Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why is OkListen so important to Indian indie music? Founder Vijay Basrur explains

Vijay Basrur was a man who had spent years working in start ups and burgeoning companies like, INOX, Quikr and Synqua and was passionate about music. He was aware of the growing community of musicians in India who regularly put out high quality music that wasn't available in mainstream outlets.

Once he decided to buy some music from Indian rock act Them Clones. Realizing the CD wasn't available anywhere, he sent a tweet to the band who couriered him a copy. Vijay wasn't home and missed the delivery. There has got to be a better way, Vijay thought to himself, and instead of just posting a Facebook status about it, he decided to change the situation by launching a site where artists could put their CDs up for sale and hope to make money. The site Vijay started is called

There are quite a few sites that sell Indian music digitally (like say Flyte). OkListen is entirely oriented to independent musicians only - artists who create music outside of a studio or corporation (Sony, EMI) that packages production and distribution. This is a great way for artists to reach audiences. Its also an excellent way for popular artists to create artist-owned music that comes straight from the heart (as opposed to say, the trailer of a movie).

When I used OkListen recently to buy an album (Siddharth Basrur's Chasing Rain) I found the experience to be  a really good one. I loved the site's clean design, easy accessibility to key features and the entire checkout experience was awesome. I decided to catch up with Vijay (no relation to Siddharth - he does get asked that question a lot) and ask him about more about how OkListen works.

Vijay, I love the concept behind your site. I really like the singular purpose behind it and the simplicity of intent and execution. Giving indie music in India a platform like this could be a real game changer. But things change all the time. Before we begin this interview, do you promise to do no evil (like Google did early on) no matter how things go?

Vijay: If by evil you mean that we will never let the independent artists down, then yes we promise to do no evil. However if evil means selling only independent music, then we are already criminals since we are actively looking to grow the catalog by signing up (music made with) record labels.

Here is the problem, doing only independent music as of now is not cutting it for us. Makes it very unviable for us to project that this will be a big business. Thankfully there aren't many vibrant digital download stores in India, so we are well poised that way

How do you keep tabs on the artists you'd like to pursue for your site?

Vijay: We keep following the music scene and keep reaching out to artists. Also a good thing for us is that all of the artists who work with us, love us and spread the word about us whenever they get a chance. So the network effect is kicking in and quite a few artists have directly started approaching us

What's the process like of convincing people to sell their music on Ok Listen?

Vijay: Actually its not very difficult since we have a total win win solution for the artist. Its a non exclusive [arrangement], they keep 70% of the net sales and we payout monthly directly into any Indian bank account. All we ask for is pricing parity across all platforms that the musician might explore in India.

Once an artist uploads music to Ok Listen for sale, does it become an exclusive distribution relationship?

Vijay: No, we have a non-exclusive arrangement. However we are increasing our bouquet of services so as to offer much more to the artist in which case he can choose to make it an exclusive arrangement.  A few big acts can make a huge difference in getting this started.

How did you convince a big act like Indian Ocean to sign on?

Vijay: Our advisor, Ranjan [Singh] managed marketing for Indian Ocean and hence it worked in our favor. Having said that, Indian Ocean came out and endorsed us as they really liked what we did. If we had not delivered even after we got the intro it would have been disastrous!  A lot of people make music in India. Sometimes we run into people who think they are [already] a [polished] band, but they really aren't ready yet.

How do you make sure that quality music is sold on your site?

Vijay: We are trying hard to be known for quality music. We listen to all the stuff that comes in. We also check if the artist has promoted their [own] music. We check their Facebook Page. SoundCloud plays are also a good way of estimating the reach of the music.

What if an artist wants to give away their music. Does that mess up your model because you don't make any money?

Vijay: So we don't give away anything for free! But if artists want to give away music for free, on say Bandcamp, we put up the music for sale with a disclaimer that the music is available for free on the Internet but the artist would appreciate your support. For an album by Colaba Point which is available for free download on Bandcamp, we have sold over 50 copies since he got discovered by folks on OKListen

How would your model work when an artist becomes famous and might want to jump to a record label to reap the benefits of their ecosystem?

Vijay: Not much we can do about it. But if the artist becomes big after being available on OKListen, I am sure it will turn out to be great for us.

What is your strategy for leveraging Facebook, Twitter and YouTube?

Vijay: We are quite active on social media. But I guess in India its more of a promotion or brand building since we don't get many sales from Facebook.

Are you working on a mobile component to your site?

Vijay: Our site renders well on mobile devices since we use a responsive design. We should be looking at a mobile app pretty soon

Are you concerned you'll end up selling something pirated or copied? Have you taken any steps to protect yourself?

Vijay: Not really. I am not sure you can fight piracy. But with prices going down and legal music being more accessible, the incentive to pirate will reduce.

Any thoughts on integrating a Wishberry like feature into Ok Listen?

Vijay: Not so soon. But we will probably align with folks like them.

Netflix used to be purely distribution and they realized that to play in the big leagues they needed content of their own. Do you think you would reach a stage where you might fund music?

Vijay: Not sure if I can say that we will not since if it turns out to be a good option, we may be tempted to give it a shot

What are these Album Cards I've heard about? What do they look like and how do they work?

Vijay: What we have done is created the ability to assign unique codes to every music on our site. Using these codes the content owners can easily use music for quick gratification online for any customer feedback or contests. These codes can also be printed on cards and sold at on ground venues. The user who gets the code, comes to OKListen, redeems the code and starts downloading the music

Would you ever sell filmi music for independent movies?

Vijay: Yes we will. We've already released one! The soundtrack to Rise of Zombie.

What's been your biggest success so far and what kind of numbers are we talking about if you don't mind sharing.

Vijay: Our biggest success has been Agam's The Inner Self Awakens. We sold 150 copies in 24 hours.

There are a few things I miss on Ok Listen. One is a radio station of the music on the site that would help me discover new bands and songs. Another is integrating with Facebook and letting me know if my favorite artists have content on Ok Listen. Hey, I love Sunitha Sarathy and you could have told me she had a song for sale. Any plans in this area?

Vijay: We are exploring a deeper integration into Facebook for sure. Not sure about the radio station bit. Maybe we'll have one channel but nothing planned in the near future.

One question about independent ventures in India. You've worked for a number of new ventures - what's the biggest positive change in recent years that an entrepreneur can look forward to?

Vijay: I think it has gotten easier to get things off the ground because the support system has matured and there are quite a few folks who are willing to help as entrepreneurs embark on their journey. So basically help is easier to get. Also with the right set of tools, you can run the business quite lean. I ran OKListen alone for 11 months after which I roped in Bhavin [Badheka] as a Technical Co-Founder.

And what is the most frustrating thing that still hasn't changed?

Vijay: I guess the whole thing about the captive user base (who will shop online) has not really changed that much. Infrastructure (Internet, delivery systems) is also lagging behind, making it that much more difficult to grow the business.

There's no entrepreneurship without dreams! Three years from now, what would be your wildest dream come true for Ok Listen?

Vijay: Be the most preferred global destination to purchase music made in India!

OkListen's portal site
OkListen on Facebook and Twitter


Mind Rush said...

Wow, Drift saab! Interesting to read about new developments in desi music scene.
Interview reflects your understanding of the music business, ur love for music, and your interest in social media. These guys should hire you!

indie music said...

I really like indie music, especially indie accoustic rock and indie pop. I still have to discover Indian indie music but I'm sure I'll like it. I already put some songs to USB key for listening to it in my car :)