Me? Conceiving brands and building them? Yes, I’m referring to the ones that I seemed to have built as a hobby, while having a full-time job for over a decade! Even today, when I meet people, many still remember one of the earliest of such brands – arrmp3. More on this, and the other brands I have built, after the intro.

I suppose I love writing. Ever since I remember. I have written juvenile short stories in the 2nd and 3rd standard, while growing up in Srirangam, Trichy, and I have since written a LOT all across my life. I have an ongoing plan to write fiction too – the two plots that I have been percolating within me will surely find themselves in a novel…someday. One is a psychological drama about identical twins falling in love with the same girl and marrying her, and living with her till she finally finds that she’s living with 2 guys, at the ripe age of 80! The other is about how a young father reconciles with the death of his 4 year old daughter. Look out for these books at some point in your (and my) life!

Now for the brands!

arrmp3

The first brand I launched was a mp3 bootlegging website called ‘arrmp3’. This was back in 2000-01, if I recall right. I started this as a hobby while in my first job in Delhi. I was a bachelor, bored in the evenings and created this hobby out of a passion for Rahman’s music. Being in Delhi, it was difficult to acquire Rahman’s new tapes, so I thought an online destination that collected Rahman’s music in mp3 format, in one consistent location would be useful to many people.

It was a simple site, built on Geocities and most mp3 files were hosted in multiple Geocities accounts since each account had limited storage space. Then, one day, Geocities started yanking accounts if they had mp3 files in them and most of my links became useless overnight. To keep the site running, I renamed the mp3 files as ‘jpg’ or ‘gif’ and even broke them into smaller pieces with a file splitter and gave out instructions to download the pieces and join them as you download! Some ingenuity, huh?

It was a hugely popular website back then…even today, I hear at least one person emailing/telling me that they had downloaded a lot of Rahman’s music from ‘arrmp3’! It was so successful at one point that I had someone ├é┬áregistering the domain arrmp3.com and redirecting it to me geocities site!

Why did the site work? One, it had a solid purpose – my single purpose of the site was to be the best online repository for all of Rahman’s music. And it fulfilled that promise well. In fact, I had built an informal network of normal people who had better access to Rahman’s music in assorted places across the globe who would share songs with me exclusively, via FTP, for me to upload and share via the site!

Needless to add, another factor that worked was aggressive promotion of the site in all places where it mattered. No paid advertising, but contextual push in every place where Rahman’s music was being discussed.

I killed the site within an year or two. The illegitimacy of being a bootlegger was killing me anyway!

ItwoFS

This is another personal passion and I have spoken about why I started this effort, in detail, here. This effort started only as a lot of participation in many online forums – specifically, TFM and RMIM. But one day, back in September 2000, India Today featured one of my efforts (I use the word ‘effort’ here since the lead – of the songs inspired by Middle Eastern sources was sent to me by someone else; I merely researched further on the original artists, got hold of the audio files, edited them to enable comparison of the similar-sounding portions) that I had shared only on a couple of online forums. This was about two songs by Nadeem Shravan that the duo had unabashedly lifted off Middle Eastern songs and the way India Today mentioned it made me cringe. The URL was wrong and readers can do nothing to get more information on that allegation but only gawk at it, depending on whether you were a Nadeem Shravan fan or not.

That’s when I decided that eventually, it’d be a good idea to create an online repository for people to find these instances of music plagiarism easily. I wasn’t ready to invest in my own domain name or server space yet, and was looking for a free web server with unlimited space and no restrictions for music files. After a huge search, I found a Spanish site called iespana.es. I registered my account via online translation services!! I even got a free pop3 mail as part of the account and was using the server till 2005 after which I moved to my own server and domain name.

The interesting story here is that I was offered a domain name and server space by one of the site’s fans in the US. He mailed me one day with the offer that he likes the site so much but finds it odd and difficult to see it being hosted in such an obscure site. And, just like that, he offered to buy me the server space and domain name! He did too and paid for the first year, after which I took the responsibility – what I should have done long back!

The same effort in content promotion as in arrmp3 was responsible for ItwoFS’ success too. I took a conscious decision to use an abrasive tone for the first 6+ months of online promotion. So, I trawled those online forums and discussion boards which discussed music of composers who were listed in my website. And the tone of my contextual additions would be in such a way that they may incite argument or discussion – not a matter-of-fact update. This was quite unlike me, in general, but it worked wonders in the first 6 months after which I toned down since the objective of gaining visibility was over.

I still update the website from time to time and one of the most important reasons for the site’s success is – again – the focus. I wanted it to be THE best online repository for knowing about music plagiarism in Indian film music and relentlessly updated it without bothering about the kind and number of people visiting it. After a point, the repository’s size did the talking – it had grown into a massive library that there was no alternative to this effort.
The site deserves – long overdue – a complete makeover for the Facebook/Twitter generation and it is just my lack of time that is stopping it. I will eventually get around to doing it sometime.

Milliblog

Around 2005, I also considered the fact that what I was doing in ItwoFS was essentially crowd-sourcing. I was gathering information shared by people, either directly or indirectly (to me), adding my layer of intelligence and cataloging them in the website. It did have my thoughts, but not in a way I would ideally want to. I wanted to diversify. The result was Milliblog.

