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Saregama plots Carvaan's post-Covid journey

Vikram Mehra is focusing on stepping up sales of the retro product.

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MUMBAI: ‘Who buys a transistor radio in the times of iPods and apps?’

Well that was the narrative until 2015. Then came Saregama’s Carvaan which shattered that myth by launching what looked like a classical retro transistor radio, the kind we see in antique stores. But within the box was housed silicon, which stored oodles of songs, an easy to use digital dial and radio player, and good sounding speakers. The Caravan went on to become a runaway hit, selling more than a million units in just 16 months of its launch and has become a case study in management courses worldwide.

To its credit, it also managed to bring back the publicly listed firm from the brink. Part of the RPG SanjivGoenka group, Saregama had a solid back catalogue of 120,000 songs (from 1903 to 1983), but was not able to monetise it well enough. And the company was struggling with low revenues.  Caravan allowed its classic songs in various languages – - including Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali, Malayalam and Marathi - and genres based on artistes and moods to be bundled with it and make more money for the company than it ever did from music publishing and licensing.

The product portfolio today consists of: Carvaan (priced at Rs 6,000), Carvaan Premium (Rs 6,990), Carvaan 2.0 (Rs 7,990), Carvaan Gold (Rs 10,900), Carvaan Gold 2.0 (Rs 12,990),  Carvaan Go (Rs  3,990), Carvaan Go 2.0 (Rs 4590),  Carvaan Gold (Rs 5590) Carvaan Mini (Rs 2,490)  and Carvaan earphones (Rs 1199). The basic models have blue tooth, USB, AM/FM radio, while the more premium 2.0 models have wifi and some of them even sport fancy Harman/kardon speakers. Owners of a few of the models also get access to the Carvaan app on the App Store and the Google Play store and can access numerous podcasts online.

Saregama MD Vikram Mehra says that the entire ethos of Carvaan is a leaned back listening experience. Mehra describes it as a physical product in a world where everything is moving digital. “After dedicated research we came out with Carvaan that was indeed a marriage of the digital with the physical. It was more like a portable digital player, similar to an older generation transistor that operated with just pressing of a button. It had pre-loaded songs and could also be tuned in to FM Radio, without any operational complications ideal for people who just wanted to sit back and relax,” shares Mehra.

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The genesis of Carvaan began when Mehra – who had come in from Tata Sky in 2014 - and his team refused to accept feedback that associates and consultants were giving them: no one was interested in old Kishore Kumar, LataMangeshkar songs that Saregama had. Mehra, a retro music lover, believed that there surely must be others like him for whom the only sense of relaxation comes from listening to old classics.

He then commissioned a qualitative study across 23 different cities nationwide to find what kind of music people are listening and the issues they faced accessing its catalogue. One of the key findings was that some music lovers believed that Saregama was hoarding its music and not releasing it for them to consume.

“The moment we went out of the four metros, a very dramatic picture revealed that the people who loved Saregama music told us that we were not sharing our music with them, although we were present on all digital platforms like Gaana, Saavn etc. This was the reality we faced in 2015, ”reveals Mehra.

Saregama decided to sack the consultants, and bid them goodbye. Further probing revealed that retro music lovers 45 years and older were put off by the complicated music apps on their mobile phones, one of the reasons they could not listen to the songs they had grown up with.

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“They were worried that money would be deducted at the press of a button on their mobile phones. Most of them thus used it for free apps like Facebook, WhatsApp or for calling only,” recalls Mehra.

What could Saregama marry its retro catalogue with to help these older music aficionados between the ages of 45 and 70  to enjoy their music?

The answer was:  create a simple piece of hardware which could serve the songs digitally and would appeal to them as it looked and was easy to use.

In brainstorming meetings with their boss SanjivGoenka, a team member pointed to an old Murphy transistor radio, saying the older audience would identify with that. “This is how we came with the look and feel,” Goenka has been quoted in media reports.  “Then there was a campaign which was very targeted, focused and emotional. It was about gifting a product to your parents. It worked.”

Mehra asserts that in 2014 when he joined the company, experts had been very clear that nobody would pay for music in India.  And that’s been disproved by Saregama’sCarvaan. “We have sold two million units till January 2020 whereas, the total amount of paid subscriptions for the nine music apps in India is less than 1 million.”

Amid the lockdown, when economies and businesses came to a standstill, Saregamawas inundated with requests from buyers wanting delivery of a Carvaan, and from users who narrated how it helped them through the ennui and fear by entertaining them in the confines of their homes.

It gave the Saregama team a good insight into to how much the older generation has come to depend on their Carvaans, almost like a companion.

“We got so many requests to deliver Carvaan directly to homes since shops and online deliveries were closed. The moment restrictions were lifted, our online sales picked up heavily.  Though the trade did suffer as expected but things are coming back on track,” says Mehra.

The company has cut back on ad spends and is working hard to service the bottled-up demand, for now, at least.

Its focus currently is on increasing the online content available to Carvaan 2.0 – which can hook up to wifi  - owners. Currently, they have access to 282 different streams of podcasts – across genres like food, travel, Bollywood, news, music. Content creators make money through revenue share deals the company has signed with them. Mehra believes that opportunities lie in placing adverts too.

Apart from further extending Carvaan, Mehrahe is milking the catalogue that Saregama owns. It recently entered into a licensing deal with Facebook which allows its members to use its songs in the videos which they upload to their profiles. Says Mehra: “It’s a great time to partner with Facebook, Sharechat, and Moj. These are huge platforms and used widely to create content. We have seen a great usage of our content on these platforms across age groups. Our entire catalogue has been made available across these social media platforms for users to create interesting content.”

Mehra’s belief is that “Saregama houses a treasure in its song catalogue, which is a national treasure which must be passed on from generation to generation.”

Under his stewardship, Saregama has done well for the current older generation, at least.

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