EXCLUSIVE | Soumini Sridhara Paul, Hungama ArtistAloud: Democratizing music through content, engagement

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In an exclusive interaction, Soumini Sridhara Paul, Senior Vice President – Hungama Artist Aloud and Hungama Kids, speaks about the decade-long journey of Artist Aloud, its pioneering efforts in the music industry, how it hones artists and how it has evolved. Soumini also discusses key industry trends such as the rise of Audio OTT, podcasts, the growth of independent and regional artists, AI’s role in music, and more. Read on.

Soumini is a versatile, strategic end-to-end, brand custodian with expertise in building start-ups, brands, operations, and revenue. She has more than two decades of experience in the entertainment industry including television and digital media across music, talent, animation, fiction, and non-fiction categories, with exposure to the global market.                                          
Soumini has spearheaded the set-up of Hungama Artist Aloud, and is also the Head of Operations and Content Development for Kids and other channels on YouTube. She also leads special-content creation and event IP projects for Hungama including brand solutions and CSR initiatives.

The state of the music industry is, bad! No physical sales and releases through labels or musical hardware. Radio is suffering, is in losses, streaming has eaten into everything else. So, give us an overview of the state of the music, audio industry today. 

We live in nostalgia. We like to revel in the past and romanticize about what has been and what was, whether it is Indie-pop culture or Bollywood. Back in the day, when Pop culture was big, things were different. Those were exciting times for the industry.

Television was playing a big role in converting or steering popular culture into mainstream culture. Content was easily available, and people had the wherewithal and freedom to look at content and purchase.

But today, things are different. It’s all very democratic. Artists put out music any time they want and that affects consumption. Consumption of content is not equal to the revenue they collect. Can you imagine that today, Bollywood is in OTT only!

How do you determine which content, artist to back when all sort of content is readily available for the audience? What are the stakes here?

In my opinion, the parameter will always be ‘listener engagement’. For instance, in the good old days, you had platinum records and gold records – based on which we could give it a certain title.

Further on, it was how many CDs were sold or how many people came to watch them in concerts. Today, you look at what is happening in the digital space. The entire concept of influencer marketing has mushroomed into different aspects.

It has categories like nano-influencers who have just 10,000 followers making a huge difference for brands. So, at the end of the day, the definition of what is working and what is worth backing is very relevant.

Over the years as the concept of digital fan following is growing, we are witnessing a lot of players going back to engagement. Those are becoming truly relevant rather than just showing several followers and that is, what I think that is going to be a benchmark to see whether something is worth backing or not.

When we interact with artists for brands, the first question we get from a brand is, are these numbers authentic, what are the engagement numbers, how many likes, how many comments.

What are the offerings of Hungama Artist Aloud like, today? List out both and share what kind of promise do they hold for the company, and in terms of relevance for consumers, creators and labels and other stakeholders that they serve?

Let me give a background on why we believe there is a need for a platform like this. Or rather more of an opportunity than a need. The entire music industry from the late ’90s to the late 2000s went through a 180-degree turn.

Whether from the fact that there was no original content and then suddenly there were a lot of artists who became extremely popular. They started making money through shows where they performed. In fact, the whole events field came on the back of the fact that there were lots of demands happening.

So, when you look at the late 2000s when we saw that while music didn’t die, the whole business model and approach to commercializing music was becoming non-existent. All focus was on TV and Bollywood. So, artists were continuing to make content because that is the only thing they knew and that is when we realized that there is an opportunity because artists have always wanted to put out their content as an official release.

They had social media platforms but at the end of the day, any artist does not feel they are really an artist unless you have an official release or an establishment that allows you to say that you are worth putting out copies for people to purchase your content. That is where the whole premise of a platform like Artists Aloud came in and of course, the parent company Hungama Digital India has the infrastructure for it.

Having said that, we never refer to ourselves as a label. A label is meant to discover and groom talent and make a product out of them that can be commercially exploited. Here we rely on the fact that you are an artist, you have decided to sell your art and you need an avenue to do that.