I conceived Milliblog as a Indian film music review blog. Now, back in 2005 there were many other blogs and websites that reviewed film music. But I found many gaps – these sites were a. usually dedicated to one language of film music, b. reviewed music the old-fashioned way; long and pedantic. In some cases, the language was downright flowery and silly and c. usually late!

Also, most importantly, by 2005, there were many places online where one can stream new music; so the earlier barrier to review new music – availability – was no more present. Anybody could review music, technically – a review is after all just a point of view.

I decided to fill the gap in certain ways. I would review music in just 100 words. I would review all languages that I could lay my hands on. I would review promptly, usually a day or two after the release, if not the same day.
Milliblog was entirely my thoughts, unlike arrmp3 or ItwoFS – everything was my perspective. That was how I wanted it to be too. If the blog has gained popularity and acceptance (I have heard so many diverse set of people referring to the blog as one of the best source for musical leads and updates, including someone who called it ‘erudite’!), I could, in retrospect, pin it down to a few reasons.

1. I’m notoriously individualistic in my views. I don’t pander to celebrities or composers or singers with my reviews. I pander only to myself. So, right from day one, in terms of promotion, I cross-link reviews in fan forums of composers, singers and actors online, but have never solicited my reviews with the source of music. For instance, a simple way to get your reviews read by a lot of people (at least these days) is to tweet a positive review to the composer or actor or singer in question. If the review appeals to their ego, they retweet it and word gets out easily. I believe a review is about credibility and I personally consider this tactic to be working against the credibility factor. Why? Simple. The more you pander and spread reviews to the source, the more you may tweak it in such a way that they like that review. This is also one of the reasons why I haven’t diversified beyond reviews – like interviews, features etc. I’d prefer to keep my distance from the creators so as to at least keep a semblance of impartiality intact – at least withing my mind, if not others’.

2. I spend a lot of time tweaking the words in a review. So, even if it is just a 100 word review, I usually end up writing 200+ and tweak it in a language that I think is most appropriate. I give a lot of importance to the choice of words and sentence flow so as to make it sound intelligent and crisp. This is important because my reviews are not grounded in musical knowledge – I’m not trained in any form of music, though I only wish I was. My views are purely as a listener and music lover.

3. A history of unbiased views. Bias is a very, very debatable topic. Till today, I get a lot of flak for writing off any Himesh Reshammiya soundtrack. I loved only one of his soundtracks in entirely – Ahista Ahista! I have thrashed most of his other soundtracks mercilessly – it just my point of view. But I have also noted some of the better songs even in severely negative reviews. I’d like that blend of unbiased views to stand for me when questioned for bias. I strongly feel a state of unbiased’ness can only be proven with history – a history of consistent behavior.

4. Content promotion is very, very important. I respond to as many comments as possible. I cross-promote individual reviews on Twitter these days, almost exclusively, but used to cross-promote in many, many online discussion forums till 2008 (the first 2 years of the blog’s existence). The reason is simple – if you need to build visibility, the content needs promotion. And once you get people into your blog, if the content interests them, they would either bookmark it or would subscribe to the RSS feed. But, after 2009, I stopped getting aggressive in promotion, because by then, Milliblog had started to surpass ItwoFS in terms of daily page views. The initial objective of promotion had worked and Twitter was helping in subsequent promotion anyway.

5. Content mix. I expanded to creating monthly musical lists for people who may not have had the opportunity to catch up with all the posts in a month, despite them being just 100 words long. I also started creating annual musical lists based on what I liked in that year, across languages. And of course, the range of languages covered is what, I believe, differentiates Milliblog.

Courting Courtesy

This is a now-abandoned brand! It was a blog on a topic that gets me really, really angry, personally – traffic and civic sense on Indian roads. Or the total lack of it. I wasn’t able to continue working on the posts after the first year – it wasn’t a question of who it was meant for, but more a personal resolution to not get so worked up with what’s happening on the road!

Beast of Traal

This is my latest brand, launched in December 2008. This is the first ever brand I created exclusively to support my official work; all other brands that I created online were purely to fuel my personal passions. It’s a simple proposition – to pen my thoughts around social media and PR and everything in between. I can’t vouch for the success of this blog as much as I do about the others above, but I do hear the occasional ‘Beast of Traal is you? That’s a very popular blog!!’ surprised expression when I meet prospective clients!

No Word Yet

This is something I started purely as a long-term idea to convert it into a book, much like the inspiration behind the name – it is a take-off on Douglas Adams’ ‘Meaning of Liff’ where he adds meaning into obscure city/places in the map! If you haven’t read the book, you must – it is hilarious and bloody intelligent at the same time! Here it is, online, in entirety! Buy the book, but – you’re sure to go back to go it at random points in time and day!

No Word Yet is the reverse of that concept – a catalog of emotions, feelings and situations (or even things) in life that, for some strange reason, don’t have assigned for them word yet! I intend to make a book out of this venture once I reach 1,000 entries. I may look to tie-up with an online comics artist/cartoonist to illustrate some of the entries and make the book more entertaining enough for a commercial launch!

