For eight minutes last month, the Swedish video blogger PewDiePie was no longer king of the internet. Since 2013, his has been the most subscribed channel on YouTube, accumulating more than 80 million followers and millions of dollars from sharp, funny and occasionally controversial videos of himself playing video games.
But on February 22, following an audit of the channel’s users, the 29-year-old (real name Felix Kjellberg) was briefly overtaken by an Indian music and film company called T-Series.
The two have been neck and neck ever since, with the lucrative battle to be YouTube’s most subscribed channel making headlines across the world. One fellow YouTuber even took out a billboard in New York’s Times Square, at a cost of $1m, urging fans to keep Kjellberg number one.
Followers of the Indian channel had been provoked when, in October last year, PewDiePie posted a video of himself rapping a “diss track” about T-Series and India called “Bitch Lasagna” (the title is a reference to a meme mocking one Indian man’s use of corrupted English to proposition a woman online). “When we are done, [T-Series] will be completely gone,” he boasted. Many popular Indian YouTubers have since responded with their own diss tracks.
The battle goes on but, ultimately, there can be only one winner. More than 500 million Indians are now connected to the internet, making India the world’s second-largest market after China.
The number of internet users in the country rose 11 per cent between December 2016 and December 2017, largely as a result of a corporate experiment by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani to supply high-speed internet widely, at first for free then by selling it cheaply.
This explosion of internet access has brought a wave of social change, but nothing as ubiquitous as the consumption of online videos. As many as 245 million Indians watch YouTube on their phones each month — in farms and factories, buses and trains, homes and hotel rooms.
Subscribers to T-Series’ YouTube Channel
India’s craze for videos is shaking the world of entertainment. Valued at more than $700m, the country’s online video market is shaping the content and pricing models of local and global companies.
Netflix, with approximately two million viewers there, is investing more in Indian content than it has done anywhere outside the US. While Amazon Prime charges US subscribers $119 a year, those in India pay $14.50 annually. Millions of dollars are tossed around at auctions for the streaming rights for cricket matches, and dozens of shows have been commissioned to tap into India’s love of comedy.
T-Series is one of the companies to have leveraged this rise in popularity most effectively. Founded in 1983 as a record label specialising in Hindi film music, it later expanded into film-making. From Bollywood songs to devotional numbers, T-Series owns a massive chunk of Indian popular music, and now millions are watching the videos for the songs on their mobiles.
For many young Indians, YouTube itself is synonymous with the internet. They use it to ask questions, make friends and learn skills. In towns where teachers don’t show up at schools and colleges, students are switching to YouTube channels that “cover” their syllabus.
Indeed, vying for video popularity with singers and make-up bloggers are maths and physics instructors. In villages where there isn’t a cinema, people stay up all night watching funny or erotic clips to exhaust every cheap byte of data in their daily or monthly package.
Acknowledging that 95 per cent of India’s video consumption is in vernacular languages, YouTube has introduced options for users to discover content in their native tongues. Across India, young men and women are turning to the internet as their aspirations grow and income opportunities shrink amid falling employment.
Some are developing mobile apps, some using Facebook and WhatsApp to advertise and sell home-made products from blouses to pickles. Many are simply making videos to earn money and act as influencers. Some are pretty good at it.
According to Marc Lefkowitz of YouTube, more than 300 content creators in India have more than a million subscribers, compared with just 16 in 2014. “The growth in India has been astronomical,” he told the Economic Times in 2018.
Today, with more than six million subscribers, he makes money from “live streaming, playing video games, roasting, performing funny skits”, not unlike PewDiePie. One of his most popular videos is a diss track responding to “Bitch Lasagna”.
“So many people asked me to. Lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of them,” Nagar tells me. He decided to answer back. In “Bye PewDiePie”, he raps that, “The whole world is against this country/how much will you pick on our flaws?” while enacting various scenarios to show his toughness, from torturing a captive with electric shocks to petting a dog in his lap.
Shot in Faridabad, an industrial town on Delhi’s southern periphery where Nagar lives with his family, the video goes on to tell those with “blue eyes and blond hair” that “one day India will rule the world”. The references are a clear response to PewDiePie’s mockery and his fans’ abuse of Indians.
In December, Kjellberg acknowledged the “really distasteful, unnecessary comments” made by some of his fans and urged them to donate to an Indian charity to make amends.
Working out of the top floor of his family’s home, Nagar’s full-time team consists of a digital head, a content chief and a business head. Together, they “roll out” eight videos a month. Anirudh Nagpal, 24, is a school friend of Nagar’s brother who manages the business, spanning ad revenue, brand promotion and live-stream subscriptions.
Most Indian YouTubers follow the same business model. Although none of them is willing to talk numbers, top influencers’ earnings from brand promotion alone are reportedly as much as Rs1m (£11,000) a month.
“I have to make deals and manage partnerships. I even have [special] clothes for business meetings,” Nagpal tells me. He also takes care of Nagar’s international deals, which included a “collaboration” with Paramount Pictures to promote the last edition of the Mission: Impossible film series starring Tom Cruise.
While PewDiePie is making his battle with T-Series one about independent creators versus corporate giants, CarryMinati and his team are simply busy growing their business. “Everyone who manages an Indian YouTube star today is expanding into a company. I manage 10 to 15 video gamers myself,” says Nagpal.
Nagar is so recognisable he can hardly leave the house any more. “He recently went to a shopping mall. A fan tore off his shirt, another punched me, someone else kissed him on the cheek,” says Nagpal. But, as proud as Nagar is of the global reach of his channel (“US, UK, Dubai”), he is in no rush to step out of his Hindi-speaking turf. Indeed, as he sees it, YouTube in India is only going to rise and rise.
