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Music company T-series MD Kumar, Bollywood actors Khan, Kapoor and co-director Tandan pose with music album of "Slumdog Millionaire" in Mumbai
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India’s biggest record label bets on nationalism to topple PewDiePie on YouTube

By Ananya Bhattacharya

India’s biggest record label is using a foolproof trick to win on YouTube: Nationalism.

For several months, the 36-year-old Indian music production firm, T-Series, has been competing neck-and-neck with Swedish video-game vlogger Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg to become the most subscribed YouTube channel in the world. Kjellberg, who posts videos under the pseudonym PewDiePie, has been the most popular creator on the platform for over five years now.

The difference in subscriber base between the two channels is less than 100,000 currently.

To narrow the gap, Bhushan Kumar, the head of T-Series, has launched the #BharatWinsYouTube campaign, calling on Indians to subscribe to the company’s YouTube channel.

His campaign has found backers in Bollywood’s most popular musicians like Neha Kakkar and Armaan Malik as well as actors like Rajkummar Rao and Anil Kapoor.

In the world of social media, experts argue, micro-influencers have their own strengths and their power can’t be easily undermined. “YouTubers are celebrities in their own right, and many of them have a legitimate reach and a more engaged millennial and generation-Z fanbase than traditional A-list stars,” Sunder Aaron, general manager of Toronto-based content company QYOU’s India arm, told Quartz. Research from Google shows that 70% of teenage YouTube subscribers relate to the platform’s content creators more than traditional celebrities.

“If T-Series really wants to emerge victorious in this digital rivalry, then it needs to tap into the followers of its fellow Indian YouTubers who may still be unaware of them,” Aaron added.

Tug of war

The race with T-Series has even helped Kjellberg gain more visibility, some say.

When the battle ensued, Kjellberg’s fans went all out, leaving negative comments and down-voting videos on T-Series’s channel. A superfan even bought billboards, did local radio shows, put up flyers, and bought ads on banners and TV, among other things, to campaign for PewDiePie.

“PewDiePie had 65 million subscribers (in August-end last year) when people started to notice that T-series is just one million behind. Forty six million subscribers later on both channels, the race is still on,” said Subrat Kar, CEO of Noida-based video analytics platform Vidooly. At the time of publishing, T-Series boasted of 88,874,259 subscribers compared with PewDiePie’s 88,950,446.

However, the Swedish YouTuber added just 9.7 million subscribers to his channel in the past year versus a whopping 40 million-plus that followed T-Series, Vidooly data show. Currently, T-series has captured over 80% of Indian music viewership consumption. “With this growth of subscribers, T-series can win the race in the next 20 to 25 days,” Kar added.

Pitting T-Series and Kjellberg against each other isn’t exactly a fight between equals, Polygon writer Julia Alexander explained:

It’s not an entirely fair comparison, of course. Kjellberg is one person. He can’t upload six or seven videos a day, as T-Series (can)…It’s like comparing Drake to all of Spotify, or Michael Jackson to all of MTV back in the day. T-Series is practically a digital network; Kjellberg is a controversial creator who captures his audience’s by discussing current events (as a character named Poppy Harlow), reviewing memes and reacting to things on Reddit. T-Series posts elaborate, beautiful music videos and interviews with popular artists.

In a video from Oct. 21, 2018, Kjellberg said he “genuinely” doesn’t care about his rival’s gains but rued that the platform will be sullied with YouTubers getting influenced by commercialism and creators compromising on authenticity if large corporations start winning. In November last year, he uploaded another video arguing that YouTube should create separate buckets for individual creators and the big corporates.