India: A Seriously Strange Music Market

If you’re perplexed by the absurdities of the music industry in, say, the United States, then consider India.

At Musexpo on Monday, Indian entrepreneur Vijar Nair described a situation that involves 1.2 billion inhabitants, something like one download store, and a ragingly-successful ringback tone industry.  Here are some of the stranger aspects.

“It’s a spectacularly bizarre market, in terms of the way people consume music.”

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(1) People routinely use their phones to call their favorite music (seriously).

“People actually call in a number and listen to radio.  People do it across the country… and that just works.”

(2) There isn’t much streaming.

“We really don’t have any of the streaming services.  There are some which have a lot of Bollywood content, that’s about it.”

(3) Actually, there isn’t much of anything, in terms of paid music.

“It’s the reason piracy is so high in India, because you won’t take our money, it’s as simple as that.  And it’s really silly, because everyone knows that India and China are growing.”

“Between all the major labels it just hasn’t happened…”

(4) Ringback tones eclipse every other form of music monetization – combined.

“People don’t really download music, they just set a song as a ringback tone.  So if I call you I get a song.  That product makes four times the money as the entire music industry put together.”

(5) If your product gets a million users, it’s a failure.

“The market is so huge, you can put any kind of a product out there and a million people will use it.  And a million people typically means your product has been a failure, because of the pure size of the market.  It’s at about 850 million mobile connections right now, and it’s still growing.”

“So the way things are consumed is very different.  At this conference I’ve listened to a lot of conversations about streaming and how it would work, but it’s completely the other end of the spectrum in India, and I know it’s the same in China as well.”


8 Responses

  1. GarageSpin

    Quite a challenge. I just distributed a cover version of “Why This Kolaveri Di (New York version)” on iTunes and other services, and realize now, it may never reach anyone in India… Bummer.

    • Visitor

      how can you realize that never reach anyone in India.

  2. Seth Keller

    My wife’s family is from South India, which might as well be a different country from the North where Mumbai and Delhi are–very different cultures and even different primary languages (Tamil and Telegu vs. Hindi in the North).

    I was there in December 2009. Talking with a few of the family members in their early 20s, I was told that no one buys music but these kids did download music from pirate sites and load mp3s onto their phones. They did the bulk of their downloading overnight because I was told that bandwidth was throttled during daytime hours.

    Everyone there had a cell phone–from poor villagers on up. Cell service was fantastic there. I was on a farm in the middle of nowhere and had extremely fast browsing speeds on my blackberry tour (only phone verizon offered at the time that could be used outside the US for email/browsing)–much faster than the speed anywhere I used it in the US…maybe twice as fast.

    On the flipside, the electricity went out at least once a day–typically in the afternoon. Not great for any music service or listening experience tied to an electrical outlet.

    If you’re dealing with regional and national cultures that aren’t accustomed to paying for music and are really centered around mobile, the system that might make the most sense would be building in a fee per month for listening to music into mobile plans and pay-as-you go mobile fees. Even at pennies per month for 850M users you’re talking 100s of millions in revenue.

    • Nithya R.

      Spot on, Seth. I was raised here, but my family hails from Tamil Nadu in South India.

      Another thing I noticed amongst my cousins (especially the ones in their teens and early 20’s) are that cells are a total status/fashion statement. They can be items of envy and people are constantly upgrading their phones, nearly 2-4 times a year. The phones available there blow the ones here out of the water. The sound quality is remarkable, as is the video.

      The term “download” is pretty much unheard of..

  3. JH

    I’ve worked at two different indie labels now that stopped distributing music in India (and Africa) because what happens is we sell the product, they (the distro) take the product, and immediately its pirated in physical form and our version is useless.

    Otherwise, I’m sure there is room for tapping and educating. Maybe opening a Tower Records? 🙂

  4. @giusysantoro

    The term “download” is pretty much unheard!!!