“Every guy in India is talented,” Nagar says. And India has the numbers. Fired up by the response to his diss track (1.3 million likes so far), CarryMinati is up for any contest: “You want to race with us, go ahead and do it. Just watch how we slide past you without any effort.”
The last time Bhushan Kumar checked, PewDiePie vs T-Series was still the number-one search on Google India. At the time of going to press, both boasted 89 million subscribers. PewDiePie’s numbers recently surged after Elon Musk appeared on his channel to review memes.
Kumar, the 40-year-old chief executive of T-Series, admits that part of his company’s recent victory over PewDiePie is thanks to “patriotism”. As the battle raged, he received a stream of messages pledging solidarity from friends and well-wishers, many of whom happen to be Bollywood’s biggest stars. Even politicians have taken an interest. Kumar received calls from many lauding him for “doing good work for the country, for making India proud”.
Kumar is enjoying T-Series’ rise. “Earlier, only Indians abroad followed us, now even others are. Thanks to this, the wider world has heard of T-Series. It feels good. We are also proud Indians, after all,” he says.
Like every Indian whose business has grown through YouTube (15 per cent of his company’s $100m revenue comes from the platform), Kumar gives due credit to cheap data but in his view, whoever has the best content will rule.
As a 35-year-old entertainment empire, T-Series certainly has plenty of it: 160,000 songs, 55,000 music videos, 28 channels in nine languages, 21 new films in the pipeline.
In the battle with PewDiePie, this has seen the Swede’s supporters taking aim at the rising “corporatism” of YouTube. But in India, where 133 of the 300 YouTubers with more than a million followers are still independent, the debate isn’t raging yet. “Content is king,” Kumar tells me. “You can give people free data, you can lead them to a streaming site, but you can’t persuade them to watch rubbish.”
Anisha Dixit describes the content she first put on YouTube in 2013 as “strange”. After failing to make it to Bollywood, Dixit was commuting in one of Mumbai’s auto rickshaws when the idea for a video occurred to her.
“Every day I would survey rickshaw stands for colourful ones and pay the owner Rs100 [just over £1] to let me sit and shoot inside. I shot myself doing random things, like commenting on new movies,” says Dixit, who is known as Rickshawali by her channel’s 1.9 million subscribers. Her most popular video has been watched 12.4 million times. “I love the fact that I can reach this kind of audience without having to audition,” she says.
Number of Indians watching YouTube on their phones each month
Dixit’s videos offer funny takes on the daily experiences of young, urban women, an audience that has been largely uncatered to in India. Some tap into the irony of their double lives — good girls at home, bad girls outside — and some deal with taboo topics such as sex and periods.
In another popular video, “Why I Don’t Buy Bras”, she sits in an auto rickshaw dangling colourful bras at the camera and making fun of overbearing salesmen at underwear shops.
In a country where access to mobile phones remains highly gendered, Dixit takes pride in the fact that 80 per cent of her audience are women. “There is no realistic portrayal of Indian women’s lives today in mainstream film and television, so a voice like mine becomes relatable,” she says.
More and more of her new viewers are from towns and villages. “It’s mind-boggling. Some of them write back to me saying that I shouldn’t wear such clothes or say such things, but many of them also tell me to go ahead and be myself.”
Dixit finds it empowering to express herself publicly, but also a little scary. “You talk directly at the camera. They think you are talking one on one with them. They take you for their friend. Many of them call me ‘didi’, meaning older sister. They take everything I say seriously. I feel a sense of responsibility.”
The impact of internet access on the lives of young people in regional India goes deeper than for those in its cities. Alongside music videos and comic clips, they search YouTube for tips on how to break out of their bleaker prospects — in income, education, skills and employment.
Author and motivational speaker Himeesh Madaan keeps his videos relatable and focused. Madaan, 31, began his career at the ticket counter of an airline company and moved on to training. “I realised that people seemed to derive great value from the part of training that focused on ‘life skills,’” he tells me. “I wanted to leverage this.”
In 2012, he launched his YouTube channel. “People will rate you, people will hate you, people will shake you, people will break you, but it is you who will make you,” he says to thunderous applause in one of his most-watched videos.
“I wanted to create a difference in the lives of people who are not in big cities,” he says. So, “I started by speaking to them in Hindi.” Today, his channel has 3.5 million subscribers across the small towns of north India. Many of his videos have alluring titles such as “How to Become Rich” and “Rs400 to Rs7 crore” ((roughly equivalent to $5 to $1m)).
Madaan constantly researches opportunities for people who don’t have much going for them, breaks them down in simple Hindi, and presents them as do-able through his rousing speech.
His videos are watched by anywhere between 50,000 and 12 million people. “Eighty per cent of my audience are between ages of 18 and 35. The majority are men . . . They are spread out, from Delhi and Mumbai to Jaipur and Jalandhar. They are either studying, working or looking for opportunities. They are not from an upper-income level. You can say they are at the bottom of the pyramid,” he says.
As opportunities for upward mobility dry up — unemployment rose to a 45-year high in 2018, according to government data — more people are likely to seek magical interventions from the likes of Madaan, fuelling the country’s vast market for motivational content.
The chances that they will not succeed, or even get sucked into shady get-rich-quick schemes elsewhere on the internet are very high, but it doesn’t stop them from looking. One of Madaan’s most watched videos was uploaded in June, with 470,000 views so far. Its title: “How to Earn Money from YouTube”.
Snigdha Poonam is a writer at the Hindustan Times and author of “Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World” (Hurst)
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