An artist does not look at himself as a commodity, and unless you start doing that, you are not going to make money out of yourself. It’s like any product, in the sense that unless people connect with the brand. They won’t buy it. And if that wasn’t the case there wouldn’t have been so much money put in advertising.

They are just trying to get recall factor and that is what every talent needs to look at themselves doing. We wanted to enable that. When you start a business of any kind, unfortunately, to sustain it you must look at how to grow it. That is where we must keep ensuring we keep acquiring more talent.

Some artists stayed, some left, but the result here is that the platform has been created with the intention that if you are someone who has a talent, we have the capability of commercializing it.

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What’s Hungama Artist Aloud’s Business Model today, your competition, and where do you stand vis a vis the rest in the Indian market? 

When we started off, we expected to be present only in content distribution. That was in 2010 and there wasn’t much revenue by doing just content distribution. It made us realize that Hungama at the end of the day was not doing anything on its own to create revenue for content distribution.

It was the producer of the film or production house that was doing it to amplify. Hungama was almost a derivative of all that marketing. For example, when T-Series would promote a film and say CRBT available on 54646, that is what was resulting in people downloading that song.

Hungama only had to make sure that the content was available so when T-series promoted that, people would know where to download it from. But when it came to independent music, we had to do it all by ourselves.

When we launched, we had 30 artists and believed that this was a good number. But, as I said, the media was filled with television actors and Bollywood and there was no interest for them. We had to learn pretty much to not only sustain ourselves but also grow the business. Our focus has always been that unless we are alive, we can’t do anything to better the field.

That is where we started adding more verticals. Content acquisition continues to be a big part of it and we started going into marketing services where we realised that if this person is deciding to be an artist and is selling his or her content then it is pretty much up to the artist on how the image is built.

So, we all earn partnerships in our community to add value to that. It’s a service that we are providing and our justification for this is that if you are going to invest in creating your product, your art, why would you stop at investing in yourself.

Five years back, we went into venue programming. We started programming restaurants and bars where artists can perform. This is how we have constantly evolved. We essentially exist across applications, marketing services and content and digital IPs.

Hungama Artist Aloud pioneered the concept of Appointment Viewing. How has that helped the brand and the artists?

We were the first ones to start that. We had a platform like YouTube, that said watch the trailer at 4 pm which was unheard of because YouTube came across as a VOD platform and not content-driven.

We launched a property called WebCert, where the intention was to do live streaming on a particular day and time. Those were very early days and no one thought of sitting in front of a computer and watch something live on their machine. We ourselves were using dongles to live stream. That was the sort of connection that we had.

It was always to look beyond the challenge and work around it, improvise and get a solution. Rather than looking at the challenge and thinking it’s not possible, we always channelized our energies to think out of the box and come up with new ideas.

That helped us in collaborating with brands. If we look at the scenario today, everybody is doing that now! All digital platforms are doing it. It’s now diluted and become commonplace.

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What are your plans for Artist Aloud’s 11th anniversary? And what are your plans for the 12th year and the future?

If I were to summarize, then I would say that the first 9 years were quite challenging. It was a huge test. I believe the only reason we could stayed was because we just kept at it, continued to work on it. We did not stop or take breaks. We kept adding more features in the parent companies.

The 10th year was brilliant. What we have done for 9 years culminated in a very big project for McDowell, which was the No.1 Yaari Jam. It was meant for us because everything we did till then felt like we had been preparing for it. It was great! The past year has been a nightmare for everyone universally. And just like always, as a Digital Company, we have continued to re-invent it.

We got to see many projects fructify that we had been working on. Some of them are in the initial stage to talk about. The two exciting things are – We are completing revamping the Artist Aloud app and site.

We are coming back with interesting features and elements that will hopefully be a game-changer. Additionally, I have been working on expanding Artist Aloud into other territories. These two things are going to be a big focal point for the next 6- 12 months!

Talking about 2020, were there any trends in listenership? Has the consumption pattern changed?

The biggest trend was the number of releases one saw in the non-film space. Across the board, for multiple players and not just us. While we continue to stay active and competitive in the aggregation stage. The good thing about competition is that it establishes an ecosystem.

