Published August 30, 2016
Volume 25, Number 8
MANU KAUSHISH SPANS CULTURES,
CONTINENTS AT DIVINE ARTS
By Jay Hipps
The Internet has brought the world closer together. Today, users can access vast online music and video libraries that only 20 years ago would have been unimaginable.
One entrepreneur who has helped make that possible is Manu Kaushish, founder of Divine Arts, a Hacienda company which distributes music and video from India digitally to a global audience.
“My grandfather started India’s first 70mm movie theater in New Delhi in the 60’s. This was like a big deal — a 1,000 seat theater in the heart of Delhi. It wasn't seen in India before and presidents and actors and dignitaries used to visit the theater, which still exists,” he says. “My father and my uncle expanded on the theatrical business, importing films from Universal, Paramount, MGM — basically all the Hollywood studios who wanted to distribute in India. In the early 90’s they imported Jurassic Park and basically dubbed it in regional Indian languages for theatrical release in India, and that was the first time a large Hollywood movie was actually released theatrically for the masses in India and it was extremely successful. So, media kind of runs in my blood.”
Despite his proximity to the world of entertainment, what captured Kaushish’s imagination as a teenager was computers. “I had an old Apple IIc that I used to program in BASIC. It was just amazing that you could take this machine and build something and program it to actually do something,” he says. “You were creating something from scratch, even if it was a small program that was just adding numbers or a program to create a game or something that. It was something that just appealed to me. The power to create something from your thoughts and see it working was just amazing. That's when I fell in love with computers.”
He moved to the U.S. in 1995 to study computer science at Michigan State University. With the Internet just beginning to reach a mainstream audience, it was a perfect time to do so, and Kaushish’s position as an Indian student in the U.S. provided him with the unique intercultural perspective necessary to recognize his first business opportunity.
“At that point, it was extremely expensive to buy something from here for festivals in India and then send it across to India — using FedEx or something, it was a couple hundred bucks. We thought, you know, there are festivals like Diwali and Rakhi which are massive and people from here would like to send gifts to their loved ones in India, so we created this platform while I was in college,” he says. “My family helped out with the vendor relationships in India, with florists and chocolatiers and stuff like that, and we created a workflow that enabled people to just buy anything online and have the logistics and fulfillment done in India. We built it out over a period of a year and became quite successful — launched it on Rakhi, which is when sisters send brothers a gift that symbolizes their love for the brother and the brother basically gives something back to his sister as a gift.”
The experience helped to confirm his belief in computers as creative business tools, too. “It was just me and a roommate of mine who coded this entire thing. There was an apartment and one of those giant desktops, no office,” he recalls. “I saw a need, I had an idea, and then we coded it and that was it. And then basically it grew organically.”
The success of his nascent venture caught the attention of other companies as well.
“Right after college, there was a site called Namaste.com which was funded by Kleiner Perkins,” he says. “They were looking for a solution to offer their users a way to send gifts to India, so we built out a white label platform for them that looked like Namaste.com but it was actually powered by us, and then we did this for about 28 other high traffic Indian web sites so that the web sites could basically offer their users a way to send gifts to India.”
By the time Kaushish sold off that project in 2001, he had been thoroughly hooked on the possibilities that the growing digital economy held for an entrepreneur. “That’s what I loved about programming and computers — that you could think of an idea and build it and see it work,” he says. “And when I saw it work actually with all of these 28 sites and people using it and there was revenue being generated, I was just blown away. That's what got me thinking about what other needs are there in the U.S. What do I miss? What would I use?”
The answer came in the form of digital music as once again, technology met Kaushish’s unique multicultural perspective to create a new opportunity and his current company, Divine Arts.
“At that point, I was thinking there's a market for Indian music over here and people here would probably pay to get access to the old favorites, the classics as well as the new content that's coming out in India,” he says. “Literally there was no way to do that except go to some tiny CD store in four places in the entire country to get Indian music. That's when I started researching about what we could do with music on the Internet and that's when RealNetworks basically started looking for content in the U.S.”
As it turned out, RealNetworks — who had been known until then for their streaming audio technology, RealAudio — was launching RealRhapsody, the first Internet radio service. Users would pay a monthly fee and get unlimited access to the RealRhapsody music library.
“I literally sent a cold email to one of the guys at Real Networks and I was shocked that they actually responded. They said yeah, we like the thought — let's discuss,” he says. “Once I had their OK to deliver music, I spoke to Saregama India, which was basically HMV India, one of India's largest and oldest music labels, and convinced them to give me access to the catalog. We transcoded or converted all of that music into a digital format and delivered it to RealRhapsody, and that was the first Indian music service launched globally via Real.”
At first, he says, the reaction in the marketplace was lukewarm, thanks in part to the availability of free (although illegal) music sharing services like Napster. After about a year, though, revenues started to go up. “Saregama was happy and I was super happy,” he says. Real eventually re-launched Rhapsody as an independent company, but Divine Arts’ relationship with them remains.
After proving the model worked in that first year, Real asked for more content. With an established track record, it was “fairly easy” for Kaushish to approach other record companies in India to get them on board. “We signed up a whole bunch of labels. Basically, we had about 300,000 tracks that we were distributing from the Indian markets to Real.
“Right after that, Apple was launching iTunes. It was easy for me to say, hey, I'm already delivering the music to Real, are you interested in this content? So we basically started distributing this music to iTunes as well, and I went on to expand the distribution platform from Real to Apple iTunes to a couple of other platforms that were coming out at that point — eMusic, etc.. We became one of the largest aggregators of Indian music for Internet distribution. Basically, we are pushing content to about 100 plus digital stores right now across the world.” In addition to Rhapsody and iTunes, that list includes Spotify, MediaNet, and Zune for audio and iTunes and YouTube for video.
Now, Kaushish is looking to produce music as well as distribute it. His wife, Devika, is a singer with tracks on YouTube that have received over 1 million views. “I would love to get into some kind of cross-border collaborations,” he says. “Getting a massive US star to collaborate with a massive Indian pop star so that you then cross-pollinate audiences across two continents, right? It is expensive to produce so we need to figure out a revenue stream around them but I think if we can create a track with a U.S. pop star and an Indian pop star, the audience for that can be massive. It just has to be highlighted, it just has to be marketed correctly. If there's some known U.S. artist in it and it gets radio play it can be successful.”
Given his success rate to date, it is easy to imagine Kaushish spanning cultural divides as a producer, as well.
For additional information on Divine Arts, access www.divine-arts.com.
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