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Sarronwala's role models: Mahatma Gandhi, and Steve Jobs of Apple.

Soundbuzz now has 50,000 tracks that you can buy online or burnt on to custom CDs

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'We're an angelic Napster'

Soundbuzz, just launched in Singapore, offers paid downloads and custom CDs from a list of 50,000 tracks culled from six big Indian labels


Sudhanshu Sarronwala, CEO of SoundbuzzAs Napster goes down, battered by the heavyweights of the music industry, another site has come into existence, describing itself as "Napaster without horns". Soundbuzz, based in Singapore, is distributing music online with the music labels firmly on its side.

Six big Indian labels have signed partnership agreements with Soundbuzz: Tips, BMG Crescendo, EMI-Virgin, Times Music, Archies Music and Lahari.

"We give Soundbuzz the albums, and customers can log on to their site and download individual tracks or burn their favourite songs on to custom CDs," says M V Chandrashekhar of Lahari, the Bangalore-based label that boasts a catalogue of 72,000 songs. Tips has a huge Hindi catalogue, and Times Music has been producing religious albums with a yuppie market in mind. Soundbuzz can thus offer tracks in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and other Indian languages.

HMV has already been selling custom CDs through its site Hamara CD, and concentrates on its own repertoire, while Soundbuzz offers a choice across many labels.

Soundbuzz sells downloads for about a dollar a track, unlike Napster which gave away music for free, without taking the consent of copyright owners.

Launched in Singapore by a team led by Sudhanshu Sarronwala and Shabnam Melwani, the new company wants to "work with industry bodies to identify copyright violators".

Sarronwala (34) was in charge of MTV's operations in Asia till recently, and also general manager (consumer marketing), Star TV, from 1991 to '94. He is the CEO of Soundbuzz, which has among its partners the well-known soundcard-manufacturing company Soundblaster and the company that makes the portable digital music player Nomad.

Melwani (30) was director of communications, MTV Asia, before she came into Soundbuzz. While with MTV, she organised  events like the MTV video awards nite. The Boston University graduate admits she is no musician, and that the music she loves is not always what is "commercially huge".

"But I keep my tastes separate from promoting the priorities of the record companies and recognizing what is popular among the masses and young people," she told The Music Magazine.

"Remember," says Sarronwala, stressing Soundbuzz's difference from other music-distribution sites, "Internet 'pirates' are not making any money, unlike real world pirates... they are simply abusing copyright laws and rights."

In an e-mail interview with The Music Magazine , he answered our questions on what Soundbuzz is all about:

Was Soundbuzz inspired by the Napster model? Even your logo looks similar! What is the philosophy you go by in promoting music?

Soundbuzz is a Napster without horns! It is fairly angelic in comparison, since we work with the music industry, not against or around them. Yes, the similarities in logo structure are startling but that's where the similarities end.

You have tied up with six labels in India, but your search engine for Indian-language songs did not throw up many results. When we asked for Kannada songs and Tamil songs, we got zero results. Are you still in the process of finetuning the service?

We have access to over 50,000 songs, including Kannada and Tamil songs. We are in the process of digitizing this huge catalogue and you should be able to access it within eight weeks. The lag between our announcement and loading the database is the time taken to digitize, package and 'wrap' the music in a secure format (Microsoft Windows Media technology).

You are also trying to promote individual artistes.

We provide a platform for individual artists to make their music available to a wider audience through our partners. New artists look for reach and awareness through this medium rather than sales. They hope to attract record companies to sign them up.

Since you are concentrating on the Asian market, where and what are you selling the most? How important is India in your scheme of things?

India or rather Indian content could account for anywhere near 10-15 per cent of our revenue over the next two to three years. As a single market, India is huge and critical, more so because of the significant size of the immigrant Indian population in the US, UK and Canada.

Tell us about your music kiosks. How do they work? Have you set up any in India?

The Soundbuzz CD kiosks are interactive, freestanding machines that allow a user to burn a custom CD or a single track CD (CD-audio format) from a pre-set track list. They also allow the user to take a digital picture and write a personal message that is printed on the CD. The machine takes regular cash and cash cards, and for this reason is a secure, heavily locked machine. It also stores tracks using digital rights management technology to protect the content from malicious theft.

We are talking to several potential partners for distributing these kiosks in India, and we will be sure to let you know when that is finalised.

How long has it been since you began operations? Do you think you have a long haul before digital downloads really catch on?

The onus is on us to create user-friendly opportunites and experiences. Having introduced this to most of Asia, we believe we will see this channel move into the Indian mainstream in the next six to 12 months.

An Arthur Andersen report says the annual global music download industry will grow to Rs 1,900 crore by 2005 from the current Rs 1,250 crore. Do you think this is realistic or do you feel this may, like the dotcom evaluations, just be wishful thinking? What would your strategy be in hard times such as now?

This has nothing to do with dotcom evaluations -- this is an estimation of how a new format (secure digital) will be adopted via a new delivery channel (wireless devices, the internet, and hardware among others) in an industry that very much exists - the music industry. This channel is being defined right now by us predominantly - hence economic fluctuations will have low impact since the space is yet to take shape fully.

What are your plans for India? Any more labels coming into the fold?

We would like to work with all or most of the labels to be able to offer as wide and deep a selection as possible to the consumers.

Are you concentrating on popular music or do you feel there is a market for more serious music as well?

Popular music is probably the starting point but niche music will do well via this medium because the costs of production and distribution are low to justify even a low volume.

How do you think the pricing on Soundbuzz will work? You have priced a single song download at Rs 47 when browsers in India can buy an entire cassette for the same price, and get at least seven to eight songs more.

The pricing for downloads has been aligned to CD pricing (pro-rate a track from a CD and add a premium for the flexibility of buying a single to get to a Rs 40-50 range). The fact is that computer ownership and CD ownership are highly co-related and hence these buyers will definitely be early adopters of the medium. This is the trend and pricing rationale we have experienced in all cassette-dominated markets (Indonesia, Malaysia, etc) and we concur with the music industry on this pricing. On a related note, where there is a singles market via CDs (Singapore, US, Japan, etc), the price of a single is in the range of 6-10 US dollars against an album, which would be in the range of 10-15 dollars. Therefore, Rs 47 (or one US dollar) for a single is quite a good deal!

TMM Desk

Posted on 14 July 2001

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