We were the only ones when we started and had to build the ecosystem that we had to use. Today, the artists have a choice in deciding where he wants to go and how he wants to position himself. As far as consumption goes, we have been having assessing the download or streaming numbers that we see month on month, and it is quite humbling and exciting to see that people are listening.

It means that they are ready to listen to new sounds and I think, in one sense, Spotify has encouraged people to listen to new sounds. There is a very thin line between a mainstream act and independent music. I don’t think it is going to give Bollywood a run for its money but I think this is the time when artists need to look at how they can capitalize on the possible attention that they can get if they have got the right music and if they take the effort to promote it.

It is all very democratic, and power lies in the hands of the media consumer. It’s simple. while you may have decided to be an artist, it is up to me as a consumer whether I want to listen to you or not.

You must make yourself available and be visible. Only then can you vouch for my attention as a consumer or listener or audience. If an Amitabh Bachchan can do it even now, I don’t see why other artists should shy away from it. We cannot slot ourselves anymore., we need to put ourselves out there and take it forward from thereon.

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What will be the trends that will propel the growth of the audio OTT industry in India? And apart from more representation what other opportunities are there? And how is AI inserting itself into the music industry? 

AI is something that everyone is talking about but struggling to get into action. I might sound naive, but I don’t think consumers will understand if something is AI-driven. It all needs to be seen how the OTT apps are going to evolve.

I think many of the mainstream players have moved into the podcast space. From what I have heard, a large part of it is because they are trying to reduce their dependency on music and music rights and the kind of payment requirement. But I think podcast is a very mature term. It is not something that is going to catch on, it cannot be the only form of content. There must be a mix.

Another thing everyone is getting into is looking up the smaller sounds of background music. As far as OTT is concerned we already have a well-set way of looking at Punjabi and Tamil, they were aggressively supported.

We saw Hungama doing a lot on Punjabi space. So, I think right now everyone is trying to keep themselves alive and there is a huge dependence on Bollywood because it is what creates the music attention. For everything – a lot of hard work and time needs to be spent.

Can you name the top artists from Artist aloud that are popular and your favorite?

One of them continues to be Emiway Bantai. He has been around for 2 years and he continues to gain attention and popularity. I think he is a phenomenon no one can replicate. Besides that, we have a bunch of artists that have had big moments.

The Coke Studio continues to do well, the four seasons of that. Our focus on the platform has been more towards discovering and hand-picking the right content to put out. So, we have never been caught into this whole thing that we need only the popular people.

Most people would want to latch on to the names and say we have all of these, but for us, it has always been about ensuring that any content we are putting out is quality content. We will do the background work to make sure consumers get to hear good quality content. Another thing that we want to explore is opening more forms of content besides music. That is going to be another focus that we will be looking at for 21/22.

How has 2020 been for Hungama Kids!, how did the pandemic impact the kids’ genre?

We have seen gradual growth on that. It has been very organic right now. We were going through a large revamp on the film that we had put out. So, we wanted to get that to go live. Currently, it’s live on android and we are waiting for the IOS to go live as well.

The big focus from an OTT point of view for us is going to be about just building brand awareness and we have reached about 25000-30000 registered users who have purchased the subscription and bothered to look at the content.

We feel good! We need to look at kids’ space in totality. We all know that the kids are now online. We have seen growth across the board. As a platform, we are focusing on short-duration and age-orientated content. We have built a top-of-mind recall for our brand and we can surely speak about the numbers.

What are your learnings from lockdown?

I feel grateful. Every day is an opportunity to wake up and just be able to do new things. I feel grateful that I am able to work with a company that is so digitally driven that life didn’t have to stop. We started working from home two weeks before the first lockdown happened.

More importantly, it is a learning for everyone that, we keep telling ourselves that nothing is impossible. But it is ironic that if it is the only way possible, it just gets done without any hurdle. I have started to focus on my own health, just trying to ensure that I don’t land up being ill, so my body loses immunity.