Journey to 100 million users: How Tencent-backed Gaana topped India’s music-streaming market and is now looking to monetise big

In an exclusive interaction with YourStory, Gaana CEO Prashan Agarwal talks about the Times Internet-owned music-streaming company’s learnings, product innovations, future plans, and more.

India’s oldest music-streaming service Gaana crossed 100 million monthly active users (MAUs) earlier this year. When the Times Internet-owned service had started operations back in 2010, ‘streaming’ was unheard of in the country. And, paid streaming was a non-starter.

A decade later though, things have changed dramatically. Not only are streaming services household names now, but India also has an estimated 150 million listeners who tune into audio-streaming apps every month.

Gaana leads the market, not just by users but also in terms of popularity. A recent report by CyberMedia Research revealed that the company has surpassed even global names like Apple Music and YouTube when it comes to brand recall. 

In an exclusive interaction with YourStory, Gaana CEO Prashan Agarwal says the platform’s “paid subscriptions have grown more than 3X last year”. Additionally, revenues are growing 100 percent year-on-year, and original programming has crossed 220 million streams. 

But, there’s more to come. 

Prashan Agarwal, CEO of Gaana

Flush with funds from BCCL (Times Internet parent) and China’s Tencent, which pumped in $115 million last year, Gaana is now looking to double its user base and turn profitable in the next four to five years. By then, it believes, India’s music-streaming market will have about half a billion users, “a majority” of which it is confident of on-boarding. 

Agarwal goes on to talk about Gaana’s journey to 100 million, learnings from the Indian market, lessons from China’s music monetisation models, warding off competition, product innovations and the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for curating a highly personalised listening experience for users. 

Edited excerpts from the interview:

YourStory: Describe Gaana’s journey to 100 million users. What have been the biggest learnings?

Prashan Agarwal: Gaana was launched back in April 2010, and we have steadily gained market leadership over the last nine years. We surpassed 100 million monthly active users in March 2019.

Looking back, the launch of affordable 4G plans was one of the biggest turning points for music streaming in India. The market has exploded to more than 7X its size in the last three years. 

The biggest learning has been to be singularly obsessed about the Indian consumer’s demands. Thanks to our deep understanding of their content preferences, we have been able to be the primary beneficiaries of this internet wave, launching a string of innovative products that have struck a chord with both the millennial as well as the rural population who are often first-time users of mobile internet.

YS: How has the domestic music-streaming space evolved from the time Gaana launched to now, where 10 or more services are competing for the same consumer’s attention?

PA: It has evolved significantly in terms of content consumption as well as technological innovation. On the consumption front, regional music contributes to 35 percent of the overall consumption on Gaana today, led by Punjabi music at 15 percent.

On the technological front, the biggest innovation is in widespread Voice Search adoption and emerging technologies like AI and Machine Learning (ML) that help us offer a personalised music experience. The idea is that we should be able to predict the kind of music you want to listen to, exactly when you want to listen to it. 

As the market leader, we have already invested in hiring advanced AI and ML engineers who have designed indigenous recommendation engines that help us offer the most intuitive digital music experience. 

YS: Is customer acquisition easier or more difficult given the choices people have? 

PA: As one of the early movers in the segment, we have educated Indian users about the benefits of digital music streaming over side-loading music from questionable sources. We have also worked with various stakeholders to bring down piracy in the music industry. 

We recently launched a first-of-its-kind instant app feature for prospective users who want to experience our app without actually downloading it. It offers them a taste of all major functionalities of the main app like searching for music, browsing, and listening to songs.

This will, hopefully, invite a wider section of users to adopt music streaming.

YS: Take us through Gaana’s product innovations. How do you ensure that you have a differentiated product in a cluttered market?

PA: Our innovation is focussed on the Indian consumer: be it making the app interface live in 12 languages, or introducing the in-app Voice Assistant, or bringing in sing-along lyrics on the player page, and features like Smart Downloads, where the app automatically downloads a premium user’s favourite tracks based on their listening history.  Most recently, we also launched Gaana Videos, a vertical-video format that accompanies new and popular music.

YS: How fast are you growing? 

PA: We are growing at about 100 percent year-on-year, both on ad revenue and subscription revenue. Foodtech, video streaming, and OEMs are among the biggest advertisers on our platform this quarter, with banner ads featuring voiceovers emerging as one of the most popular formats. 

YS: And, how are your paid subscriptions growing? 

PA: Our paid subscriptions have grown more than 3X last year. We believe the market will grow to about 500-600 million users in the next three years, with a majority of the users coming to Gaana. 

YS: What are the biggest opportunities and challenges in the Indian music-streaming industry right now? 

PA: As of now, only 10 percent of the Indian population is consuming music online. But it is one of the hottest sectors for advertisers looking to tap into an engaged and primarily millennial audience.

As the number of digital music users goes up to more than half a billion, there is significant potential for increased advertising revenues on the back of customised branding solutions. The challenge is to build an infrastructure to be able to handle this unprecedented scale. 

YS: Can we draw parallels between India’s and China’s music-streaming? Given that you have deep-pocketed Chinese investors, what is the kind of know-how and understanding you gain from them?

YS: How big a role is AI playing, and how are you utilising it to fine-tune your offering?

PA: Our proprietary AI-driven algorithm is perpetually working in the background, enabling users to discover more songs they’ll potentially like and get more out of every song they listen on Gaana. At present, more than 22 percent of the overall consumption is purely based on AI and machine-learning led recommendations, and we are hoping to double this in the coming year. This can be experienced on the app through our ‘Made for You’ and the ‘Auto Queue’ features.

YS: By when do you expect to turn profitable? 

PA: We believe that over the next two to three years, we need to grow the market to around 500-600 million users.

As the market matures and penetration of paid subscription grows in four to five years, we will turn profitable.

YS: What is the content mix on your platform? How much of it is Indian and how much is international? 

PA: Hindi, regional, and international content consumption is marked at 50 percent, 35 percent and 15 percent respectively. 

YS: Share with us some usage trends - how often do users log in, how long does an average session last, what are the most consumed playlists, etc? 

PA: Regional music forms a major part of the music consumption habits of most Indians today, with Punjabi, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam ruling the charts

Regional music consumption has registered more than 25X growth in the last two years. That is an unprecedented amount of growth for any genre within a very short span of time.

YS: What are Gaana’s strategies on original programming and non-music content?

PA: We have a dedicated team working closely with music labels to identify emerging artistes and offer them a platform to launch Indie albums at the same scale of mainstream Bollywood songs under the ‘Gaana Originals’ and ‘Gaana Exclusives’ banners. 

Gaana Originals Season 2 was launched last year, becoming a runaway hit with more than 220 million streams. We recently launched Gaana Originals’ Love Edition and are confident it will be a big turnaround story for non-film music this year. 

YS: With several international services launching in India, how do you see the domestic music industry changing going ahead? 

PA: The vast and diverse user base in our country can comfortably accommodate a bunch of music streaming apps. While newer entrants may come in with an understanding of international music, we have carved out a niche across regional and Indie music that is at the heart of the Indian music-loving audience. 

YS: And finally, do we see Gaana raising more VC money next year? 

PA: We are well-capitalised to fund our rapid expansion plans slated for the coming months.

(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)


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