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If I were to sum up on what I have learned in creating and managing these brands, they would sound something like this.

1. These online brands haven’t made any money – except for some money via Google Adsense that I usually donate to World Vision. My investment has been only time and the limited amounts of money for URL and server space purchases. But my RoI has always been in terms of reach and connecting with like-minded, interested people. At one point while managing arrmp3, I was managing a newsletter that reached as many as 4,500+ people…this was back in 2000! I loved the fact that something I love doing interests so many people – the fact that my effort could be helpful to so many of these disparate people across countries.

2. These sites were never impulsive decisions; I have always planned them considerably in advance, on how to sustain the content. Sustaining the content is the first thought before getting into a new website, for me, all the time. So, when I started arrmp3, I knew Rahman was going to be around a l-o-n-g time and there would be no dearth of his music. With ItwoFS, there was no doubt anyway – Indian film music (if you include multiple languages) was a treasure trove of plagiarism and I can easily sustain the content updates for a long time.

Milliblog’s objective of reaching out beyond just Hindi or Tamil film music was also to ensure I have a steady supply of music from multiple languages to create content around. With Beast of Traal, it is really a question of keeping my ears and eyes open to things that interest me within the PR/social media angle. What worked against an effort like Courting Courtesy was I miscalculated the sustenance of content. It was based more on personal angst than personal interest and after a while, like most other things related to angst, you get over it!

3. When someone tells me that they don’t have time to manage a blog and update it frequently, I can only ask them to read this post all over again. My blogs have always been a hobby that I created and managed besides a regular job. Think of it like the stamp collection hobby that we used to have at one point in time, along with school. Only, this is a very public hobby and one that helps you build a personal brand by mere association. If you are passionate enough on the topic you choose for your blog, I can assure you, you will work towards sustaining it and building it.

4. The other critical ingredient to create blogs – you need to have a point of view. And you need to gumption to stick your neck out and articulate it in such a way that it creates interest among the readers. I’m sure we all have our own points of view on everything in life; most stumble only in the articulation stage and assume that to be quite unnecessary. But, think about it – if magazine columnists have a made a career out of having such points of view on everything, why can’t anyone use free tools of the internet to do the same? If your question then is, ‘Who will be interested to read my views?’…move on to the next point.

5. The point about the blog, or anything online, is that such content is competing with millions of other pages clamoring for readers’ attention. Something merely online used to be interesting and widely read back in the 90s when the overall content on the web was abysmally low. Now, the scene is vastly different with a LOT of content being added every second. So, the point…if you create content, you need to plan for its promotion. You need to work on content marketing with the people who you think are your target audience. That means you first need to identify the target audience of your kind of blog posts. All this is not rocket science and just requires some careful thought and planning. Now you also have a lot of paid content promotion opportunities, but nothing like organic content promotion to those for whom your content matters the most.

It’s quite obvious, actually – any piece of content needs promotion. Why would blogs be any different? I clearly recall this discussion with the CEO of a client organization back in 2006. I was quite amazed by the kind of ideas and thoughts he had and asked him to consider a blog. I told him how a blog could be seen as nothing but a personal diary, only he’d be writing it for the world to see. And when the world becomes your audience, you need to tweak your content from something only you’d like to read and ponder over, to an intentionally manipulative (I use this word very cautiously here) tone so that it makes your audience think. Like a film maker who knows that the kind of scenes he has conjured will make his audiences react in a certain way, you need to plan your content in a way it can do something to your readers. But that CEO dismissed the effort as, ‘But, who will read my blog? I don’t know, Karthik!’.

And that’s precisely the point – you are not responsible only for sharing your thoughts; you are equally responsible for ensuring that it reaches some people, the right people. And with the internet, you have the great leveler working for you. If you wrote a book, earlier, you needed the support of a publisher to promote your book and make it commercially available. You can perform the role of a content creator and publisher now, yourself.

6. We’re now in a state of information overload that demands promotion of every piece of content, not the overall blog alone. Earlier this worked well – people subscribed to your RSS feed and it was akin to they subscribing your channel on DTH, for example. But when the number of channels exploded, your one single program that you add weekly was lost in the clutter. So, the need for promoting every single piece of content to the right set of readers, using assorted channels. All this may sound complicated, but it is not. There are wonderful tools that you can use to promote contextually; like Twitter and LinkedIn, for instance.

7. I have got tons and tons of offers to write for mainstream print publications; see this rant, for instance. Not just my music reviews, but also to write about what I’m writing here in Beast of Traal. Almost every mainstream newspaper and magazine that you can name – I have got an offer. But what gives me most satisfaction is writing for my own blog. This is a space I own completely, with no forces changing the tone of content of my writing. And if people (albeit a very small group of people) have chosen to follow my online efforts for some reason, then that is a great motivator to continue what I’m doing on my own. As against leeching on the existing readership of an already popular publication. From that perspective, I have immense respect for people who create their own space, voice and brands online, and treat mainstream media only as a compliment to their own, owned media efforts.

This is one of the most personal posts I have written here yet. I wouldn’t have done so, but for a couple of mails from close friends who felt all this is worth blogging about!

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