle-class viewers until 2016, when India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, launched a telecommunications service called Jio that offered fast, almost free internet on mobile phones.

The "Jio effect" has doubled the number of Indians online to nearly 600 million, half of which in rural areas. This huge population of new users, addicted to music and films, is reforming the digital world. Three of the 10 most subscribed channels on YouTube now come from India.

"Up to now, Indians have been in villages on the fringes of the internet economy," said Kalyan, president of the T series. "Now they are experiencing it for the first time, and that means an explosion of consumption on different media."

When YouTube started, it was largely a platform for quirky solo journalists and crazy clips for pets. Now it is increasingly ruled by media companies.

Fans regret that independent stars have little hope to keep up. Or, as PewDiePie said in his diss track: "I think you have to beat a Swedish boy, you need a billion Asians."

T-Series channels include Hindi and regional music, children's programming, religious songs and fitness. The total number of subscribers overshadows that of Justin Bieber (47 million), Ed Sheeran (43 million) and Taylor Swift (36 million).

The company has launched a new generation of stars. Guru Randhawa, a 28-year-old singer who signed for the T series in 2016, saw his & # 39; s collect more than 5 billion views.

Indian singer Guru Randhawa worked with the Cuban American star Pitbull on the hit & # 39; Slowly Slowly & # 39; in 2019 (YouTube)

Randhawa, the son of a veterinarian, combines American hip hop with the bhangra sounds from his birthplace Punjab. This year he collaborated with Cuban American rapper Pitbull on the song & # 39;Calm down. "

The video they made in Miami shows Randhawa dressed in a tuxedo and the sample kara bracelet favored by men of the Sikh faith, partying with Pitbull in a waterfront bungalow full of scantily clad models.

Randhawa described the collaboration as the type of flashy hit that defines the T series.

"I've never given anyone else songs," Randhawa said. “All record companies call me. When a music app is started, they come to me. I always tell them the same thing: "I'm with the T series. It's like family."

Singer Jubin Nautiyal, left, and Romika Sharma in a still from the video clip for & # 39; Humnava Mere & # 39 ;.

Singer Jubin Nautiyal, left, and Romika Sharma in a still from the video clip for & # 39; Humnava Mere & # 39 ;, a single produced by the Indian studio T-series and recorded in Venice, Italy.

(T-Series)

The duel with PewDiePie has earned a lot of hype, but corporate officials say they are more focused on total views, which determine how much advertising revenue YouTube videos & # 39; s earn. T-Series has long been number 1 in that statistic, with an average of 2.9 billion views per month in the past year, according to Tubular Labs, which collects public data. The closest competitor is called a children's rhyme Cocomelon, with 2.5 billion monthly views.

T-series officials refused to disclose specific figures, but from the total revenue of $ 153 million last year, revenues from digital platforms, including YouTube, reached tens of millions of dollars.

T-Series president Neeraj Kalyan

T-Series President Neeraj Kalyan is being photographed in the company's offices in Noida, outside of New Delhi.

(Shashank Bengali / Los Angeles Times)

Kalyan said the market extends far beyond India, with around 40% of opinion from abroad.

Working from an industrial park outside of Delhi, where YouTube's trophies and plaques are in the corridors, a dozen employees upload new music videos & movie trailers almost daily while T-Series expands the largest song catalog in Bollywood – 180,000 tracks – and produces the same amount as 20 films per year.

Next year, megastar Aamir Khan will play the lead role in the biopic & # 39; Mogul & # 39 ;, which producers describe as an example for a man who has changed the Indian entertainment industry forever: Gulshan Kumar.

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