India is going to be a huge paid market: Akshat Harbola, head of strategy, Spotify India

India is going to be a huge paid market: Akshat Harbola, head of strategy, Spotify India
  • Spotify India has run a series of experiments in the India market to capture the audience- like offering different price points to users.
  • When Spotify India entered the market 70% of the consumption was international music but now it’s 70% local music.
  • Podcasts are a “fast-growing category in India” on Spotify, with more than 10x growth compared to 2019.
Four years ago when the digital audio streaming platform Spotify entered the Indian market, it was competing with other platforms, radio stations, YouTube, and pirated music. Yet, in four years, Spotify India has spread across 7,500 towns and cities, having leveraged the Indian market’s openness to experimental offerings and learning from them.

In an exclusive conversation with Business Insider India, Arjun Kolady, head of sales, Spotify India, and Akshat Harbola, head of strategy and operations, Spotify India shed light on Spotify’s 4-year-long journey in India and how the price-conscious India market is ready to pay.

“We’re closer to the inflection point when it comes to paid subscriptions in the market than we were ever before. I think India is going to be a huge paid market, not just for Spotify but in general,” states Harbola.

In the last four years, Harbola, who’s interestingly one of Spotify India’s first employees, has seen the company grow its consumer base, brand awareness, and team size - evolving, as he puts it, from a niche global brand popular only among tech enthusiasts and people who discovered Spotify while travelling abroad to a local music player.

“When we started in 2019, the consumption was 70% international music, now it’s 70% local music. A lot of this growth is driven by the growth we’ve seen in regional music - particularly in the South of India; that’s been the fastest growing,” said Harbola.


Podcasts, Punjabi pop and more: Understanding the Indian market

While India mirrors other emerging markets with respect to paying customers, what stands out here is the predominance of consumption on mobile, and the number of languages people listen to, states Kolady.

Harbola agrees, adding that this comes from the diversity in the country, making India a “local music market” - where every language has a user base.

“In the south of India, Tamil and Telugu are doing very well for us, but Malayalam was the fastest growing in Q4 for us. Punjabi is a force in itself…Every region has its nuances - there’s demand for each of those languages but it also depends on the maturity of the ecosystem. In Punjabi, you see a lot of entertainment music; in Tamil, you’ll not see that level of consumption happening because the supply isn’t as mature,” adds Harbola.

Though Punjabi certainly enjoys greater consumption, Harbola believes it's unfair to believe one language dominates over the others within India - because here the crossover of languages is happening at a scale never seen before.

“It’s not just India, it’s also global - artists, music, genres, or tracks we’re able to put in front of a global audience because we’re present in almost 180 countries. Or K-pop, which enjoys a great following in India. I think all those lines are blurry now and cultural influences are easily transferring across geographies, both within and also globally,” adds Kolady.

Spotify revealed that among artists, Arijit Singh and AR Rahman, and among genres, Punjabi pop and film music are popular outside India as well. The platform is present in 184 countries.

Additionally, podcasts is also a “fast-growing category in India”, with more than 10x growth compared to 2019, stated Harbola.

“There are 2 parallel strands when it comes to podcast consumption - shows like thrillers or horror tend to do very well. We’ve also looked at getting some of our original productions from outside of India into India - and those have done well. The other area that does well is self-help and knowledge and learning,” added Harbola.

As per Spotify Wrapped 2022, The Sex Podcast by Leeza Mangaldas was the most streamed podcast on Spotify in India in 2022, followed by The Mythpat Podcast, The Ranveer Show, Chanakya Niti, and On Purpose with Jay Shetty. Hindi was also one of the nine languages in which the audio streaming platform released its global audio series, Batman Unburied.


Monetising in the Indian market

Spotify has two revenue streams - subscriptions and ads. It’s no secret that users accustomed to skipping ads don’t necessarily enjoy the ads that crop up between songs on Spotify. And yet, Spotify India stands as “one of the fastest, if not the fastest growing ads business for Spotify in the world”, as per Kolady.

Spotify India is working with 300 brands right now - but it had to start from scratch and build the audio advertising ecosystem in India when it entered, states Kolady. Within audio advertising, only radio existed in India. Compared to a developed market like the “multimillion-dollar radio business in the US which was ripe for digitisation, radio marketing in India is 1% or less of the overall media spend,” claims Kolady.

Kolady adds that Spotify India’s growth trajectory for the advertisement business mirrors the growth trajectory of their consumer base - but while “they’ll always be users who prefer the free product”, the focus is also on building the premium market.

Building the premium market in India

When it came to its other monetising avenue, premium or subscriptions, Spotify India employed a three-level strategy - building habits, addressing barriers (of awareness and payment), and having an adaptive playbook, states Harbola.

Harbola shared that ‘building habits’ refers to developing an engaging free-tier experience that pushes customers to choose premium. Addressing barriers includes providing popular payment methods (from wallets to UPI) and having third parties (banking partners or e-commerce players, etc) promote the brand to their users. And an adaptive playbook refers to continuously experimenting with the premium plans as per markets and users.

“We have a unique free tier in India and we’re running a series of experiments in the market - like offering different price points to users – Spotify Mini, for example, where you can take a weekly or even daily plan if that’s the price point that works for you,” added Harbola.

Apart from the four regular premium plans (individual, duo, family, and student), Spotify also offers premium mini in developing markets like India, Indonesia, etc. In India, premium mini is currently priced at ₹7/day and ₹25/week - down from ₹13/day and ₹39/week in 2019.

While the plans are understandably priced differently across markets, the individual monthly plan is the cheapest in India, available for only ₹119/month. Comparatively, it’s available in the US for a monthly charge of $9.99, or about ₹824.

Spotify India shared that though a majority of their users are still on the free tier, India has seen a 10x-fold increase in the number of subscriptions since 2019. And the focus for 2023 and beyond will be on “accelerating our dual monetisation engine - ad sales and premium subscription growth,” states Harbola.