Spotify had a plan to rule the world — before Rishi Malhotra messed it up. When rumors began to bubble in 2018 that Spotify was looking to launch in the emerging market of India, Malhotra made the power move of power moves: As head of the Indian-market streaming service Saavn, he preempted the streaming boom in the country by inking a $1 billion merger with telco giant JioMobile. That deal created JioSaavn in 2018, a year before Spotify planned to debut there.
JioSaavn quickly became a formidable incumbent. And by the time Spotify launched in India, JioSaavn had major home-court advantage, outmaneuvering the globally popular Swedish streaming service in a key market that many believe will be the commercial bedrock of the global music business in the near future. For context, Spotify currently has 356 million users worldwide; India, however, has more than 1.3 billion people within its borders, and the vast majority aren’t signed up for streaming yet, making the country a target of every tech firm’s interest.
Malhotra won’t give away the size of JioSaavn’s user base, dismissing such a figure as “vanity metrics” — he believes it’s dangerous to dwell on user-base numbers because it encourages companies to overspend on the wrong things — but he does let it slip to Rolling Stone that it is “well beyond half the size of the United States in terms of people that are streaming on the platform.” (It therefore seems safe to assume that JioSaavn has somewhere around 160 million users worldwide today, with the vast majority of them in India.)
Spotify is going to need a lot of luck to catch JioSaavn. As India’s biggest telco, JioMobile now services over 410 million subscribers on its service. What’s more, JioSaavn counts some blockbuster investment in its favor: Alongside JioMobile, JioSaavn is part of Reliance Industries Ltd, India’s largest company by revenue. Meanwhile, over the past year, Facebook has invested $5.7 billion in Jio Platforms, the direct parent to JioSaavn, while Google has invested $4.5 billion. “The easiest way for me to put it is that there are very few number two platforms in India that are [affiliated] with Jio,” says Malhotra. With Jio, “you get a backbone in the country that I think is impossible to replicate.”
Malhotra, who has a uniquely cross-continental perspective, is the ideal person to carry out a tech company’s global ambitions. He was born and raised in the U.S. as part of a Indian-American family. “Me and my fellow co-founders at JioSaavn are all North American-born South Asians,” he says. “I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Van Halen in my bedroom and listening to Indian music in the living room. And we’ve been able to bring all of that together.”
Unlike the more industry-entangled Spotify, JioSaavn has also started running its own record label, signing independent Indian artists to 50-50 deals and pairing them with Western stars for smash collabs. In 2019, U2 teamed with Indian superstar A.R. Rahman for a track, with JioSaavn pulling strings in the background. Its release boosted the Irish band’s standing in India, helping them to nearly sell out Mumbai’s DY Patil sports stadium a month later. JioSaavn’s in-house label, Artist Originals, has also released collabs between Marshmello and Bollywood composer Pritam and, more recently, between Pink Sweats and Indian star Nikhita Gandhi.
The company’s strategy is also hyper-tailored to the habits of Indian listeners, which helps the company stay focused on good products and not those detested “vanity metrics.” “Everything is morphing — management companies are becoming labels, streaming services are becoming labels,” says Malhotra. Music “has never been more exciting than it is now; over the last 25 years there’s been this moment where everything’s coming together.”
Many of Spotify’s key investors would love to see it follow JioSaavn’s lead and launch its own in-house record company. Doing so, they suggest, would enable Daniel Ek to do a Netflix by directly challenging the dominance of the major record companies on his platform — the same major labels to whom Spotify pays out most of its royalties. Yet Spotify can’t do this, precisely because of the power those major labels wield.
JioSaavn, though, is in a position to get away with it. Says Malhotra: “India is a different market [to the U.S.]; if it wasn’t this market, we wouldn’t do it this way.” He adds: “Part of the reason we’ve been able to play amicably is we also don’t go after artists who are signed to labels; everybody’s independent.”