A Tête-À-Tête With Ditto Music’s Country Manager – Gautam Sarkar

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Recently in Mumbai, I got the chance to meet the Business Starwalt – Gautam Sarkar, Business Head/Country Manager South Asia at Ditto Music Ltd. With over 40 years of experience in the music industry, and working with companies such as EMI India, CBS Records, Sony Music, Magnasound, BMG Records and now Ditto Music – I wanted to have a conversation and learn more about him and his thoughts on the future.

Talking about his journey in the music industry, Gautam Sarkar shared, “I did my schooling in Kolkata, my parents were based in Delhi, and I was born in Shillong. My dad was in airlines, so we moved around quite a bit. I was staying in a hostel in Kolkata. I did my college in Delhi, South Campus – Economics and wanted to do my masters as well in Economics, but I couldn’t get through and I eventually ended up doing Sociology. However, after two semesters – I dropped out and started applying for jobs. I was contemplating an MBA and wanted to go to Rutgers. My father told me to figure it out myself and be independent – even though he could afford it. Delhi wasn’t a hub for jobs back in the ’80s, so I ended up in Kolkata. I joined a company at that time that happened to be EMI India and picked up the job as a trainee and worked for a year. It was an absolute monopoly back then and we Delhi people being very impatient – I left the job!

I later joined Indian Hotels ‘TAJ’ run by the TATA group and landed in Mumbai. After two months of my job, I was drafted to Chennai from Mumbai overnight. So for the first 14 days, I was staying at a chamri (bachelors hostel) and used to cry about being transferred to Chennai. I wrote back to my MD and asked to be drafted from Chennai to any place else but, a few months down the line, I was used to the rhythm of the hotel and work. I ended up exploring the underground scene in Chennai and was quite happy which led to a good tenure in Chennai for three years. I got a call from Pankaj Bali from the Sales and Marketing team that I will have to move out of TAJ. I was quite taken aback and asked why so – and he told me that there was a request for my transfer from the Bombay House from Ratan Tata’s Office and that I have to move from Chennai and join one of his new startups. He did a collaboration with CBS records which a lot of people don’t know about which later on became Sony Music. I was the only guy in the system with a music background and wasn’t really left with a choice but to join them in Bombay. I waited for a few days for somebody from the TATA group to show up and talk details in person, but that didn’t happen. One day I got a call from a guy in NELCO (TATA’s Electronic Division) that he was referred to meet me, so I joined NELCO at the time for two years, where we were handling the distribution for CBS records. But soon we realized that the model wasn’t working out as NELCO’s expertise was not Physical Distribution of Music. We had a meeting with Ratan Tata and sons, and within 5 mins it was decided that the distribution would be covered by Lakmé (an FMCG model), which was in the same building as TATA.

A year down the line, even they came forth and announced that it wasn’t their cup of tea. After a lot of speculation, we decided to go direct and see how it pans out for us. While we tried doing it for a while, R.L.Pandit swooped in and created PAN Music. While this was happening, Sony Music made an offer to CBS for a buy-out. PAN Music took over distribution for Sony Music during the transition for three years till Sony took over entirely in India. Once that happened, we all decided to move out and form Magnasound. I took a little time and stayed with PAN music and joined them eventually after a year and moved to Kolkata. After sometime Suresh got the BMG license and I followed him where we ended up doing business for a long time. Eventually, Sony bought over BMG, and we weren’t too keen on being a part of the deal and ended up joining Saregama in 2007. I joined them in the digital space with the help of Atul Churmani’s guidance. Mobiles were just coming up, and I decided to take care of that sector. Somewhere in 2012, I decided to move out and got myself a job in Nigeria in an FMCG – Imperial Leather. After working there for a while and finding it challenging to accommodate my family there, I decided to come back to Delhi and went to the Saregama office where they asked me to lead their Project on Movies on demand. I started doing my due diligence and began obtaining banks and licenses for the hardware and software without owning any film content. Through this, we were able to get three contracts.

Knowing myself, I was again getting tired of the work in India, and they asked me to go and work from America. After trying for months and three rejections on my business visa, I came back to India, and they asked me to clean up space by downsizing the company. After doing that, I was the conduit between Sony-DADC and Saregama. Eventually, I was moved into publishing full time, and then Vikram came in and changed the entire set up and got in somebody else to head the publishing. I was made in charge of the IP Asset Management and told me to dig into the issues relating to Producers, Royalties, and so on. In 2017, finally, I got an offer from Ditto and was asked if I would be interested. I joined them and started working with them on Regional Music. I steered away from Bollywood due to oversaturation in the market, as well as the difficulty of attaining all licenses. I started working with Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Gujrati, Bengali and now working on other languages as well. We are also now creating our original content with Punjabi, Bengali and Qawali Music and gained access from the regional players to take their music outside India as well. So yes – that is my musical story in a nutshell.

With an Industry experience of 40 years and wearing different hats across that time, Gautam seems to be the perfect person to learn about the changes and growth in the Industry. He shared, “It was a Monopoly back in the ’80s with not much to do again then, but now the business has become very transparent. The ideology behind doing business has changed, which also allows for ownership of one’s decisions be public knowledge. Another thing that is better in today’s age is the royalties the artists collect. Earlier they weren’t paid and struggled because of that. But today there is structure, there is a royalty deal, there is a society, there is a process which makes it comfortable for the artists. Earlier when there were physical sales – you would feel it in the market, whereas in today’s age – if a song does millions of view, no one really feels it in the market. Where is the hook? It’s growing, it’s vibrant but, woh mazaa nahi aa raha hai! Technology has caused this loss of warmth in the Industry, so to speak. But it’s also good, don’t get me wrong. There are so many revenue streams now. There is such a huge market outside India that has now opened up. An exciting time to be in!

I believe Podcasts have really changed the game. I spoke to my boss, and we decided to something in that space. I did my research, reached out to certain book publishers and learnt what works or doesn’t work, and now we have the rights to 1500 titles all over the world in perpetuity! So we are launching our podcasts on all streaming platforms soon, plus we got over 16 pilots on the road in different genres. So, that is definitely a good revenue model. But the consumption of podcasts in India is still not monetized to it’s potential, and the push should be for paid subscriptions rather than freemium subscriptions.

Talking about working with International Labels like BMG and now DITTO, I asked if he found a difference in Indian and International Labels, to which he shared, “Over here the difference is that we are not yet an organized market, but we are getting there. The main problem is that wherever you go, they (Indian Labels) all ask for advances. Once that stabilizes a bit, the market will definitely grow faster.

Speaking about Ditto’s share only in Regional Music space, not Bollywood, Gautam added, “For Bollywood, you will have to acquire the catalogue. All the movies are already sold to the big banners till 2023. You will have to wait for an off-bait, or an underground film takes off, and you will have to gamble, and we don’t want to do that. Regional music is, on the other hand growing. Especially in Tier-2, Tier-3 cities – thanks to Jio’s data, we all know that is the ultimate area to be in right now. Once India is taken care of, then I will move into Bangladesh – thanks to the commonality between the language of East and West Bengal. I have Sri Lanka also, which is Tamil.

Talking about the future trends to watch out for, Gautam finished off by saying, “Internationally, Dance Music has a substantial market share, around 16-17% around the world, which is quite a large chunk and is growing and I think in India we are willing to come out of the playback mentality and work on more non-film music and focus on shows, festivals. A lot of other platforms have come up now. Festivals have really empowered indie artists by giving them the audience and opportunity. I think all the labels should also be backing the royalty societies and it should be made compulsory. For a successful Industry, we need to have certain structures in place. I think if you were to look at China 10 years ago and now, you would know where we are lacking. We need to focus on those opportunity areas.

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